Soviet immigrant camps and how I got into journalism

I was looking over some of my old notes to prepare for the next (and probably final) installment of my forced migration series, when I came across a couple of articles I published 15 years ago in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — two short pieces about the camps I briefly lived in with my family after we left the Soviet Union in 1989. I had totally forgotten about them. Rereading them now, I realize they were the first reporting I ever did. These articles were how I got into journalism.

I never wanted to be a journalist. It was never my dream. I never even thought about it. As a Soviet immigrant growing up in the Bay Area in the late 1990s, it wasn’t even a possibility as far I was concerned. Like everyone else, I was supposed to be a computer programmer. My brother was doing it. My best friend was doing it. So that was the direction I took without even thinking.

After high school, I picked up a bunch of computer science classes at the San Mateo Community College and interned at an e-commerce development firm, which had like two employees and whose main client was a cheesy online swimwear and lingerie company called Ujena. I coded some of the functionality of their online store and was even sent as a photographer to the company’s 2001 swimwear competition in Cancun to update Ujena’s website with the day’s winning contestants. The perks of being a young tech bro!

Armed with this formative tech experience, I transferred to UC Berkeley, where I got a degree in Cognitive Science with an emphasis on computational modeling — a kind of hybrid course of study that combined psychology, pre-med, philosophy, and heavy doses of computer science. The education primed me to become an asshole Silicon Valley start-upper. One of my software design classes had me build an app for the Windows Mobile PocketPC system nearly a decade before iPhone came to market. My idea was one of the winning ones in the class and I managed a small team of classmate-underlings, who did all the work while I took all the credit. I shoulda been a tech bro billionaire. But I was too much of a fuck up. I wanted to live life, make art, and do drugs, not spend my days in an underground lab like some kind of savant monkey.

So instead of pursuing a lucrative career in tech, I became a bohemian fuck up. I got a job clocking in at $15 an hour as a low-level technical writer at Meyer Sound’s speaker factory in Berkeley, lived in a leaky warehouse next to the train tracks off Gilman Street with two other loser bohemian-type UC Berkeley grads, and plowed all the money I didn’t spend on booze into shooting a 16mm experimental short film about a guy with a split identity. The film fell apart in the edit. It was a total failure.

With absolutely nothing else going on in my life and hating the smugness of the Bay Area, I decided to bail on America.

I was twenty-four at the time and I hadn’t been back to the city of my birth in fifteen years, not since I left with my family when I was eight years old. I had no idea what the old country was like. All I knew was my ghettoized Soviet immigrant community in the Bay Area, which lived in a kind of permanent late 1980s Soviet time warp — listening to Pugachova and Shufutinsky and partying at the now-shuttered Russia House next door to the Cow Palace.

So I sold off everything I owned and left for St. Petersburg to reconnect with my long lost ex-Soviet heritage.

My plan was to trace my family’s escape route out of the Soviet Union — but in reverse. That meant I would first go to Ostia, a small poor town on the outskirts of Rome, where we spent about five months living in rickety trailers on the old castle grounds owned by an old aristocratic Italian family. After Ostia, I would then make my way to Austria — first to a village called Gresten, where we lived for a month in a camp for children with mental disabilities, and then on to Vienna where we first arrived fresh out of the Soviet Bloc by train. From there, I’d board a final train to St. Petersburg thus completing my journey in reverse.

Our immigrant camp in Ostia was packed with box-like trailers split by two families. But at the center stood a medieval castle that was still occupied by the aristocratic family that owned it and the camp itself.

As I was preparing to leave, a distant cousin of mine said she knew an editor in Moscow who worked for JTA, or the Jewish Telegraphic Agency — a kind of American Reuters for Jew-related news. Their Russia stringer had quit and the editor in Moscow was frantically looking to hire a freelancer who could cover Jewish news in the former Soviet Union.

I had never done any reporting in my life. I barely even read the news. But I needed a job and JTA was willing to consider anyone with a pulse and some Russian language skills. So I figured why not.

As a way of interviewing for the job, I wrote a couple of articles about the two camps my family lived in on our transit through Europe. On their strength, I got my first job in journalism: being a stringer for the JTA covering the former Soviet Union.

I travelled a bunch for the job and got real close look at the depressing state of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, including the ways that American Jewish organizations cynically used Russia’s remaining Jews as a dependable fundraising prop to drum up donations and fatten up their own bureaucracies. And there were interesting aspects to the job — like when I covered the SS march in Latvia or travelled to Armenia to profile a Subbotnik community that was on the verge of dying out — but for the most part it was a dispiriting job. I was meant to mostly churn out short mundane copy about boring Jewish cultural events, collect my modest freelancer paycheck, and move on to the next thing. The travel was nice but I found out I wasn’t cut out for that kind of hack work. I had to snort fat lines of shitty St. Petersburg speed just to work up the motivation to write the shortest, simplest bullshit stories. Stuff that others would be able to bang out in a few hours would end up being a long and tortured speed-fueled process for me. Most of the time I actually had to pretend that I was writing satire to get myself in the right frame of mind to write the stuff. I mean, just look at a profile I did of an up-and-coming Jewish Volgograd “DJ.” It’s comic stuff.

I didn’t last very long at the job. Less than a year later, my Moscow editor Lev fired me with a vengeance, telling me by phone that I was the “most unprofessional journalist he had ever worked with” — this after his superiors spent months telling me I was the best journalist they ever had. But I couldn’t blame Lev for being pissed off at me. I really pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior. By the end, I was traveling on the JTA’s dime but doing stories for The eXile first. But that’s a longer story that I might tell later…

Anyway, it was thanks to the JTA — and the two articles I’m reprinting below — that I first got into journalism. They’re a bit on the simple side but I think they hold up pretty well, as far as these things go. It all started with telling a bit of my family’s Soviet immigrant story, a topic that I’ve finally now returned to a decade and a half later.

—Yasha Levine

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Memories of a Soviet Jewish refugee camp

By Yasha Levine • September 20, 2005 • JTA

The entrance to Castelfusano, 2015.

OSTIA, Italy, Sept. 20 (JTA) — This small seaside resort just outside Rome is best known for its beaches and its fourth-century Roman port, both popular tourist destinations.

But for 15,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ostia will always conjure up memories of Country Club Castelfusano, a summer retreat just outside city limits that was used from 1988 to 1991 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as temporary housing for Jewish refugees on their way to new lives in America. Some stayed for just a few weeks; others lived there for months.

Mine was one such family. I was 8 years old when my parents, older brother and myself left the Soviet Union in November 1989. Our first stop was a similar refugee camp in Austria, which processed new immigrants heading to Israel. Those who sought immigration to the United States, like my family, were sent on to Ostia to await permission from the American authorities.

We spent five months in Castelfusano waiting for our official invitation.

Life in the camp for my family was a mixture of hope and apprehension. My father’s longtime dream was about to come true — at last we had left the Soviet Union and were on our way to America. But we were not there yet, and the future was a source of unceasing anxiety.

Two families lived in a bungalow like this — eight people. And they looked a lot more basic and rundown when we stayed there. That was before Castelfusano did an upgrade to its facilities, which now such modern comfort as include air conditioners.

“Not knowing where we would end up, or what would happen, was truly frightening,” my father recalls today. “Who knows, maybe America would reject us and we would be sent back. These thoughts were constant and depressing.”

My father knew English and basic Italian, so he was able to get a job at a bank in Rome assisting fellow refugees who stopped by to collect their bimonthly allowances. My mother, who was ill but had postponed a kidney operation until we got to America, taught at the Jewish day school set up on the camp premises. I hung out with other kids my age and ate my first bag of potato chips; my brother earned pocket money washing car windows.

Finally we received confirmation from our sponsor in New York, and on March 27, 1990, we left Italy for the United States.

In June, I made my first visit back, to see what remained of the hopes and dreams of these thousands of Russian-speaking sojouners.

Michelangelo Cavalcanti, the manager of the Country Club Castelfusano for two decades, was my guide as I walked through the camp’s pine tree-studded grounds. He remembers when the JDC approached the club’s management and offered to rent its cabins to house Jewish refugees fleeing the collapsing Soviet UnionCastelfusano accepted, and according to Cavalcanti’s estimates, the resort’s Tourist Village housed about 1,200 Jewish refugees at any one time during the next two and a half years.

Walking past a small, one-story building with tall windows stretching almost to the roof, Cavalcanti says it used to be the JDC’s office. “We still call this place ‘the American Joint,’ “ he says. 

It wasn’t the first time Castelfusano was used to house refugees. In 1983 and ‘84, the site was commissioned by the Italian Interior Ministry to shelter Polish refugees seeking asylum in Italy, and in 1992, 400 Somalian refugees were kept there on an emergency basis. But Cavalcanti says the Jewish refugees were different.

They “behaved like guests and we treated them like guests,” he says, adding that there was no violence or other disturbances during their tenure.

A vacationer at Castelfusano showing off Soviet tablecloths she bought 16 years earlier.

Luigi Pizzali, who was hired to perform occasional repairs on the camp’s cabins 15 years ago, remembers that many of the Jewish refugees seemed reluctant to interact with strangers. But those he got to know, he regarded as “quite nice and educated.” 

Some invited him to play cards or dominoes. For Pizzali and many other locals, this was their first contact with Jews or Jewish culture. There was a rabbi sent in to run a Jewish day school and introduce the Russian-speaking Jews to Jewish ritual practice, and Pizzali recalls watching him lay tefillin with a group of refugees. Pizzali was convinced it was a form of baptism. 

Some camp residents, catching a glimpse of the closely shaved head that the rabbi’s wife kept covered in public for religious reasons, referred to her as “cucuzza pelata,” a slightly demeaning Italian phrase meaning “bald pumpkin.” 

Luigi, a retired bust driver from Rome who owns a vacation trailer at Castefusano bought up whole bagfuls of merch from passing Soviet immigrants.

Other locals have more tangible memories of the Russian-speaking refugees who passed through more than 15 years ago: the Soviet-made goods they brought with them and left behind, flooding the Italian market with merchandise. Cameras, compasses, binoculars, watches, flashlights, cigarettes, vases, silverware, china, Oriental rugs, tablecloths and cans of beluga caviar are just some of the products that could be bought cheaply and easily on the grounds of Castelfusano during those years. Some enterprising Italians would buy the stuff as each new busload of refugees arrived, snatching goods at rock-bottom prices before the sellers became aware of their true market price.

Talking to former camp refugees living in the United States now, one gets a clear sense of the disorientation they felt at Castelfusano.

Dislocated and confused, frightened by their economic dependence, confronted with a strange language and unfamiliar culture, they tried desperately to sell anything they could — novelty items, trinkets, anything that might afford them a few creature comforts. 

My parents remember being advised, while they were still in the Soviet Union, to bring with them as much as possible to sell. There were stories floating around among potential emigrants that electronic goods in particular would fetch a good price abroad. My father sold two pairs of binoculars, a camera set from Kiev and a few wristwatches during our camp stay. 

Since the JDC ceased operations and moved out of the camp 15 years ago, the Tourist Village has undergone numerous, albeit gradual, changes. The cabins that once housed most of the refugees have been expanded and renovated. A new restaurant was built. The building that held the Jewish day school was converted into eight upscale hotel rooms for Catholic pilgrims expected during the last Catholic Jubilee year. The Funky Buddha disco hall and the Funky Pizza takeout restaurant were built to keep local teens busy in the evenings, Cavalcanti says.

“Business picked up” after the refugees left, he says. Little trace remains at Castelfusano of the hundreds of pages of computer printouts listing the new arrivals. A few sheets were snatched by Pizzali, who kept them as a kind of souvenir.

Camp for Soviet Jews in Austria remembered

By Yasha Levine • September 20, 2005 • JTA

Gresten’s main drag, 2015.

GRESTEN, Austria, Sept. 20 (JTA) — When my family left the Soviet Union in November 1989, we were among the first wave of Jewish refugee families to reach Kinderdorf, a summer retreat in this small rural Austrian town.

Nestled between hilly green pastures, Kinderdorf has six buildings that together can house about 150 people. The buildings usually sit empty in autumn and winter. But for a five-month period starting in October 1989, Kinderdorf was rented out by the Jewish Agency for Israel to house refugees from the Soviet Union, most of them Jewish, with a smattering of other religious minorities. Those making aliyah to Israel were processed directly through; those seeking entry to the United States were sent on to a similar camp in Ostia, Italy.

Gresten was my family’s first encounter with non-Soviet society. We, along with all the other families there, had left the Soviet Union at the height of the product shortages that swept through our country during the perestroika reforms of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Gresten’s apparent wealth dazzled us. My mother, Nellie, remarks that the women who worked in the camp kitchens seem so well dressed and carefully groomed “they could pass for professors or businesswomen.” Men would walk through the camp ogling the new cars parked at the Toyota dealership as if they were Apache helicopters.

Most refugees stayed at Kinderdorf for a month or less. Everything was organized for us: three meals a day, no need to cook. There was no need for cash, so none was handed out. We lived an isolated life and did not interact much with the locals, but from what we could see from the outside, the neatness and meticulousness of the Austrian people was still an immense culture shock.

Christine Liobl has been manager at Kinderdorf for two decades and is the only staff member left who worked with the Jewish refugees. She estimates that 600 people went through the camp in five months. The only difficulties were caused by the organization overseeing the refugees’ transfer. For some reason, she says, buses would come to pick up and drop them off in the dead of night, rousing not only the staff, who had to find beds for the new arrivals, but the entire camp. Because everyone lived in such close proximity to one another — three or four families separated by a single curtain — whole buildings would be awakened with a flurry of movement.

Four to six families shared a space like this — with cubbyholes to the left and right that contained two bunkbeds each, one per family.

In the middle of the night, “they would ring my door and would say, ‘We have 18 more people for you,’ ” exclaims Liobl. After she complained, the Jewish Agency started giving advance warning of their arrival. But the buses still arrived at night.

Kinderdorf’s use as a refugee camp was a new arrangement, and Liobl was worried about not being able to anticipate or fulfill the refugees’ needs. She recalls one woman who asked with a worried expression, as she stepped off the bus that brought her from Vienna, “Are we welcome here?” Of course, Liobl answered. “We’ll get off then,” the woman answered.