Some not very kind people at home called ours ‘the sausage migration’. The Russian Jews leaving the Soviet Union in the late 1980s post Gorbachev’s reforms were, they said, moving up the food chain, escaping to the world of plenty. We were migrants without a cause, in pursuit of nothing more than material freedom; chasing sausages, if you like.
There were other equally ungenerous statements made in our direction, most more or less comparing us to rats fleeing a sinking ship, the first ones onto the dry shore.
Courage by Maria Tumarkin
Not long before we left in December 1989 I got slapped with the rat insult. Somewhat unexpectedly, it came from the mouth of a young man I knew well, one-third of the gloriously gifted and didactic triplets known to their friends simply as ‘the Brothers’. From the tender age of seven, the Brothers and I spewed forth poetry together at the same literary club based at Kharkov’s Palace of Pioneers. I cannot tell you with conviction if the boys were any good, but I was definitely hopeless. The proof is in the pages of overwritten, try-hard poems that recently fell out of my teenage diary.
I can’t remember which of the Brothers it was who saw me walking around immersed in my Walkman and pulled one earphone out to hear what sort of music I seemed so lost in. Whoever it was, he got an earful of an explanation about the number of consonants in the English language, and understood just about everything in that very instant. In preparation for our unadvertised departure, we were studying English like mad, day and night. Our friends, who were already in Australia and thus painfully capable of assessing the hopelessness of their language endowments, would scream down the phone receiver at least once a week, ‘Eat with an English teacher, sleep with an English teacher, go to the toilet with an English teacher.’
I don’t doubt that the Brother spoke more in jest than in judgement, but by that stage all the rat stuff was very familiar and so was the snake brew that would generally inspire it. The brew could contain just about everything envy, patriotism, bitterness, idealism, self-deprecation and, last but never least, good hearty anti-Semitism. Not the stuff of pogroms, but plain, no-frills anti-Semitism with its vision of Jews and their hidden pots of gold and their hidden plots of greener pastures. Just a few years after my family’s desertion, the Brothers’ half-Jewish family fled the ship too, escaping to Israel another mighty and arguably no less leaking vessel.
You would think that we had received enough insults, let these people be, but we should not forget those delivered by Anna Marie, the proprietor of a small guesthouse in a tiny town on the border of Austria and what was still, in the winter of 1990, Czechoslovakia. It was to her guesthouse that a bunch of clueless migrants my parents, my sister and I included were allocated on our arrival. It was Anna Marie who, after a few days of mutually unhappy cohabitation, presented us with a poster in big bold letters that read, ‘THIS IS NOT HORSES STABLE’, meaning this is not a pigsty, clean up your shit, you dirty revolting Eastern Europeans. This was addressed to all of us, of course, including my mother, who is the tidiest person, in a non-pathological sense, I have ever known.
For Anna Marie, we were all Russiche swine contaminating her pretty, clean guesthouse with our endless suitcases, ugly foreign words always spoken too loudly, foul smells and desperation, to say nothing about those nasty migrant habits of, say, playing chess and drinking vodka (not necessarily at the same time). There were only 30 of us in all, but to her we were wild hordes from the East pillaging, vandalising, threatening the very fabric of her existence.
(Of course, if you decided to compare, just for the hell of it, Anna Marie’s level of education and cultural development with ours, it was our Austrian hostess who was likely to emerge as a wild Tartar, a barbarian on the loose. But we were migrants, which meant that there would be no comparison. Anna Marie knew beyond any reasonable doubt who we were and where we belonged.)
During my not infrequent moments of self-righteousness, I wonder how one of the most gruelling and confronting experiences a human being can live through can be treated with such easy contempt and made to seem obscenely trivial, even cowardly. I am always amazed by people who feel entitled to separate the wheat from the chaff labour with an oepidural: coward; grieving the death of a partner for too long: sissy; leaving a country in crisis: traitor.
To Anna Marie and all the good citizens of Western Europe who felt distinctly squeamish and unsettled when the floodgates of Eastern Europe were opened with a bang at the end of 1989 and who, in turn, are not so dissimilar to all the Australians on permanent standby for an imminent Asian invasion I am really sorry. You find a gorgeous, serene meadow abundant with berries and sun, a pristine picnic place that is all yours, hallelujah. And then, all of a sudden, a huge crowd descends on your oasis, bringing with them two-dollar paper cups and trance music and leaving behind a trail of still smouldering cigarette butts, and that’s it the fairytale is over. Your picnic place is now just like any other dump down the road, and it is undeniably sad, infuriating even. You may understand that these uncouth people had nowhere to go, you may even believe that they, just like you, ultimately have the same picnic rights, but why, oh why, did they have to choose your blessed little place?
I used to be madly insulted, especially on behalf of my parents’ generation, by the way in which the courage required from them to make the decision to leave was at best questioned and, at worst, denied. I am not saying that there was anything particularly heroic about my family and our 15 black suitcases. We certainly did not fit into the time-honoured tradition of desperately brave exiles from Dante to Leon Trotsky. We were not dissidents or human rights activists or, God forbid, freedom fighters. We were not fleeing persecution or starvation and our lives, such as they were, were never in real danger. We were tiny squashed particles in what is known as a wave of migration, neither the substance of its crests nor of its troughs.
Compared with the gorgeous plumage of heroism, courage is a different bird altogether. Its colours do not stand out from the background, making it easy to pass by. There is no spectacle in courage, no glamour, no special effects. It is a bird of the everyday, small, inconspicuous, common. It took me a long time to understand just how invisible this species of courage could be, especially to those who were looking for the extraordinary and the dazzling.
This is an edited extract from Courage (Melbourne University Press, $32.95).
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