ARTICLES / Israel / Italy / USSR

The Times of Israel: “Why 189,000 Soviet Jews fled to Italy rather than the Promised Land”

 
At the age 10, Michael Drob left the Soviet Union and became a stateless refugee.

For almost a year, he shared a room with his older sister, his parents and his grandmother in Italy. In the room was a single bed, in which his grandmother slept — everyone else slept on the floor. Drob, who is today an American software engineer, remembers it as a happy year: Instead of attending school, he washed cars on street corners to help his parents pay for food.

The experiences of his family and other Soviet Jews who immigrated to the United States through Austria and Italy in the 1980s are the subject of Drob’s new documentary “Stateless,” released on DVD in late February.

“This specific immigration wave had never been mentioned in a film, it’s a subject that hasn’t been covered,” said the 39-year-old father of three who made the film with his wife Victoria. “One day, I decided to find out why my family was denied refugee status by the US while we were immigrating. It didn’t lead to answers, but it led to stories about immigration.”

Half a million Jews were let out of the Soviet Union between 1970 and 1990 with Israeli visas. But of these, approximately 189,000 people chose not to go to Israel but instead became refugees in Austria and Italy, hoping to secure visas to the United States.

Prevented by Soviet authorities from taking their savings with them (each person could take only $96) and obliged to give up their Soviet passports, they left the USSR practically penniless but with suitcases of trinkets to sell in Italian markets. No one knew if or when an American visa would be granted or why some people were accepted while others were refused entrance.

Drob, not a professional filmmaker, learned video production while running a wedding video business with his wife. After obtaining a small grant to make the film from the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, a nonprofit that funds projects for Russian Jews in New York, he started by recording interviews with the people closest to him — his parents and his parents in law, and friends from their time in Italy.

In the film, Drob’s father-in-law Alexander Korenfeld shares one of his most traumatic memories. When the family arrived in Italy after 18 hours on the overcrowded train, they were met by armed guards who separated the women from the men. They were given 10 minutes to get all their belongings off the train. The people panicked.

‘In his mind, he was saying goodbye to his family’
“It was for efficiency, to get women and children off the train so that the men could unload it,” Drob explained. “But in his mind, he was saying goodbye to his family. Everyone knows what happened during World War II with Jewish refugees.”

Drob said that the armed guards were there to assure the safety of the refugees after a 1973 incident in which Palestinian terrorists took a group of Soviet Jews hostage.

In another part of the film, Korenfeld remembers going to the butcher in Italy and asking for some bones “to feed his dog.” In fact, the bones were to feed his family; they had no money for meat.

The Korenfelds were only in Italy for a short time, as they were soon successful in obtaining their American visas.

But Drob’s own family — his father decided to leave the USSR after being fired from his job as a violinist in an orchestra in Riga because he was Jewish — were less lucky. Refused visas twice, their stay in Italy dragged on for 10 months.

In the dark about why some received visas while others were denied, refugees tried to exaggerate their connection to Judaism, hoping that since Jewish organizations were lobbying to get Jews out of the USSR, those who had a stronger connection to Judaism would have a better chance at admission to the US, said Drob.

Many men and boys got circumcised in Italy, he said — and not for religious reasons.

“I remember these men just walking around for weeks in agony. You could tell by the way these men were walking that they just got circumcised,” he said.

‘You could tell by the way these men were walking that they just got circumcised’
Indeed, during their appointments at the US embassy, the refugees were always asked if they had been circumcised, said Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrants’ Aid Society (HIAS) in an interview in the film. In the 1980s, Hetfield was a HIAS case worker in Italy.

“It would bolster their claim, which is unfortunate,” he said.

The refugees were also asked if they celebrate Jewish holidays, but their answers sometimes backfired.

One of the film’s funniest moments was an account by Hetfield of how one applicant said that he always baked matzah on Yom Kippur.

Not included in the documentary was the much more somber issue of suicide, which tragically took a number of Soviet refugees in Italy after they were denied visas to the US.

Neither did Drob include a conspiracy theory that was going around at the time involving Israeli pressure on the US to deny visas in order to coerce refugees to emigrate to Israel instead. Benedict Ferro, district director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in Italy at the time, did not agree to be interviewed for the film, said Drob.

Eventually, all the Soviet Jews who were stuck in limbo in Europe were allowed into the US thanks to the 1990 Lautenberg amendment. The legislation changed the definition of a refugee from someone who faced persecution personally to an entire group of people who had been victims of persecution — such as Jews in the USSR.

Not addressed in the film, however, is the issue of why many Soviet Jews did not want to go to Israel — a question that arises at every screening, Drob said. He said that practical reasons included fear of war, wariness of the mandatory military draft, and better prospects in the US.

But Drob believes that for many, it had more to do with their Jewish identity — or lack thereof.

“To go to Israel for a lot of people meant embracing their Jewish identity, but in the USSR it wasn’t a popular identity to embrace,” he said. “The Soviet Jews just wanted to be left alone, without having a label.”

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