On New Year’s Day, Ruslana and I go see Doctor Zhivago at the old theatre on Madison Avenue in Albany. A big movie on the big screen. The film was released in 1965, five years after Boris Pasternak died in the Soviet Union. I know that I have seen it before, but only recall bits and pieces: The beauty of Julie Christie, the sound of Lara’s Theme. The police shooting at Pasha and the protesters. The young White cadets mowed down by machinegun fire. Yuri trudging through the snow, his beard frozen.
An hour or two into the film, I start to cry. Softly, so Ruslana and the few other moviegoers don’t hear. I try to wipe my face, but the tears and the oil from the popcorn just mix on my skin creating a shameful, salty slush.
I don’t know why I am crying, at first – other than that I am a man and have nowhere to cry except in the dark of movie theatres. It is 1917 on the screen, the soldiers are deserting the Russian army, marching home from the front in tattered uniforms while the officers try to stop them. This is not the saddest thing that has happened in the film.
But I remember that my great-grandfather was one of these deserters. A shtetel Jew, conscripted into the Tsar’s army, history gave him a chance to escape and of course he took it. I rally against the officers. I tell the men to run away. I am pleading for my own future existence, for my grandmother, and then my father, and then me to be born in a place called New York.
Chatzkel – soon Charles – came to Philadelphia on a boat, as the newly formed Soviet Union waged war on Poland. He arrived in 1921, just before the Emergency Immigration Act established quotas. The limits, made permanent in 1924, were based on national origin. Very few people could come from Poland, and ninety percent of the Jews left in Poland in 1939 were killed.
We have two photographs of Charles’ family in Poland in the 1930s, when mail could get out of Europe, but Jews could not. So I know the faces of Charles’s brother and niece, who both died in a concentration camp. A serious young man in a cap. A little girl standing on a bench in a patterned dress. But I don’t even know their faces as well as I know the faces of the actors in the movie I am watching.
The snow is coming down hard outside the theatre, in America in 2017. We walk down Madison and see the deserted white hills of Washington Park. My grandmother told me that her parents visited her here in Albany once, before her father died in 1954. They must have taken the train up from Manhattan. I don’t know if the conductors demanded identification before they let you on trains back then. I do know that Charles spent his life in fear of authorities, not wanting to be sent back, though he apparently became a citizen in 1929, the year the movie theatre I have just left was built, under a changed last name. My grandmother mentioned that on his visit to Albany, Charles played with his three grandsons—including my infant father—in this park.
For a moment, I believe I am passing my great-grandfather’s ghost as he makes his way from the German front to the quiet park in Albany. I want to take his arm, help him along. The border between the screen and here is no harder to cross than any other border. I don’t wonder how he could be here now. Rather, I wonder how a person could ever have made such a journey. I try to understand that this is still something that happens. In New York City, I often push past other peoples’ grandfathers and great-grandfathers in the street. I don’t know where they have come from. What gun barrels they have stared down. What frontiers they have crossed.
The streets of Albany are empty. The holiday, the weather. There is only Ruslana, walking beside me. I hold her hand, but don’t tell her I have been crying, chasing visions in the snow like Yuri. The pleasant music of the interlude is still in our ears. Ruslana came to New York City on an airplane when the Soviet Union collapsed. She and her mother were granted visas after her grandfather—a Jewish refugee—submitted a petition for Family Reunification. Visas were not given on the basis of family relationships until the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965, passed when Charles’ family members had been dead for twenty years. Ruslana and I hold hands. We are frightened by news of the world outside the theatre. Ruslana’s teenage brother was born here, but has an Arabic name, and we wonder about the places he will be able to go.
Darkness comes early. The day ends. More days come, days that have been waiting on the calendar like cartridges loaded in a machinegun belt. I do not cry again. A new president is inaugurated. The semester begins, and I return to work. Things go back to normal – for me. The new president signs an executive order, suspending the Refugee Resettlement Program, and banning entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries. Across the ocean, someone I don’t know is taking a picture on a cell phone, attaching it to a message, hitting send. Someone in America is opening the message, seeing the faces on the screen, an image of people they may never see alive again.
Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line and the nonfiction monograph Punk Rock in NYC’s Lower East Side 1981-1991. He currently lives and studies in Albany, New York. Visit him at bennadler.com