SAN JOSE -- Lina Eydus came home from school one day to see her family's Leningrad apartment being turned upside down by the Soviet authorities. She knew they were looking for something.
So did her grandmother, who had hidden away their illegal Hebrew textbooks in the oven.
"It didn't come to their minds to check there, or who knows what would have happened," said Eydus, who now lives in San Jose. "There were a lot of scary moments back then, and that was one of them."
As Passover begins Monday at sundown, the weeklong celebration holds special meaning for those who fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union. That's because the holiday commemorates the Exodus story of the Jewish people being liberated from slavery in ancient Egypt.
"It took us 10 years for us to make our own exodus," added Eydus, 48, a software engineer who immigrated to the United States in 1988. "It was a long, long road to freedom, and it was very painful."
She is among the Bay Area residents who were encouraged by the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley to take part in the online myStory project -- revealing deeply personal memories of being treated as second-class citizens, living in constant fear and not allowed to practice their faith.
It's still difficult for Eydus to talk about how her family was followed, had their phone tapped and were photographed at Leningrad's lone synagogue. She even was arrested once.
Such stories are familiar for Jews who lived behind the Iron Curtain and committed the transgression of applying for exit visas.
"It was like another planet," added Rimma Zaraysky, 75, of Cupertino, who eventually was allowed to leave in 1980 with her husband Isak and their two young children. "It was difficult living over there, and yet it was very scary to leave for another country. We left everything behind. You just have hope and nothing else."
The myStory archive, started by the New York-based nonprofit Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is a way to make sure the experiences of Jewish émigrés from around the world -- and those who helped them -- are not forgotten. Board member Genia Brin, mother of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, helped launch the website. The family emigrated from the former Soviet Union when their son was 6.
The plight of those who lived under Soviet rule at the height of the Cold War was brought back into focus in December with the 25th anniversary of the march on Washington, D.C., for Soviet Jewry. In 1987, about 250,000 people rallied in protest when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to meet with President Reagan.
World pressure eventually helped lead to a wave of emigration from Eastern Bloc countries as communism began to crumble. The movement will be remembered at a Community Freedom Seder on Sunday at the Levy Family Campus in Los Gatos.
"The Exodus story is an important influence throughout Western history because it showed us tyranny and people wanting to be free," said Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. As a young activist, he found himself in a "paddy wagon" with other rabbis after locking themselves to a fence at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco.
"Soviet Jews especially identify with the Exodus story because they wanted to get out, too," Pressman added.
Eydus' family applied to leave just before she was 14. For almost a decade they were "Refuseniks" -- people denied permission to emigrate. Her parents lost their jobs. Classmates weren't allowed to talk to her. She believes the stress contributed to family members, including her grandparents, dying before they could leave.
"They tried to make our lives unbearable because the Soviet Union didn't want the world to know that some people were unhappy," she said. "Russia thought of itself as the world's greatest empire. If people wanted to leave, then that meant something must be wrong."
But during that period, Eydus also met her future husband, Victor, and the oldest of their two children was born.
"The Refuseniks would come together to support one another, and we would quietly celebrate the Jewish holidays," she added.
When Zaraysky and her husband applied for visas, they also lost their engineering jobs and struggled to support their family.
"We had to sell quite a bit of our antiques just to have money to live on," Zaraysky said.
The Bay Area became a destination for Russian Jews, and Pressman estimates that several thousand live in Silicon Valley. Boris Kelman, who during his 11-year wait to leave could only find work as a truck driver despite having a doctoral degree, settled in Mountain View with his wife and two sons.
"My story is not important," said Kelman, 72. "But it is important for people today to understand who they are. And to do that, you need to know who came before you."
And as Passover begins, it is a time to remember.
"Of course this is one of my favorite holidays," Eydus added.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley is hosting a Community Freedom Seder on Sunday beginning at 3 p.m. at the Levy Family Campus, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. It will be a celebration of the sixth day of Passover with a focus on the Soviet Jewry story. The cost is $10 for adults and free for children. For more information, email email@example.com or call 408-357-7504.
For more information about the online myStory project, sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, go to www.hias.org.