This photo was taken a few nights before we left the Soviet Union forever. To my knowledge, it is the only photo that exists of me with all my (at that time living) grandparents. That’s them, in the front row. My paternal grandmother, then my maternal grandfather (holding me), and my maternal grandmother next to him with my cousin. My parents are the two people in the top right. (Everything you need to know about leaving the Soviet Union is on their faces. The rest is details.)
I pulled it up recently, for another project and now it suddenly has a caption: People I Will Never Know. And it’s haunted me, unexpectedly, ever since. I look at it now and it needs a slight tweak. Let’s call it, instead, “Immigration: People I Will Never Know”.
I did come to know them all again, of course. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when the country where this photo was taken disappeared, they became real people — people I met here in Canada and in Israel. But something had been lost by then. I never came to know them in that intimate, daily life way. When you know their habits, and who is going to make which joke at dinner, and who is unhappy with their job, and who likes the same books as you. The million, tiny ways you get to know a family. It just wasn’t possible by then to get that back.
I must have been on my way to that kind of knowing when this photo was taken.
What I have are stories. Many stories, most especially about the grandfather who is holding me and both my father’s parents. I know enough to think about the hardships they endured, to be awed and amazed and so grateful. But this photograph is the breaking point, when my life spun off in a different direction. And lately, I can’t stop looking at it and thinking about what that break means.
I leapt across the barrier onto the “right side” of history, and left behind the enduring traumas of the Soviet-Jewish 20th century. That world was no longer the only part of me, or the sum total of my family’s story. I think of that especially now that I have two kids for whom the future I’m about to go into is already their past — a whole new country and new history that crowds out the Soviet pieces.
And, I’ve been thinking lately that even everything I think about those stories which I do know — of Holodomor and war and Holocaust and evacuations — is different from what they would have meant if we had stayed. If the forever nameless bureaucrat who signed off on our visa applications made a different decision one day in 1978. Maybe had a different meal for lunch and landed up with indigestion. Maybe missed their trolley to work. Maybe had a falling out with a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Maybe been rudely shoved on the sidewalk. Maybe had a million other things go a little differently that day and our life would have been an entirely different story.
(Do these bureaucrats — faceless, nameless, stock caricatures — remember the impact of their tiny decisions? This paper in this pile, that paper in that pile… and in the arbitrary whims of the “pencil pushers” our life stories emerge. Ask any immigrant, and you will hear about the paperwork that ruled their life. The forms that needed to get signed and the forms that needed to be submitted and the forms that needed to arrive in the mail.)
This photo. I’ve been thinking about it often.