Once out, it’s hard to get in … to U.S. by Lila Hanft, CJN 1/11/08
Everyone knew the hard part was getting out of the Former Soviet Union.
Once you did, you would be welcomed in the U.S. with open arms n and wallets. As political refugees, Soviet Jews were entitled to housing, medical care, and employment or job training paid for by the U.S. government.
But that’s not how it happened to Michael, a refusenik from Leningrad who reached the free world only to be denied a refugee visa by the American consulate in Rome.
Early in January 1989, Michael put in a “frantic call” to his friend, Cleveland attorney Adrienne Lalak (now Deckman). “First I was refused by the Soviets, and now I am refused by the Americans,” Michael told her.
The injustice of the situation incensed Deckman. “Families were leaving the Soviet Union under the belief -- encouraged by the Jewish agencies -- that all they had to do was get out of the Soviet Union and they would be received like royalty,” she recalls, speaking from her home in Beachwood.
Three weeks later, the young attorney arrived in Ladispoli, a small beach town near Rome, where HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) housed hundreds of Soviet Jews who had left the USSR on Israeli visas and were now awaiting American visas.
As she worked on Michael’s case, “I came to sense that something was terribly wrong,” Deckman wrote in the CJN of Feb. 24, 1989. “If the INS (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) could make such an inexplicable error with respect to Michael, who had been a Hebrew teacher in Leningrad, a leader of its Jewish community ... who could know what was happening to less prominent Russian Jews?”
“Arbitrary and capricious”
Something had indeed gone wrong. The (senior) Bush administration, faced with the cost of providing for an unanticipated 50,000 Russian Jewish immigrants n and with pressure from Israel, which wanted Russian Jews to settle there n quietly made a policy change. As of Sept. 1988, the INS no longer automatically designated Soviet Jews as refugees; they had to “demonstrate real fear of persecution in their country of origin,” which put the onus of proof on the refugees.
Ilana Horowitz Ratner calls the policy change “arbitrary and capricious behavior on the part of the INS.” Ratner, a Cleveland attorney who joined Deckman on a return trip to Ladispoli that spring, recalls that “The INS denied perfectly valid applications with no reason given.”
Expecting to receive refugee status automatically, few émigrés left Russia with legal proof of persecution. Moreover, proving “well-founded fear of persecution” was rarely simple, Cleveland immigration lawyer David W. Leopold wrote in a 1989 CJN story. Leopold spent several months representing Soviet Jews before the INS.
By the summer of 1989, there were 17,000 Soviet Jews in Ladispoli waiting for visas to enter the U.S. Desperate families began “inventing stories of persecution,” Ratner recalls. “Word spread quickly when a story worked; people repeated tales” others had used successfully, which reduced their credibility with the INS.
Let my people go -- but where?
Although all Soviet Jews in Ladispoli had the option of settling in Israel, the vast majority wanted to go to the U.S. Russian Jews tended to see Israel as an “Oriental, non-European, semi-feudal state ruled by religious laws,” anthropologist Tom Trier writes. In the May 1991 story “Israeli economy is keeping many Jews in USSR,” The New York Times reported that “tens of thousands of Soviet Jews” were “postponing or canceling their moves to Israel because of the country’s inability to provide jobs for those already there.”
The issue of neshirah or “drop-outism” divided the Jewish community. The term refers to Jews who left the Soviet Union on Israeli passports but never made it to Israel, “dropping out” in Vienna and Italy to pursue American visas.
Americans believed Soviet Jews should have the right to choose where to settle, rather than being forced to resettle in Israel. Israel, on the other hand, needed the influx of Soviet Jews to fortify its declining population and raise education levels.
This conflict was played out between the agencies working in Ladispoli. HIAS, for example, encouraged émigrés to settle in the U.S. if they wished. The Jewish Agency for Israel, however, lobbied Ladispoli émigrés to make aliyah.
Settling all over
The changes in U.S. immigration policy that stranded Michael and others in Ladispoli ultimately changed the course of Soviet transmigration.
At the peak of neshirah in December 1989, 18,965 Jews left the USSR on Israeli visas, but only 4% of them went to Israel. That trend reversed sharply after the INS changed its procedures. Between 1989 and 1990 the number of Russians who settled in Israel jumped from 12,000 to 180,000. By the end of the Soviet exodus in 1999, the bulk of Soviet Jews — 772,239 out of 980,000 -- had been settled in Israel.
After Ladispoli was closed in 1990, Soviet Jews who met U.S. immigration requirements could get visas in Moscow and fly directly to the U.S. Israeli-bound Soviet Jews passed through Budapest by the tens of thousands of receiving aid and medical care in Budapest in what Vic Gelb described in a 1991 CJN article as “a clean, efficient transit center” run by the Jewish Agency.
There were other destinations for Soviet Jews as well. Financial incentives offered by the German government attracted 230,000 Soviet Jews to settle there, making Germany the second principal country of the Diaspora accepting Russians after the U.S. An estimated 30,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to Canada, and another 10,000 settled in Australia.
Ladispoli left its mark on American volunteers as well as Soviet refugees.
“I don’t know how you go back to normal life after something like that,” Deckman muses. Ladispoli “was a graphic reminder of how much (Americans) take for granted.”