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Ten Years After the Wall: Soviet Immigrants Discuss Their New Lives in Germany

October 14, 1999
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Tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Germany during the past decade, since the fall of communism. Here is how some of them describe their experiences, their hopes, their fears and their aspirations:

Michael Liokumowitsch, 40, came to Germany from Russia with his parents in 1974. His mother lost nine siblings in the Holocaust. Today Liokumowitsch is a successful dental and plastic surgeon. His younger brother is a successful businessman. As an elected member of the board of Berlin’s Jewish community, he helps immigrants who have problems learning German, finding work, or getting permission to stay.

“Adjustment was not very difficult for me, but I saw that my parents had to learn the language. They were unemployed. They had the typical problems for any newcomer. A lot of Russians would like to be Jewish because they have a better chance to get out. There are some non-Jews who are members of the Jewish community but not a lot of cases.

“In Germany, I still don’t really feel myself at home. But no way is Russia home. I have the most emotional connection to Israel, but I am pragmatic. I cannot live there. It is a country with a lot of struggle, tension. Here I have my own clinic. I don’t know how to stay strong and alive in Israel.”

Inna Slavskaja, 44, a Yiddish singer/performer, was born Birobidzhan, created by Stalin as a so-called Jewish autonomous region in the 1920s. Her father, who came from Ukraine, was one of nine siblings, most of whom were killed in the Holocaust. Slavskaja and her husband, Igor, who was not Jewish, lived in Ukraine and left for Germany in 1991 with their toddler, Genja.

“We decided to go to Germany and not Israel because I had thyroid problems from the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl, and I felt bad in hot weather. And my husband was not Jewish, so we thought it would be a problem. I did not want to leave at all, because I had my name and my career. But my husband learned that soldiers had taken radioactive sand in sacks [for their son’s school playground]. My husband said we are going away.

“I experience myself as Jewish. It is as normal as brushing my teeth. I have a mezuzah on my door here. There, in Ukraine, it was rare. But there I was more Jewish. Here, I am a Russian. The Jewish community here sees me as nothing. I am a member of the community.

“I am very happy that my son gets something Jewish. I can’t give him much, because I didn’t get much from my parents. If he will be religious or not, it is not important. Most important is that he knows what it means to be Jewish.”

Inna Orlowski turned 20 this summer. She was born in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains to a Jewish mother and ethnic German father. She has two older siblings. In 1994 Inna went to Israel on a Jewish Agency program for teens. But her family moved in 1995 to Germany, and Inna joined them there a year later. Today, she rents a room at the home of her Hebrew teacher in Berlin, and tries to keep kosher. She plans to return to Israel next spring, when she graduates high school.

“In 1991, after the putsch against Yeltsin in Moscow, my brother was in the university and my mother was worried that he would be sent to the military, that we would have a civil war. We were allowed to come to Germany. She got the documents. My mother was not really proud of her Jewishness. She did not want us to be cut out of society as she had been. But I developed pride, because on TV whenever she saw a great actor or singer or scientist, my mother would say, `He is Jewish, and he is also.’

“I would say 80 or 90 years ago my Jewish grandparents decided against Jewish life and for the Communist idea. I find it lucky that I have any interest in my Jewish roots, because otherwise the whole Jewish culture and roots would remain unknown to me. The way people were raised in Russia took the taste away for one’s own religion, the religion of my forefathers.”

Elguts Ravdin, 53, and his wife, Hene, 50, left Riga, Latvia, in November 1993. She was an economist, he was a musician, playing and teaching trumpet. Both are unemployed, living in Berlin. They have two daughters, ages 25 and 22.

“I was thrown out of work after 24 years in one place. It wasn’t open anti- Semitism, but latent. After Latvia became independent, they made it clear that non-Latvians are not needed. So you leave. Most educated people had no work.

“Three or four years ago, one could see very intelligent people looking in the garbage for something to eat, or begging.

“Germany was a better way to go than to stay in Latvia. Because here one is safe.

“But I am afraid that fascism grows here, because of joblessness. They see a Jewish conspiracy.

“People come to Germany or America or Austria or Canada looking for a better life. That is clear. It is no secret. They want to be sure that they can live better and protect the future for their children.”

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