By traveling to find my father's family, I became a bridge between the Soviet Union and the United States. But first, allow me to back up and tell you my story.
I had been an orphan and spent seven abysmal years in foster homes. When my mother died of cancer, I was only ten. She was 45. It was the worst thing that ever could happen to me, I thought. Unresolved grief walled my heart. For comfort, I turned to my big sister who was as devastated as I. And I looked to my distant, hard working, passionate Ukranian immigrant father for a sense of security. Though he tried to fill my loneliness, he suffered from depression.
Two years after my mother died, my father died. I was twelve and alone. Because my sister was separated and planning to divorce, the courts decreed that her’s was a broken home and not a good environment for me. Thus, I was sent to the first foster home. I lost my mother, my father, my home, most of my belongings and close contact with my sister. I was isolated and abandoned.
Somehow, I gathered family photos. As I matured, through hard work (dealing with my own suffering), years of schooling and post-school training, I chose a career in mental health. I found happiness and deep satisfaction as a mother to my daughter.
When my father left Russia in 1915, he was 15 years old. He never saw his family again. I was told he kept a goat in a lot on Prince St., Newark, New Jersey. A noted School of Medicine and Dentistry now stands on that spot. A letter from his mother in 1939 contained a photo of his nephew, and a request to cease communication. At that time, having American family was potentially politically dangerous. The last he heard about them was that they were starving during WWII. When my father died in 1956, he thought they had starved to death or were killed by Nazis.
In 1989, I was invited to attend a psychological exchange program to the USSR sponsored by Pennsylvania University. Luckily, my sister had a photo of my cousin Semen (age four) with my grandmother's handwriting on it. Spontaneously, I decided to embark upon a search. Along with $40, I sent the photo to HAIS (Hebrew Immigrant Assistance Society). They use the assistance of the International Red Cross to locate the Jewish Diaspora.
In 1989, before Perestroika and Glasnost, The USSR provided no leads. There were no phonebooks, Internet, or 411. Only the KGB knew how to locate a person, and they did.
A year later, I received a letter from the International Red Cross. They found my cousin Semen. He was 56. Thanks to Soviet restrictions and scrutiny, moving was prohibited. Average people remained in the same apartment all of their lives. Little did I know that Semen was the next- door neighbor of Andrei Sakharov, nuclear physicist, dissident, proponent of universal cooperation and intellectual freedom.
Since I was born later than 1939, my Russian family had no knowledge of my birth. The KGB visited Semen and warned him that he would be contacted by the Red Cross and he should remain closed to any contact with foreigners. The photo with the handwriting of our grandmother, with whom he was very close, convinced him that I was authentic. Courageously, he took a great risk. Semen gave me his address and we corresponded for a year.
I poured my heart into the letter, told him who I was and what had happened. When he had my letter translated, he was sure I was his cousin. I discovered I had two aunts and four cousins still living. In 1991, my 27-year- old daughter Deni and I were sitting on an airplane; our suitcases were brimming with goods that were impossible to buy in the USSR in those days. In my heart, I spoke with my father, "Daddy we're going to Russia." Weeks prior to embarking, I had recurring dreams of my father. I knew he'd be proud.
Since my family lived in Gorki, a city closed to foreigners, Semen arranged for us to meet in Moscow at the apartment of his in-laws. Their generosity was overwhelming. I met cousins I didn't know I had. They had saved for the year and bought as much as they could on the black market, INCLUDING gifts of Russian amber and lacquer ware. However, greater than these gifts was their warm receptivity. The stories of my 84-year-old aunt who was a revolutionary and an engineer were most precious.
Due to the generosity of Semen, his wife Ida, cousins Fanya and Boris, we enjoyed ballet, theater, caviar, museums, authentic meals prepared with love, laughter, and tears. To my surprise, I was able –for a moment--to hold a Russian bear cub on a Moscow street; that was ONE example of the laughter. The tears came when I found out that my grandfather, aunt, and little cousin were shot by the Nazis in their home. My uncle tried to escape with his other child but was blown up on a train. My father's youngest brother was a "Disappeared." Imprisoned by Stalin, he died in jail age 42, leaving a wife and small children. My surviving aunts and grandmother were war widows
I traveled half way around the world to find the family I dreamed of, and, In the process, I became the bridge of a broken family. Even more than that, I became the bridge of mended relationships. Semen and his family are now living in San Francisco and we enjoy a special bond.
Family lost, family found and so much healing in between.
Andrea Campbell, Phd is a licensed Pofessional Counselor with over 30 years clinical experience. She has consulted to Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, published articles, and appeared on TV and radio. Andrea enjoys expanding her horizons with world travel. To learn more, visit Andreacampbellphd.com