More than ever, immigration is a hot topic in today’s political environment. I thought I would contribute to the dialogue by presenting, this week and next, two excerpts, from my novel in progress, The Ultimate Patient. They describe the thoughts and feelings experienced by my characters on the verge of leaving their country to immigrate to Israel. It is 1961 in Romania. Tina, one of the main characters in the book is Jewish and a communist. Her sister, Larissa with her husband Simon and son Rudy, have just received permission to emigrate to Israel. Ben is Tina’s husband, Edith is her mother who lives with them, and Lydia is her eleven-year-old daughter.
Rudy found the envelope in the mailbox and ran with it to his mom. Inside, on a slightly yellowed postcard was a typed message:
Your application to leave Romania permanently has been approved. You must report at the Passport Office on Nicolae Iorga Street within five days of this notification.
Larissa’s blood drained from her face. She wrung her hands and looked out the window. It was a rainy summer day. Rudy waited.
They didn’t have a phone and the only way to contact Simon at work was to pester their neighbor; but that wasn’t done. Nobody talked about leaving Romania over the phone.
“Rudy,” Larissa said after she quieted the rhythm of her breath. “Run to the slaughterhouse and tell your father to come home. Don’t tell him why until you’re both in the street. Understood?”
“Yes,” Rudy said.
The next morning, in their Sunday best, the three of them showed up at the Passport Office and, after a few hours’ wait, they left with their crisp, glue-smelling, brown passports for persons without citizenship tucked away in Larissa’s purse. It was early afternoon. Up until that moment, they hadn’t shared their news with anybody and suddenly Larissa’s emotions overwhelmed her. Her heart felt heavy, like a ticking bomb. She needed an audience and she needed it right then. She wanted to yell. Her feelings were stronger than last night’s wind that had chased the rain clouds away, stronger than her fear and more piercing than pain.
Nicolae Iorga Street was a five-minute walk from Roman Square. They went to Tina’s apartment and Larissa nervously rang the doorbell.
Tina and Ben were at work, and Lydia was in school. Edith opened the door. She was in her house robe, an apron tied at her waist. Larissa hugged her and collapsed in her arms. “We’re leaving. We’re leaving for Israel,” she announced. Tears sprang in her eyes. Slowly, mother and daughter found their way to the kitchen. By the time they sat down at the table, Edith was crying as well. The ground meat she’d been mixing with white breadcrumbs, egg and spices for that night’s dinner lay abandoned in its chipped porcelain bowl. Smoke rose from a lit cigarette in the overfilled ashtray.
In between sighs, Larissa provided her the details. They had applied to leave, God only knows how long ago, and yesterday their request had finally been approved. That was it. Edith had been aware of their intentions all along. The entire extended family, even Tina, had been aware.
People applied to leave the country all the time. There were tens of thousands of them, hundreds of thousands: Jews who wanted to immigrate to America and Israel, Germans headed to West Germany, French to France. There were those who applied to be reunited with their families abroad, and those who asked for permission to leave on religious and humanitarian grounds. There were dissidents and famous people who were let go in order to minimize potential scandals, and a few, not many, who had been somebody during the old regime and had stashed away money or jewelry or both, who bought their way out. People applied and then pretended they had not. They didn’t talk about it and went on with their lives. Larissa and Simon and Rudy had acted that way too. Their requests were recorded in the mysterious annals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and left there to linger. It was impossible to know when and if permission would be granted. In some notorious cases, to set an example and discourage others from following that path, unpleasant repercussions followed, but most applicants were left alone. Their ability to be promoted was stifled at work, but outside of that, little changed. People in high level positions lost their jobs. Under international pressure, permissions were issued in waves. Perhaps this was one of those moments. A wave. Who could tell?
Until the postcard arrived, their intention to leave had not amounted to more than dreaming and waiting in silence. Now everything changed. Their lives would change. It was time for action. They would travel to a place they had only imagined, and they might not see the part of their family left behind ever again. The excitement was real, and so was the pain.
All her life, Edith had done her best to keep the Freedmans together — in Câmpulung, in Trasnistria, in Bucharest. Better cry and hug now. This was a beginning that was also an end.
Simon lit a cigarette and watched his wife and mother-in-law from the kitchen doorway. He wasn’t indifferent, but this wasn’t his show.
Lydia had a key to the house. When she arrived half an hour later, she went straight to her room and found Rudy sitting in her chair, reading Kyra Kyralina by Panait Istrati, a book he had fished out from a pile on her desk.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
He raised the book and showed the cover to Lydia. “Who gave this to you?”
“My aunt, Adriana. Panait’s a communist and I like how he writes about the oppressed.”
“Except that this book is more about perverts, than the oppressed. It’s not right for you. You’re too young.”
Lydia dropped her backpack on her bed. She and Rudy talked often at their Sunday family dinners. He had suddenly grown very tall. He was sixteen, a young man with dark hair and the typical features of the Freedman clan — tall forehead, dark eyes, strong nose and sensual lips. “You look like your mother,” she said.
“That’s normal. Boys resemble their mothers and girls take after the fathers,” he said, mature and sure of himself. “But you’re changing the subject.”
“Am I? Adriana gives me all kinds of books to help me appreciate literature. I’m old enough, and my parents are all right with it. You didn’t say why you’re here. By the way, where is Grandma?”
“I think she’s in the kitchen with Mother. We’re leaving. That’s why I’m here,” he said.
It was Lydia’s turn to be confused. “You’re leaving? Why? Because I came home?”
Rudy laughed. “No, silly, we’re leaving the country for Israel. The three of us.” He told her about the postcard and their new passports. “Most likely we will travel by train to Vienna, stay there overnight, and then fly from Vienna to Tel Aviv.”
Lydia didn’t wait for him to finish. She dashed to the kitchen and found the two women still embracing each other, their eyes red.
Simon was on the balcony, chain smoking. He finished his cigarette and extinguished it in the full ashtray in the kitchen. “Let’s go, Rudy, we have a lot to do,” he said.
When Tina came home and heard the news, her face turned ashen.
“That’s what you always wanted, Larissa, isn’t it?” Tina’s voice was accusatory, full of a bitterness she could not restrain.
“I hope we are doing the right thing,” Larissa said. I’m afraid, and I try to be hopeful.”
“There is nothing to fear,” Edith interjected. The skin around her eyes was wet from crying. It seemed more wrinkled than ever, or maybe it was the late afternoon light falling through the window. “Israel is our country. You’ll be all right.”
“Really mother?” Tina asked. “Maybe you should go there with them.”
“Maybe I should,” Edith said.
“Tina,” Larissa said.
Tina plunked her purse on the table. She sat down and looked straight at Larissa. “You did this on your own, Larissa, so don’t come to me for encouragement.”
“I’m not asking you for anything.”
“Not until you need money, like you did a few weeks ago. I gave it to you against my husband’s advice — that much you should know.”
“Tina, our lives here are difficult. Simon and I hope we’ll do better in Israel. Why are you so angry with me?”
“I’m not angry. I’m sad.” Tina took a deep breath. “We’re sisters and you’re leaving for good. You understand that hurts, don’t you?”
“We all do,” Edith said.
“I don’t know how you’ll fare in Israel, and I don’t know when I’ll see you again, if ever,” Tina continued. “When my former husband was still alive, we both fought for this country and this regime. To me, your action feels like a betrayal of our ideals, even though I know it is not.”
“Oh, Tina, I want a better life. That is all.”
“Many people we know have gone to Israel and they’re all succeeding,” Edith said. “Larissa, you, Simon and Rudy will do very well.”
“I hope Rudy won’t have to fight in a war.”
“You should have thought of that earlier,” Tina snapped.
“It’s a beautiful country. Jerusalem is a wonderful city, and orange trees grow on the side of the road.” Edith said.
“Mama, I’ll miss you. And Tina, I’ll miss you too. I love you.” Larissa started to cry again.
“Like a cat, you’ll land on your feet,” Edith said. She reached across the table and caressed Larissa’s hand.
Lydia stood in the doorway. “Cats don’t like to leave their homes,” she said.
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