Klim's Great Escape from Communist Romania

Part-13: The Big Day

The big day had arrived. It was Tuesday, October 28, 1969 --the day that I arrived in the United States. We had a direct flight with the American PAN AM Airline from Rome, Italy to the JFK International Airport in New York. Since at that time we belonged to no country and thus had no passports, each immigrant refugee traveled with an Italian document entitled "Permit to Reenter" containing a "Conditional Entry" Visa to the United States good for two (2) years.

Pan Am

That "Permit to Reenter" document with the "Conditional Entry" Visa was an extremely humane and considerate Visa that was designed to work in this way:
      If, for whatever reason, an immigrant refugee could not adjust to life in America, he or she, within two (2) years could have had the possibility of returning to Italy and picking another country for immigration. If, however, the immigrant refugee stayed for these two (2) years in America that would have indicated that the respective immigrant accepted America as his or her new adopted country.

Each immigrant refugee in the plane carried a huge envelope with the person's Chest X-Ray. In the plane we were told that the first thing that we needed to do upon arrival at the JFK Airport was to show our Chest X-Ray to the Immigration Official in order to be cleared that we do not have tuberculosis. I remember going down on the ramp of the plane with my big Chest X-Ray envelope. As I was about to open this big envelope, an Immigration Official (a man in his fifties with all white and curly hair) approached me and stated:

"You do not have to show me your X-ray. I know that YOU DO NOT HAVE tuberculosis"

Then, after a brief pause looking straight into my eyes, he said:

"Welcome my friend, welcome to your new country THE UNITED STATES!"

Those were the very first words spoken to me in the United States. My face was all red. I was overwhelmed with emotions.

As we left the customs inspection in the airport, a man was waiting for our group. We could easily be recognized as each of us carried, on the lapel of our garment, a large HIAS button. In addition, all of us had a small black handbag with the HIAS insignia. (That handbag was a present from HIAS containing in it a bar of soap, toothpaste with toothbrush, shaving cream and a razor bundled in a small towel.) The man, an American, said that he was from HIAS, and that arrangements were made that everybody would sleep that night in a nearby hotel and that on the next day each of us would continue with his or her flight to our final destination. (Because my guarantor in the United States was the Jewish Community for the City of Pittsburgh, next day I was scheduled to fly there.)

The man from HIAS took us in a minibus to the nearby hotel. There, in the lobby, he said something very fast that I could not completely understand. Soon after that, he gave everyone from the group a $10 bill and he left. Since I did not know what that money was for, I assumed that it was for that evening while we were staying at the hotel. Nearby in the lobby of the hotel, I saw a rather unpretentious restaurant so I went in. I ordered a big juicy steak with lots of French fries and a coca-cola drink. It was heaven! I enjoyed that meal tremendously. With the tip and everything, it came to $8. With my $2 left I went to the lobby to buy a pack of the famous Pall Mall cigarettes. (At that time they were 49¢!) [Pall Mall cigarettes with no filter were, by far, the most famous American cigarettes in Romania. Later in the story you would be able to find out why that was so!] As I gave a dollar bill to the woman from the lobby, I saw the HIAS man coming towards me and saying:

"Don't waste your ten dollars as you will need it tomorrow for the taxi."

Statue of Liberty

"What ten dollars?", I replied. "I have only one dollar left!" To this, in disbelief, the HIAS man said:

"Here is another ten dollars. Do not spend it. It is for tomorrow for your taxicab. Is this clear?"

Nodding my head in the affirmative, we left saying "Good Night" to each other. For me it was a particularly good night --it was after all my first night in America! I could not have been happier.

[Years later, to my surprise, I was able to learn from reading an article on the history of the Statue of Liberty in the National Geographic magazine, that October 28 --the day of my arrival, was also the official day when the Statue of Liberty was inaugurated by President Grover Cleveland in 1886! What an incredible coincidence and what a tremendous symbolism this day carried for me!]