Innerviews: Doctor marks 40th year of freedom
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.
"That year, 1973, was the Arab embargo. The economy was bad. We persevered. We got a subsidy for a month and then supported ourselves. My dream was to go to college because I wasn't allowed to in Russia.
"I asked a charity organization to support me to take English as a foreign language. They knew I couldn't pass the entrance test. So I studied day and night. I took a dictionary and translated the newspaper all day and memorized the words. In three weeks, I took the test and passed it by the skin of my teeth, and they had to pay for my foreign student course.
"I applied to the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology and got accepted. The first year, I could not understand a word those professors were saying. But high schools in the United States are so bad in chemistry and calculus and math that I didn't have to understand any language. The first year, I survived just on my previous knowledge.
"You know how people influence your life? Two of my college people wanted to go into medicine and rekindled my interest in going to medical school. My wife, my girlfriend then, helped me write my statement letter. And fortunately, my grades were very good.
"I loved medical school. I got into a residency at the University of California San Diego in orthopedic surgery. I was going to be a cardiac thoracic surgeon, but I like orthopedic personalities more. They are hard-working but more happy-go-lucky. Orthopedics have a lot of happy outcomes.
"My mentor, Vern Nickel, a famous orthopedic surgeon, recommended me for a Girdlestone scholarship at Oxford. That was a great break. We went to England for a year.
"I came back to California for private practice for 15 years at Laguna Beach. I became chief of surgical services and chief of staff. But I wanted to go to academics. I went to Texas Tech, from the beautiful seashore to the middle of nowhere in Lubbock, Texas. I started the adult hip and knee reconstruction program there and became associate professor. Then I was recruited by the University of Texas and became a full professor in Houston.
"I'm here for the opportunity to build a center of excellence. I came here in January. They recruited me to build the adult reconstruction program for CAMC. It's a very fertile ground. West Virginia has a higher rate of arthritis than other states. I'm hoping this will become a regional center for people to come from neighboring states.
"I love Charleston, but they tricked me to come here. They brought me here in October, and it was absolutely breathtaking. I have not regretted it. I love the people and the setting.
"Deer hunting is a passion of mine, and big-game hunting. I'm a member of the Safari Club International. There's a chapter in every state but West Virginia, and I'm hoping we can start one here. I go maybe once a year on adventure hunts. I've hunted in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Alaska, Spain, everywhere.
"I go into the bush and meet people tourists will never meet and see things you will only see in National Geographic. Now I'm learning how to bow hunt, and it is very frustrating.
"I'm also learning to play the banjo. My father wanted me to be a musician. I started studying violin when I was 6. It helped me with my dexterity, but I never had a real interest. When I rebelled from violin as a teenager, I started a rock band and played electric guitar.
"I studied violin for maybe 12 years and played in an orchestra before we left. I wasn't able to bring my violin because it was given to me by my grandfather. It was an 1812 violin, and the Soviets said it was a national treasure and wouldn't let me take it. So that was the last time I played the violin.
"When I arrived here, I went to a few old-time music shows and met Jim Mullins and Bill Kimmons, and they got me involved in old-time music.
"My wife bought me a banjo for my birthday. I've been taking lessons. You don't have to be very good to sound good. It's fun. Steve Martin said that for depressed and unemployed people, we should give them a banjo. It's happy.
"I love experiences. We are given a short time, and I don't want to waste it. I would like to give it the fullest. Being an immigrant, I have a different mentality in the way I adjust to a place. Instead of walling myself, I want to go out there and become part of it. I like to learn as much as I can.
"Some people collect stamps and coins. I collect people I like to be with. I like genuine people, the people in Texas, the people in West Virginia.
"I have been blessed. I was lucky to get out from under the Iron Curtain, thanks to my parents. I've been back three times. The last time, I was invited to Odessa to be a visiting professor at the Medical University of Odessa. They wouldn't take me as a student, but they loved me as a professor.
"I was naturalized by the time I finished medical school. It took me longer than other immigrants. We couldn't even get a green card for several years because we were political refugees. That was very touchy. They could deport you at any time.
"I am Ukrainian by accident of birth. I'm American by choice. I am very patriotic. My family had to struggle to become Americans. When people criticize this country, it always surprises me. To know what good is, you have to know what bad is. You don't know how good you have it. This country is not without problems, but compared to everybody else, we are lucky to be here." Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.