David Levin left Belarus with his wife and two sons in 1989. They endured a difficult journey trying to get to Europe, where they received aid from organizations helping Soviet Jewish refugees. After a six-month stay in Ladispoli, outside Rome, the Levin family were finally able to come to America. They found an apartment in Brooklyn, and Levin spent that first year as a day laborer, picking up jobs on a street corner in Borough Park. He had been a plumber in Belarus and eventually got work with a plumbing company in New York. In 1996, he came to work at Westbeth. Now, twenty years later, Levin, who is 67, is retiring at the end of June, just ahead of US Independence Day.
Terry Stoller spoke with Levin two weeks before his retirement in June 2016 about his struggles as he and his family were leaving the Soviet Union, the difficulty for observant Jews in his hometown of Babruysk, the extended stopover in Ladispoli waiting for admittance to the US, his first jobs in New York, his grandchildren—one of whom, he proudly told me, is a judo champion—and his feelings about leaving Westbeth.
Terry Stoller: When did you come to America?
David Levin: I leave Belarus in 1989. When Gorbachev comes into power, we can escape at this time. But if you’re Jewish, you must have an Israeli visa. I have a friend in Israel, and I call and they send me a visa, like they were relatives there. After this, I can get permission to go out of the country to Israel. The passport agency is called OVIR. This takes time. Another thing, if you leave, you give up your citizenship. The passport is not like your usual passport. This is your identification. They must take your passport identification and give you a receipt for it. But you pay money for this. My family are four—my wife and two sons—and my salary as a plumber was 200 rubles a month.
I cannot sell my apartment. When Gorbachev comes in, you cannot sell. You have to give this apartment to a government clerk, and he must sign to take my apartment. And they come in, and some people like it, but say, I don’t like this. It needs repair. But if you put money on the table—I need a receipt that they take my apartment. I am not a citizen anymore, and they can do what they want with me.
How did you leave?
We take a bus, and we go to Moscow. Before, I bought tickets to Vienna. In Moscow, we took a train, going to Vienna. When we come to the border, they take me from the train, and they look in my suitcases, and then the train went. I have tickets, but I cannot go by train. Three or four days, we’re sleeping on the floor with family at the border. No shave. No washing. Nothing. I am looking for a way to go. I find porters. I pay them money, and I give them twenty bottles of vodka, and from the Soviet Union, we went to Prague by train. I cannot sit on the train, but they say don’t worry. They take my luggage and put me on the train with my family. And we go on to Bratislava. There someone from Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] meet me and many Jewish families. Then we go on the train to Vienna, and we stay in Vienna about two weeks. Joint gave me money for a hotel and food. It was the first time we went shopping at a supermarket. I’d never seen this. We went crazy. We stay three hours, look at everything—beer, sausage. In the Soviet Union, the shelves were empty. Nothing. If they bring something to the store like meat, or like eggs, you stay in line for four hours.
Why did you leave Belarus?
I’m Jewish—anti-Semitism. In my city, Babruysk, the synagogue, they make it a hospital. The church, they make a club. I remember when I was small, my father and grandfather, when they pray in the house, they close the window and somebody stay outside, and they put me in bed with the Torah. To daven with a minyan [pray with the required ten Jewish men], they put on the table vodka, food. If somebody come in, it was like they were celebrating something.
Did your parents leave Belarus also?
My parents and brothers left later for Israel.
What happened after Vienna?
After Vienna, Joint asks: Do you want to go to America, or do you want to go to Israel? I choose America.
Why did you choose America?
My father says, Go to America. He says, I have relatives—many years ago—they all live in America. He doesn’t know them. He remembers. I say to my father, We’ll go together—but they were thinking too much. They say, You know, we can’t leave everything, life, everything, houses.
So you decided to go to America. What did you think you would find here—besides perhaps long-lost relatives?
No, I didn’t find the relatives. We just have maybe one picture. Before the Second World War, they were writing letters. After the war, you can go to Gulag for writing letters. You cannot write.
What was your next stop after Vienna?
I went to Italy. I stay in Italy six months—in Ladispoli, outside Rome. At this time, Joint helps and HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] also helps.
You know what we were cooking? We buy turkey wings—this is much cheaper—and my wife makes everything from this. Another joke: I have a case—nobody knows—filled with soap and toilet paper too—a case you cannot pick up. In the Soviet Union, we cannot buy this. It’s very difficult.
And after Italy you left for America?
I’ll tell you what happened before that. You went to the American consulate in Rome; they give you an interview. And some people don’t get a visa to America, and they stay in Ladispoli. When I went to the interview at the consulate, a woman ask me, “What’s your birthday?” I say, “February 14th.” She says, “You know what is that day?” I don’t know. “It’s Valentine’s Day.” They say, “OK. Welcome to America.” And after about a month, I got the visa to America.
Then we come to New York, to Brooklyn—Fort Hamilton Parkway near Church Avenue. Somebody helped me find the apartment there.
What did you do for work?
I stay on the street in Borough Park. There was a corner where Mexican people stay, and I stay the same. Somebody came with jobs—it doesn’t matter what you do: knocking down brick walls, demolition.
How long did you do that for?
Maybe one year, maybe more. Sometimes I work two days for a small company, and they say, Friday, I’m going to pay you. I come in Friday, and nobody was there. Like I work for free.
What did you do after that?
I worked for a plumbing company. After that I worked in a nursing home.
You came to Westbeth in 1996. How did you find Westbeth?
The New York Times. After some months, they called me. Before coming here, I was looking for a job as a superintendent. I get the certification, but I come here as a handyman. I’m not looking for another job.
What did you think when you got here? It’s a different kind of place.
When I work at the plumbing company, I work in many buildings. Coming here is good salary. OK. I like it. For twenty years, it’s like home.
Have you visited your family since you’ve been in America?
I have two brothers in Israel. I was there six times. My father passed away at 100 years old.
Have you found a Russian community in New York?
Yes, now I live in Dongan Hills in Staten Island. Now there are many Russians there—stores with Russians, restaurants, everything. We’re close to South Beach.
And have you visited Belarus since you left there?
I was there in 2009. It’s a poor country, but clean, quiet, no criminals.
Did you know anybody there?
I have a school friend over there.
It sounds as though Belarus is a hard place to be for Jewish people.
I come to the cemetery to see my grandfather’s and grandmother’s graves. Before it was a big Jewish cemetery. Now they make a small place—and they bring a tractor and destroyed the rest.
You’re retiring on June 30. What are you planning to do?
I’m going to be a babysitter this summer in the Poconos.
Are you a grandfather?
How many grandchildren do you have?
Two. Jessely. She’s 9. And Benjamin. He’s 14. Benjamin is a champion in judo. Now he’s in a competition in Dallas. He’s on the American Junior Olympic team.
At what age did he start judo?
He started when he was 4 years old.
And are you going to miss Westbeth?
Yes. I’ve been here many years, but I can’t do it at my age, 67. I like people here. I like management, tenants, workers who work with me. I’m going to miss it.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Behind the Scenes, Copyright 2016 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council