Staff Writer: Roxanne Hepburn
In the early morning hours of February 24th, 2022, Russian President Vladamir Putin launched an invasion masked as a special military operation on the nation of Ukraine. President Putin asserts that he seeks the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine rather than an occupation, but his actions do not support that claim. Instead, his efforts have sparked a reignition of the Ukrainian War of Independence.
The Ukrainian War of Independence consisted of violent conflicts between the volatile Ukrainian territory and the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1921. In the end, Ukraine lost,, and the Ukrainian Republic was formed through its absorption into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. Ukraine did not regain its independence from Russia the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 freed the nation from its grasp.
But before the war of independence officially took place, the Ukrainian people were still fighting the idea of a Russian reign. I know because my great grandfather was one of them.
When I first heard about Russia invading Ukraine, my mind reached into the deep stores of my brain and retrieved the memory of an email my father had sent me (and the rest of my extended family) back in 2017 about our family’s heritage. While my immediate family does not practice Judaism, one fact stuck in my mind from the information in that email. My ancestors were Jewish. And that they had fled Odesa, Ukraine, while it was still considered a part of Russia.
After remembering that email from my father, I went back digging through Gmail in hopes to find that I had not deleted it in my youthful inability to care about my ancestry. To my surprise, I had not. My father had provided a plethora of links to information about past family members. In one of those links was an article written by my great aunt Judy Blank titled, “Immigration Nation: Coming to America.”
Here is an excerpt from that article:
“I was always proud to tell the story of my grandfather, the Russian Revolutionary. He bravely eluded the Czar’s police in the dead of night, slipped across the Black Sea from Odesa into Turkey, and landed on Ellis Island in 1911, with his young wife, who was pregnant with my father. That was pretty much all I knew about my Russian-Jewish heritage. [. . .] My grandfather was an enigma. In Russia, he’d been a freedom fighter – or a terrorist, depending on your point of view. But here in America he worked as a machinist, raised a family of four children and lived in a comfortable house with a sun porch.”
That inspired me to reach out to speak with my grandfather about what he might remember about my great-grandfather. He was afraid he might not be able to provide a lot of relevant information, recalling how his childhood home always smelled of kasha and borscht, traditional Eastern European dishes. He said that his father never really talked about his past. My grandfather did not even know how his parents had met. He only knew they immigrated together.
My grandfather told me that he is not alone. He had reached out to a slew of peers in the past, each with similar ancestral backgrounds, and they all said the same thing. That their Ukrainian immigrant relatives that came to America did not talk about their past lives. They choose to leave their children in the dark so that they never had to know of the traumatic experiences that they went through to secure a better life.
The Ukrainian War of Independence created an enormous rift between first and second generation immigrants. The concept of family history did not exist to second gens because of the trauma their first-gen parents associate with reliving those memories.
And I am afraid that it is going to happen again due to Russia’s never-ending attempt at an invasion of Ukraine. The children of the brave Ukrainian citizens fighting for their lives every day are going to exist within an air of mystery. They are going to fantasize and romanticize their parents’ experiences in an effort to fill in the gaps of their family history. Just like my great grandfather forced my great Aunt Judy to do about her heritage.
My great aunt Judy ended her article speculating if anything she had learned about my great grandfather had been true:
“‘Oh, yes!’ she said, ‘Your grandmother was pregnant when they arrived here.’ She paused. ‘But they weren’t married. That’s why they ran away.’
I’ve never figured out if the story of the brave revolutionary escaping in the nick of time was a complete fabrication – something said to impress his children, perhaps – or if it really did happen, and the story of my unwed pregnant grandmother was merely a sidebar to his daring escape. But somehow, with all my new knowledge, with the photo albums showing full and happy lives, with details where there was once only one exciting story, it now seems all so ordinary.”
Family history has the power to be both ordinary and mystical. It is important to remember when filling in the blanks of family history that your ancestors were real people whose life experiences may have altered how they choose to discuss their past.