Two children of Jewish refugees testified in the Trump impeachment hearings in Washington this week. Today, Ambassador Gordon Sondland invoked his immigrant background in the opening statement of his testimony. “My parents fled Europe during the Holocaust,” he testified. “Escaping the atrocities of that time, my parents left Germany for Uruguay… Like so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity.”
But as a Russian Jew, it was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony which struck closest to home for me. On Tuesday, Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testified about his concerns regarding a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky. Vindman moved here as a child from the Soviet Union in 1979, and he invoked his background as a refugee during his opening statements.
“Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees,” he said. “When my father was 47 years old, he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives.”
Vindamn’s family came to the U.S. in the same month as mine did, November 1979, also from Kiev. But it was the irony of his story which I recognized, its dark and almost comical arc, which unfolded in true Russian literary form.
Vindman’s family fled totalitarian repression of free speech to come to this land of freedom. And yet, he now finds himself on the receiving end of personal attacks from the highest office in the land — for testifying in Congress. The army has now placed him and his family under round-the-clock security monitoring, after the White House attacked him on Twitter.
To watch Vindman take the stand, and to watch the President attack him, one begins to wonder about the country Vindman’s father chose to come to. Of course, Vindman must be wondering this too, which is why he had to reassure his father, in his opening statement, that this was the right choice. “Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol, talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union to the United States, in search of a better life for our family,” he said. “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Why is Vindman so fixated with the consequences of telling the truth? Why must he reassure his father over this? Why does he dedicate his final words to this emotion, to his immigrant experience above all?
Because Vindman, like all of us Russian-speaking Jews, are products of the all-consuming paranoia that was the Soviet Jewish experience. We come from a place where truth was deeply dangerous, where the cost of dissent was often death. Indeed, when pressed on it, Vindman explained that his father was “deeply worried” about his decision to testify, “because in his context, there was the ultimate risk.”
Several generations of Soviet Jews were traumatized by the culture of constant surveillance and censorship. It took us decades to grow into our American skins, to feel finally, perhaps at home in this land of freedom and promise, and yet even today in 2019, one will often find suspicion and deep reticence to speak up in this community, even about the most gross injustices. The wounds that come with living in totalitarianism can linger for decades and generations, and that is precisely what makes Vindman’s testimony so particularly courageous.
In Vindman, we see one of us: We see a person who graduated from the same schools as we did, the schools of herring on black bread, of Brighton Beach apartments, of Russian television, of hardworking parents. We see a product of similar stories: a Judaism of whispers, often defined by a lone Sholom Aleichem book; the stories of relatives who disappeared; the family members who applied for exit visas, seeking freedom, for which they were thrown out of the Party, for which they were blasted in the Komsomol newspaper as traitors, “enemies of the state”.
Yet now, in a cosmic twist of fate, Vindman finds himself in a situation not so different from that of his grandparents: persecuted by the executive branch of the very country his father hoped would offer a life of peace.
The image of a Jew in uniform being decried as a loyalist to a foreign country is a real deja vu for the student of modern European Jewish history.
“I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety,” he said. Yet by the end of the day yesterday, Vindman’s words began to ring hollow.
“This is America,” Vindman ended his opening statement. “Here, right matters.”
Perhaps that was the America which Vindman’s father chose. Today, I’m not sure.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.