In 1988, when he was 10 years old, Michael Drob and his family emigrated from Riga, Latvia, expecting to come to the United States.
Instead, like many other Jews leaving what was then the Soviet Union, the Drobs were denied a visa and remained stranded in Italy for 10 months.
Today, Drob, 36 and a resident of Scotch Plains, is a documentary filmmaker who recently completed Stateless, which tells the story of the great Jewish flight from Soviet domination. What began as a trickle with the refuseniks of the 1960s and ’70s became a torrent by early 1990, when, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “more than 10,000 Jews were leaving Russia monthly.”
But, as the Drobs’ experience showed, the journey was far from smooth. Even as a child, Michael wanted to know why his family was being denied access to America.
With support of the COJECO BluePrint Fellowship, an organization sponsored by the UJA-Federation of NY and Genesis Philanthropy Group, he has written and directed the 86-minute record of those trying times.
The film will be shown Sunday afternoon, Oct. 26, at Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan.
Stateless was an official selection of the Boston Jewish Film Festival and has been widely praised.
Les Zeltserman of Tablet magazine described it as “a powerful, moving portrayal of what is, for many of us, the most important event of our lives.”
“No one had ever asked about the process, then along came Michael. This film is as close as I’ve ever seen to what actually happened,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
At the Chabad showing, Drob will introduce the film and take questions from the audience.
In 1989, Drob said, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) spearheaded passage of an amendment that changed the criteria on which would-be immigrants to the United States were classified as “refugees.”
“Before the amendment, families claiming refugee status had to prove a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion, and they had to do this on a case-by-case basis,” said Drob. This was a slow, laborious process at best and often led to heartbreak when applicants could not obtain entry — sometimes due to inconsistent decisions by Department of Immigration employees.
Under the Lautenberg amendment, said the filmmaker, a group of people such as the Soviet Jews could be considered as a class that had historically been subjected to persecution and, therefore, was recognized as deserving refugee consideration.
“This is my first feature-length film,” Drob told NJJN in a phone interview. “I worked on it for more than a year, but I never did get a definitive answer on why visas weren’t being issued. I did, however, learn what finally broke up the logjam and enabled our admission to the United States.”