Ukrainian immigrants give thanks for friends

Couple's party marks 20 years of U.S. success

July 11, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

In the two decades since they fled anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union for a new life in metropolitan Baltimore, Semyon and Janna Friedman have prospered -- with a lot of help from their friends.

Now, the Friedmans want to say thanks. Today, 20 years to the day after their plane touched down at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, they will throw a party for those who helped them adjust and thrive.

It is their way of saying: We never could have done it without you.

"Twenty years pass, and we did what we wanted to do, with a lot of attention from our friends," said Janna (pronounced Zhanna) Friedman, a pianist and former Peabody Institute instructor who runs her own music academy. "I remember them forever. I want them to know about that."

At the party, friends will enjoy Russian delicacies such as pirogi (baked dumplings filled with meat and mushrooms) and blini (thin pancakes) with caviar prepared by Lisa's Coffee House, a Ukrainian-Russian restaurant in Baltimore.

Invited to the celebration are the teachers who helped Janna Friedman gain a command of English. Also on the guest list, which includes about 60 people, is the woman who nurtured the Friedmans' appreciation for Jewish tradition with annual invitations to Passover Seder.

And you can bet that Semyon Friedman's cousin, Leonard Frier, will be there. He picked them up at the airport on that day in July 1979 -- and laid the groundwork for Friedman to resume his work as a chemical engineer and for Janna Friedman to continue a life in music.

"There's no question that they're a great success," Frier said. "They deserve it. They're great go-getters."

Speaking recently in their elegantly decorated home in an exclusive neighborhood near Pikesville, the Friedmans described life in Ukraine and their two decades in America. Janna Friedman is bubbly; her husband has a serious demeanor, but his warm side peeks through.

Both said they never dreamed they would reach the professional heights they enjoyed in their native Kiev.

There, Semyon Friedman, whose parents were jailed as political prisoners, earned a doctorate in chemical engineering. He worked as an engineer at a state-run chemical plant, and later taught at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev.

Janna Friedman, a classically trained concert pianist, toured the Soviet Union as a soloist appearing with local orchestras. They had two children.

But anti-Semitism was an ugly fact of life in Ukraine, and two incidents persuaded the Friedmans to emigrate for their children's sake. First, officials told Semyon Friedman that his nephew would not be admitted to the college where he taught because the unspoken quota for Jews was filled.

About the same time, he saw his daughter, about 6, scrubbing her last name from her schoolbag.

"Daddy, our last name is not good," he recalled his daughter saying.

They arrived at BWI on July 11, 1979. What they saw scarcely resembled the dreary, polluted, crime-ridden land described in Soviet propaganda.

Semyon Friedman remembers the drive along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway: "I thought, where are all the chimneys? Where is the darkness? We were so impressed by the green areas."

Frier was behind the wheel. He was born in America, the son of a woman who, at 15, fled Ukraine and the pogroms created by the Russian civil war. Friedman was the only relative Frier knew of beyond his immediate family. The idea of sponsoring the Friedmans and helping them adjust to a new culture was daunting.

"Here I was taking this gigantic step for people I had never met," Frier said. But it didn't take him long to offer help.

For Semyon Friedman, Frier arranged an interview for a teaching position at the Naval Academy. He failed to land the job because a security check could not be completed before the fall semester.

But a Naval Academy official drafted a letter of recommendation, and before long Friedman was teaching at the Johns Hopkins University and working as a researcher for a chemical company. He settled in at W. R. Grace & Co., where he was senior research scientist until 1996. He owns Maryland Healthcare Clinics, which provides office management for clinics.

For Janna Friedman, Frier scoured the newspaper classifieds for available pianos and when he found one, he loaded the family into a pickup truck for a ride in the country -- and bought a small upright piano.

Within a year of her arrival in Maryland, Friedman auditioned for Peabody officials, who offered her a job as a teacher at the institute's Preparatory School. After 17 years there, she stepped down in 1996 to open her music academy, the Baltimore Music School.

`Plunge into life'

Along the way, she received English lessons and friendship from teachers Susan Applefeld and Muriel Kramer.

"In the beginning, I drove her everywhere. She didn't know her way around the city," said Applefeld. But she added, "I always felt like I got more out of being with her than she did from being with me. She's so brave to come over here with no English and plunge into life."

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