Jewish Soviet migrs in Bay Area help HIAS tell its many stories

Solomon Tetelbaum has lived in the Bay Area for about 23 years now, but he vividly remembers the great waiting period of 1989: the six months in which he and his family were stranded in Ladispoli, a small town in central Italy.

They had left their home in Odessa in November 1988, intent on making a new, easier life in America — only to join the thousands of other Soviet refugees who had been waylaid in Ladispoli. Many of them, like the Tetelbaums, were fleeing anti-Semitism and religious persecution, but the U.S. immigration department had suddenly changed its policies, and many would-be émigrés found themselves shut out.

“It was half a year there where nobody understood why some people were being allowed entry [into the U.S.] and others were denied,” remembers Tetelbaum, now 76 and a resident of Fremont. “When we were finally called in to interview, we didn’t know what to say that would let us through.”

Soviet Jewish émigrés line up after arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in 1977. photo/joshua siderowitz for hias

Tetelbaum’s story is one of 30 compelling immigration narratives — plus one poem — that make up a new book titled “HIAS @ 130: 1+ 30, the Best of myStory.” Published by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, on the occasion of its 130th anniversary, the soft-cover book includes four pieces written by Bay Area residents, and one by someone who grew up here.

HIAS, a New York–based national nonprofit, has helped Jewish and non-Jewish refugees escape violence and repression to find safety in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere since 1881. Since the 1960s, the organization’s focus has been on helping the wave of Soviet emigrants.

MyStory began as an interactive project in 2008. At, Soviet émigrés are invited to share their family’s story with words, photos, timelines and more. The idea, said project chair Genia Brin, was to document immigrants’ personal stories to make for a more intimate, diverse account of that difficult period in history.

“My husband and I both wanted to get something on the Internet about Soviet Jewry while we still have all these people to tell their stories, in their own voices,” explained Brin, whose family left the USSR in 1979 and, with the help of HIAS, settled in Maryland.

Her oldest son, Sergey, grew up to be a co-founder of Google. Quoted in the book is a blog entry written by Sergey explaining his $1 million donation to HIAS in honor of his parents upon the 30th anniversary of their arrival to the United States (with HIAS’ help). Also quoted in the book is a New York Times article that began, “Were it not for HIAS, there might be no Google.”

Jessica Babchin

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reactions, the enthusiasm around myStory — and getting some of them into a book seemed like the perfect way to reflect on the 130th anniversary,” added Genia Brin.

The stories are organized by stops on an immigrant’s journey. Some take place just as a family has left home, some while they’re in transit. Others tell of the difficulties of adjusting to life in a new country without roots, a support network or, in most cases, English language skills. The tome was feted with a launch party in New York six weeks ago.

Irena Smith

Jessica Babchin, the author of the book’s only poem, is a first-generation American, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrant Eugenia Budman (whose story also appears in the book). Both mother and daughter live in Foster City.

When Babchin, now a 25-year-old senior at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, heard HIAS was looking for submissions, she submitted a poem she’d written as a young teen. “Where I’m From” depicts the author learning to reconcile her modern American life with the roots of Russian culture that permeate her home through cuisine and other rituals.

“I think collections like this are important because they remind people of the truth, the reality of what happened — that these were regular individual people just like you and me, which is not always something you get from a history book in school,” said Babchin.

Solomon Tetelbaum and his wife, Shushana, in Rome in 1989 photo/courtesy of hias

Her mother’s story in the book is titled “The Average Russian-Jewish Immigrant.” Other narratives with local ties include “One Glimpse at a Time,” by Simón Hanukai, who grew up in Mountain View, and “Part of This Complete Breakfast” a story about adjusting to life in San Francisco by Irena Smith, now a Palo Alto resident.

“We learned a lot that year,” Smith writes in her 10-page story. “We learned that when a store clerk says Sears is just 15 minutes down Geary, he means by car, not on foot.”

Tetelbaum’s six-page story in the book is just one small piece from his second book of memoirs, “The Door Slammed in Ladispoli (Unknown Pages of Soviet Emigration to America),” which first was published in 2009.

Still, he insisted, “I’m no writer,” adding that he first learned English at 52. “But this is my past, this is so many people’s past, it is Russia’s past. People, especially young people, must know it. I write because of that.”

“HIAS @ 130: 1 +130, the Best of myStory”
edited by Roberta Elliott (207 pages, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, $35). To order, visit

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.