From Chernobyl to Brooklyn


It is rare that a piece of history is brought alive with the kind of immediacy evident in the diaries of Raimonda Kopelnitsky. These diaries—written by Raimonda between her twelfth birthday in Ukraine and her first year of high school in Brooklyn—paint a painfully honest picture of what it means for a Jewish family to journey from the former Soviet Union to the United States. With sections prefaced by journalist Kelli Pryor, the reader comes to understand the life of Raimonda, of her family, and—by extension— of thousands from many other countries who are currently undergoing the strains of immigration and displacement.

The book begins with Pryor’s 30-page oral history of the four Kopelnitskys, including humorous family anecdotes and a harrowing description of the family’s experience during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The preface also details anti- Semitism as experienced by the family—the fear of pogroms set alongside day-to-day anti-Semitism at Raimonda’s school. (For example, Raimonda talks about being singled out as a Jew in first grade by a teacher who screamed at her: “You! You bother even my liver!”) Pryor also makes clear that conditions for Jews in Ukraine continue to deteriorate. Raimonda’s mother recounts: “My mother sees her country in ruins. Still, she doesn’t want to go to America. But when my husband and I and our children are leaving for America, Ukrainian neighbors come and say, ‘How can you leave your parents here when you know someone will come after them with an ax?'”

Raimonda’s diary, in a voice that is clear and unself conscious, plunges us into her world. “Our apartment is beginning to be empty. We’re giving our books and dishes and clothes to our grandparents—or we are selling everything,” she writes. “Our pasts are dying in our present. And we cannot even know what the future will bring.”

Raimonda recalls the final bus ride out of her town—how she takes tincture of valerian as a remedy for “heartache.” The family’s journey to America involves many months of waiting in different, strange European cities, and is marked by overwhelming anxiety about money, and the sort of pettiness and bickering that signal the classic stresses of emigration. Raimonda’s voice remains genuine, troubled, unstaged. She describes absorbing the outbursts of her parents and brother, and longing for her grandparents left behind. The terror of newness is tempered by the miracle of Jewish schools for children in transit. “This is what the word ‘freedom’ means at my new school,” Raimonda writes. “A person who says, ‘I’m a Jew,’ and feels not hatred and fear, but gets an answer, ‘Me too.'”

The Kopelnitskys’ arrival in New York City is followed by a stay in a welfare hotel that is only marginally less upsetting to the family than the scenes on the streets outside. “To the Kopelnitskys,” editorializes Pryor, “everything seemed enlarged and ominous in America, and everything echoed with an old fear. Raimonda tried to go away to a Jewish summer camp, but panicked when what she thought was a dangerous recurrence of her radiation sickness got passed off by an American doctor as a cold.” (Back in Ukraine, the minister of health had reported that the Chernobyl disaster was “normal. An explosion, yes. But dangerous, no. All things are normal.” Commented Raimonda’s father, “It made fools of us.”)

To Raimonda, American Jews are at times magical helping hands, at times puzzling disappointments, but always foreign. “Here you have to fight to get higher,” she writes. “There is no ending to poverty, but no ending to wealth either. Knowing that money isn’t happiness, my family still thinks of money as happiness, as happiness to buy something, to walk easily into a restaurant and easily leave a tip and easily ask in English without Russian accents.”

Perhaps most painful is Raimonda’s intuitive understanding that too much has changed for her to maintain any illusion of continuity in her life. “Emigration,” she writes, “I don’t remember it anymore. I want that memory to sleep, and even to die in me.” Her diary entries, often written in the privacy of the Kopelnitskys’ Brooklyn bathroom— “because there’s no other place in the crowded apartment”—are powerfully honest.

No Words To Say Goodbye, rare and wonderful, might well become the classic text for an understanding of the Soviet Jewish immigrant experience of this generation. Raimonda is a narrator about whom we come to care deeply. Her diaries, marked by her generosity of spirit, are always forward looking. “Still-dreaming Raimonda,” she signs one whimsical entry, and there is nothing to do but thank her for the clarity and candor of her dreams.

Anne Frank readers (children as well as adults) will be rewarded by this young teenager’s view of Soviet Jewish immigrants today. And the gritty explosions in Raimonda’s family help readers to better understand the very real tensions that are part of every American immigrant’s experience.