In 1988, when he was 10 years old, Michael Drob and his family emigrated from Riga, Latvia. They followed a common route — from Latvia to Vienna to Rome — and, once they arrived in Italy, expected to be granted a visa to the United States.
Instead, like many other Jews leaving what was then the Soviet Union at that time, the Drobs were denied a visa and remained stranded in Italy for 10 months.
Drob, 36, a computer software engineer who lives in Scotch Plains, recently completed Stateless, a feature-length documentary that explores this chapter of the Soviet Jewish saga. It’s a chapter largely unknown to American-Jewish audiences, even those who participated in the Soviet Jewry movement.
“I wanted to share this story with people who don’t know anything about what happened, and I wanted to explain exactly what happened to Russians, who at the time had little information. They were just told, ‘Go here. Now go here.’”
The emigres regarded everyone with suspicion, said Drob, even the representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, “because anyone in an authority position was treated with suspicion — even organizations helping us. We did not know who they were.”
He added that one of the “big reveals” for him while making the film was just how much money was given in private donations to help them.
Drob will take part in a discussion following the screening of the film at the Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills on Saturday evening, Jan. 17.
In 1988, the year Drob’s family applied to emigrate, 19,000 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union; in 1989 the number was closer to 50,000. The United States, which until then had been granting the emigres refugee status almost automatically, began to clamp down.
Plenty of families like the Drobs, unwilling to go to Israel, were stranded in Rome, refugee status denied, until the passage of an amendment spearheaded by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) that eased restrictions on Soviet Jews and others who historically had been subjected to persecution.
His family was stuck in Italy for 10 months. Drob recalls, “It felt like forever. People were not used to sitting idly, in complete uncertainty. Even for people who were stranded for only three months, it was hard.”
Financial help from the JDC went only so far; to earn money, the family sold items at a street market, his father gave music lessons, his mother cleaned houses, and Drob washed cars.
Eventually, thanks to the Lautenberg Amendment, the Drobs got to the United States and settled in Brooklyn.
The experience left him with a nagging question: Why was his family originally denied a visa?
A query he posted on Facebook prompted others to post their own stories of being denied visas. “This would make a fun story for a documentary,” he remembers thinking. He and his wife already had a small business making short personal videos, mostly for weddings.
He applied for a BluePrint Fellowship from the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, sponsored by the UJA-Federation of NY and Genesis Philanthropy Group, and headed to Rutgers University to take a class with Ross Kauffman, a director and producer of the award-winning documentary Born into Brothels.
He was disappointed that no immigration officials agreed to be interviewed. “Many were still on the job, and their names are still classified,” Drob said. “And it was hard to get any government officials to give their side of the story.”
Moreover, Lautenberg died in June 2013, before Drob was able to interview him. But he did interview immigrants, including his own parents and in-laws, as well as executives from both HIAS and NYANA, two of the organizations that helped the Soviet emigres. Mark Hetfield, now executive director of HIAS, was a case officer in Italy in the late 1980s. “He had firsthand knowledge” of what was happening, said Drob.
Just over a year after he began, Drob completed the 86-minute film.
“No one had ever asked about the process, then along came Michael,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “This film is as close as I’ve ever seen to what actually happened.”
And if he didn’t discover exactly what happened in his family’s case, Drob did gain an understanding of the larger picture. “There’s no definitive answer,” said Drob. “It had to do with the individual case officer and whether he believed your story or liked you. Sometimes it came down to the mood of the officer interviewing you. There were so many similar stories. He just decided our story was not credible.”
Drob has been enjoying the response to the film. Although audiences have been made up primarily of Russian immigrants, some other American Jews have been coming to the screenings. “Often they’ll ask, ‘If the Soviet government didn’t want the Jews, why didn’t it just let them go?’” said Drob. “The Russians in the audience will start laughing, but it’s a valid question, but you have to understand the Soviet mentality.”
Many of those who see the movie tell Drob they were aware of and involved in the movement to free Soviet Jewry and remember “having a bar mitzva in the name of a Russian Jew.”
“There are so many interesting stories,” he said, including what happened after his family arrived in the States and how they adjusted to American life, which, he said, “I’m considering as my next project.”