CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Thursday, as families gather to say thanks for food and loved ones and blessings galore, Alex Rosenstein will say an extra prayer of gratitude for the opportunity to be an American.
This special Thanksgiving marks the 40th anniversary of his freedom from the Soviet Union. His mother and brother are traveling here to celebrate with him.
In 1973, at 17, he arrived in Vienna with few belongings and $100 to his name. He spoke no English. The journey took him to Israel and Rome, and eventually to Minneapolis, where he realized his dream of a college education.
A respected orthopedic surgeon, he was lured to Charleston from Texas in January. As chief of reconstructive orthopedics at CAMC, he hopes to build a regional program in knee and hip replacement surgery.
But there's a lot more to this vibrant, outgoing man than medicine. A longtime musician, he's working now to master the banjo. Big game hunting takes him to exotic, far away places. He maintains a ranch in Texas.
There's an eagerness about him. He embraces life and all its offerings with unbridled vigor, like a wide-eyed child wondering what's next.
Nothing in that full, multifaceted life means more to him than the title of American citizen. The story is compelling.
"I was born in Odessa, southern Ukraine. My mother was a chemist. My father was a very famous engineer. He was anti-Communist, but they could not put him away because he was very well known and had some international patents.
"My maternal grandfather was in the Red Army through World War II, a commando who got the Medal of Valor. At the end of the war, my grandfather became the commandant at a German prisoner-of-war camp. Being a Jewish man and a commandant of Nazi war prisoners was an interesting reversal of justice.
"I wanted to be a doctor. My great-uncle was a surgeon, and I always admired him. However, growing up a Jewish kid in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, that was just a dream. Because of government anti-Semitism politics, they basically would not allow any Jewish kids to go to college. When my father realized his kids could not get an education, he became determined to leave.
"In Russia, it was illegal to be unemployed. It was punished by imprisonment. When you requested to leave, they would fire you from your job and arrest you two weeks later. So they laid him off. We worried every day that he would get arrested.
"Fortunately, that's when the détente talks started. Kissinger convinced Brezhnev to release some of the noticeable people, and we were lucky enough to be in that group. So we were notified suddenly by a motorized cop saying here is your visa and you are out of here in two weeks or your visa is revoked. We could take a few things we owned. They allowed us to take $100 per person and a one-way ticket to Vienna. That's how we left the Soviet Union. I was 17.
"They required us to pay 1,000 rubles per person to denounce our citizenship. The train stopped in Vienna, and we got grabbed immediately by the Austrian police. I remember it like it was yesterday. Between two rows of policemen, we got in a bus and they took us to this castle surrounded by barbed wire where the Jews escaping from the Soviet Union were housed. In the middle of the night, they woke us up -- there were attacks by terrorists then trying to prevent us from coming in -- and flew us to Israel.
"That was my first taste of freedom. Unfortunately, Israel was so overwhelmed by immigrants that I couldn't pursue my higher education, and my father was not able to find a job because it was a small country with small needs.
"We sold everything we had and got a one-way ticket to Rome, where we applied for refugee status to the United States. We stayed in Rome supported by a U.N. organization because we weren't allowed to work, and that's where I started learning English.
"We always dreamed to go to the United States. My father would listen to Voice of America. It was jammed by the Soviet Union, but in the middle of the night, you were able to listen, and he listened to American news, and dreamed of going to the States.
"We stayed in Italy and waited for them to grant us visas. We lived on a subsidy from the U.N., and I moonlighted as a tour guide for Americans. I had nothing else to do, so I learned Rome like the back of my hand. We finally received our visas. The city that accepted us was Minneapolis.
"We came there on Thanksgiving Day. This Thanksgiving, it will be exactly 40 years. My mother and my brother are coming to West Virginia to celebrate our 40th anniversary of coming to America.
"In Minneapolis on Thanksgiving, we were in deep snow and cold. But the people were very good to us. We were one of the first families of the immigration wave to come there.
"There was nobody to talk to in Russian. We were alone. We learned English from TV. My mother worked as a nurse's aide in a nursing home. I worked in a printing shop loading trucks. My dad went to work as a draftsman and eventually was recognized as an engineer.