Florina Newcomb looks out at the streets of Kishinev from her hotel room. Photo by Andrew Newcomb.
By Richard Friedman
Five thousand, five hundred and eighty-eight miles from Birmingham, 34 years after she left Moldova as a five-year-old girl, Florina Shilkrot Newcomb, a wife and mother of two, returned home.
In 1989, she and her family exited their native country, not knowing much about where they were headed. All her parents knew was, after years of yearning, they had a chance to escape a place that offered little religious freedom and economic opportunity.
They were driven by what drives parents: Striving for a better life for their children. They wanted Florina and her younger brother, Boris, to grow up as proud Jews and successful Americans with good educations and the chance to pursue their dreams.
It was a gamble; a repeat of the refrain that echoes tortuously through Jewish history: Do we stay? Or do we leave? The Shilkrots left.
Jewish agencies, assisting 1 million emigrating Jews from former Soviet countries, assigned Florina and her family to Birmingham. Their new life began with Florina never fully knowing what her family left behind.
Sally Friedman, Birmingham Jewish Foundation executive director, remembered greeting young Florina and her family at the Birmingham airport when they arrived.
“They were tired and nervous but excited. They had arrived in a faraway land, with little more than hope and determination,” said Friedman. What she remembered most was Florina, a slightly dazed but smiling little girl clinging to a doll. “Though she’s now in her late 30s, other than being taller, Florina looks the same.”
Florina’s life in Birmingham became successful. With the help of local Jewish agencies, her family was resettled. Her parents were taught English, employed and helped financially. The Shilkrots became American citizens.
Florina enrolled at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. She later attended Birmingham-Southern College, spent time in Atlanta and Memphis, and eventually returned to Birmingham and landed a job with the Birmingham Jewish Federation. Her work has included fundraising, programs and serving as a link to global Jewish agencies including the Joint Distribution Committee, an agency that helped Florina and her family emigrate.
Earlier this year, Florina, her husband, Andrew, and two community volunteers, Sheri Krell and Sarah Schaeffer, journeyed to Moldova with a national Jewish group. Their purpose was to learn more about what Jewish agencies, including the Birmingham Jewish Federation, are doing to help Ukrainian refugees, many of whom pass through Moldova.
Returning to Moldova, which borders Romania and Ukraine, and going to Kishinev, the city where her family had lived, was a powerful homecoming. This is clear from talking with Florina as she sat in her office reflecting on her trip.
Arriving in Kishinev, she connected and reconnected, recalling things from childhood. She spoke Russian throughout her trip, a language her family still uses. And she rejoiced over the flourishing of Jewish life in her home community, a vibrancy that has taken hold since her family left.
There was a feeling of coming full circle. She and her family left Kishinev to pursue a path laden with uncertainty. Though they were not fleeing war, she could relate to the daunting and at times chaotic journey those fleeing Ukraine were facing.
Florina knows the chaos first-hand.
After leaving Moldova, her family spent six months in Italy at a stopping point run by the Joint Distribution Committee. When it came time to depart, the Shilkrots, including four grandparents and Florina’s infant brother, along with other Jewish families, all carrying belongings, were hurried into buses headed for the airport. Small for her age, Florina got lost in the shuffle. Each parent thought the other had her.
As the bus began to pull away, her parents saw her standing on the pavement, a confused and forlorn look on her face. “I came close to being Italian instead of American,” said Florina, a woman with a quick smile and wry sense of humor. Joking aside, she remembers the confusion and anxiety she felt, the kind many Ukrainian refugees now face, especially children.
When she returned to Kishinev, Florina tried to remember neighborhoods and streets but couldn’t. “Still, when I got there, I felt at home. Everyone spoke Russian. In Birmingham, I don’t have much of a chance to use my Russian. In Alabama, I am always a little different. In Kishinev, I wasn’t different. I looked like the people there.”
What made the trip more meaningful was Andrew joining her. “I’m grateful I saw where my wife and her family came from and what they dealt with,” he said. “Florina had told me about growing up in Moldova. Not until my visit did I fully appreciate where she came from. It was powerful.”
Florina and Andrew spent time with people who had been friends with her family. They greeted her like she was a returning celebrity. They remembered her, this 39-year-old American who looks the same.
In Her Heart
Her mother died of colon cancer when Florina was 19. Going back to Kishinev gave her the chance to reclaim memories she had tucked away in her heart.
“Before we left on our trip, I went through a photo album looking for pictures depicting experiences my mother and I shared when I was little. I thought this might help me recognize things when we got to Kishinev. I hoped to rekindle memories of fun times with my mom.”
Florina and her mother enjoyed going to the zoo and other attractions around town. Today most of those places are gone. She was excited to see the building where the circus had been. “It’s abandoned but it’s still an impressive building. Seeing it made me very happy.”
Their tour bus passed the outdoor plaza where Florina’s parents, Grigory and Lyudmila, married. She and Andrew recognized the site from watching their wedding video. In keeping with a Soviet newlywed tradition, her parents had placed flowers at its memorial for fallen soldiers. Seeing it was an uplifting feeling and one more powerful connection.
“These sites, even ones no longer in use, made me feel closer to my mother. I also thought about my own girls, both young, and how we often go to the zoo. It all made me even more determined, now that I am a mother, to create lasting memories for my children.”
In the late 1980s, right before Florina and her family left, the Soviet Union, which would eventually crumble, began liberalizing its policies toward Jewish communities. Jewish emigration to Israel, the U.S. and other parts of the world, once tightly restricted by the Soviet government, eased.
Jewish communities throughout the Soviet Union also began reasserting their identities. Jewish organizations, funded by Jewish Federations and other sources, began building a vast network of institutions to renew Jewish life. Seeing the results had a dramatic impact on Florina.
The most emotional moment came when their group visited an activities center for Jewish seniors. There was singing and conversation. The people, language, food and décor reminded Florina of her four grandparents, all of whom came to America with the family. Three are deceased. Overcome with emotion, she had to step out of the room and compose herself.
“All of it was so familiar. I thought about what my grandparents’ lives – and mine – would have been like if we stayed. Moldova went through very hard times after the Soviet Union fell apart. Would we have survived? I couldn’t shake the feeling of ‘What if…’”
A Holocaust memorial has been erected in Kishinev since she left. Seeing it affected Florina deeply.
“As we headed to the memorial, I again thought about my family — those who had survived the Holocaust, which took its toll on Moldova’s Jewish community, and those who died. Moldovans were antisemitic for a long time. To see a Holocaust memorial – along with a preserved Jewish cemetery and a vibrant Jewish activities center – was very moving,” said Florina.
Andrew, a convert to Judaism, loved the trip, said Florina. “It was overwhelming to have him there. It was emotional for him to see the city where I grew up – for him to see it with his own eyes. Also important was him seeing how Jews help Jews and how much effort that takes. It was powerful for him to witness. The trip wove him more deeply into my own story and Jewish heritage.”
As she grew older, Florina would wrestle with guilt – a nagging sense that she and her family abandoned their home community. Returning and seeing the emergence of Jewish life and institutions assuaged some of her feelings.
Knowing she has devoted a large part of her career – through her work for the Memphis Jewish Federation and now the Birmingham Jewish Federation – to helping Jews in Moldova and other parts of the world adds to her comfort.
“Helping our fellow Jews feels great. It is amazing to work for agencies that do this. My guilt over leaving, especially leaving people behind to grapple with such difficulty, is now offset by being part of this network.”
Of course, the work Federations are doing in Moldova is also personal for Florina. Returning to her native land provided a window into her past and thoughts about what her life might have been. But it also gave her a unique chance to reflect on who she is today and what she has achieved.
“The house I grew up in has been torn down. There are now condominiums in the neighborhoods where my grandparents lived and I played. Yet, there is a Jewish school in the middle of one of those neighborhoods. This blows my mind.”
Did returning to Moldova change her?
“Yes. It brought closure to this chapter of my life. Finally, my guilt was put to rest. I had gone back and seen what had become of my community — and I felt good.”