A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka Summary
The exodus of a family of Russian Jews during the waning days of the Soviet Union is the subject of Lev Golinkin's stirring memoir, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka. Although secular, non-observant Jews, their experience of anti-Semitism under the communist regime had been grueling; Lev was frequently beaten at school, his sister Lina was denied the opportunity to apply for medical school, and his father was under constant surveillance by the KGB. After years of this nightmare of oppression, the nine-year-old Lev and his family were finally able to flee their native land six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When the Golinkin family reached Vienna, where they were facing an imminent deadline to apply for immigration to the US, they were officially without a national identity; all of their papers had been destroyed by Soviet authorities at the border-crossing. Yet, two refugee aid organizations, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helped to facilitate their passage, finding them a hotel in Vienna before relocating them to Rome.
But while still in Vienna, the family had the good fortune to meet a mysterious Austrian baron who endeavored to help them, in part, out of guilt over his father's Nazism. He arranged an engineering job for Lev's father, which would serve as a reference in the US, since his Soviet credentials—like those of Lev’s mother, a physician—were considered worthless in America. He also arranged for them to immigrate to a small town in Illinois rather than endure the more difficult task of entering the country through New York City.
Despite the disorientation endemic to life as immigrants, the family slowly adjusted to life in the US; Lev's sister was accepted into the engineering program at Purdue University, and when Lev's father was hired for an engineering position, thanks to his Austrian reference, they moved to New Jersey.
In the latter part of the book, the author retraces all of the steps of his family's journey, acknowledging the thousands of people working for the organizations that made it possible. But on a sober and more reflective note, he also acknowledges that he continues to struggle with an occasional sense of irrational self-loathing that he still feels as a result of his traumatic childhood experiences of anti-Semitism.