An American refugee program based in Vienna was helping to relocate the suffering survivors of the war and escape from Russia. I don’t remember how long we waited in the refugee camp, but eventually we were offered a couple of choices for relocation: to the US or to Venezuela? We had all heard that America was where money grows on trees, but the next ship sailing was to Venezuela, so my father Fedor Ivanovich chose Venezuela–he did not want to wait even one more day to leave the hell that was Europe at that time.
Where did we embark on the big troop transport ship called the USS General Sturgis? Was it Italy? France? Or even Northern Germany? I can’t remember—but I do know that it took almost a month of sailing to get to our destination. Being on board a ship for the first time in my life was exciting for me—I ran up and down, all around, as everyone else was lying down in the covered upper deck. There was no more fear, no more hunger or pain, and it was on the General Sturgis that I sampled my very first ice cream–a Neapolitan sandwich with strawberry, vanilla and chocolate—so sweet and astonishing to me that I can still taste it when I close my eyes and remember. And there was peanut butter, something my grandma used to make fresh for us, so getting to eat that smooth, sweet treat again brought back lovely memories of home.
For once, there was no shortage of food. Papa was working down in the ship’s galley, helping to cook the meals that came like clockwork every day. Gala and Mama were lying down for much of the trip, feeling seasick and vomiting with most of the other ladies. I don’t remember what Anatoly was doing, maybe working, too, as the men could earn a minimum wage for their labor. After a time, things became more pleasant for everyone, especially for me. I was so very happy, perfectly contented just watching the dolphins that followed the ship and jumped out of the water as if welcoming us to our brighter future and the happiest sunrises of our lives.
On “Captain’s Night,” we all dressed up to put our best foot forward and assembled for a big celebration. To show our gratitude to the Captain and his rescue ship, and all the Americans, we put on a little theatrical show with singing and dancing. I participated in a traditional Russian story about two geese, one white and one gray, a story all Russian children knew. It was a big party, especially for the children. There was a big tub full of apples floating in water, and for the first time I was introduced to the American children’s game of bobbing for apples. Ice cream, candies, so many exciting new treats we had never seen before—what a feast we had!
That evening, as the sun was setting and God Bless America was playing, suddenly someone yelled “Land! Land! Land in sight!” And sure enough, there it was, off in the distance; I will never forget all the men and women on deck with tears in their eyes. I still get goosebumps whenever I hear that stirring song, which played as we stood gazing intently at the horizon. Gala, Mama (who was holding me), Papa and Tola were all crying with joy as we had our first glimpse, through the last rays of the evening sun, of the beautiful land of our freedom.