According to his birth certificate, my paternal grandfather was born in 1892 in Lanovetska, a town near the city of Kremenets in the Ternopil region of Ukraine. It lies about 50 miles east of Lviv, itself only a few miles east of Poland. A few days ago a Russian missile attack killed at least six people in Lviv. My paternal grandmother was born in eastern Slovakia, and my mother’s family originated in Lithuania, so it’s likely that I have at least a few blood relatives left in the immediate region (I think my father’s father left behind a brother and sister when he left Ukraine for America in the spring of 1914) — perhaps that’s why I follow the Russo-Ukrainian War so closely. There has been a great deal of distance and time between Lanovetska and New York, 1892 and 2023. Nonetheless, as I’ve written before, I feel an uncanny affinity for the region, and I watch events unfold there with increasing fear.
The Wikipedia links above will reveal that there was a strong Jewish presence in the neighborhood of Lanovetska and Kremenets at least through 1921. I was baptized into the Russian Orthodox church myself, but my children self-identify as Jewish, like their mother, and indeed one of my best friends, also Jewish, claims an ancestry in the region. As I learn more about my family’s history and the history of western Ukraine, I grow increasingly curious about my family’s behavior and presence there through the first and second world wars — and, indeed, the war there now. Victoria Amelina, who died last week in a missile attack in eastern Ukraine, described my thoughts perhaps better than I ever could, in an essay called “Ukraine and the meaning of home”:
My family lived through the trauma of the Holodomor, also called the Great Famine, which took place from 1932-33, but my grandparents never talked in detail about it. Silence creates cracks so deep that it is hardly possible to feel at home. When stories about the Holocaust or Holodomor are not fully revealed, we’re bound not to trust each other. Who were you in 1933? The hungry one or the one taking all the food? The one who shot Ukrainian activists in 1941, or the one who searched for their loved one among the decomposing bodies? The scared one watching from the window when Jews were taken away or the one who took them? The one who wrote to the KGB about your neighbour or the one who helped Ukrainian dissidents? There were silences instead of the much-needed stories. And where there’s a lack of true stories, there is a lack of trust. We are bound to believe the propaganda and draw all the wrong borders again and again, never feeling completely at home.
It is comfortable to think that, here in America, these questions remain abstract, but of course they don’t and they never did. Just recently, newly-passed laws reward men and women for informing on the activities of women seeking abortions; the 1950s Red Scare contributed to general paranoia, and not merely in the entertainment industry; internment camps for Japanese citizens were constructed and populated in the 1940s; and let’s not even discuss the era of slavery and the persecution of abolitionists in the 19th century.
We may like to pretend that these never existed, that these events have been relegated to a distant past with no bearing on our country today, that somehow we’re beyond this kind of culture. But the kinds of questions that Amelina asked herself — “Who were you in 1933? The hungry one or the one taking all the food?” — are questions that my research has caused to occur about me and my family’s own behavior. I like to think that all of it was purely humanistic, brave, and just. But I know more about human beings than that. And it’s only by asking myself these questions that I can prevent anything like it from happening again, even if I contribute so little through my own individual choices.
As Ukraine battles for its right to self-determination and cultural integrity, so too is it fighting that battle for all of us. Today marks the 500th day of the Russo-Ukrainian War; according to the United Nations, “More than 9,000 civilians, including over 500 children, have been killed since Russia’s February 24, 2022 attack, but … the real number could be much higher.” That’s nearly 10,000 innocent worlds destroyed so far. It is with this in mind that I raise my glass with sadness to the memory of Victoria Amelina and her urgent work one more time. Slava Ukraini.