“Just in Case”: The Russian émigré Mindset

Nata surveys her figurine from Dresden

The foreground of the photograph displays a small figurine from Dresden, a man dressed in a three-piece suit awaits a woman who is gracefully emerging from her carriage ride. The horse patiently waits as the driver, astutely sitting at the front of the carriage, demurely holds the reins. In the back of the photograph, the figurine’s owner, Nata, sits out-of-focus. From the looks of the photograph, Nata is showing off a precious family heirloom in the foreground, while admiring it from the background. The story of how she acquired this figurine and kept it by her side even though a seemingly impossible immigration, cannot simply be told with a simple photograph.

“After the War, ‘trophies’ were brought over from Germany and sold in the central consignment store, and antique dealers would hunt for these treasures,” Nata said, “My father would sleep outside the store all night so that he would get first pick the next morning.”  Nata was born to a Jewish family in Kiev in the Soviet Union, and eventually inherited her father’s collection of German figurines and jewelry. When she decided to emigrate to the United States, Soviet laws forbade taking art out of the country, and she had to petition the government to take just one of her figurines to the United States.

This story is one of many told in the photo-journalistic exhibition Just in Case | На Всякий Случай which is set to open at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute Atrium on Thursday, April 12. Photographs of the objects that Russian-speaking Jews took with them to the United States are accompanied with quotes and small essays telling their stories. The exhibition was the brainchild of Valerie Zimmer, a recipient of the Blueprint fellowship from the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations (COJECO).

COJECO’s raison d’etre is to serve the Russian speaking Jewish Community in the tri-state area of New York. This includes funding their Blueprint Fellows, who are charged with studying and researching matters related to the Russian-Jewish experience in New York. Another Blueprint-related event recently was led by Meribel Goldwin. Entitled “Not Your Bubbe’s Recipes,” Meribel’s workshop was a culmination of months of experimenting in the kitchen with traditional Russian Jewish recipes, and possible ways to give them a healthier flair. It also serves as an umbrella for Russian Jewish organizations, trying to shine a positive spotlight on their needs and goals.

Valerie wanted to show how many Soviet Immigrants shared the same experiences, and frequently had the same emotional reactions to what they decided to take, and what they eventually decided to leave behind.

“For example,” said Valerie, “you see that many Soviet Jewish immigrants have the same polka-dot pots. Did they not think they could get the same-quality pots here? Did they not think they could get their hands on tools and nails in the United States?”

Valerie was referring to another one of her subjects, Dima, who had brought a toolkit with him from Kiev. Since there were very few hardware stores in Kiev in the 1970s, tools were obtained through bribing people who worked in construction. It’s no wonder that a toolkit would be considered an inseparable object for someone emigrating to an entirely new country.

The exhibition captures the uncertainty that accompanied every Russian Jewish immigrant before they departed for the United States. Valerie is an immigrant from Ukraine herself, having settled in Philadelphia with her family in 1992 when she was only 9 years old. Her plans for her project’s future include widening the subjects to Russian immigrants of many different faiths and traditions, and then eventually to immigrants from countries all around the world.

The Russian émigré group hosts a yearly gala, and in 2018 it will be held on May 23 at the renovated and rejuvenated Angel Orensanz Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Ambassador Danny Danon will be the featured guest.

About the Author
Formerly from Israel, now in Delaware, I have owned, run and worked with food, technology and politics, beginning with the MFA and several Knesset members.
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