My great-grandfather walked from Ukraine to France. From there, he sailed first to England and then to Canada, became a cattle dealer, possibly illegally manufactured alcohol during Canadian prohibition, married, remarried (his first wife was murdered in her bed while he was away on business), and died in Vancouver in 1971. My father remembers his Zayde as extremely religious, gruff, cold, energetic, with a beautiful, resonant voice that he never used to speak English. He was mentioned only once in my childhood—I loved horses and my grandmother said I’d inherited that from him.
My grandmother burned all her family photos and memorabilia, telling my father and his sister that they didn’t know any of these people, why should it matter. An unfathomable act, but I grew up with my dad repeating the story of the day she’d unilaterally decided he was too old for his teddy bear and destroyed it. She also decided that centuries of Yiddish and even more centuries of Jewishness stopped with her; she fully inhabited her native language and religion but refused to pass either of them on. Something similar might have taken place on my mother’s side of the family. She’s African-American, and family legend has some relative being “a jockey for the last Tsar of Russia.” Apparently there was even a photograph but that too is long gone. If true, that would be pretty neat, both sides of my family coexisting in the same vast, ancient empire.
I was born in California in 1987 and my parents, flush with Reaganite optimism, put the past behind them and behind me. I wasn’t Black or (non-halachically) Jewish, such things didn’t matter in the 1990s because history had ended. If someone treated me unfairly, I was told, I should critically examine what I’d done to cause such a reaction and behave better in the future. Now in my mid-thirties, when, on the off chance I say something interesting in an academic seminar and it’s attributed to “someone in the room,” or when, for a COVID vaccination and again for a visa appointment, the white German intake person said “Jew!”, I think history just continues and nobody gets time off for good behavior.
Since the beginning of March, I serve a few times a week as a volunteer at the train station in Berlin. The crisis and horror there are highly impersonal, they force dissociation. It’s not about me. But we all filter things through ourselves, and when I’m not time-traveling back to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, I think about my own four Ukrainian refugee great-grandparents. Of course there’s irony in superimposing the 1905 pogroms onto the current situation, but a refugee is a refugee. The organization I am volunteering with is specifically concerned with BIPOC individuals, Ukrainians of color or people who were living in the country on temporary visas, but at the train station, we help out with everything. Schlepping people’s bags sure beats doom scrolling, and one tends to look at one’s feet while one does it, making the activity seem even more distant.
Roots-searching is a North American obsession that often rubs me the wrong way. It seems the purview of white people whose distant ancestors came from places that are now tourist destinations—France, Italy, England, etc. A fantasy for the North American who wants to be special and different, and more than a little patronizing—isn’t my family lucky to have escaped the world wars! I might carry a boring passport but look at my illustrious heritage and culture! West Africa and Israel never exerted much of a pull on me, attendant to that is perhaps the distinct lack of cachet that accompanies such ancestry. However, I always had a mild interest in Ukraine—I’d rather stay in the diaspora—but tamped it down.
So I never went to Ukraine. I pushed it out of my head, quashed my curiosity, told myself I had nothing to do with it, because history is over. But now, at the train station, through the news, Ukraine comes to me. To anthropomorphize an entire country for a minute, I can’t imagine this is the meeting Ukraine would have wanted. On one bike ride back from the train station, I found myself wishing that these people were coming from anyplace else.
My grandmother, surprisingly, loved her mixed-race grandchild and told me more about her family history than she’d told her own children. Yet the details remained elusive—she was already seventy-five when I was born and I didn’t get the opportunity to ask about everything I now want to know. Without a personal connection, family becomes something you read about. I wouldn’t know exactly where my great-grandparents came from in Ukraine or what they did when they got to Canada if my cousin Wayne Hoffman hadn’t just conducted extensive research for a 2022 book, The End of Her, on his mother’s progression through Alzheimer’s and our great-grandmother’s murder. My end-of-history parents, bored during COVID, embarked on their own research and presented me with two books full of pictures and family trees for each side, pictures of people I could have known or connected with, but never got the chance to. Because the past isn’t present, its proper place is in a book.
For my part, when, if, the war is over, maybe I’ll manage to visit Ukraine. I’ll visit it on its own terms, I’ll be objective. I won’t use it as a mirror and I won’t try to find myself in it. I’ll show respect. It’s a foreign country after all. Zayde Dovid’s decision to take that walk almost definitely saved his life and rendered Ukraine a faraway place of shadowy, horrible might-have-beens. I’m trained as a historian, and I don’t think in counterfactuals. If I could, if I could bridge erasures on multiple levels, maybe these distant pasts would have a present and a future.