Despite their lack of resources, many refugees believe immigrating to America provides a better future. This dilemma was highlighted in Peace Mountain Theater’s production of “A Shayna Maidel,” followed by a panel discussion titled “The Jewish American Dream – Post World War II,” on Oct. 14 at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland.
For Jewish-British immigrant and retired World Bank employee Pauline Griller-Mitchell, coming to America meant the chance to grow her social circle, but after six weeks her funds dwindled and she was forced to borrow money before she found a job at the British Embassy.
After 40 years, Mitchell said that Washington has changed and is no longer the small town she moved to in the late 1970s, but she is happy to vote since obtaining her citizenship in 2011. “The thing I love most about this country is the freedoms we have. It’s something very special and something that can never be taken away from America,” she said.
In contrast, life in Kiev for HIAS volunteer Elaine Dancis and her family meant living under the former Soviet Union’s authority. She recalled how one morning the KGB showed up at her front door and took her father for interrogation after a few guests at a birthday party shared some anti-Soviet jokes.
Dancis eventually moved to the country of Georgia with her daughter, but after Russia crushed Georgian freedom-seekers’ protests, she found herself in the middle of a civil war that killed 21 people and injured over 4,000.
“I can still see Russian tanks rolling in to occupy the city and I remember attacks and bombings of Russian schools,” she said.
Dancis eventually immigrated to America and is now working with HIAS, and hopes to repay the organization by helping other refugees.
After Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s fall in 1959, Cuban-born refugee and Congregation Har Shalom member Simon Babil’s family was dispersed into different parts of America and never reunited. At the age of 15 he was the first of his extended family to leave Cuba and move to Miami to be with his uncle, who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in WWI.
“Coming from a very socially active and engaged family, with a lot of friends and a lot of activities, I was, in a way, stuck in a home only with my uncle who was in his late 60s and depressed most of the time. This was a shock to me between the life that I had and the life that I now faced at the age of 15 by myself. It was very difficult,” Babil said.
Babil’s personal experience about immigrating to America as a Jewish refugee, along with stories shared from Congregation Har Shalom Chazzan Henrique Ozur Bass from Brazil and member Yetta Plotnick, born in Poland, tied into the play “A Shayna Maidel,” directed by Laurie Freed.
The production portrayed how difficult life was for Jewish refugee Lusia Pechenik to adjust to America after she is liberated from a concentration camp in Europe. “Theater is a reflection of society and our aim is to be relevant to the times,” said Freed, who previously directed the play in California.
“What became apparent to us as we were going through plays is that ‘A Shayna Maidel’ talks to a lot of things that are going on today, mainly immigration,” she said. “I don’t think people in America today or the average Joe understands how much courage it takes for an immigrant to leave, even if it’s a horrific environment, to leave what they do know and come to a place that is unknown to them.”
By Sarah Moosazadeh
Sarah Moosazadeh is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Jewish Times, now partnered with the Times of Israel. She currently writes for several Greater Washington area publications.