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By Etya Krichmar
I write this letter to you not to complain about what happened in my life but to offer my words of gratitude. Even though you did not treat me kindly at times, you taught me valuable lessons, and for that, I am grateful.
Thank you for letting me know that at seven, I was different, and for twenty-three years of my life inside the USSR, I would not fit in or belong. On my first day of school, inside a schoolyard in Kotovsk, Ukraine, alone and lonely, I experienced the pain of rejection and the worst humiliation when I watched Mama beg the soon-to-be graduates to give me a little souvenir.
It was a tradition for the first graders to bring flowers on the first day of school in exchange for a little present from an older student. Mama did not know about it, so I was the only first grader inside the schoolyard without an obligatory bouquet.
Upset and humiliated, I followed the teacher into the classroom without a gift in my hand. Inside the room, her behavior devastated me even more. The teacher made fun of my first and last names when she read the attendance roster. It wasn't justified, and, at that moment, I knew I would have to fight an uphill battle. Afterward, this experience made me stronger. Dear Past, I am grateful.
A few months later, my parents' dreams of securing a government-subsidized apartment finally came through after thirty years of waiting. We moved into a new neighborhood. In anticipation of making new friends, I ventured out the following morning to explore it. It was winter, and the pristine snow that had fallen during the night made the world around me appear beautiful and magical. The tall, ugly structures of the Khrushchev Era apartments dressed in snowy white finery looked like fairytale mansions and were no longer menacing. The century-old trees, like sentinels, kept guard at the entrance protecting those living inside.
I gingerly walked through the deep piles of untouched snow, ensuring my winter boots, known as valenki in the Soviet Union, did not slip off my feet. Made of boiled wool, they kept my feet warm and were helpful in this weather because the snow underneath my feet was crisp and solid.
I chugged along, content and happy until a group of children playing in the snow caught my attention. They were about to build a snowman. I wanted to make one too. Excited, looking forward to some fun, I ran towards it until a creak from an open window and a woman's angry voice stopped me. I heard: "Do not play with her! She's a Kike!"
Fear permeated my heart. I could hear the blood pumping harder in my veins. At seven, I had no clue what the word Kike meant, but intuitively I knew it was not something nice. Hearing her words, the children scattered, leaving me dumbfounded. I started crying and, choking on my tears, ran back home as fast as I could. I did not understand what had just happened, but once again, I felt scorned.
Inside our apartment, after I calmed down, Mama explained what the ugly word meant. In her explanation, she used Judaism, another word unknown to me."Mama, what does it mean?" I asked.
"It stands for religion," she replied.
Her explanation confused me even more because, as far as I was concerned, the USSR was an atheist country. Religion was the anathema of the Communist Party and forbidden to practice. The Soviet Union, a country of not enough, was a Godless place.
How could anyone call me a Kike when I did not practice Judaism? I wondered. Nothing made sense, then. But when I grew up, I realized that even though the socialist government stole my Jewish identity from me, its authoritarian regime ensured that my people's religion became my nationality. Like every Jew born after the Great October Revolution, I became a Jew by Default. The stigma of anti-Semitism, like a second shadow, had followed me everywhere for twenty-three years. Dear Past, thank you for teaching me a lesson about hate. I am grateful.
On that cold winter morning, when everything looked magnificent, the woman's angry voice from an open window had buried my innocence in the pile of virgin snow fallen the night before. It was a pivotal event in my life. From then on, I had to be selective in whom to trust when choosing friends. Thank you, Dear Past, for teaching me how to do it. I am grateful.
Throughout my school years, I made many friends. They stuck by my side, fighting my battles during times of grief. They shared my joy when I was jubilant. On my graduation day, as one of the top graduates, I stood in front of the podium and gave a farewell speech. I felt enormous pride. On that day, I proved to all the ill-wishers that their derogatory remarks and continuous unacceptance of me as a person did not stop me from achieving one of my dreams. Thank you, Dear Past, for allowing me to persevere. I am grateful.
On my last day of school, I clutched a Red Diploma to my chest as I stepped off the podium. I felt invigorated and hopeful. At long last, I thought, my fight with anti-Semitism was over, but you whispered in my ear: "Hold on, not so fast. There is more to come." I applied to a university only to find out later that they denied me admission because I was Jewish. The three entrance exams I was a part of taught me that anti-Semitism was a contagious disease. They could not keep it in one location. The hate towards the Jews lived outside Kotovsk, Ukraine, and it did not matter to the admitting committee that adhered to quotas that I had graduated with the highest honors.
You taught me another valuable lesson during my third exam, which turned out to be my last. I had no choice but to listen to your voice even though I was unhappy to hear what you had to say. That day, I discovered bribery, a new word. I liked neither the sound of it nor its meaning. Thank you, Dear Past, for letting me know that the world is full of crooks. I am grateful.
When I met my future husband, you taught me an unforgettable lesson. I learned that when two people want to spend their lives together, not everyone welcomes it. On my wedding day, the absence of my husband's parents lay heavily on my heart. That day I understood no matter how much I wished for a healthy relationship with my mother-in-law, it would not happen. I realized not everyone could love me. Thank you, Dear Past. I am grateful.
Years later, with your help, I also figured out that forgiveness is liberating. Forgiveness is the thing that allows us to leave our pasts behind. Pun intended. I forgave and moved on. Like a beautiful butterfly, I came out of the cocoon to spread my wings and fly. I stepped forward and embraced my future. On that day, by forgiving my enemies, I became enough. Thank you, Dear Past. I am grateful.
Our relationship had numerous trials and tribulations. Together we went through many ups and downs. I learned from you and grew wiser, even though I did not forgive you for leaving me without Papa when I was only fifteen. It was the most challenging moment of my life to live through. At forty-eight, Papa, my knight in shining armor, was too young to die. He left his three children and a beloved wife behind. His death almost killed me, and I thought I would not survive without his love, but I did. Thank you, Dear Past, for teaching me to care for myself and persevere. I am grateful.
You were by my side during the most unforgettable event of my life. In 1975, at twenty-one, I became a mother. My daughter was born. In the hospital room, I promised my child that I would do everything in my power to shelter her from anti-Semitism and give her a life of freedom.
I kept my promise two years after my daughter was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1977 when I stood on the holy grounds of the American Embassy in Moscow in anticipation of receiving entry visas to the United States of America. I went through the open door, stepped inside the office where anti-Semitism and I and signed our divorce papers. Upon leaving the embassy, I walked the streets of Moscow without looking over my shoulder, not being afraid that someone might be watching me. I stopped living in fear for the first time in my young adult life. Thank you, Dear Past, for allowing me to feel the sweet scent of freedom. I am grateful.
At the time, I had no idea what Thanksgiving Day meant, but later on, when I came to America, I quickly learned about its significance. It became my favorite holiday to celebrate in the land of the brave and the home of the free. Many personal happy and not-so-happy events that made me humble took place around this time of year.
Nine years later, after my daughter was born, at thirty, in 1984, I gave birth to a son. I was blessed, and you were my witness. Thank you for once again guiding me through motherhood, Dear Past. I am grateful.
In 2007, thirty years since I left a country of not enough, I underwent a craniotomy two days after Thanksgiving. The doctors gave me a less than thirty chance of pulling through it alive. Undergoing surgery made me humble. I realized that my life was fragile and could end at any moment. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. After my near-death experience, I learned to live with a purpose and dedication to life. Thank you, Dear Past, for helping me tell my story and teaching me how to thrive. I am grateful.
On June 25, 2022, you and I celebrated our sixty-eight-year love-hate relationship. We lived through a lot together, but I do not hold any grudges against you. You and I are like two partners in a marriage. We took our vows seriously and remained with each other through better or worse. Today, I have something to compare to you. Thank you, Dear Past, for letting me build a life spanning over six decades. I am grateful.
Dear Past, you dealt me a lifetime of treasured lessons. However, two of them stand out in my mind. These are the most meaningful ones. You showed me how not to become a victim each time I came to a fork in the road. You taught me that I could win them all with love, and for that I thank you. I am sincerely grateful.
Your constant companion,
Etya Vaserman Krichmar was born in Kazakhstan, USSR. For twenty-three years, she experienced anti-Semitism, persecution, and discrimination. In 1977, claiming human rights violations, together with her spouse and two-year-old daughter, Etya sought asylum in the United States of America. Her family’s request was granted, and on March 7, 1978, Etya took her first step in the land of the free. Writing became Etya’s passion and saved her life after she underwent massive brain surgery. During the prolonged recovery, she wrote Living in Fear, a memoir about her life under a totalitarian regime. Etya’s opinion pieces were published in TC Palm newspaper, and her stories can be read in White Rose and Write Launch magazines, Reedsy, and Medium. In addition to creative writing, Etya enjoys gardening, needlepoint, and caring for her two miniature dachshunds. She is retired and lives in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, with her husband.