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For a century, HIAS Chicago has helped immigrants find freedom in America: Here are a few of their stories...

In honor of the 100th anniversary of HIAS, an organization that has touched just about every family in the Chicago area, JUF News would like to tell the stories of some newer immigrants that HIAS has brought over.

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Sam's Fruit Store, 3509 W. 16th Street, was opened by Irving Cutler's sister, Rose Pollack, who came to the U.S. as a child, and her husband Sam.

Nearly every week, Suzanne Franklin and her grandmother, an immigrant from Romania who lived with her family, would make rugelach cookies together.

"She would put her hands on my hands and we would slowly roll the dough together," said Franklin, now the executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Chicago, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Franklin's grandmother would reminisce how she would make them with her own mother. She would talk about the sweetness, but also about the sadness of being an immigrant and of leaving her family.

"It was her way of talking about Romania," said Franklin.

We are a people of The Book, of stories. And so, in honor of the 100th anniversary of HIAS, an organization that has touched just about every family in the Chicago area, JUF News would like to tell the stories of some newer immigrants that HIAS has brought over. As is appropriate for the upcoming holiday of Passover, when our people were liberated from slavery, these are stories of resiliency, of courage, and of finding freedom in a new land.

They include: a Jewish member of the Iranian Parliament, who fled for his life after being accused of being a Zionist.  A Soviet film director who smuggled out an archive of an important Jewish photographer. Parents, who gave up everything to give their children the chance for better lives. And children, who only discovered what it meant to be Jewish when they arrived. None of them arrived with much more than the clothes on their backs. But with the help of HIAS Chicago and JUF partner agencies, they have all built new lives.

From its start in a little storefront on Chicago's storied Maxwell Street, the history of HIAS Chicago is the history of Jewish migration to Chicago. Today, HIAS Chicago continues to be a safety net for Jews and others fleeing oppression and persecution around the world. Now part of the Jewish Child and Family Services, HIAS Chicago helps reunite refugees with family members, provides legal assistance, helps elderly immigrants become citizens, and younger ones attend college. Its acclaimed volunteer-based citizenship program has been replicated in many cities. It also provides special assistance to Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors, in partnership with Holocaust Community Services of the JCFS. Today, 40% of its board is made of up former immigrants helped by HIAS Chicago, as is its incoming president Irena Persky.

"HIAS Chicago has played a very vital role in the immigration of Jews to Chicago, and even in recent years, they have done a tremendous job in helping the Jews," said Irving Cutler, the noted Jewish historian and the author of The Jews of Chicago. Cutler's own parents came to Chicago in the early 20th century from Ukraine.

On Thursday, June 21, in honor of its 100th Anniversary, HIAS Chicago will plant 100 trees to create the HIAS Chicago Freedom Grove at Lincolnwood's Channel Runne Park (on McCormick between Touhy and Devon).

"This is an opportunity for the entire community to express our appreciation of HIAS and to celebrate our own roots in other lands," said Harvey Barnett, co-chair of HIAS's 100th Anniversary Campaign, along with Igor Baguslavsky. Barnett is a former chairman of the Board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and a long-time leader in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Clara Muchnik, who owns Russian Tea Time Restaurant in downtown Chicago, speaks movingly of all the help HIAS Chicago gave her family when they came here from Tashkent in Uzbekistan in 1990. "We will never forget this."

Ilya Rudiak: Chelovek Teatr-'Man of Theater'  

When someone says to former Soviet filmmaker Ilya Rudiak, as it happens from time to time, "What is this for a beard, Ilya? You are a young man and this makes you look like an old one," he says this to them:

"I am a Jewish man. My grandfather had a beard and my great-grandfather had a beard. I have photographs of the Nazis cutting off Jewish men's beards. I am keeping mine."

Rudiak, 72, tells this story as he makes a guest a cup of tea with lemon in his Northbrook home hung with paintings by Russian Jewish artists and theater posters from his productions. His beard is Tolstoyan, long and white and reaching to the middle of his chest. He speaks in what he jokingly calls his "barbarian English." It is heavily accented, spiked with Russian words. Rudiak shapes the air with his hands as he speaks, his face expressing what his English fails him. He is a storyteller.

Rudiak was born in 1939 in Dzhurin, a small shtetl in Ukraine on the eve of World War II. He survived the Fascist Romanian occupation of his village. Many years later, in the U.S., Rudiak wrote a book of very short stories about Dzhurin, called Goethe in the Ghetto. Two decades after the war's end, he went on to graduate from Institute of Theatre in Ukraine.

"This was my dream to go into the theater," Rudiak said. "It was not a Jewish dream, but it was my dream." Rudiak became a highly regarded stage director in Odessa and the artistic director of the School of Acting at the Odessa Film Studio. He also directed a series of six short films, only recently available in the United States.

"I was not an anti-Soviet-chik," Rudiak said, laughing. "I never joined the [Communist] Party, but I was not political and I understood what I could and could not do."

Yet, the films weren't typically Soviet either. The humor was too black, the endings often unhappy, he found bureaucratic loopholes that enabled him to film stories adapted from banned authors. It was, as he said, a very creative time. In 1979, the KGB paid a visit to his studio, asking him pointed questions that made it clear that they knew he was Jewish and someone was informing on him.

"I knew at that point, I must escape," he said. After Rudiak applied to leave, the KGB banned him from working as a director. He found a job working in an office for 90 rubles a month. Rudiak spent the next three years until he was finally allowed to leave researching Jewish life and culture.

"I lived very hungry, but I was free," he said. He began researching the lost Jewish world of the shtetl and his own Jewish roots, and put together an enormous archive of photographs, including 200 taken by Moisei Nappelbaum, a pre- and early-Soviet period Jewish photographer who took iconic photos of Lenin and Stalin, as well as important Jewish musicians, writers and artists. 

In 1981, he and his wife, Olga, and their young son were finally given permission to leave. With them, they smuggled out his collection of photos and paintings, many of them by Jewish artists whom he befriended, and sent 380 boxes of books in Russian by post. They became the cornerstone of a Russian book shop he opened up once he got here. With help from HIAS, he and Olga were able to establish themselves in Chicago and learn English, and Olga was able to retrain. She recently retired from Hewitt Associates and is now a certified yoga instructor. 

Her husband, who has become an important cultural figure in the Russian community, has written 28 books, lectures at universities around the country, and performs his own plays and at synagogues and cultural centers. 

"The freedom here is beyond what I ever imagined," he said. 

Fahimeh and Mehran Farahmandpour

Mehran Farahmandpour will never forget the day in August 1980 when his mother called him from Tehran and fearfully said: "Dad has disappeared. I don't know where he is." 

In August of 1980, after a long and impassioned speech in his defense, Mehran's father, Eshagh Farahmandpour, the only Jewish deputy in Iran's parliament after the revolution, was expelled from parliament on charges of spreading Zionist propaganda and protesting the summary execution of a Jewish community member.

He had been a member of the parliamentary committee that dealt with the fate of the 52 hostages taken from the American Embassy in Tehran, and suggested freeing the hostages and starting a dialogue with the West. 

"The whole Jewish community felt they were on trial with him and whatever happened to my father would also happen to them," said Mehran, who at the time was a young architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "In truth, he was a Zionist to his dying day. He was a very strong Zionist and encouraged us to also support Israel." 

After the parliament over to expel Eshagh Farahmandpou, a group of more liberal mullahs quickly surrounded him and walked him to a waiting car. Over the course of a week, relays of Jewish groups smuggled him out of Iran and over the border into Turkey, where he made his way to safety at the Israeli embassy in Ankara.

His wife, Fahimeh, was put under house arrest in Tehran. "From all over, Jewish organizations were calling me and telling me to get out, to leave everything and go," said Fahimeh, who is in her 70s and still beautiful. After a few months, she was fleeing for her life to England, where she became stranded. The United States was not permitting in any Iranian nationals.

"That's how I learned about the Jewish Federation and HIAS Chicago," Mehran said. "I called and they said, 'how can we help?' 

Mehran, then just a teenager, was given legal help to be reunited with his mother and eventually his father. "Just the fact that HIAS was there meant everything to me," Mehran said. "Just the fact that there was a big organization behind us. I knew they wouldn't let us down, they wouldn't leave us out at sea. Just that fact that there was someone at the end of the phone who could say 'how can I help you."

Eshagh Farhamandpour, who died in 2010 at the age of 78, had been a math teacher at an ORT high school in Tehran, who through long hours and dedication, became the head of the Iranian Jewish school system in Iran and ultimately the private math tutor to the last shah's nephew, where became an intimate of the royal family and highly respected by members of the government.

After the revolution, the new regime asked him to represent the Jewish community in the parliament. Each religious minority had the opportunity to elect a delegate, and many more qualified Jews had either already fled or were fearful of becoming politically involved. 

"My husband was very strong-willed, outspoken, and persistent," said Fehimeh Farahmandpour, who lives in Buffalo Grove. "He said that someone has to represent the Jewish community in that government and no one else was willing." The couple sent their two younger sons out of the country for their safety. The middle one was brought to Chicago. The younger one, who was only 12 at the time, was spirited out of Iran by the Jewish Agency, first to Greece and then to a relative in London. "My husband told me: 'I don't belong to you anymore. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and the children.' He expected to be killed."

Once reunited in Chicago, HIAS Chicago sent the Farahmandpours for retraining, and eventually the couple bought a small Laundromat in Norridge, where they worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. The couple eventually were able to buy a storefront across the street and build a second story on top, and in 1990, opened up a small business that imported pots and pans. It was tremendously difficult for them, she remembered.

"We went from the top to the bottom," Fahimeh Farahmandpour said. "It wasn't just that we didn't have any money, we become blind, deaf, and mute. We did not know the language, we did not understand the culture and we couldn't speak to anyone."

 "Thanks God, now I see my children are successful and I am proud of them," said Fahimeh Farandpour. "And so I forget all that has happened to me." 

Gene Davidovich

Gene Davidovitch, a former refusenik, like to tell a joke: 

"A Jewish man says to an emigration officer that he has been waiting so long for an exit visa that the Guinness World Records has included him as the oldest Soviet refusenik. The officer says that this is because of his knowledge of military secrets. But this information is obsolete, says the man. That is the highest state secret of all, responds the officer."

In 1979, Davidovich, a senior researcher in the Central Economic Mathematical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and his wife applied to leave the country. Because of virulent anti-Semitism and an unofficial quota system for Jews at universities and in many professions, he didn't see much future for his two young sons. 

They were denied. "I was told that as a senior researcher, although I didn't have any kind of military clearance, I might possibly have heard something, somewhere," said Davidovich, who now works as a job placement specialist at JUF's Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). Davidovich was demoted to technician, which carried a salary of 120 rubles a month, a 65% pay cut. His wife, an electrical engineer, was fired.

For the first time in their lives, Davidovich and his wife began living as Jews.

"We used this time as refuseniks to get to know our tradition," he said.

 They began studying Hebrew and found a teacher, another refusenik, to teach a Torah study class, which changed locations to evade KGB surveillance. Once, while the group was studying in Davidovich's apartment, they heard a knock on the door. "Quickly, we hid the books and placed vodka and food on the table," he said. "We told the KGB that we were celebrating my birthday."

They celebrated all the Jewish holidays, and went to synagogue. They ordered matzoh from the central Moscow synagogue, the only legal venue to do so.

"There was a high probability that the KBG put our name on a list for that," he said. "You could say that all actions that involved Jewish life was controlled and oversaw by the KGB," he said. "For everything, they put you on a list. We knew that at any time, the police could enter our homes and arrest us."

Davidovich became particularly fearful when his older son grew close to conscription age, because that could be used as another reason to prevent them from leaving.

In 1987, after nine years of refusal and nearly a half a dozen request to leave, Davidovich and his family finally got permission. It was the period of Glasnost and Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev needed grain from the West. "We tried to leave as soon as possible, because today they say 'yes' and tomorrow they say 'no.' " After a short stay in Austria and Italy, they received permission to go to Chicago, where he had a friend. 

In Chicago, they were helped by HIAS Chicago and JVS to find housing and work. "To find a job was our first priority, because we believed that all assistance is temporary and we wanted to end it as soon as possible."

JVS helped his wife to enroll at DePaul University to become a computer programmer. Davidovich found a series of jobs, until he was hired first by Jewish Family Services and then JVS, now part of Jewish Child and Family Services, to work with immigrants. Now they are able to celebrate openly. "Our sons, as they grew up here knowing that they are Jews in a free country." 

Irena Persky

In an overflowing folder, Dr. Irena Persky keeps some of her most treasured papers. Tucked among them is a check stub, from a college scholarship awarded her by HIAS Chicago.

"It is there, because the scholarship still means so much to me," said Dr. Persky who came to Chicago from the then-Soviet Union in 1990, at the age 13. "It is an appreciation of who we are as immigrants and respect for our dreams and hopes. Receiving it meant that my dignity as a human being was respected."

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Persky knew that she was Jewish, but didn't know what that meant until she was in the third grade and she attended a new school and several of the other children pointed their fingers at her and called her a "Jewess." "It was just so painful," Persky remembered. "I didn't know why being Jewish was so bad. I remember running home in tears and asking my mother what it means to be Jewish and how I should handle it."

Her mother's advice: "Stand up to those kids and tell them Lenin's grandfather was Jewish and they will stop making fun of you," Persky said.

They did, but the episode began a conversation in her family about what it meant to be Jewish. She learned her mother's education and career was curtailed because she was Jewish and that her grandparents' siblings and relatives perished in the Holocaust. Persky herself was denied an award, despite being the top student in her class. Her grandmother told her how her own father was a rabbi, however, Persky could not discuss it publicly.  

By the time she was 11, her uncle began talking about leaving. Her parents hesitated. Her mother's parents were apprehensive to leave at their age, and her mother did not want to leave them behind. After several years of discussions, her grandparents decided to put the future of their grandchildren ahead of their own and agreed to leave. Persky's family submitted their emigration documents at the beginning of 1989.

On Dec. 9, of that year, they left Russia on an exodus that would take them to various HIAS way stations in Austria and Italy, before landing in Chicago six months later. Between the six of them, they left with less than $600 (each person was allowed to take out about $90), and a total of 46 pieces of luggage interspersed with canned goods and salami, which they ate, and scarves, toys, and electronics equipment to sell to supplement the daily allowance given to them by HIAS. They stayed in a refugee camp on damp bunk beds, in winter sublets in Italian seaside communities, Persky remembered. To make extra money, Persky, then just 13, and her father would wash car windshields. She and her brother missed a year of school.

"I remember the constant anxiety and the feeling of being in limbo, of waiting for our names to be called," Persky said.

On May 9, 1990, their plane landed at O'Hare. Forty-five years before, on May 9, 1945, Nazi Germany capitulated to the Soviet Union, which was later celebrated as Victory Day.

"I remember planting my feet on the ground and running toward my uncle," she said. "It was Victory Day, but it was our victory and I will never forget it."

Persky enrolled in an English as a second-language program at Ida Crown Jewish Academy for immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. During high school, she volunteered in many programs throughout the Jewish community, including HIAS Chicago to help integrate Soviet Jewish teens, served on her high school's student council and taught at a Jewish Sunday school for children from the FSU.

Four years after she arrived in the U.S., speaking fluent English and a fair amount of Hebrew, she was nominated by her fellow students to speak at their graduation ceremony. Her speech was about taking one's place in the world and tikkun olam (repairing the world). "Chicago Jewish community opened up their hearts and wallets and gave of their time and energy to give me meaningful opportunities, without which I wouldn't have achieved what I have," she remembered.

Persky received a HIAS Chicago scholarship to help her study at Loyola University, and received her doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. During her graduate training, she studied the acculturation and Jewish identity of immigrants. Married with two children, she runs a mental health program working for the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Later this year, she will be sworn in as HIAS Chicago board president.

"The Jewish community has been so welcoming that I wanted to give back and be a part of it," she said. "I felt a sense of belonging, like I was home."

Slava Vaysman

Each spring when Slava Vaysman was a child in Minsk, his father would disappear into someone's basement and bake an illegal type of flat bread called matzoh, he remembered.

It would be put into a pillowcase and/or wrapped in a piece of newsprint or an old blanket and delivered surreptitiously to families on a secret list. If caught, Vaysman knew that his father would go to jail. He had no idea why. 

"I didn't know why it was illegal to put crackers in a pillowcase," said Vaysman, whose family came here in 1990 . "I did not know what this thing called matzoh was."

Vaysman also did not know he was Jewish. When kids at his school called him a Jew, he thought it was just a bad name.

"It was only when I came here that I understood that there different religions and that I was a Jew and discover what that meant," he said. "To be honest, I don't think those kids knew what it was either. They just knew there was something called a Jew and it was bad." 

When Vaysman was 9, his parents, who were both trained chefs, decided to leave for Chicago to give their son a better life. "Being Jewish back then, there was no future," Vaysman said. "Judaism was a bad thing, a bone in people's throats. I didn't understand why." 

When Vaysman's parents only told him a few days before. It was common, he said, for people to keep their emigration a secret from all but close friends and relatives. In the unrest the preceded the fall of the Soviet Union, children were sometimes kidnapped and held for ransom if it became known that the family was leaving. Usually, people left in the middle of the night. Vaysman simply told his friends he was moving to a different city.

They came only with what they could carry. Vaysman remembers suitcases packed with pots and pans, the tools of his parents' trade, and four albums of family photos. Everything else they left behind.

Once in Chicago, "We came out of the airport with nowhere to go and $500 to our name," Vaysman said. "We heard that everyone coming to Chicago goes to this place called Devon, so we got a cab and told the driver to take us to Devon." 

They walked around, carrying their suitcases until they saw a sign that said "apartment for rent." A German couple agreed to let them stay in the apartment rent free for a couple of months until the Vaysman family got on their feet.

 On the second day in Chicago, Vaysman's father got a job in a kitchen for $3 an hour. He remembers his parents both working day and night. His father eventually became a chef at the Tower Gardens restaurant and his mother found a job as a chef in a Nordstroms Café, and they had two more sons. After years of hard work, they opened up a banquet hall in Rolling Meadows. Now, they own the Maestro Seafood and Grill Restaurant in Northbrook and the Allegra Deli in Buffalo Grove. Vaysman attended ICJA high school and went on to study restaurant management.

"It's lucky that we met people who believed in us," he said.

Lisa Pevtzow is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area. Her family was reunited by HIAS after a separation of 70 years.


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