The devastating news out of Pittsburgh, about which I cannot say much, brought attention to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an organization to which my family and I owe our American life. It was HIAS that afforded us passage to the United States in 1991. And nine years later, HIAS again offered a helping hand: a generous scholarship that helped me pay for my first year at UCLA. I myself can’t judge whether they’ve received a decent return on this particular investment, but I do know that, for 137 years, they have brought — and continue to bring — honor to this country. I’ll offer one example.
In the magnificent, meandering closing sentence of his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov gives us the pleasure of spotting, for ourselves, the first sign of his family’s near-miraculous means of escape from Europe in 1939:
There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbor, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady’s bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.
The “splendid ship” was the Champlain, a French liner chartered by HIAS to deliver refugees to the United States. Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd fills in the picture, “The organization was directed by Yakov Frumkin, an old friend of Nabokov’s father, who like many other Russian Jews was glad to be able to repay the dead man for his bold stands against the Kishinyov pogroms and the Beilis trial by now offering his son a cabin for half fare.”
“For the rest of his years,” Maxim D. Shrayer tells us, “Nabokov remained grateful for the Jewish support.” That debt is one of the few things I can confidently claim to share with Nabokov. But aren’t all readers of English literature who delight in Nabokov’s unparalleled stratagems indebted to HIAS? Really, aren’t we all?