Book Review: A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Gonlinkin

November 25, 2014

GolinkinBookAE_525_600_90Lev Golinkin’s memoir, out this November from Doubleday, is a fantastic debut. As he explores his family’s journey of emigration, the reader gets not only a first-hand look at the last great migration out of the USSR, but also an incredibly personal story about the search for identity and meaning as an adult immigrant.

As a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, Lev’s family suffered under an oppressive and anti-Semitic regime. Lev was bullied and beaten at school; his sister, Lina, was barred from attending medical school; and his father was threatened by the KGB. When news came that the United States was closing its border, and all immigrants had to be registered in Vienna by December 31st, 1989, his mother knew that it was time to leave. Six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lev and his family board a bus out of the country, headed toward Vienna, where there is only a simple rumor of help for refugees. At the border crossing, all of their papers are destroyed, quite literally rendering the family identity-less.

Thanks to organizations like Joint (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and HIAS, the massive exodus of Jewish refugees from the USSR was helped on their way to their new countries. Lev’s family, along with many others, were placed at a hotel in Vienna to wait until there was room in Rome to be processed and directed to their new country. There, they meet a variety of people, including Peter, a mysterious and enigmatic Austrian nobleman, who takes an interest in the family. It is due to his investment that Lev’s father receives a job at an Austrian engineering firm, in order to have references for job-hunting in America. He is also the reason that the family does not end up in New York, as many refugees did, but the small town of West Lafayette, Illinois.

There, instead of being one family in thousands, they are unique—and while lonely, that singularity allows Lina, to gain entry to the engineering program at the local university without any scrap of a transcript. Lev’s father sends out resume after resume, hoping someone will give him a chance. Eventually, his Austrian reference pays off, and he gains an entry-level job in New Jersey. The family moves, leaving Lina at school. Lev grows up knowing that his parents sacrificed everything to move them out of the USSR: his father must start his career over, and his mother, a doctor in the USSR, cannot practice medicine in the US at all. He does his best to leave the Soviet Union, and all its oppressive and hateful memories behind.

It is only as an adult, participating in relief programs throughout the US and Mexico, that Lev begins to contextualize his past. It took thousands of people to orchestrate and facilitate the emigration of the massive wave of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. In 1987, only 8,155 Jews were allowed to leave the country. In 1989, the year Lev and his family left, the number grew to 18,965. The year after, it grew to 200,000 people. As an adult, Lev begins to investigate and rebuild the family history that he buried, visiting West Lafayette, New York, Austria, and Eastern Europe, speaking with the people who made his family’s journey possible.

He speaks with representatives of Joint, the hotel owners in Vienna, and searches out Peter, the Austrian nobleman who, for his own reasons, helped Lev’s family in their journey to America. He also miraculously finds Eva, a woman who ran free clothing donations for refugees and, years before, had given Lev a warm winter coat.

I look back and see my childhood,” Lev says, “the result not just of the dark streets of Kharkov, but the combined efforts of thousands of protesters, dozens of human rights workers, politicians, philanthropists, activists, and everyday people. I’ve been lucky to meet a few of them; most I will never know. Some devoted their careers to the struggle; many did nothing more than sign a petition, or mail a check, or process paperwork, or drop off a jacket. Small deeds that wound their way through the world to become a part of me and shape me in ways unexpected and unknown.

This searching and hindsight is a wonderful lens through which to write a memoir, and the book benefits from Lev’s gravity and earnestness. The story of young Lev and his family’s flight from anti-Semitic persecution intertwines with the story of Lev as an adult, piecing together and reclaiming his past. He also intertwines the historical and the personal in a profound way—the reader understands the rippling impact of major historical events on the lives of regular citizens. The memoir is leavened with a sense of dark humor, and clips along at a speedy pace, taking the reader from place to place, time period to time period. Particularly in the latter part of the book, Lev is introspective and honest, allowing an adult vulnerability to permeate his prose. A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a commendable addition to the historical memoir genre, one that balances the weight of history with the emotional weight of displacement, identity, and sense of self.

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication date: November 2014


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