From the Soviet Union to a new life in Chicago

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Bena Babinsky

Bena Shklyanoy, 72, of Chicago began the family blog www.appledoesnotfall.com to educate her grandchildren about her experience as a Soviet Jewish émigré and that of an older generation in the era of revolution, pograms and Stalinism.

Playwright Kevin Olson of First Hand Theatrical in Rhode Island came across her engaging and voluminous family research and asked if she would consider staging parts of her four-generational story. Their collaboration produced two plays that will have a ten-day run from August 15-27 at the Piven Theater in Evanston. There will also be a short documentary film by Shklyanoy’s granddaughter that was produced with a grant from the Russian Jewish Division of the Jewish United Fund.

The two plays are eyewitness accounts of an ordinary Russian-Jewish family and their life experiences from the pre-Bolshevik and Soviet eras to the 1970s immigration to the United States. The film connects the vision of the Soviet Jewish immigrants to the cultural identity and impact on their young children and grandchildren today.

When the Iron Curtain opened for Soviet Jews in 1967, Shklyanoy’s family made the agonizing decision to leave Russia. “It was a dramatic decision,” said Shklyanoy, a retired computer programmer and Russian translator. “We didn’t have anyone anywhere, not a soul, just HIAS (the resettlement agency Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). There was absolutely no information, everything was from rumors.”

The play “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?” will make its debut at the Piven Theater, telling the audience about the journey from the Soviet Union to Chicago. The play takes its name from the U.S. trade deal that was struck over wheat that the USSR desperately needed in exchange for the release of Soviet Jews.

The other play “And Then What?” about her grandmother’s generation, opened to critical acclaim in Providence last year. The magazine, “Broadway World,” called it a “rare piece of theater that truly touches every emotion…captivates from the moment the first lines are spoken.”

“The story of Soviet Jewry and the Soviet Jewry movement in the 70s, 80s up to the early 90s was certainly a great movement for them and certainly for the American Jewish community,” said Olsen, who was arts director for the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul and worked with Soviet Jewish immigrants. “We haven’t fully succeeded in integrating that community into the larger Jewish community. So this play is my attempt to bring these stories of individual Soviet Jews, to create some awareness and education around what it was like for this particular population.”

When Shklyanoy was 38, she emigrated with her grandmother, mother, father and two daughters, 18 months and eight years old. Those daughters, now pursuing their own lives and careers, do not remember life in the Soviet Union. They have no memories of the communal apartment, the long lines for food or that being Jewish was a reason to get beaten up by a classmate at school or denied university admission or a job.

It is a story that resonates not only with those who came from the Soviet Union, but with refugees fleeing oppressive regimes around the globe. The stories of culture shock and adjustment to a new world are universal.

“The mindset, the fear,” Shklyanoy said of her life in Ukraine. “You’re afraid to say things, you live on instinct.” She said it didn’t occur to her that she led an altogether different life in the Soviet Union compared to America. “It takes a long time until you begin analyzing and comparing and looking at your previous life.”

Her parents lived a terrible life because they lived through the oppressive regime of Stalin. “They were constantly afraid, they were shaking. You were afraid of being reported to someone. You were constantly afraid of neighbors listening in. My father didn’t know if he would come back from work every day.”

“It was a part of life. It wasn’t something people would say, oh this is terrible. How could you live life like this? It didn’t even occur to us. That’s how it was. The goal was to survive somehow.”

Shklyanoy’s family didn’t practice Judaism. No Jews did. “No one was directly anti-Semitic to her. But that’s how it was. “I would not apply to work for a company or attend a university that I knew wouldn’t accept Jews. No one said anything to me. I just wouldn’t go.”

There was one synagogue in Kiev that her father told her to never go near because she could lose her job. “You were Jewish because your parents were Jewish,” she said recalling a passport she received when she was 16 stating she was Jewish. “You cannot be a Russian Jew. You could be Russian or a Jew. That’s how it was. You never had a home.”

After the Six Day War, well known Russian Jewish scientists immigrated to Israel. “That’s when everyone woke up. Many Jews realized there was a country there for us.”

They were not refuseniks. The Shklyanoys just applied and left for the U.S. They spent four and a half months first in Vienna and then in Rome waiting for their visas. HIAS and ORT helped during the resettlement process in Europe and Jewish Child and Family Services took over in Chicago.

“We were completely helpless and did not know how to function anywhere but in the Soviet Union. We walked out and saw a flower shop. We couldn’t understand why you would have a flower shop and why people weren’t carrying big bags with chickens.”

In Chicago, they felt safe and the family was together. “We felt and still do that we had just won a lottery.

“And now it was up to us. It was a brand new feeling. If we wanted to open a business, we could fail, but we could choose, we had choices. You didn’t have to ask anyone. No one was watching.”

Visit www.firsthandtheatrical.org for ticket information or call (401)400-2517.

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