A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir
By Lev Golinkin
Lev Golinkin’s father is an engineer whose job takes him to the farthest flung outposts of the old Soviet Union. Back home in Kharkov, he tells his son magical stories about “frost-shackled mining towns in the tundra where temperatures plunged to minus forty and birds froze to the ground like little feathered ice lumps.” In the morning, kindly workers chip away the ice and tuck the birds under their arms. By the time they reach the refinery gates, the birds thaw out and fly away, free at last.
This affecting image, seemingly lifted straight out of a Russian folktale, begins A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Golinkin’s account of his Jewish family’s flight from the Soviet Union in 1989.
The backpack and “Comrade Bear” are the things a little Jewish boy carries away with him to a new life in America. The eight crates of vodka are what his parents carry – bribes for bus drivers and Czechoslovak policemen, articles of commerce to smooth the way in a new world.
The Golinkins become part of an ever-swelling exodus that takes them out of the house of bondage and, after a last terrifying encounter with Pharaoh’s army – in this case a bunch of casually sadistic Soviet customs officers – all the way to Vienna’s Westbahnhof railway station and, eventually, to America.
The Golinkins aren’t Refuseniks. When their story begins in 1989, Soviet gerontocracy has given way to perestroika, the Berlin Wall is coming down, and Jews who want to leave the Soviet Union, can. But that doesn’t mean life for Soviet Jews is any better than it was. In some ways, it’s worse, as the U.S.S.R. begins to collapse and anxiety builds.
Lev’s brilliant older sister Lina has to settle for a career in engineering because some apparatchik decides there are too many zhidi cluttering up the medical schools.
Lev barely attends school – it’s just not worth the daily beatings, the taunts handed out to Jewish students as teachers casually look on. “Bei Zhidov, Spassay Rossiyu (Crush the Jews, Save Russia)” reads the graffiti in the back alleys and men’s rooms of Kharkov.
The irony is that kids like Lev hardly even know they are Jewish – 70 years of official atheism has taken care of that.
So, unlike the Jews of pre-revolutionary Russia, who could at least rise as a people from the “charred ghettos” of the pogroms, Soviet Jews have no language, no ritual and no culture to bind them together. They are alone.
Lev associates Judaism with victimhood and wants nothing to do with it. When an older boy tries to teach him his Aleph-Bet, Lev is enraged: “All I could think was, ‘He’s training me to be a zhid.’”
We expect a story like this to be an account of a journey into the light from the frigid darkness of life as a Jew in the U.S.S.R. But this one isn’t. It is fraught with the deep ambivalence of people who leave the only home they know and set out into a wilderness of uncertainty.
For Lev, his first months in the West are defined by the fundamental humiliation of being wholly dependent on others for even the most basic necessities of life.
Their clothes in rags, the Golinkins are taken to a Viennese charity that provides clothes for refugees. Lev hits the jackpot, finding a kid-sized pilot’s jacket with “golden zippers.”
Admiring himself in the mirror, he catches sight of a young girl smiling at him, taking delight in his delight. “I shrank inward … and shot her a glance full of hatred … I reverted to what I was, a thing in a room full of things.”
For Lev, to be a refugee is to be reduced to a cipher, an object of pity, perhaps, but never truly a human being.
Ultimately, the story is about the corrosive effect hatred can have upon a soul. What young Lev carries with him in his backpack is rage – at being Jewish, at being a refugee, at all the hatred that has been directed at him in his young life.
Finally settled in New Jersey, he suffers through a bar mitzvah in tallit and yarmulke, only to hand the “Jew paraphernalia” back to his father as soon as it’s finished. His self-loathing is such that he teaches himself to shave with his eyes closed so that he does not have to look at his own face.
Does he find redemption? Slowly. Painfully. As an adult, he travels back along his family’s long road, looking for the people who were kind to them: an obsessive American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee official; an enigmatic Austrian aristocrat, who is himself seeking redemption from his own family’s Nazi past.
At the book’s end, Lev is in Tijuana, handing out warm clothes to desperate migrants from Central America. In his heart, he smiles back at the young girl who smiled at him in Vienna.
At last, the frozen little bird from Kharkov is able to fly.