Sunday, April 24, 2016

Reflecting Upon the Meaning of Freedom During Passover, 2016 | Arthur Holmer

For religious, observant and even lapsed Jews, Passover holds special meaning. Commemorating the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt, the holiday is meant to encourage contemplation about the sacrifices made and hardships endured so that Jews today might live and worship in freedom.

Freedom.  That’s a very special word that I have, at times, taken for granted.

As I sat down with my family to celebrate Passover this year, I thought about how very different my life - and more importantly the lives of those whom I love - might have been had I lost my freedom. Having plead guilty to a serious lapse in judgement for which I take full responsibility, there was the real possibility in March of 2016 that I would be sentenced to incarceration. It’s worth stating the obvious that everything but the love of family and friends seems trivial when the prospect of losing one’s freedom is both real and imminent.

My path to this moment really began with the emigration of my family from the Soviet Union in 1978.  The Soviet Union was a turbulent place during the 1970’s, especially as it related to Jewish emigration.  In the early part of the decade, during the period of détente when the Soviet government sought to improve relations with the West, a small number of Jews were allowed to leave under the guise of family reunification.  In these early years nearly all Jews leaving the Soviet Union resettled in Israel, motivated largely by their deeply held Zionist beliefs.

Towards the later half of the decade, the motivation and destination of émigrés began to shift.  It’s important to remember that being a Jew in the Soviet Union was to be considered a second class citizen.  This had both economic and religious implications.  Practicing their faith often left Jews with fewer career and economic opportunities. This situation was amplified in an economy largely controlled by the government, graft and “favors.”

With the increase in economic motivation, Soviet Jews began to look past Israel towards one of the handful of countries that would accept immigrants, including the United States.

It was during this time that our family sought to leave the Soviet Union.

The path out of Kiev to the United States began with the sacrifices of my maternal grandfather, Peter 
Holomyansky.  (He'd Americanize that name to "Holmer" upon arrival in the U.S.) A skilled shoemaker, my grandfather was able to find good-paying work in Italy, a country that had, at the time, amicable relations with the Soviet Union. For two years he labored to save enough cash to allow four generations in two families, including one-year-old Arthur Holmer, to leave the Soviet Union in 1978.
My grandfather, Peter Holomyansky in front of his shoe store.

The first stop in our journey was in Vienna, Austria where we spent two weeks.  From there we traveled to Italy where for three months we regrouped and saved a bit of money before we ventured off to America.  Our final destination, Chicago, was chosen not because we had family in this city, but because it was a large city.  That alone not only suggests the level of planning that went into this adventure, but also how eager and passionate my family was to find a new life.

My maternal grandparents in West Rogers Park, Chicago
We arrived in Chicago on November 1, 1978 and with help from Jewish charitable organizations our family was able to find an apartment in West Rogers Park at the corner of Claremont and Devon.  West Rogers Park was, during that time, an enclave for Soviet Jews searching for a place to call home.  The twenty-plus congregations in the area supported a thriving community of kosher butchers, bakers, restaurants and markets. For a family that spoke no English, being able to walk down Devon and to commune with others who shared your language, history and experience was comforting.

Ilya and Galina Holmer, my parents, in Italy
During our years in West Rogers Park my father, who was 26 when he left the Soviet Union, worked in a factory, delivered pizza and sold shoes.  My mother found work as a manicurist in a salon, an occupation she would hold until present day. Despite these humble occupations, both were grateful for the work, clinging to the belief that they could offer their children a better life.

As I was finishing elementary school, my grandparents and parents pooled what money they had saved and purchased a modest home in Skokie where I would spend my days until leaving for college.  One of my most vivid recollections of our Skokie home was the time when it housed nearly fifteen people.  The Holmer’s, as many Jewish-American families did, sponsored relatives in the 1980’s, allowing them to leave the Soviet Union as we had a decade ago.  Without sponsorship it was very difficult for Soviet Jews to emigrate to the US.  For my parents, welcoming nine members of their extended family into their home of 2,500 square feet seemed a small sacrifice to make for freedom.
The Holmer household of 15 people in Skokie in 1988 with sponsored relatives from the Soviet Union 

Freedom.  That precious word.

As I look forward to future Passovers and to writing the next chapter of my professional and personal life, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to honor the sacrifice my family has made on my behalf. Foolish and often selfish decisions of the past will not be repeated. I’m determined to make the most of the freedom that I have to be the best version of Arthur Holmer that I can be.
Arthur Holmer, Robin Holmer and grandmother Asya