As Ukraine teeters on the edge civil war, I am grateful that my ancestors made sacrifices that prevented me from living my life in that troubled country.
In 1920, my grandmother Katie and her sister Rose, 16 and 15-years-old at the time escaped from Ukraine under the cover of night in the midst of the Russian Civil War. The Russian Tsar had been ousted in 1917 and much of the civil war between the Bolshevik Red and White armies was fought in Ukrainian territory.
For years before the war, Cossacks had been ransacking Jewish villages in Ukraine indiscriminately killing Jews on behalf of the Tsar who had empowered them to keep order throughout his empire. With the advent of war, life for Jews became even harder as they found it increasingly difficult to earn a living. So in 1918, Katie's father left for America to earn money for the family.
As the war escalated, mail delivery was interrupted and the money Katie's family depended upon stopped arriving. In a desperate attempt to support themselves, the family began illegally making and selling liquor, attracting unsavory and ruthless buyers to their home. It was during this time that Katie's mother was murdered either by Russian soldiers or Cossacks. Katie referred to them simply as bandits. We only know that her mother died instantly when a mounted soldier bashed in her skull with the butt of a rifle.
Gentile neighbors hid the sisters for days, camouflaging them amidst the reeds in a swamp, retrieving them as darkness fell, warming and feeding them, and letting them sleep for a few hours before returning them to the swamp. Once the unrest in the area subsided, the sisters returned home to figure out what to do next.
As the oldest, Katie had to determine how she and her sister would survive. With the help of the local Rabbi, they sold their cottage for enough money to get them to Romania where they could get a passport and travel to America. On their way to Romania, they hid from Cossacks and warring armies, traveling only at night, paying a boatman to take them across the Dnieper River, and resting with Jewish families along the way in a kind of "underground railroad" for Jews escaping the ravages of political unrest.
They ultimately made it to America, reunited with their father, worked in sweatshops, married, had children and made a better life for their descendants.
I learned this 30 years after my grandmother's death when my mother and I discovered a notebook in a box filled with my grandparents' papers. In it, my grandmother detailed in handwritten Yiddish her escape from Ukraine and her life in America. With the help of a translator, the story of her escape emerged. She had never told the family any of these details, only that her mother had died and that she and her sister came to America to join their father.
After learning her story, I decided to write a book about on my grandmother's life as a tribute to her. She was only one of thousands of Jews who escaped persecution and poverty during this time period. But her description of her escape provides an enlightening view of the courage and wile it took to get out of Eastern Europe and travel to America. Little did she know then how fortunate she would be to escape before the Nazi era.
Before I could begin writing, I had to learn more about the history of the region, discover the location of her hometown of Yanov, and understand the politics of the times to begin to write her story.
For the Jews of that region, it had been a long history of persecution, being massacred by Cossacks in the name of Orthodox Christianity beginning in the 1600s, being blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and being banned from education and professions by the May Laws for 30 years after.
In trying to understand my grandmother's escape path, I began studying Ukrainian maps but was unable to find detailed maps in English. I finally found Yanov when I stumbled upon the website of Rabbi Lazer Brody (lazerbrody.typepad.com) who maintains a memorial in Yanov for the Jews who were massacred there during the Holocaust. It was then that I decided that I wanted to experience her escape path and that I had to go to Ukraine.
Just as I began planning the trip, tensions erupted in Crimea between Ukrainian and Russian troops. For now, the trip is on hold.
Last month, news flashed around the world that Jews in the Ukrainian town of Donetsk were being required to register or face deportation. Within days, Russian officials denied involvement, and Jewish leaders deemed the rumor a hoax. Whether true or not, Jews again had become a flashpoint for political unrest in Eastern Europe. That the hoax was perpetrated reaffirms how easy it can be to resurrect a historical scapegoat.
If civil war erupts in the region again after almost 100 years, who will be the scapegoat this time? Can the Jews be so easily blamed once again??
Jews are certainly not the world's only scapegoats. It becomes a sickening reality that when political unrest occurs, the people who pay the highest price are the historical scapegoats of past conflicts.
I am hopeful that does not become a reality in Ukraine. Resurrecting the Cossack reign of terror or the Holocaust is not what any sane person wants to see for both humanitarian and economic reasons. I am grateful that because of Katie's courage, I am not there. That does not lessen my apprehension for those who remain who may pay the price for a conflict they did not cause.