Shrewsbury resident recalls moving to US as a teen
By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – When Elina Pirovich was 15, she was living in her homeland of the Soviet Union in an area that is now the independent country of Lithuania. It was 1982, and Leonid Brezhnev was in power. People who were Jewish were being persecuted, she said, and her family is of that faith. A window of opportunity opened for her family to emigrate as political refugees. Wanting a better future for their children, Pirovich’s parents decided to dislocate themselves from everything they knew and start a new life in the United States.
More than 30 years later, Pirovich’s memory of the move rings clear.
“Growing up, practicing Judaism, we weren’t allowed to practice, so I didn’t grow up practicing,” she said. “But being Jewish was not just a religion in the Soviet Union; it was also a nationality, so it was in your passport. So you were persecuted for being Jewish without actually being allowed to practice your religion.”
Penalties for being Jewish, Pirovich said, included not being able to attend a college of her choice and her parents being denied jobs.
The family’s asylum allowed them passage to New York, where Pirovich’s aunt lived.
She met her husband Jacob there, and when he took a job in Massachusetts, the couple relocated to Shrewsbury where they have lived for 20 years.
Pirovich recently recalled life at 15, arriving in the U.S.
“The very first thing that you notice actually,” she said, “is that people were smiling. Because when you walk on the streets in Russia, nobody smiles. Here everybody was really friendly. They talk to you, so that was very different and very welcoming.”
She was awed by the stores being stocked with “everything you can possibly imagine.” Her sister was six and saw a banana for the first time.
“I think the hardest part is getting adjusted to the culture and the language barrier,” she said.
Pirovich was placed in an ESL (English as a second language) program with kids from different countries. Her teacher, Mr. Witazeck, influenced her hugely, helping her both in school and to adjust culturally. She felt united with the other students who also lacked English.
Getting a late start, Pirovich was not able to amass enough credits to graduate, so she stopped after 11th grade. Determined, she went to a community college, earned her GED, and progressed to a university. Her schooling prior to emigrating paid off.
“There is not a lot of great things I say about Russia,” she said, “but they had a fantastic math program. Because the math that I did in Russia was enough for me to actually skip the high school and go right into the college, and I graduated college.”
Pirovich’s two children are following in her footsteps. Her daughter Hailey is a sophomore at Northeastern University, majoring in finance, and her son David is a senior at Rutgers University studying microbiology. Both graduated from Shrewsbury High School.
When David struggled with math, she enrolled him in the Russian School of Mathematics (RSM) in Newton. Pirovich volunteered at the RSM during that time and later taught there. Now, she is the principal of the RSM in Shrewsbury.
“We are bringing what we were learning, the methodology of what we did into here,” Pirovich said.
Leaving her homeland, Pirovich said, she missed her friends the most. She also missed the plays, the music, the architecture and the old cobblestone streets. Looking back, she noted, she is very grateful to her parents.
“I look at my parents, what they did, to uproot everything and say, ‘You know, I want our kids to get out of this and build a future.’ … I really admire their courage,” she said.
Although Pirovich’s family was not able to practice Judaism, she and her sister learned about the traditions from her grandparents. She has shared the traditions with her own children so they know “where they came from,” but always allowed them to choose for themselves whether they wanted to practice.
Adjusting to the U.S. took time. Pirovich recalled going to see “Good Morning Vietnam” in the theater with her husband. Everyone was laughing, but they didn’t know the references or culture. They watched the movie 10 years later, and understood the jokes.
“I would say absolutely right now we feel at home, our only home,” Pirovich said.
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