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Michelle: Surviving in a Fixed World

During the criminal trial, Stephen Scaring, Borukhova’s defense attorney, told me about a documentary film called Exit Uzbekistan, in which the Borukhov family appeared. It was made in Samarkand in 1995 by a Dutch filmmaker named Michael Schaap, just before the family’s emigration to America, and it gave a vivid sense, Scaring said, of the family’s remarkable character and its high degree of cultivation. For the next three years I tried and failed to get hold of the film. The Jewish Museum had shown it but it was now in inaccessible storage. Michael Schaap promised to send it, but never did. Sofya said she had a copy of it, and would look for it, and then remembered she had loaned it to a friend who was away.

Then one day, long after I had given up on ever seeing the film, Sofya produced it. She gave me the film at the office where she works part-time for the New York Board of Rabbis in a heavily guarded building called America-Israel Friendship House on East 39th Street. This was a week before my visit to the Joseph Malakovs and Sofya tearfully told me of the changes she had seen in Michelle since she left the Broders. “Emotionally, she is different. She was flourishing like a flower with the Broders,” she said, echoing Adler’s observations. “She was out of her shell. Now she doesn’t look you in your eyes again. She doesn’t laugh her beautiful laugh. They cut her hair. She is there two weeks and the first thing they do, they cut her hair. She was so proud of her long hair. She has lost weight. They don’t feed her enough. They always thought she was a fat child.” She added bitterly, “They look at her as a prize.”

That evening I watched Exit Uzbekistan. It was not as Scaring had described it. Only Shlomo Borukhov, the son of the family, had a role in it. The rest of the Borukhov family appeared but glancingly, at a ceremonial dinner in their home in Samarkand. Shlomo, a handsome, articulate young man, answered the filmmaker’s questions about why the Bukharan Jews were leaving the region for Israel and the United States. He said that when Uzbekistan became an independent republic after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Muslim majority drove the Jews out of the trades and professions they had practiced since settling in the area two thousand years earlier. Of the 100,000 Bukharan Jews who were living in Central Asia at the time of the breakup, now only a few thousand remained. Shlomo had been forced out of the Academy of Science just before his graduation and would emigrate to Queens with his family; they were only waiting for his sister Mazoltuv to graduate from medical school.

Another Jewish figure in the film, an eighteen-year-old girl named Sveta Abramova, was also leaving for America with her family. She had just graduated from nursing school, but couldn’t find work. “They said they don’t need Jews for that.”

“Do you have an idea of America?” the filmmaker asked her.

“Yes, to a certain extent. We have relatives there and receive letters from them about life there, so I have an idea.”

“What do your relatives write about America?”

“They say that life here was only existence. Here we vegetate. There they really live life.”

—This is the third article of a three-part series.

Letters

The Case of Michelle February 7, 2013

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