“They had left because they felt compelled to leave, and they had no fixed destination other than a resounding, ‘not the USSR.’”
Lev spent his early childhood trying to find a way to live peacefully as a Jew in the Ukraine under the USSR. It was impossible. Around the age of 10, his parents embarked on a long process to emigrate their family out of the country with a hope of going to America. Israel was open for Jews to move to, but many of the Jews in the USSR were Jews by ethnicity only and they wanted to remove themselves from an identity that determined their schools, jobs, friends and fate. For Lev, it meant daily beatings at school. For his older sister Lina, it meant she could not become a doctor like she wanted but had to be an engineer instead. For his parents and grandmother, it meant being constantly on alert for the police who could come and confiscate or arrest for any reason they wanted. Even if it was a jealous coworker telling a lie – party came before everything in the USSR.
A friend of mine highly recommended A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Cases of Vodkaby Lev Golinkin. She read it in 2018 and when I went to check the ebook out from the library, it was available. Another friend of ours started reading it, too, so we got to have a mini-book club.
The title – A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Cases of Vodka– is a nod to what the families who left with Lev’s family brought with them when they left the country for good. Lev was 10 and had his bear and backpack with him. The bus had eight cases of vodka to “pay” the guards and police the encountered on their route to the border. Being on that bus after leaving the USSR is one of Lev’s happiest memories of his childhood. While his family spends time in limbo in Austria before they finally get sent to the United States, Lev receives a small, but unforgettable act of kindness when a woman gives him a new coat. That act ends up being the key to him coming to terms with his past as a adult.
A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Cases of Vodkais a memoir that taught me so much about a refugee’s perspective. Lev honestly tells the reader about not just his experiences, but his feelings and how he was deeply affected by the 10 years he spent as a Jew in the USSR. I highly recommend this book as a way to understand history and what some people experienced under an oppressive government.