By Bree Samani
A wave of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews flooded Russia in the late 1800s and led to the murders of my ancestors, Reuben and Mira Kuklin.
Reuben was an Orthodox rabbi and left behind his four daughters, who fled to safety in present-day Baku, Azerbaijan.
One of those daughters, Liuba Kuklin, who would become my great-grandmother, met Salman Samani in a Russian-Jewish synagogue year laters. Salman fell in love with Liuba and asked her to marry him.
The two eventually married and stayed in Baku for a few years before they had to leave because of another rise of anti-Semitism in the region. The couple moved to Salman’s native Iran, hoping it would be a safer place for them.
Their first son, Reuben Samani, who would become my grandfather, was born in Baku in 1920 and grew up in Tehran, Iran, with his three sisters and one brother.
At age 15, Reuben was visiting the beach by the Caspian Sea near the Soviet Union-Iranian border when he heard bullets hitting the sand by his feet.
“I looked and see what’s going on; I thought someone was hunting seabirds,” Reuben said in a recording in I made in 2014, a year before his death.
Reuben continued walking when he was tackled by Soviet Union border guards.
“The first thing they said was ‘Oh, we caught a good spy!’”
Reuben was fluent in Russian because of his mother, so he began to speak to the guards.
“They couldn’t believe that I could talk Russian like a Russian,” Reuben said. “So they thought I was a spy sneaking over the border.”
Reuben endured six months of interrogation in solitary confinement until authorities concluded that he was not a spy.
“I had torture. I had suffering,” Reuben said.
He went to trial and was found guilty of illegally crossing the Soviet Union border and was sentenced to three years of imprisonment.
Reuben started to serve his sentence in a prison and then was moved to a labor camp in the northern reaches of the Soviet Union, where he cut down trees.
Eventually, Reuben grew ill and was transferred to a concentration camp, where he did office work for the rest of his sentence.
After serving his time, he was finally released and went back home to Iran.
As Reuben grew older, he pursued a degree in law.
“My dad always told me I wasn’t smart enough to be a lawyer, so I wanted to prove him wrong,” he said.
Once he finished school, he decided a career in law was not for him.
In a predominantly Muslim country, Reuben felt that he was not welcome in Iran as a Jew.
In search for freedom and a place without religious persecution, Reuben went to Lyon, France, where his uncles lived. From there, he boarded a ship and headed to Ellis Island in New York on Feb. 5, 1952.
From New York, Reuben went to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he began his American dream. He pursued a master’s degree in political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and was involved in the Iranian-Student Organization on campus.
During his time at UNL, Reuben met Margaret Johnson, whom he married. He then decided to work on his new-found dream of becoming a doctor.
He attended the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Medicine in Omaha, where he earned his medical degree in obstetrics and gynecology.
Reuben and Margaret eventually settled in Sioux Center, Iowa, with their four children. Reuben lived there the rest of his life until he died on Nov. 22, 2015.
Throughout Reuben’s life he felt that he was lucky to be alive.
“I call that destiny, I am a genuine believer,” Reuben said. “For some reason, God saved me.”