‘We are the memory-keepers now’: Readers of Ukrainian heritage reflect on the country’s Jewish history
In the two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, American Jews have been following the news from an emotionally close range.
We’ve been inspired by the heroic leadership of Ukraine’s proudly Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. We’ve watched as Jewish organizations have galvanized across Ukraine’s borders to help rescue refugees. We were horrified at the missile that struck close to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial complex, the ravine where the Nazis slaughtered more than 33,000 Jews in 1941.
And we’ve been rediscovering the history of Ukrainian Jewry and its influence on our poetry and literature, rediscovering in some cases our own roots in the country. We asked readers with particular connections to Ukraine to share their stories.
Here are some highlights, lightly edited for clarity:
My grandmother lived in Elizabethgrad. Prior to the start of World War I, my grandfather went to New York with the intent of sending for his family after he established himself. Then the war started, and my grandmother was left to care for six children ranging in age from 6 to 18 (my mother was 14), as well as for the family fur-hat business.
My 18-year-old uncle was conscripted into the army. The Russian army was not the safest place for a Jewish soldier. My Bubbe, who I knew as a sweet, quiet person, went to see my uncle on visiting day, put a dress on him and walked him out of the army base. What a Jewish mother does not do for her children!
The family was not reunited with my grandfather until 1921.
My family left Ukraine in the great pogrom of the late 19th century. Do not be deceived. Sentimentalized tales of Jewish life in Ukraine during the past 150 years are just that – sentimentalized tales.
My family lived in Kyiv, and they were tailors in a day when men wore actual suits. Economically they did fine, but all else was a horror show. Fortunately, they escaped to a life of fame and fortune in Philadelphia.
Born in Ukrainian 1911, my grandfather, Irving R. Karol, became a Jewish war orphan in 1919, moved to North America in 1921, and died in 1999.
He was born Isaac Rozamovitch in Olevsk, Zhytomyr, Ukraine in 1911. In 1919, while at home with his family, a stray shell landed on their home during the fighting between the Bolsheviks and Petliura’s troops. Several family members were killed immediately; my grandfather and his father were taken to the hospital, where his father died.
Irving was 8 years old when he was left with no family, no home and seemingly no escape from the Russian postwar chaos of pogroms, hunger and homelessness. During his lifetime, he told stories of foraging in a forest for food.
Miraculously, in 1921 he arrived at an orphanage in Rovno, which led to his rescue and emigration, first to Canada and then to Boston.
In 1921, he was one of 147 Jewish Ukrainian war orphans (out of 8,000 screened) brought to Canada through the efforts and advocacy of the Jewish community. The plight of the orphans was brought to the attention of Canadian Jews by Harry Hershman, an Ukrainian-born Canadian social worker. He enlisted the help of Lillian Freiman, a Canadian Jewish philanthropist-activist, and together they petitioned the Canadian government to allow in 1,000 orphans. The Canadians agreed to take 200, and Canadian Jewish families agreed to sponsor and adopt the orphans.
Irving was adopted by a Canadian Jewish family, but shortly after his arrival in Canada, relatives living in Boston asked that he be sent there.
Irving entered America by train from Canada, as a child alone on Jan. 3, 1922, and went to live with the relatives in Chelsea, Massachusetts; their last name was Karol. While Irving took that surname and kept it for the rest of his life, this family was not kind to him, sending him to work to augment their income.
Irving struggled, persevered and succeeded with work and studies, pursuing both secular and Jewish/Hebrew education as a child, teenager and adult. He graduated from both Hebrew Teachers College in Roxbury and Boston University. He had three daughters and 14 grandchildren. Today, his descendants live in the United States and Israel.
My family, on both sides, came from Drohobycz, which was then in Poland, and is now part of Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, they murdered the majority of the 17,000 Jews living there (some 400 survived in hiding). The local Ukrainians assisted the Nazis throughout. Nothing to be proud of.
Three of my four grandparents lived in Ukraine when it was part of Russia. They were only too happy to get away and come to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.
Ukraine was a little more welcoming to Jews once it was separated from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin of Russia is planning to go down in world history as one of its nastiest dictators.
My oldest child asked me about two weeks before the action began if World War III was about to happen. This is a scary possibility! It’s hard to wake up feeling good right now.
—Harriet M. Epstein
My paternal grandmother Leah and grandfather Jacob came to the U.S. just before World War I from Ukraine. She was to live with her brother; he with his two sisters. They married here in Rochester. My bar mitzvah was at the same shul 50 years later.
They settled in a part of Rochester that was full of Ukrainian people and churches, perhaps because it reminded them of home.
He was a cap maker and found work in a clothing factory. She raised her three boys and a daughter, and she lived in the same house for almost 50 years. It is still there today, but her hydrangeas are gone. It is still my favorite flower. She called me “Howie boy” and made me poppy seed cookies and popcorn with M&M’s when I had sleepovers.
My grandmother was blue-eyed and had blond hair. At the Jewish butcher, bakery and market, people always commented in Yiddish asking each other why she was shopping there. She understood them, of course.
As a student of history, I am very concerned by the situation in Ukraine. It reminds me of 1938 and 1941. Putin is very scary. We are the memory-keepers now, and it is up to us to tell their stories.
My parents were both from Ukraine. They came to America around 1910. My father came from a small town called Mykolaiv. My mother came from the Shtetl called Kuzmin. My father’s family all came here, but my mother’s parents remained, and were killed by the Nazis.
Part of my mother’s family left the Ukraine during the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century, a harrowing journey of ducking into snow drifts to avoid border search lights. My great aunt Cele was carried with her mouth muffled. Of those who remained in and around Kyiv, some fled east into Azerbaijan with the retreating Red Army in 1941, and some, including my great uncle Froim and great aunt Rachilia, were murdered at Babi Yar. The Azerbaijani clan left with the collapse of the USSR and moved to Los Angeles. I met them only two years ago through a genetic match on 23 and Me. What a blessing to know them now, but mixed with grief over those gunned down into that terrible ravine within the confines of Kyiv.