Living History: The Immigrant Experience: From Russia to Rogers Park

Emma Lazarus would be proud. In the latest installment of our LIVING HISTORY Series, the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society hosted speaker Bena Shklyanoy at the Budlong Woods Branch Library on Monday evening February 26, 2018.

Bena could be the personification of “the huddled masses” who left Europe for America over the past two centuries. In fact, she was a part of the wave of Russian Jewish emigrants who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union between 1968 and 1979. While many emigrants went to Israel, others left for Australia, Canada and the USA. Bena, her husband and their two young daughters were fortunate enough to arrive in Rogers Park in September, 1976 after leaving their native city of Kiev in Soviet Ukraine. She was 31 at the time.

Before an attentive audience of 40 and an extended audience on CAN TV, which videotaped the session for a later broadcast, Bena used slides and anecdotes to enrich her compelling narrative. In doing so she added to the history of Rogers Park and embraced its distinction as a welcoming port of entry for those seeking a better life. She related the shock of the immigrant experience as she and her family lived it and then described her earlier life under Soviet living conditions in Kiev. Many in the audience were familiar with aspects of her story, having shared in similar experiences themselves. They often nodded in recognition or assisted in naming some of the retail establishments Bena would mention in her commentary.

Bena gave particular credit to the Jewish Child and Family Services organization, a local nonprofit, for assisting her family in transitioning to life in Chicago. After an orientation the group placed her family temporarily in a one-bedroom apartment at Morse and Ashland. They also connected her with free medical, dental, educational, financial and social services in the community.

Bena told of her first visit to an American supermarket. She was astonished to find the door opened automatically for her, perhaps a metaphor for her new life. She roamed the aisles wide-eyed at the abundance and variety. She even noticed matzo, out of season, and food for dogs. She also told of visits to a health clinic where the staff used a curtain for privacy – a concept so unknown in the USSR that she knows no single word for “ privacy” in Russian. Soon thereafter she was amazed to learn that restrooms were  available in local stores and gas stations. Furthermore, they always came furnished with toilet paper! It was a revelation.

Other surprises awaited. She was free to use a pay telephone to call her parents in Kiev, who were able to join her in America later. Useful goods could be found discarded in alleys, and reasonably priced furnishings could be purchased at garage sales. Unemployed men were commonplace but not subject to being jailed for indolence. She was pleased to be able to open a bank account without being wealthy. But discipline at her daughter’s local public school seemed loose to nonexistent.

Overall Bena and her family found the neighborhood quite open and accommodating. Immigrants from other countries were frequently encountered in Rogers Park. It seemed to be an “incubator for American citizenship” where no one was made to feel inferior based on class or race or religion. Her life here was “ordinary, but wonderful.” It was a dream come true except, they never really even had “such a dream.”

Questions followed her presentation, more about her prior life under Russian control rather than her immigrant experience in America. This led her to describe a dull, impoverished existence where no one was able to speak their thoughts without fear. It was a place where no hopes or dreams existed. They were completely isolated from the outside world. Knowledge of the USA or Israel was extremely limited or simply false, based on Communist propaganda. Life was hard for everyone but no one knew that living conditions were better elsewhere. She told of the scarcity of goods, and waiting in long lines to obtain even the most basic of necessities. Housing conditions, even for university-educated people like her and her husband, were very poor with communal kitchens and bathrooms.

Life was even worse for Jews. In the USSR religion did not exist. It was a totally secular state. Jews were not allowed to learn about or practice their religion. To be a Jew was equivalent to being non-Russian and likely anti-Soviet. On a Soviet passport nationalities were listed but no religions. A Soviet citizen might be Georgian or Ukrainian or Latvian or Russian or…Jewish.
(In Nazi Germany, Jews were declared to be a separate race, not German at all.) Anti-Semitism was widespread in the Soviet Union, as elsewhere, despite official declarations of secularism.
Time constraints caused Bena to leave much of her story untold. With only an hour or so to provide some context, highlights and anecdotes, Bena left the audience wanting more.

Fortunately, she could refer people to her website for additional information:  wwwppledoesnotfall.com.

For those interested in more, Bena has authored a novel based on her experiences: Bridge from Nowhere,  under the name  Bena Averbukh.  She is also a playwright, with two plays dramatizing the experiences of immigrant Russian Jews scheduled for production in late August at the Piven Theatre in Evanston.

All in all, the opportunity to hear an articulate presentation from someone who has personally experienced newsworthy or historical events adds a special appeal to history buffs more accustomed to learning from books or visits to sites. If you missed it, you can see the CPL-sponsored CAN TV recording on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Ub3KzlQ_nbk.  Enjoy! (There is no Russian equivalent for “enjoy” but please do so anyway.)

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