You Cannot Teach Freedom—Sam Kliger

Sam Kliger Copyright: Hromadske Radio

Sam Kliger, the Director of the Eastern European department of the American Jewish Committee and President of the Research Institute for New Americans (RINA) talks about Jewish migration from Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine.

The reasons for migration, integration in the new country, life in the “ghetto,” and the interaction of emigrants with different backgrounds are the focus of our attention.

Iryna Slavinska:  We will start with a basic question. If we are talking about emigration—Jewish emigration from the post-Soviet Union and the Soviet Union—how many emigrants are we talking about?

Sam Kliger:  Yes, this is a very big number of emigrants. As you know, emigration started at the end of the 1960s, continued in the 70s, then there was a break, and in the 1980s there was almost no emigration. At the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was another big wave, and we call it the third or fourth wave of emigration. We are talking not only about Jews here, but Jews of course were the majority in that wave. As I said before, they started the emigration already in the 1970s.

Thus, two big streams were formed. One big wave went to Israel and a wave of almost the same size went to the USA.

Iryna Slavinska:  What number are we talking about? Millions? Thousands?

Sam Kliger:  We are talking about millions. By different accounts, in the period of 1970 to the 1990s about two million people left the USSR. Some say it was even two and a half million. As you know, about a million people from the USSR settled down in Israel.

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes, “the golden million” as they call it.

Sam Kliger:  And a big Russian emigration was formed there. Today it is about 20% of the entire Israeli population. A million also went to the USA. We say now that the size of Jewish emigration to the USA is about three-quarters of a million. If you add up other migration streams (now many people come with different visas and with different immigration classifications), then it will probably be more than a million.

Iryna Slavinska:  I would like to step back a little and look at the very first immigrants. I remember that in the book Kaiser von Amerika – Die große Flucht aus Galizien (Emperor of America—The Great Escape from Galicia), Martin Pollack has separate sections that are devoted to the first Jewish emigrants, who managed to migrate to the United States, Canada, and other countries mainly to escape the pogroms. They emigrated from the territory of Ukraine which was then under the crown of the Russian Empire. It was not about economic emigration in search of a better life, but about emigration because of a totally direct and literal desire to save their lives. Can we talk about this wave? Was this the first wave?

Sam Kliger:  Yes, we can surely call it the first wave. It was very large, and it also brought millions of people into the United States. And of course the Jewish community, which today has developed in the USA, consists of people from these countries: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, i.e. Bessarabia, which was a part of the Russian Empire. These are all the places that were the part of  “the Pale of Settlement.” Millions of people emigrated from there in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This wave also brought many interesting things to American territory, many people, and many interesting members of interesting communities. As a matter of fact, the elite of the Jewish community today is mostly immigrants from Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska:  But who are these people? Usually they were probably poor people who did not have a good education, and this is an interesting story about “the American dream” isn’t it? The story about how emigrants come probably without anything, without knowledge and money, and create a new ideal life for themselves. Maybe not in the first generation…

Sam Kliger:  Yes, when I just came to the USA I worked for many years in an organization where we helped refugees. I took the new emigrants to the Immigration Museum, which is located on Ellis Island, and I remember a very interesting statement by an Italian emigrant: “When I lived at home, I thought that the streets in America are paved with gold. When I arrived, I saw three things: first—they are not paved with gold; second—they are not paved; and third—they want us to be doing this.” The fate of emigrants has always been very difficult regardless if these people had a higher education or no education, whether they were poor or rich... You know, you cannot compare the world a hundred years ago with today’s world. These are two different worlds. Back then higher education was only for the few. People were mostly craftsmen and very poor.

Iryna Slavinska:  What are the paths to integration in this case? It is hard to imagine being in some other country, over the ocean, maybe knowing no English words…

Sam Kliger:  To tell you the truth, it is very hard, and this is quite a process. It is like a sickness, you have to recover from it, and then you have immunity your entire life. There was a very large second wave of emigration, after the revolution, when many Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews left this country for the obvious reasons. Then the next wave of emigration was after the war, and it brought many Ukrainian refugees to the USA and Canada.

Finally, I should say that the last wave of emigration in the 1970s-1990s also brought many people from Ukraine, Jews and not Jews. According to our research, around 45% of all emigrants were coming from Ukraine, around 35-38% from Russia, and the rest from other countries. If we divide emigrants into groups, most of them come from Ukraine, and Ukraine in their hearts is their first homeland.

Iryna Slavinska:  What happens when you look at this experience through several waves of emigration? Did Jewish emigration from the territory of modern Ukraine exist as specific neighborhood “ghettos” in American cities or did both communities integrate and assimilate among other inhabitants?

Sam Kliger:  There was a concept called the melting pot. People were supposed to come here, and whether they like it or not, to integrate into this American melting pot and become Americans. Nowadays of course you will not recognize the third, fourth and fifth generation of emigrants. They become 100% Americans, even though now they are searching for their roots. It is now somewhat fashionable to go visit the places where you ancestors lived.

Iryna Slavinska:  To learn the forgotten Ukrainian language?

Sam Kliger:  To learn the forgotten Ukrainian language, to come to the places where their ancestors lived, to search for the graves, etc. This is very fashionable because it is very close to people’s hearts. They want to find their roots, which are sometimes hard to discover.

Iryna Slavinska:  Even in mass culture, in television series and movies, you can see for instance Jewish neighborhoods when they depict New York scenes. Was the creation of such insular neighborhoods a normal reflex by emigrants?

Sam Kliger:  It was like that earlier. Let’s say there was the Lower East Side, a special place where emigrants settled down. Everybody came there at first because there was no system of social assistance. Thus, there was a social network. People came and settled down by themselves. Nowadays, the Lower East Side does not exist anymore. If we are talking about the wave of emigration of our time, many people, as you know, settled down at Brighton Beach in New York. They call it “Little Odessa,” and you can still hear the Ukrainian language mixed with Russian there.

Iryna Slavinska:  And other languages from the post-Soviet Union, right?

Sam Kliger:  And other languages of the post-Soviet Union. It is hard however to call it a “ghetto.” This is an enclave where there are good stores with food that people are used to, and where you can speak Russian or Ukrainian. Mostly older people live there because the ocean is nearby, because it is convenient, because this is something familiar, and because everything is in their native language. Young people, of course, are totally assimilated. It is interesting that Russian remains the language of international communication. Georgians, Uzbeks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Moldovans—they all speak more or less the same language…

Iryna Slavinska:  Especially those who probably could not learn English.

Sam Kliger:  Probably most likely those who could not learn English. But there is a young generation, and there is a tendency for the young generation to speak their native language.

Iryna Slavinska:  Can we probably divide or should we not divide the history of emigration from the territory of Ukraine into Ukrainians and Jews? How did these groups of emigrants work and get accustomed to a new place in a new country, together or separately?

Sam Kliger:  First of all, there were quite a lot of mixed marriages. These families still live together, and one part is Ukrainian and the other is Jewish. Generally speaking, they live quite peacefully and decently together.

It is time to talk more intimately, more openly, it is time to make friends. Everybody has something to remember, both good and bad, but this is a shared memory. By the way, in the organization where I work, the American Jewish Committee, we recently became much closer to the Ukrainian diaspora, and became friends with the Ukrainian American Committee. Together we are writing petitions, working with Congress, making appeals to the President. Our appeals are about the problems that concern mainly Ukraine but there are also issues related to Israel, and issues related to antisemitism. We discuss all of these questions together, and it is a very interesting trend.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let us also talk about the newest emigrants. I remember when I was in Seattle, Washington during the Open World study program I was surprised when I saw the youngest emigrants from Ukraine. They are people of different backgrounds: Ukrainian-Ukrainian, Ukrainian-Jewish. They are young people up to thirty years old, usually with a good education. They come to work in the world-renowned corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, etc. I think one can see this not only in Washington State, but also in other places.

Sam Kliger:  Of course. In New York, California, and Silicon Valley there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of emigrants who work as programmers and so on. This is a totally different world from the world of grandmas and grandpas who came here.

Iryna Slavinska:  How forever is the emigration? Our listeners probably remember the story The Stone Cross by Vasyl Stefanyk from school. It describes a family who leaves a village in Western Ukraine, goes to far away America, and says goodbye forever to the neighbors. The farewell banquet described there looks more like a funeral. Emigration now is often something very dynamic. It is very difficult to imagine that people from another country in completely different circumstances would go somewhere with the idea that they have to stay there their entire life.

Sam Kliger:  I remember from my own experience that when in the 1970s or 1980s the families moved, we said our good-byes forever. Friends and acquaintances left, we said our good-byes, cried, and it was clear that they went into nonexistence, as if they died. That is because communication almost did not exist, letters did not arrive, and if they did, we knew we could not write about everything since they were censored. When I migrated in 1989, a telephone call to the Soviet Union was more than two dollars per minute. You cannot compare this with today when there is Skype, Viber, email, and everything else. You can connect immediately with any point in the world. I am not even talking about air travel, and that Europe can be reached in several hours. In this way our world has totally changed. We do not say good-bye when we leave.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let us return to the past. I would like to ask you to remember and tell us, if you wish, about your experience as a “refusenik,” of a person who was refused permission to leave. There were a large number of people who were not allowed to emigrate in the Soviet period. Please, tell us how it was for you.

Sam Kliger:  I must say it was painful. A painful experience when you stand alone or maybe with a small group of like-minded people against a huge system, which was represented by the Soviet Union. When you do not have a job, money, when your phones are tapped, your meetings are reviewed… When possible provocations of all sorts from all sides are possible... There should be a book written about it or a separate program should be devoted to this topic, it is hard to describe in only a few words.

It was not only about you not being allowed to leave. You were basically put in the corner and punished like a child. Here, just stand in the corner. You do not have any job, do not have anything because you are, so-to-say, a second-rate member of society. You in fact are a traitor, an undercover enemy of the people. There were many other epithets—“bourgeois nationalist” and so on.

The human memory and history are very tricky and confusing. After I left, I often visited Ukraine, in 2013-2014 in particular, during the revolution on the Maidan. Then I stayed here for four months as a special representative of our organization to express solidarity with Ukraine. This was very, very interesting and very useful for me personally, for my personal growth and an understanding of life, an understanding of what freedom is.

Iryna Slavinska:  What did these months bring you? This is very interesting for all of us, for people who were in Kyiv during those days. It was a totally new experience.

Sam Kliger:  I was on the Maidan, and I was there many times. I was looking at people’s faces and saw how freedom changes a person. The idea of freedom transforms the personality. A person starts to shine. All the people on the Maidan were shining. They all exuded some inspiring light.

My second feeling is an incredible degree of self-organization. Suddenly the crowd, which usually was almost uncontrollable, started to self-organize. Suddenly the kitchen and medical care appeared, there were doctors, security... You know, in a small place, on the territory of the Maidan, where we are now located, there was the start of civil society.

These two things shocked me. It all happened in front of me. The idea of freedom inspired people. How can you just self-organize in this evil world? Amazing!

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, amazing. I was also thinking about that, remembering those months on the Maidan. Is it easy or difficult to take such an experience—the experience of freedom, self-organization—with you, leaving Ukraine?

Sam Kliger:  This is the million-dollar question, as we say. This is a very powerful philosophical question, and I cannot answer immediately.

I can say that you cannot teach a person freedom. It is necessary to go through it by yourself. It does not matter how many times we say “freedom, freedom, democracy, democracy.” Nothing can be instilled into anyone until you go through this experience yourself. Freedom is formed in battle; it is not granted from above. A new president or a new Parliament, new policies or new faces, do not bring it as well. It has to be worked on. It is certainly an unforgettable experience to build such a machine, which organized itself and which suddenly turned a crowd of people into a civil society, and it all happened in an area of ​​one square mile, maybe even less.

In America we also had such experiments, but they were based more on tragic events. For example, when the twin towers were destroyed on 11 September 2001 in New York, I witnessed how spontaneous and powerful mutual support among people was self-organized. This is also a unique experience that you cannot get anywhere. You cannot put it in your pocket, you will not take it somewhere with you and talk about it.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated by Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger