COMING TO AMERICA: It was 40 years ago that Nathan Kagan and his family left Belarus and made a new life in Chicago

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

True, abiding friendship lasts through the decades and the separation of miles and alights at a Skokie kitchen table, all parties freer than ever.

Here were Nathan and Anna Kagan, one day after marrying off their youngest daughter Rachel, and entertaining wedding guests Emil Friedberg and Svetlana Samsonic, visiting from Nathan’s hometown of Bobruisk, Belarus. 

Nathan and Emil initially met on Sept. 1, 1954, the first day of first grade in Bobruisk, a heavily-Jewish city in what was then the Soviet Union. The Jewish kids became friends a few years later. Somehow, the ingrained anti-Semitism permeating most of Soviet society at the time did not burrow into the fabric of Bobruisk, where Nathan recalled the majority of his classmates were Jewish.

Nathan and Anna Kagan with their daughter Inna shortly after their arrival in Chicago in 1979.

Anna did not have it as lucky growing up in Lvov, a major Ukrainian city not far from the Polish border. Jews who did not emigrate from Ukraine around the turn of the 19th century had to face waves of anti-Jewish sentiment, culminating in the 1941 Nazi invasion. And yet, after everything she and her family experienced, she is upbeat, attentive and happily serving as translator between a visitor and Emil and Svetlana, who do not speak English.

The post-wedding gathering is especially meaningful because the Kagans are marking the 40th anniversary of their arrival in America, taking advantage of a brief late 1970s thaw that allowed Russian Jews to emigrate after refuseniks had their lives ruined by agitating to leave. With infant daughter Inna in tow, the Kagans got out before the gates slammed shut again before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms allowed Jews to again leave and those who had departed to visit loved ones still in the Soviet Union.

Emil and Svetlana certainly knew Nathan’s backstory before he put it down into online words. They lived it. When Emil and Nathan first met, the latter was living under the heavy burden of an absent father, Isaac Kagan, spirited away to the gulag nearly three years earlier under trumped-up charges. He had done nothing wrong. Only when the gears of Soviet bureaucracy started to undo the crimes of a paranoid regime in the dying years of Josef Stalin’s dictatorship, was Isaac Kagan free to return home.

Once in America, Nathan, who served in the Red Army as a young man, was free to chronicle his life’s journey and remembrances of his father.  And so he has done in a blog at blog.

The Kagan family in Bobruisk, Belarus in 1950, with young Nathan in front.

His writings stand as a testament to overcoming the sufferings of his father and honoring his memory without fear that a Jewish neighbor would try to curry favor with the KGB by complaining about him, as happened with Isaac Kagan.

The following, in chronological order, is Nathan’s family and life journey.

The excerpts begin with Isaac Kagan’s memories of his youth in the shtetl, recalled in a Jan. 12, 1955 letter to his son while still confined in the gulag:

“I remember, when I was little, there was no bread in the house. It happened very often, so what should you do? So I took a little sack and went to the fields (after harvesting) to gather rye, wheat, oats and barley spikelets. I used to put a sack on my neck, walk bare feet on harvested field and look here and there for the remains of the spikelets. The straw was spiky and they would prick my feet, it hurt, my feet bled, but I had to collect spikelets as much as I could.

“Because my family wanted to eat, my smaller brothers were asking for bread. Before dusk I would have my sack full, then same on second day and the third. We would dry the spikelets on the stove, beat them to get grains, and to my mother’s great joy would take the grain to the mill. Finally I carried flour home. My mother, my good and dear mother, bakes bread. Oh, the smell of the fresh bread! How tasty the bread is when there is not enough of it! You take a piece and in a moment it is all gone.

“We needed potatoes, but there was no money. What can be done? So, my mother would take our clothes, and her and I would go to the nearest village to exchange cloth for potatoes. You can survive without clothes, you still can use the old one, the ripped one.”

As to the living conditions of Kagan’s youth, he writes, “Our old log house was what we call a duplex in America. It had a metal roof that had to be painted every other year. We lived in the smaller half. The floors were painted wood.

“There was a big wood-burning brick oven in the kitchen that heated the house and was used to cook. My mother’s mother, Hoda, lived with us. She was cooking most of the time. Mom was working and did not have time for cooking. We kept wood for the oven in the shed in the yard. I still think that food cooked in this oven tasted better than any food made in the contemporary devices. The way it worked is when wood would burn out, grandma shoved all hot coals in the corner in the back of the oven and then would put the pots near the coals and close the oven with metal cover. The oven was holding heat for a long time and maybe that is why food tasted so good.

“We did not have running water so it was my responsibility to bring water in buckets from the public water outlet across the street that was serving our block. It took me most of the day to fill these barrels. We also collected rainwater to water the garden.”

Kagan and his friends invented their own fun in the streets. Unfortunately, it was based on the recent wartime experience visited upon their country:

“I spent a lot of time on the streets playing with other kids. Usually we would play war. fighting Nazis. But somebody had to play Germans and nobody wanted to do that. So we would fight an imaginary enemy.

‘I remember we would find all kind of bullets. But we knew what it was and accidents were rare. Every kid had a collection of bullets, helmets and other military stuff.

“Every family in Belarus had somebody who perished in this war (every fourth person). Americans think that they sacrificed a lot during this war. Yes, it is true: 600,000 dead. Everybody in America contributed to victory. Twenty-two million perished in the Soviet Union. The European part of the country was in ruins. I came to Minsk vocational school in 1962…when 20 % of the buildings in Minsk were still in ruins.”

Even though life was better overall for Jews in Bobruisk, he experienced anti-Semitism first hand as a child:

“I remember us kids playing on the street and a neighbor’s house cleaner approached and started to pass (out) candies. But to me she said that I am a Jew and I did not get a candy. And I told mom about it and she was very upset.”

Isaac Kagan made his living as a writer. He did not make waves nor stray from communist doctrine. He simply wrote an article praising Jewish workers. That was too much for the authorities to handle in the immediate post-war period, when anti-Semitism spiked to dangerous levels and persecution of Jews was widespread.  Nathan figures the KGB had “arrest quotas” to fill and his father was swept up in that effort:

“When theycame for my father I was 5 years old. I was outside playing. Mom called me in the house. Father was there dressed in a paramilitary uniform that was common at the time. Two strange men were standing behind him. Father picked me up and kissed me. And I went back outside. Father and the two men got into a car and left.  

“The next time I saw my father was in 6 months, after he was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. That was in city of Homel. Mom took me to Homel to visit father before they sent him to Station Vikhorevka in Siberia. I remember the big room, my father and two men in light suits.

“Mom and father tried not to show their emotions. Mom told me that father will have to stay in Homel for a while.  Mom knew the man who wrote the letter to the secret police accusing my father of ‘cosmopolitism.’ The man lived a couple of blocks from us. Mom later told me that when he saw her walking, he would run away. Then he disappeared and I hope his karma caught up with him.”

But in the wake of Stalin’s death in March 1953, the new Soviet leadership freed hundreds of thousands who had been sent to the gulag. The backlog of cases took years to adjudicate. Isaac Kagan’s was decided on May 28, 1955 with the following ruling:

“It is stated in the Appeal that articles and stories sent by Kagan to the (Jewish) paper ‘Ainikait’ were not requested by the prosecution, were not studied by experts to determine their anti-Soviet, nationalistic character.

“Based on the above, and after discussing the arguments of the appeal, we agreed with the appeal to overturn the sentence. Military tribunal found that Kagan’s conviction in crime according to the 72 article of Belarus Criminal Law is baseless and not supported by the evidence, and has to be overturned due to absence of evidence of crime…There is no proof that Kagan had criminal connections with Jewish nationalists. In a light of above conclusions, the Military Tribunal decided to acquit Kagan of all charges.”

Isaac Kagan returned home, but his time in the gulag weakened an already-diseased heart. He died of a heart attack in 1958. His family had to muddle on. Nathan eventually went to technical school training in optics, then was drafted into the Red Army at 20. He was assigned to a special technical battalion serving a tank division in the city of Slutzk. He repaired binoculars, sights, stereoscopes and other optical devices, and was promoted to sergeant in his second year.

Of course anti-Semitism was there, too, but I got lucky. Our battalion commander was a Jew…I did not try to avoid or to skip any challenges that the army life is full of. That earned me respect from other soldiers and the officers. Some soldiers were telling me that I am more like them, not like a Jew. They considered me an exception, a ‘good Jew.’

“During my first year 1968 there was invasion in Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Reservists were called in. We were moved in the forest where tents were erected for us, the regular army, and for the reservists. Reservists started to arrive and you could hear the drunken songs for miles. Every one of them was drunk. We all expected to go to Czechoslovakia. There was not much dissent. At that time the mood in the army was ‘we will crush the uprising,’ but nobody really wanted to go.

“We lived in the tents for a couple of months ready to go to Czechoslovakia. The mood was somber. During that time a few men from our unit, myself included, were sent to Bobruisk to load some supplies and while there we stopped at our house. Mom fed us, we rested and drove away. I told mom not to expect letters for a while not knowing if we will get an order to go. Later mom told me that this broke her heart. She was afraid of losing me, too. But eventually we did not get the orders (to support the invasion).”

Nathan gained a big benefit from his Red Army service – a buddy named Iliya. Through Iliya, he met Anna. They married in 1977 and settled in Minsk. First daughter Inna was born in 1978. Anna’s feeling that Jews had no future in the Soviet Union was strong. The couple decided to emigrate, taking advantage of the relative liberalization of Jewish emigration at that time. But first they had to navigate the Soviet bureaucracy:

But to apply was not that simple. A lot of people wanted to apply and OVIR – Office of Visa and Registration — had one location and was open just a few hours a week. So I had to stay in line for several days. People in line created a list and several people had to stay near OVIR at all times 24/7. We agreed to form several groups and would take turn every several hours staying on the street or on the stairwell in the building.

“OVIR office was in the residential building and residents were not happy about Jews hanging around their building all the time. So sometimes they would empty buckets with water on us standing in the stairwell. But that little inconvenience was not going to deter us. People were determined and this anti-Semitism gave just more motivation.”

The Kagans got their visas to leave and arrived in Chicago in the late summer of 1979. As Nathan, Anna and Inna settled in an apartment in West Rogers Park, they blinked their eyes in near-disbelief at the sights and sounds so radically different from their homeland:

“We walked to Devon Avenue, the main street in the area. It was not so quiet and so clean. A lot of small stores, colorful signs, advertisement, windows, street lights, all of which did not make much sense to us yet.

“People on the streets looked and dressed differently, strange to us. In the Soviet Union, in Europe, styles are more conservative, people are more dressed up, more business like. In the Soviet Union, if you go out you wear the best clothes. Here – more loose, a lot of different styles, or let us say – no styles, many are strange to our eyes. A lot of colors.

“The clothes looked more like rags, torn jeans or shorts, ripped shirts, awkward shoes, pony tails, beards and so on. The shirts are not tucked in and are longer than the jackets. Black shoes and pants and white socks. Old ladies wearing shower caps for some reason. So, our first impression here in America that people dress without any taste or style. Colors, styles and hats – just awful. I think it was a feeling of disappointment.

“Also, a lot of overweight people on the streets. And Orthodox Jews, never have seen them before. In all black regardless of the temperature, long beards, black hats. Nobody seems to pay attention. In the Soviet Union they would gather a crowd.

“People looked different not only the way they dressed. In Vienna we saw Austrians, in Italy Italians, in the US we see Americans, but the meaning of the word is different – white and black, Indians, Arabs, Jews, Asians. It seemed to us, as we walked the streets for the first time, that people from all around the world live here.

“Still cannot get used to the way people dress.”

Nathan and Anna Kagan are celebrating the 40th anniversary of coming to Chicago.

Nathan and Anna soon settled in Skokie, became American citizens, raised two more children born here and worked for the better part of the next four decades. Now they are retired – but not from exercising the free speech that was denied to Isaac Kagan, who paid dearly for writing some wrong words. Nathan comments on the social and political scene in the United States through his

But while he has say on Donald Trump, Nathan is not all heavy commentary. Indeed, even after 40 years living in this country, he still can’t get over how Chicagoans dress, especially in the winter.

I refuse to accept some of the ‘ways of life,’ and accepted customs that make no sense to me…one of which is the strange way Americans dress during the cold season.

Since I was a kid, I knew to put on my hat before I ran outside to play in the snow; also warm boots.  I may not have worn a coat, but a warm hat was a must. It was the same in the army.  In winter, morning exercises were outside in our undershirts…but the hats were on.

“I watch people on the streets during the blistering cold walking without hats and I can see that they are cold, freezing, miserable.  But no hats!  And I guarantee that, if they would put their hats on, they would feel much better!  And that simple act of sanity would prevent a lot of colds.”

2 Comments on "COMING TO AMERICA: It was 40 years ago that Nathan Kagan and his family left Belarus and made a new life in Chicago"

  1. Cathy Rosenblum | October 17, 2019 at 8:22 pm | Reply

    Thank you Chicago Jewish News for this compelling, moving story about a loving and resilient family. History becomes all the more real when told by those who lived it. The gulags were full of Jews, like Isaac, who were imprisoned on false charges; so Nathan speaks for them as well. I will be checking out Nathan’s blogs for more information on his family’s remarkable story.

  2. Carolyn Levine | October 21, 2019 at 12:25 am | Reply

    And we, their American family, are so happy that they did!! Our grandmother had kept in contact with Nathan’s mother in Russia until, under Stalin, they no longer could continue communicating. We never learned what had happened to them until they finally emigrated to the United States and found us, their family here.

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