As a child, Lev Golinkin didn't realize that he was Jewish; his family's religion had been ripped away two generations before by Joseph Stalin. But somehow everyone else knew — his classmates, his teachers, the shopkeeper down the street, the neighbors — and they all hated him for it.

Golinkin was 9 years old in 1989, when he and his family managed to get out of the Soviet Union, but those first nine years in Kharkov, Ukraine, were hell.

As a Jew, Lev's older sister, Lina, was not allowed to study medicine, despite her stellar grades. As a Jew, his engineer father was not allowed to attend a prestigious conference in Bulgaria, despite his groundbreaking work on wind turbines.

And as a Jew, Lev was routinely knocked down, punched in the face and mocked by other children. Teachers watched but did not intervene.

Golinkin's fascinating memoir, "A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka" (the vodka was used for bribes) tells two stories. The first follows the family's 1989 emigration — the nerve-racking wait for visas; the harrowing night at the border when the Soviet guards searched them, smashed their belongings, ripped up their clothes and, in a final taunt, accused them of stealing their own documents, which nearly prevented their departure; their months in limbo as refugees in Austria; their resettlement in the strange new world of Lafayette, Ind.

The narrative's second track takes place years later as a now-grown Golinkin — confused, self-loathing, unable to move forward with his life — returns to Europe to make peace with his past.

Despite the serious topic, Golinkin writes with a light touch; he has a natural sense of humor and an easy style. Even the more difficult parts of the book are infused with his wry and witty observations. (At the border, he and his family stood against the wall "like torpid sacks.")

He is vivid in his depictions of the confusing life of a refugee. "I'll never forget going to our first Fourth of July cookout and watching the Americans throw away knives, forks, plates, and tablecloths, disposable versions of items that weren't supposed to be disposable," he writes. "It was like traveling to a land where people toss out their cars after they run out of gas."

An added complication: American Jews had sponsored the Russian immigrants at great expense and personal sacrifice; they felt disappointed and betrayed that the refugees, now freed from the repression of the U.S.S.R., were not interested in rediscovering Judaism.

"Many Soviet Jews could not be grateful in the way their American benefactors desired," Golinkin writes, "could not bring themselves to celebrate what had for so long been nothing but a dangerous liability. Overcoming our ethnicity was a matter of preservation."

During his return to Europe, Golinkin tracks down some of the people who had helped his family years before, which provides some of the book's most moving scenes.

"Eight Crates of Vodka" opens with a depiction of breathtaking cruelty. But by the end, readers may feel breathless at the incredible kindness of strangers.

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. On Twitter @StribBooks.