Rena's Memories

Part 24 (First Steps in a New Land)

Getting into the Country

We came on a legal basis through my uncle. This was through the quota and the visa system of the olden days. Later they permitted so many displaced people to be taken in. After we came there was an act of Congress and they took a whole bunch of displaced Russians and Ukrainians that were in camps in West Germany. Canada and Australia also took some. Quite a few people that my parents knew went to Australia. The US only took so many. We corresponded with some that wanted to come and were never able to.

My uncle paid for our passage here and he had to guarantee that he would provide for us until we found jobs. It was much much stricter than it is now. You couldn’t just come and go on welfare the way that people do now. My friend Doris’s relatives have been here two years.They are young and able bodied and they still live on welfare and social security. They earn money under the table and don’t pay taxes. If the job doesn’t meet their standards they just don’t take it. When we came we wouldn’t have been able to do that.

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Rena in 1948, less than a year after she arrived in the U.S.A.

 

Uncle Leonid and Hunter College

When we first came my uncle took us in and we lived in his apartment in New York on Amsterdam Avenue at about 113th Street. You could see the Saint Luke's [Hospital]  from his apartment. We banked at Irving Savings Bank at the corner of 110th and Broadway. 

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A document with Leonid's address

Present day map from Google Maps

My uncle immediately took me to be interviewed at Hunter College. He was friends with a woman professor there, Miss Schmidt. I had a very minimal ability to speak English. Maybe if you had one year of a foreign language in a high school here – that was my background in English.

This Miss Schmidt was a maiden – a very elderly lady. I guess she was in her seventies. She lived with another woman. They were German. She was a German professor and she became a very good friend of my father and mother – especially my father because she also spoke French and it was very easy for them to communicate. She helped with all kinds of advice in my education.

My father insisted that I go to High School. I had never finished High School in Europe and he wanted to make sure I had some kind of diploma. We went to Hunter College to see what we should do to meet their requirements. Instead they were very apologetic that they couldn’t take me in right away because the semester had started. That gave me a clue that I qualified. So I enrolled in February by filling out their forms. I read the requirements first and whether I did it or not I put down that I had it. 

By February my English skills were improved, but it was still hard. In physics lab I could never have done the experiments without my lab partner reading the directions. The funny thing is that I had an A in the course and my partner failed. She had no math sense. I tried to tutor her. We were good friends. She changed her major. She was not the type who could have lasted in science. But without her I would have been unable to do anything. As far as passing the test, it was mostly mathematical formulas.  Plus I already had physics in Czechoslovakia at a very rigid and strict gymnasium.

More on English skills.

 I was in this country five months before I started college and I had to pass some tests. They kept old tests in the library for foreigners to practice. Hunter was equipped to take foreign students. You had to prove that you were going to become an American citizen. I had to show that I had applied for citizenship.

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This is one of the few surviving photos of Leonid. He was 61 years old when his brother Valentin arrived in 1947.

 

Voice of America

When did first Dedushka get a job?

He got a job when Voice of America started Ukrainian broadcasts. (Ukrainian broadcasts started in 1949). Before they even started he was invited to listen to and judge recordings of people speaking Ukrainian. They wanted to broadcast into Ukraine and they wanted someone speaking proper Ukrainian. Dedushka was chosen to judge whether the language was good or not.

How did they find him?

When my father came here, he made friends.  My father had graduated from St Petersburg Polytechnic Institute and it was like a union card to get into the upper echelons of society here. There were a lot of Russians who did very well.

So when he arrived he immediately established himself in both Russian and Ukrainian intellectual circles. He was part of different worlds.

 

There were also Ukrainians from the region that had been part of Poland before the war – Galicians – and they wrote letters saying that Dedushka was not the one to judge Ukrainian because he came from the part that was under Russia and he couldn’t even be a proper Ukrainian because he associates with Russians. The response was that that was exactly the area of Ukraine that they were targeting.

So he was invited to be the assistant manager to the Ukrainian unit. It was in New York at the time. The man who was in charge was an older man who had immigrated to this country years and years before. He was a good person and very capable and Dedushka just loved working for him. Dedushka thought he was the best person to run that unit and had a great deal of respect for him.

He worked for a number of years. He didn’t work full time but the made more money than some other Russian immigrants who were working full time because the pay was very good. He even did some of the broadcasts himself. When he went on we would sit by the radio and listen to him.

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Photo taken in New York in 1947

(The following is from another interview.)

Dedushka continued working for the Voice of America. He was much older so he could have gone on Social Security, but he continued working until the unit moved to Washington, DC. 

 

Voice of America wanted him to come to DC. Not only that, when the section chief, Grigoriev died, Dedushka was offered the job, but he didn’t want to work that hard. He didn’t want administrative responsibilities and headaches, but he still worked for them until they moved to Washington. We had some friends with whom we lived in Prague, the Kovalevs. Mr Kovalev was a linguist and philologist and was younger. Dedushka recommended Mr Kovalev for the job and he worked for them in Washington DC. 

Dedushka worked past retirement age. We came in 1947 and he was born in 1884. So he started at Voice of America at about 63 years of age. But at that time if you were an immigrant you didn’t get Social Security or anything. Now people come and they immediately get on Social Security not having worked here at all and are getting more of it than I will after working all these years. It’s a very different situation now.

Did Dedushka know any English?

He knew very little. When he came here he acquired a reading knowledge of English. He would never speak but he understood and knew much more…. he knew enough of it to read a New Yorker magazine article about Edmund Wilson and Dead Sea Scrolls. And he would read the New York Times. But he would not speak to you in English and he would insist on having an interpreter. He spoke French very well and he spoke German quite well. He knew how to read Arabic and Hebrew. Greek he knew quite well,… and Latin, because that’s the kind of education he had. 

 

Bobbi in New York City

How long was it before before Bobbi got a job?

Bobbi got a job right away. We had to find our own place to live and my uncle wasn’t going to continue to subsidize us, so she found a job within the first few weeks. In the beginning everyone was telling her that it was ridiculous to find a job in her own profession so she got a job as a seamstress in one of the Russian establishments, Valentina’s – they made dresses for Margaret Truman – for her singing career.

Then we met some Russians from families that had been here since the revolution and some became good friends. One might still be living. She moved to Florida and wrote a note after Bobbi died. Her name was Dr Gern (pronounced with a soft G). Her Russian name was Dzurnakova (spelling is a guess). Her first husband was an engineer and she was a physician.  Later on she had a very fine gynecological practice on 5th Avenue or Park Ave (I don’t remember), and she was very successful at artificial insemination.

 

Dr. Gern was Russian Orthodox but married a Jewish man after her first husband died. When we first arrived she was in charge of a laboratory in a post graduate hospital, so she got Bobbi a job there.  Bobbi met a couple of Russian girls working as technicians who became my girl friends. There was a strong ethnic community.

Bobbi worked in Dr Gern’s lab as a bacteriologist. Bobbi used to be a food microbiologist but she had bacteriology in school and she learned quickly. They rotated what they were working on and someone else was careless so she picked up TB while working there. That must have been in 1950. Bobbi was sent away to a TB sanatorium near Middletown, New York and was there about a year and a half. When she came back she was not permitted to work and she had to go for check-ups. Then she was able to work part time.

Bobbi saw an ad for a part-time work as a bacteriologist at Presbyterian Medical Center Dental school. That is how she started there. The job became full time and she worked there many, many years. By then they had better drugs for TB so she was able to work full time. Her pension was small but she had good medical coverage. She worked with wonderful people.

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Bobbi in Otisville New York

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Photos taken in the lab at Presbyterian Medical Center. 

 

More on Uncle Leonid

We were not in contact with my uncle for a number of years [while we were in the Soviet Union]. My grandmother had some contact. He was able to send things to her. The communists liked dollars so he was able to subsidize his mother somewhat all along. He had a Wall Street address, so no matter where he went there was an address where he could be reached. Others at the office would know where he was. I had the address memorized. I still remember that it was on Maiden Lane. 

My uncle had changed his name. His name was Marc Terbey in the United States. I don’t know too much about him except these stories that could be apocryphal about how he escaped Russia. He had participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution, and he was sent to Siberia and was going to be executed and a whole group of them were able to break out of prison. He tried to shave his face so that he would look different but he couldn’t finish the job, so he had a big towel wrapped around half of his face as though he had a toothache. He crossed the border into China and had lived in Shanghai. Then he came to the United States and became a US citizen. He went to Europe a lot. When he returned to what had become the Soviet Union, he didn’t like what he saw of communism so he never repatriated.

I think the wife my uncle had in this country was his third wife. She was German. They met when she was his nurse when he was sick. And she used him. She was not a good person. She threw us out and made sure we didn’t inherit anything and she wanted us to return all the money he spent on our behalf.

Mrs. Schmidt who was their friend (and also became our friend) broke off her relationship with the wife because she liked us and said that the wife was someone who only married my uncle for the money. She wanted all the money for herself and her family in Germany.

No one explained my uncle’s profession to me. He was originally trained as an engineer. He was an entrepreneur and an adventurer and he made money by trading on Wall Street. In 1929 he was exceptionally wealthy and then he lost it in the crash. But then he recovered.

My uncle had influential friends. He had friends in Washington he could visit who were close to the government, and that’s how he was able to speed our visas and got us the passage. It was because he had these very good friends.

The extraordinary life of Marcus Terbey will be published in a separate chapter. 

Was there ever a law suit against Amanda, your aunt?

You know Steve, I don’t remember that but she deprived us of anything from my uncle and I think my parents got some legal advice to get some of the inheritance after he died. He was a very wealthy man. We didn’t get anywhere with that at all. 

Were there problems with Bobbi and Dedushka getting naturalized because of her?

She sent some kind of evil report on them about them being subversive or Nazi sympathizers. She herself was a Nazi. She was so German it was unbelievable. She thought anything German was better than anything else.  

I think part of the problem with my parents getting citizenship is that when they applied the McCarthy era had come into play. It was McCarthyism that delayed it more than anything else. He was seeing communism under every tree. The fact that they came from the Soviet Union originally was the blemish rather than anything else. 

I have presented most of the material I have transcribed and edited. At present it is an ongoing project. If you, the reader of this, have a question please send me a message, and my mother or I will try to answer.  Steve Ocone