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Commentary & Opinion

Thoughts of Ukraine

Soviet schoolchildren on a field trip, 1973
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
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Soviet schoolchildren on a field trip, 1973

I’d heard of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, most of my life, though I hadn’t been able to place it on a map, or frankly even been interested enough to try, until Russia invaded the country a couple of weeks ago. Was it where my grandfather grew up? Or was that Proskurov? Adding to the confusion, between wars and revolutions the names and national identities have changed over the years from Russian to Ukrainian.

I visited Kyiv in 1973, one of our stops on a three-week family vacation in the Soviet Union. We spent four days there. The city didn’t make the best impression. Then again, the Soviet Union was a pretty dour place during the Cold War. “People seem different from Russian people,” my mother wrote in her diary. “Not as nice.”

We visited Saint Vladimir’s golden-domed cathedral, traveled by trolley car and attended the ballet twice. We also passed Babi Yar, the site of massacres carried out by the Nazis against Jews, “which is now green and lovely,” my mother wrote. I don’t remember much about the city except that every person I passed on a Saturday night was staggering drunk.

It’s an odd and novel sensation knowing that my grandparents, both gone, must have been familiar with some of the elegant 19th century buildings you see on the news every night being targeted by Russian missiles and turned to smoldering rubble.

“My mother went to medical school in Kharkov, in the Ukraine,” my mother told me about a dozen years ago during an interview I taped with her. She was using the Russian name for the now besieged city. “She got accepted to medical school at the age of seventeen.” The year was probably 1917 or 1918. “She said that it wasn’t that she was that interested in medicine,” my mother informed me. “She was more interested in languages. But it was such an achievement to be accepted to medical school as the youngest person that she went there.”

For the record, my grandmother Nadia, who died a few months short of her 105th birthday in 2004, never practiced medicine. She did speak several languages, however.

I also recorded an interview with her. That was in 1981. She remembered that during winter vacation in 1919 she traveled from Kharkov to Proskurov, a city in western Ukraine where her grandfather lived. Today it’s known as Khmelnytskyi. Apologies if I have the pronunciation wrong. Just to confuse things further, my grandparents were first cousins and my grandfather came from Proskurov. My grandmother was born in Kishinev, several hours away by train. Today it’s called Chișinău and is the capital of Moldova.

Kishinev is still remembered for its 1903 pogrom. My grandmother was only three at the time and had no recollection of it. But she vividly recalled another pogrom that occurred in Proskurov during that 1919 vacation. In three-and-a-half hours more than 1,500 Jews were slaughtered. “One Saturday afternoon,” Nadia said of that day, “it was so quiet in the city you didn’t hear anything because they didn’t shoot; they just killed them with swords.” The perpetrators, ordered to use lances to save their bullets, were soldiers of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

The family was the richest in Proskurov, according to my grandmother, so military officers requisitioned rooms in the family compound. “As a matter of fact they were Russians, not Ukrainians,” Nadia told me. “For some reason they joined this army, maybe against the Bolsheviks. They were pilots.” The revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine had a military air fleet.

“One of the officers came back from the city,” she continued, “and he said, ‘Something terrible is going on. They are killing Jewish people.’ He said, ‘Until now I was anti-Semitic. After I saw this I’m not anymore.’ And he said all of the family, twenty-one people, have to go down to the cellar because it’s dangerous.”

The family survived the night and the next day the pilots prepared to leave. “They were afraid for themselves, too,” Nadia explained. There apparently was a rumor that the Jews had bribed the pilots.

“Maybe I had a feeling,” she went on, “but I personally asked them to stay a little bit longer,” to protect the family. The pilots agreed and were present when the executioners showed up looking for Jews. The family had fled upstairs to the library. “We had not even time to close the door,” Nadia remembered. “My aunt said, “Children, we are lost now.’”

The killers asked the pilots whether there were Jews at the house? “They answered,’” according to my grandmother, “’there are but they are all hidden someplace.’ So they went across the street and there they killed a few people.”

That wasn’t the family’s first encounter with tragedy. Two years earlier my grandfather returned home to Proskurov from his university studies to find his father dead. My great grandfather had caught a different group of officers, who were also lodging with the family, trying to break into his safe when he returned to Proskurov unexpectedly from his country house. Nadia explained again, “They put chloroform on him to make him go to sleep and they ran away with the safe. And because nobody was present, he just suffocated.”

“Until then Bashka was extremely religious,” Nadia went on, using my grandfather’s nickname. “They called him ‘The Just Man,’” meaning one whose qualities include strictly observing Jewish Sabbath practices. “He wouldn’t even break paper,’” Nadia said, meaning tear toilet paper, on a Saturday. “Afterwards he lost his religion.”

During the Revolution the family escaped to Romania, where my mother was born. They prospered there but were forced to flee again, to the United States in 1939 ahead of World War II.

It feels as if we’re at another pivot point, history playing out again a century later on the same brittle battle-scarred terrain.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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