The Roots and the Tree: Rereading My Family Past During the War in Ukraine

June 28, 2022
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In the spring of 1987, as leaving the USSR consumed my daily existence, I developed something of an obsession with our family tree. I perused family albums (some of which wouldn’t survive emigration), and I pestered my parents with questions they didn’t necessarily feel like answering. It was an oral, truncated family history I was parsing, and in archiving vestiges of our ancestors’ Jewish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Soviet pasts I was finding some of the keys to our family’s refusenik present. It was then, during my last Soviet spring, I discovered that a learned family history both filled one with pain and comforted with afterknowledge.

Many years had gone by. I was now more of a Bostonian than a Muscovite—and not just as measured by the length of lived time. In 1993, no longer a stateless person but a naturalized U.S. citizen, I started going back to Russia, and throughout 2000-2019 I visited almost every year, sometimes twice a year, on research and lecturing trips. I had first tried to write about my grandparents following the death of my maternal grandmother in 2009. She had immigrated to America with us and died in Providence, Rhode Island at age ninety-five. Having lived as a new American for over twenty years, she most regretted not having visited her brother’s grave in Moscow and not having learned to drive. I included pages about my grandparents’ lives—before and after the Pale—in my book “Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story,” which came out in 2013, when the situation in Russia did not seem so disconsolate. (Was I deluding myself with false hopes?)

My daughters had become teenagers, my parents, octogenarians. I had last visited Russia in the summer of 2019 with Tatiana, my younger daughter. As we washed the family gravestones at the Preobrazhenskoe Jewish Cemetery in St. Petersburg, where both my paternal grandmother and many relatives on my father’s side rest, I told myself—as I had for several previous summers—that it was probably going to be my last visit to Putin’s Russia. This time it turned out to be true, and the COVID pandemic only finalized the “valediction”—although without “forbidding mourning.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, I found myself in the grip of a renewed quest to understand how my grandparents and their family members used to live in or near the areas where Russia’s bombs and missiles were now annihilating life and memory. Once again, now in times of war, I was drawn to family archeology. I thought I had already achieved a knowledge of my late grandparents’ stories. But the war in Ukraine had given me new optics while also forcing me to breach the moat of historical time that I had never imagined overcoming. Like a middle-aged person accoutered with bifocals of historical clarity, I saw layers of meaning suddenly revealed.

All four of my late grandparents came from the Pale of Settlement, from what are now regions of independent Ukraine and Lithuania. In their youth all four of my grandparents had made sweeping—and in many ways successful—transitions. As were hundreds of thousands of Jewish families of the Pale, ours was torn apart by winds of revolution, Zionism and emigration. As did tens of thousands of children of the Pale, in the late 1920s and early 1930s all four of my grandparents actively sought a place and a career in a new world, which during the first two Soviet decades still intoxicated the Jews with a promise of equality, if not acceptance. All four of my grandparents were culturally Russianized, and yet for each one of them, Jewishness was inescapable. Over the decades of living outside the former Pale, even their first names and patronymics had become palimpsests of acculturation. In fact, a Jewish past still echoed in my parents’ birth certificates issued before World War 2. My paternal grandfather Peysakh Borukhovich became Pyotr Borisovich, a name free of Judaic telltale signs. My paternal grandmother Bella Wolfovna, a Lithuanian rabbi’s daughter, metamorphosed into Bella Vladimirovna. My maternal grandfather Aron Ikhilovich put on the tidy clothes of Arkady Ilyich. And only old university friends from Kharkiv remembered my outwardly Slavic maternal grandmother Anna Mikhailovna as the once Jewish Nyusya Moshkovna.

The author’s maternal grandmother, Anna Studnits (third row third from right) with brother and family members. 1931, Horodok, Khmelnitskyi (formerly Kamianets-Podilskyi) Province, Ukraine.

Both of my mother’s parents grew up in the Ukraine (which has since blessedly lost its definite article). My mother’s mother, Anna (Nyusya) Studnits, was born in 1914 in the town of Bar, presently of the Vinnitsa Province. Around the time of my grandmother’s birth, almost half of Bar’s population, or 10,000, were Jewish. She lost her mother as a young girl. After living with the family of her father’s sister in the Podolian town of Horodok, she left home as a teenager to go to junior college. My maternal grandmother came of age when the Soviet Union was moving at a fast clip toward Stalinism. Although never a member of the Party, my grandmother lived much of her adult life in the Soviet Union by pretending to believe in the official ideology. Like so many women of her generation, she had weathered Stalinism and learned to be a survivalist. My grandmother told me about being a student at Kharkiv Economics Institute in the 1930s. After Hrihoryi Petrovskyi, an old Bolshevik and then President of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, was removed from his post in January 1938, my grandmother and two girlfriends stayed up all night sifting through photo albums in search of their pictures taken alongside Petrovskyi at a gala for top university students. The pictures with the deposed Ukrainian leader were either eviscerated or burned altogether.

The pictures with the deposed Ukrainian leader were either eviscerated or burned altogether.

As a young boy, I spent a great deal of time alone with grandmother Anna Mikhailovna, and curiously I don’t recall my grandmother’s Sovietness spilling into our conversations. Perhaps I just don’t remember or don’t wish to remember? What I do remember about my mother’s mother, from early childhood, was the striking degree of her Russianization and assimilation. While she remained “Jewish” in her official Soviet papers (“Jewishness” was defined as nationality or ethnicity, not religion), in the street, blonde and gray-eyed, she looked and deliberately acted Slavic and un-Jewish. Whenever possible, she concealed Jewishness in her public life. In their communal apartment, where privacy was hardly attainable, grandmother Anna Mikhailovna forbade her elderly father to speak Yiddish and tried hard to hide matzos from the non-Jewish neighbors. Instead, she made traditional Russian blinis during Maslenitsa (Shrovetide), the Orthodox Christian festival marking the last week before Lent. Around Orthodox Easter (a week after Passover), my grandmother used to bake the traditional Paschal sweet bread (kulich) to blend in with the rest of the neighbors. She had been raised in a Yiddish-speaking household, with a father who until his death in 1953 started his days with putting on the tfillinand mouthing his prayers. And yet, by the time I was growing up, my grandmother had lost (or suppressed?) the ability to speak Yiddish almost entirely. Only occasionally would I hear words like makhteneste (mother-in-law) or abisale (a bit) coming out of her mouth as though they lived a life of their own in the vaults of her memory. While technically semi-native, her Russian was perfect, virtually free of any Jewish or Ukrainian accent, save for an occasionally mis-stressed past tense feminine verb. After over two decades in America, her Russian speech with its languorous intonations still betrayed a long-term resident of old Moscow.

My mother’s parents were as different as two people could be. My grandfather, Aron (Arkady) Polyak was passionate, life-loving, obsessive; my grandmother was rational, exacting, ascetic. Fate shouldn’t even have accidents, and yet an “accident of fate” brought them together. After graduating with a degree in economics, my grandmother had been sent to my grandfather’s home town of Kamianets-Podilskyi to work in the regional planning department. In 1939 my grandfather stopped in Kamianets-Podilskyi on the way back from a vacation in North Caucasus. He called on my grandmother at her office to deliver a message from a fellow engineer from Moscow, one of my grandmother’s old suitors. The suitor had proposed to my grandmother in a letter a year earlier, and she replied that “her plans for the future were still wide open.” After calling on my grandmother, my grandfather (a young engineer whom her co-workers described as a “tall, very handsome man”), invited her to his parents’ house, where his sister Sonya was now living. To maintain decorum, my grandmother brought along a girlfriend. There was a little party at the house of my grandfather’s sister Chaya-Sura (Surele to her family, Sonya to the world), with food and dancing. A few weeks later my grandmother visited my grandfather in Moscow for the May 1 holiday. He was living in a tiny closet of a room, in a communal apartment. “Nyusya, if we get married,” he told my grandmother, “then they can’t force you to go back.” My mother probably owed her conception to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23, 1939 and the brief interlude of prewar calm.

My maternal grandfather Arkady died when I was eight, but I remember him very well. Even in his latter years, after going blind (a complication of poorly treated diabetes and loving life), he still charged those around him with an intensity of mind and a generosity of heart that I have hardly encountered since his departure. In the projection room of memory, grandfather Arkady acquires Olympian proportions. One of my strongest memories of him is coming to visit him as a child and finding him in his den playing cards with two old friends, drinking vodka, smoking, and treating his company and himself to the abundant zakuski crowding the side table next to his divan. For me as a Soviet first-grader, there was something incredibly mystifying and liberating to see my gourmand grandfather playing “Preference” with his pals.

For me as a Soviet first-grader, there was something incredibly mystifying and liberating to see my gourmand grandfather playing “Preference” with his pals.

Grandfather Arkady came from a solid Kamianets-Podilskyi middle-class Jewish family with roots in the nearby small town of Orinin. Growing up, he attended cheder, the Jewish religious school. Three of his siblings, a brother and two sisters, were Zionists and escaped to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine to become halutzim, while another brother and two sisters stayed in the Soviet Union. As a young man in the late 1920s, my maternal grandfather moved to Moscow from Ukraine. After two or three years of working as a stone-mason he had managed to obliterate his “bourgeois” past, join the ranks of the proletariat, and get himself accepted to an engineering school. By the time he had met grandmother Anna, both of his parents had already passed on: my great-grandmother Chana-Feyga in 1935 in their native Kamianets-Podislkyi, and my great-grandfather Ilya (Ikhil) Polyak in 1933 in the faraway Birobidzhan, an enclave on the Soviet-China border where he was building the Jewish Autonomous Province.

The grave of the author’s maternal great-grandmother, Chana-Feyga Polyak  Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine. Photo 2010 by Yechiel Poleg, first cousin of the author’s mother.

Grandfather Arkady went on to have a career as a communications engineer. Unlike his wife, even after decades of living in Moscow, he never quite shed the skin of a Ukrainian Jew. Jewishness defined him, broadcasting itself through his overachievements, his questionings of received wisdom, his bitter-sweet humor, and, above all, through his distinctly Jewish view of history. Something in the way my mother’s father carried himself left even me, a Moscow Jewish boy, with no illusions about assimilation. He passionately hated the Soviet regime, while also managing not to lose to the system at its games and machinations. He was—not even through what he said but through what he didn’t say, or better yet, how he said it at the dinner table—the source of my mother’s early ideological dissent. His inner opposition counterbalanced my grandmother’s Soviet conformism. His whole life, grandfather Arkady ached for Israel.

Following the early 1950s, as the Soviet policies toward Israel became increasingly hostile, grandfather Arkady was having to avoid a direct correspondence with his siblings and family there so as not to destroy his career and his children’s happiness. He employed the services of a Leningrad-based Jewish woman, Mary N., who had few concerns about her own career. Through Mary N., my grandfather corresponded with Israel. To her Leningrad address, his Israeli siblings, and especially his sister Tsilya, to whom he was the closest, sent occasional gifts from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Ber-Tuvia. In 1965, taking advantage of a brief interlude that preceded the complete severing of diplomatic relations with Israel during the Six-Day War, Tsilya, a head nurse at a hospital, traveled to the Soviet Union and stayed in Moscow for over a week. She and her brother hadn’t seen each other in forty years. Being with sister Tsilya reignited grandfather Arkady’s desire to get his children out of Russia. At the time my young parents were storming the career heights and wouldn’t hear of it. Yet the first seeds of a Jewish yearning to emigrate had been planted in my parents’ hearts in 1965, still two years before I was born.

Yet the first seeds of a Jewish yearning to emigrate had been planted in my parents’ hearts in 1965, still two years before I was born.

Was it destiny or the legacy of my grandfathers’ origins that brought my parents together in 1962? It was a family wedding, actually the wedding of the future Prisoner of Zion Hillel Butman and Eva Beckman in Leningrad, where my father’s people had been living since the early 1930s. The wife of my father’s eldest uncle happened to be a cousin of my mother’s father, and the wedding gave the Polyaks and the Shrayers a chance to remember their place of origin. Natives of Kamianets-Podislkyi (Kamenets-Podolsk) lovingly referred to it simply as “Kamenets.” A place quite mythological to me when I heard about it during my Moscow childhood, it had been absolutely real to both my grandfathers and my maternal grandmother.

Located on the banks of the Smotrich River close to the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kamianets-Podislkyi had been the capital of the Podolia Province and an important regional center of commerce. On the eve of World War I there were 23,000 Jews, or nearly half of the population, in Kamianets-Podislkyi. The family of my father’s father, Peysakh Shrayer, had been living in the environs of Kamianets-Podislkyi since the middle of the nineteenth century. For several generations, a milling business was the Shrayer family enterprise. My father’s grandfather, Borukh-Itsik, who was born in 1875 in the village of Dumanov outside Kamianets-Podislkyi and died in Leningrad in 1946, was the last one in our loud dynasty of millers. He raised five children into adulthood. His first wife died in childbirth after giving birth to a little girl who only lived for a year. Their other children, Yanya (Yakov) and Berta, were two and three when their birth mother died. In 1906 my great-grandfather married Fanya (Freyda) Kizer, who came from a poor family and was interested in socialism. She raised her husband’s two children like her own. Great-grandmother Fanya Shrayer and great-grandfather Borukh-Itsik had three boys, Munya (Moisey), Pusya (Peysakh, later Russianized to Pyotr), and Abrasha (Abram). Pusya, my grandfather, was born in 1910. In the 1910s the family moved from the countryside, where stood the Shrayer mills, to Kamianets-Podislkyi, a city by today’s standards.

The author’s paternal grandfather, Peysakh (Pyotr) Shrayer (bottom row on left) with parents and siblings. Kamianets-Podilsk, Ukraine, 1924.

My father’s father grew up in a financially secure family where Judaic religious rituals were loved, but not fanatically obeyed. As children, the Shrayer siblings had received instruction in Judaic law and custom and a solid European education. Yiddish was spoken at home, and the Shrayer children were also exposed to colloquial Ukrainian and Polish, and later, in Gymnasium, to literary Russian. As far as I can tell, my great-grandfather Borukh-Itsik didn’t shun modernity but respected traditions. In 1917, on the eve of the two revolutions that brought the Russian Empire to its collapse, my grandfather’s father bought a white stucco house on Sobornaya (Cathedral) Street from an impoverished Polish count and installed his family in an upper–middle-class neighborhood. In 1917–21 regimes and occupation forces came and went in Kamianets-Podislkyi: Provisional Government, Bolsheviks, Ukrainian Directoriat, General Denikin’s White Army, Simon Petlyura’s Ukrainian units, Polish troops, and Bolsheviks—this time, to stay. Still aspiring to the lifestyle of the urban haute bourgeoisie during the years of the New Economic Policy, even my shrewd great-grandfather hadn’t anticipated the voracity and destructive pace of the Soviet experiment. In 1924 my father’s Uncle Munya, who had been active in the local Socialist-Zionist movement and interested in agriculture, left Kamianets-Podislkyi and sailed off from Odessa for Palestine. The family had been broken up and never recovered after his departure. The presence of a son and brother in Israel would later become a verdict in the hands of the Soviet system.

In 1927 my Shrayer grandfather moved to Leningrad and started working there, first as a plasterer and later as a hospital orderly. In 1928, when the country was about to close the door on the New Economic Policy and private entrepreneurship as it entered the Five Year Plan, what remained of the Shrayer milling business was levied with excruciating state taxes and shut down. The family in Ukraine had fallen into hard times. By 1933 my great-grandfather, the former Merchant of the First Guild Borukh-Itsik Shrayer, having already spent two months in jail for allegedly concealing assets from the Soviet authorities, was living in Leningrad in tiny rooms he shared with his wife and eldest children. Yet even in Leningrad his business talents didn’t lie dormant. He became a “requisitioner” for the film studios, spending his days in a mad chase after clothes, props, equipment and whatever else was needed to shoot a picture. In the Venice of the North, life flowed through its new canals, a life without Kamenets and against many Soviet currents.

My father’s people, the Shrayers, had uprooted themselves and emigrated—yes, emigrated from Ukraine in the former Pale—to Leningrad. It was a different world, the Soviet world that all four of my grandparents encountered in the late 1920s. To the young Jewish men and women born in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the large Soviet cities beaconed with career opportunities and escape routes. In the late 1920s, when the Shrayers made the move from the former Pale to Leningrad, my grandfather and his siblings had all managed to whitewash their origins by working menial jobs and earning workers’ status. It was a struggle—”friends” from Kamenets sent anonymous letters to their places of work and study, denouncing them as “bourgeois elements.” Yet by the middle of the 1930s, my grandfather Pyotr and his three siblings, Yanya, Berta, and Abrasha, had graduated from colleges and universities to become Soviet professionals (“specialists”). In the late 1930s and 1940s grandfather Pyotr had the most glamorous career of the four of them. Having joined the Party while studying mechanical engineering at the university, he was favored for his practical talent and leadership skills. In the late 1930s my grandfather, still a young man, rose to the position of chief engineer of Leningrad’s “department of trams and trolleybuses.” He volunteered for the Soviet–Finnish War of 1939, serving in a mechanized unit, and during World War II he was transferred to the Navy and decorated for valor. A lieutenant-commander at thirty-four, he saw his last war action at Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in April of 1945. In 1949, my grandfather was dismissed from a prominent position at the transportation branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, because the Soviet policy toward the young Jewish state had taken a sinister turn, and my grandfather had a brother in Israel. The postwar years brought not only professional but also personal devastation.

My father’s people, the Shrayers, had uprooted themselves and emigrated—yes, emigrated from Ukraine in the former Pale—to Leningrad.

Of my four grandparents, only my mother’s mother Anna Studnits, Babulia as we called her in Russian, had been a constant presence in my life. I loved my maternal grandfather Arkady Polyak but lost him when I was eight, in 1975. I only got a few glimpses of my paternal grandfather Pyotr Shrayer, far too few to be able to judge his character, but perhaps enough to appreciate how little of his outer composure and wit I have inherited. But I never knew my father’s late mother, my grandmother Bella Breydo. Nor did my mother, as my parents wouldn’t meet for almost two years after her death. She died the autumn of 1960, when my father was serving as a military physician in Belarus. She was only forty-nine when she left this world.

I like to think that the spirit of my Litvak grandmother looks gladly upon my family, safeguarding us from the brutalities and betrayals of time. And yet the noun “grandmother” tastes bitter on my lips when I speak of my father’s mother, stranger and even bitterer in English than it is in Russian. I always missed her growing up, more acutely than I missed my late grandfathers, both of whom died when I was very young. I miss her every time I recognize in myself a trait that my father had inherited not from his father’s side and that I don’t know to be of my mother and her parents. It must be from my grandmother’s ancestors, the stern MisnagedicLithuanian rabbis, that my father has taken an idealistic belief in universal fairness. Growing up, I felt my Lithuanian grandmother’s blood flowing in my veins and reminding me of Lithuania, where we come from on one side of the family.

Bella Breydo (Broyde is an alternative spelling) was born in 1911 in Šiauliai (Shavel) and grew up in Panevėžys (Ponevezh). At the turn of the century the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai had about 10,000 Jews out of the total population of about 17,000 residents. Her father, Rabbi Chaim-Wolf Broyde, had descended from a long line of Litvak rabbis, which may have included the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchok Aizik Broida. In 1920, Rabbi Broyde and his younger children fled from Lithuania to the town of Polatsk in the Vitebsk Province.

The author’s paternal grandmother, Bella Breydo (third row second from left) with fellow graduates of a middle school. Polatsk, Belarus, 1926.

Grandmother Bella rebelled against her father and left home as a young woman. In her youth she admired the Blue Blouse, an agitprop performance group founded in 1923 and touring the country all through the 1920s and early 1930s. The blue-blousers preached an aesthetic of new proletarian simplicity of style, disdaining the bourgeoisie and mocking its cultural accoutrements. Grandmother Bella moved to Leningrad to study organic chemistry. Daughter of a rabbi who scorned secular art, she sang Russian songs and wrote poems. Pushkin and Esenin were her favorite poets. During my father’s childhood and youth, his mother’s Jewish pride manifested itself in her contempt for ethnic prejudice, and also in the culinary traditions that she faithfully followed. On Fridays, while living in a communal apartment with Russian neighbors, she made gefilte (stuffed) carp and noodle kugel.

After the Nazi invasion, her father, who worked as a Jewish teacher in Polatsk, refused to leave his home despite his children’s entreaties. After the war, a Belarusian neighbor told my grandmother that the old rabbi was shot by a Nazi hand while praying over his sacred books. My grandmother’s elder brother Eyno Broyde, who had stayed in Lithuania and served as a bank executive in Panevėžys, was most likely killed with his entire family in August 1941. A photos of Eyno’s two sons, Ruvim and Meyr, dated “Panevėžys 1931,” has been preserved in the family archive, alongside a later photo of my father’s cousin Ruvim Broyde, marked “16 August 1940 Panevėžys” and inscribed, in Russian: “For good remembrance to all of your dear ones. Yours, Ruvim.” Growing up, I learned from my father that after the war his mother and her siblings heard an unconfirmed rumor that their brother’s family had escaped to South Africa, where Lithuanian Jews had been immigrating through the Baltic seaports. Grandmother Bella had even tried to locate them through the International Red Cross, but to no avail.

After the Nazi invasion, her father, who worked as a Jewish teacher in Polatsk, refused to leave his home despite his children’s entreaties.

When I met my Philadelphia-born wife, Karen, in 1999, we immediately connected on the subject of her immigrant parents’ roots in present-day Lithuania and Ukraine. Like most South African Jews, Karen’s mother was of Litvak stock. When Karen’s cousin once removed, a Boston-based obstetrician formerly of Johannesburg, heard of the disappeared Lithuanian family members on my grandmother’s side, he asked after the last name and offered to look into it through his relatives still remaining in South Africa. Unfortunately, nothing came of it. In the summer of 2004 Karen and I drove across Lithuania, first from the Latvian border in the north via Šiauliai to Vilnius, then all to the way to Klaipėda (whence Lithuanian Jews used to sail to South Africa) down the Curonian Spit toward the former East Prussia (now Russia’s Kaliningrad Province), and finally back east to Kaunas. In 1977, as my parents teetered on the verge of deciding to emigrate, I had accompanied my father to Lithuania, his mother’s homeland, and I remember feeling that we had no living relatives there but only marked and unmarked graves. The Lithuanian trip my wife and I took in 2004 was a journey through a map of Jewish death, and not only because of the many Shoah sites we visited, but mainly because we both felt that no living Jewish life connected us to Lithuania’s present. After two depressing weeks in Lithuania, Karen and I felt relief after our Helsinki-bound plane had taken off from Estonia’s capital. Over the next decade, travels would take us to many places of vibrant Jewish history, including Recife-Olinda in Brazil’s Northeast, but not to where our roots were in Eastern Europe. My wife and I talked about a trip to ancestral places in the present-day Ukraine—to North Bukovina (Chernivtsi, which was Cernăuți and still in Romania when her father, a Holocaust survivor, was born) and to Podolia—my grandfathers’ Kamianets-Podilskyi and my grandmother’s Bar and Horodok. These plans never materialized, in part because our daughters would soon be born, and in part because neither of us was keen to go where death and genocide had destroyed our family’s past.

As today’s undergraduates love to say in their essays, it was ironic that I started visiting Ukraine in the early 2010s—not because of family connections but because of my research on the Shoah in the occupied Soviet territories. I was working on a book about the murder of Jews in Crimea and the earliest literary witnesses to the Shoah, and back then one traveled to Simferopol, Crimea’s capital city, via Kyiv. I was last in Ukraine in the autumn of 2013, just months before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Mira, my older daughter, joined me on the trip, and we spent time in Kyiv before flying to Crimea. Whether it was because we never made it to Podolia, our ancestor’s homeland, or for other reasons that had not been clear to me at the time, I do not know, but I cannot say that I felt an emotional closeness to Ukraine—nothing comparable to the heady mixture of cultural love and political repulsion that I endured while visiting my native Russia. When Crimea was annexed, I stopped going there because I didn’t want in any way to endorse Russia’s aggression. And Ukraine as such was not enough of a draw for me at the time. Most of the ties with Ukraine had been severed before I was born—and long before emigration.

And here comes the part I didn’t—couldn’t—anticipate either emotionally or intellectually.

As Russian troops sought to murder Ukraine and as Ukraine fought for her right to be, I experienced an amalgamation of anger, shame, and grief. And I also felt how from the deep roots of family history, once ripped out of the former Pale but never completely severed from it, branches of a newborn kinship with Ukraine, her land and her people, were growing inside me—bursting through me. As I went back to what had survived of our family’s memory of Ukrainian roots, I asked my mother, a survivor of refusenikdom, why we never visited Ukraine when I was growing up in Moscow. And I also queried my mother, and also her younger sister and an Israeli-born first cousin on my grandfather’s side, about certain elusive details.

My mother was born in Moscow on 19 May 1940, one year, one month, and three days before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. On 22 June 1941 my grandmother and my mother happened to be in Kamianets-Podilsk on vacation, staying in the ancestral home where my grandfather’s sister Sonya was living with her family. My mother and grandmother, and my mother’s aunt and family, escaped on what were the last trains before Kamianets-Podilskyi was occupied. Kamianets-Podilskyi became the site of one of the largest massacres of World War 2, with over 23,000 Jews, both local and the ones deported there by Hungarian authorities, murdered by bullet over 26-29 August 1941. The victims, whom members of German Einsatzgruppen and police units, Hungarian troops and Ukrainian auxiliaries killed in Kamianets-Podilskyi, included relatives both on the Polyak side and on the side of Perets Limonchik, to whom my grandfather’s elder siter Sonya was married. Relatives on the Horodok side of the family were also murdered, among them a cousin of my maternal grandmother’s with a young child.

After the war, growing up in Moscow and Leningrad, my mother and father visited Ukraine and saw their close relatives who had returned to what in 1943 Vasily Grossman had called “Ukraine without Jews.” In the late 1940s and 1950s we still had family members in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Odessa, Vinnitsa, Chernivtsi, Krivyi Rih. By the time my parents met and married in 1962, there were few relatives on either side left in Ukraine. Some of the older survivors had died in the 1950s. Those included my maternal grandfather’s sister Sonya, who passed away in 1952 and rests in her native Kamianets-Podilskyi with other family members. In 1954, two years after Aunt Sonya’s death, our native Kamianets-Podilsyi was stripped of its status as a provincial capital and absorbed into the newly created Khmelnitskyi Province. To the Jews, the city of Khmelnitskyi, formerly Proskuriv, evoked both the legacy of the massive anti-Jewish violence of 1648 and the more recent memories of the 1919 pogrom, carried out by units of the Ukrainian People’s Army.

For the most part, however, our relatives had left Ukraine in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to antisemitic professional restrictions and rampant popular antisemitism. This was the case with my grandfather’s younger sister Riva (Revekka) Polyak, a professor of medicine who moved from Chernivtsi in the former North Bukovina to Stavropol in the foothills of the Caucasus. This was also the case with Israel Shrayer, first cousin of my paternal grandfather, a professor of surgery who left Vinnitsa in the late 1950s and moved to Kemerovo in Siberia, where he would head a medical center. Relatives of ours ended up living in the Urals and on the Kamchatka, but not in Ukraine. An older unmarried cousin from Odessa made aliyah in the early 1960s, when the future exodus of Soviet Jews was still a tiny creek. All of the above helps explain why my grandmother Anna only spoke of Ukraine in the past perfect—both literally and figuratively—and never visited after the early 1960s. I last saw a relative from Ukraine, Aunt Berta, my maternal grandmother’s first cousin, at the funeral of another first cousin of my grandmother’s, Auntie Roza, in 1980, and I remember Berta’s yellow face, so solemn and so furrowed that it made me think of an Egyptian mummy.

Now that the war in Ukraine no longer augurs the possibility of visiting Russia, I ask myself what’s left in my quest to assemble a family history? And other questions: What would my next visit to Ukraine amount to? A reversal of family fortune? A pilgrimage? An act of physical, material reconnection with family roots?

It is strange (and almost incongruous) to think that Russia’s brutal, neocolonial war brought me closer to my Ukrainian roots. And yet, to lean yet again on the Dostoevskian cane of phrase, I wake up every day and hope for Ukraine to regain her peace. Now more than ever before, I want to visit the towns of Bar and Horodok, the stomping grounds of grandmother Anna’s tender youth. I hope to explore Kharkiv, where my young grandmother Anna attended university in the 1930s. I want to walk around Kamianets-Podilskyi and environs and see with my own eyes what remains of the family mills and of the cobbled inner courtyard of the stucco family home where in April 1939 my still unmarried grandparents Aron and Nyusya danced to wheezy gramophone music under the ripening Podolian stars. And I want to stand in Odessa’s Practical Harbor and stare at the water that lapped at the shore, watermelons and cigarette butts afloat, when my father’s Uncle Munia sailed off to Jaffa in 1924.

I want to hug the land of Ukraine with my feet and whole body, now that I feel Ukraine in my heart.

Copyright © 2022 by Maxim D. Shrayer

Maxim D. Shrayer is a professor at Boston College. His recent books include “Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature” and “A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas.” Shrayer’s newest book is “Of Politics and Pandemics.” Early parts of this essay previously appeared in Maxim D. Shrayer’s Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story.


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More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.