My Jewish family is being bombed in Ukraine
Sometimes it feels like history is doing its best to prove to my family that there’s no safe place on earth.
As an Israeli national born to Jewish Ukrainian parents, I often joke that I feel comfortable in Quebec, where I have lived for the past seven years, because here, too, there is a generations-old cultural conflict.
Last May, my brother and his family in Israel were within the range of rockets fired from Gaza while my Palestinian friends in Gaza were under Israeli bombardment. My nightmares included all of them.
This week, I woke up to a new nightmare. My elderly aunt, my cousin and her husband have been under heavy Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
In Israel, my cousin’s daughter, Lucy, is working frantically to get them out and to obtain the life-preserving medications they need. She was born in Kharkiv, studied math at University of Toronto and is now trying to balance a demanding job with saving her family’s life — while also trying to help hundreds of her friends come up with escape plans, food and medication.
My cousin’s husband refuses to leave Kharkiv, his hometown, just as President Zelenskyy refused the White House’s offer to be exfiltrated from Ukraine with the now-iconic phrase, “I don’t need a ride. I need more ammunition!”
My relatives in Ukraine have had many opportunities to emigrate, but they chose to stay. Despite the complicated history of Jews in Ukraine, they feel it is their home.
All three are acting or retired math professors. (Insert Jewish joke here). All three are respected members of their community. I’ve been to their homes, with the common Soviet-era peeling wallpaper. Now, I lie awake at night, thinking their house might be bombed.
My cousin’s husband is a quiet and unpretentious mathematician with a whimsical smile and a kind demeanor. The last time I was in Kharkiv, he was busy studying basic Spanish, to add to his command of German, English, Chinese and other languages.
I was curious, and he was happy to show me his learning methods. Although bent over books in his study most of the time, he made sure that guests had a warm potato with butter and dill to snack on.
When I called the other day, my cousin and her husband were sitting in the dark so that they would not be targeted by missiles. I joked that he should pick up a new language while locked at home. That very day, he risked his life to get out of the house to procure bread for his family.
I remember my aunt’s glass-covered heavy bookcase cabinet and the Slavic artifacts around the house, traditionally decorated wooden spoons and balls, and try not to think about it under ashes. My aunt has an unconditional loving smile, one inherited by her daughter. I could hear it through the phone every time I called this week: “Ita, I am so happy to hear your voice! So glad you called!”Every hour, I want to text them and ask, “are you OK?” But how can they be OK in a world where wars start on a megalomaniac leader’s whim?
Some family members in Israel don’t understand why my cousin’s husband has refused to leave. I remind them that they never thought about leaving through all the wars in Israel.
Like my family in Ukraine, I sat at home while missiles were hitting civilian houses during the Gulf War. I was a six-year-old girl. As an adult in Israel, I ran to stairwells and bomb shelters. When you are in the thick of it, and bomb shelters seem like part of your reality — war doesn’t seem that traumatic as long as nothing hits too close to home.
Once, while traveling in Poland, I got lost. When I approached some elderly people and tried to ask for help in Russian, they refused to answer, hearing the language of the communist former occupier.
I wanted to tell them, “it’s OK, I’m Ukrainian.” Like Jewish people in many places, my parents adopted the language of their oppressor.
As a Jewish person whose parents were not considered Ukrainian by their fellow countryman, whose maternal grandfather’s family was butchered by antisemitic Ukrainian neighbors, my feelings toward Ukrainian nationalism are complex.
As a native Russian speaker, I could never turn my back on the culture, no matter how much I’m repulsed by its leaders’ actions. But my feelings about what is happening right now are straightforward: horror and devastation.
I have worked in the field of human rights and humanitarian aid for a decade, I have been a fellow at Jewish foundations, but I had never had to send the kind of message I sent my colleagues last week:
“My elderly disabled aunt, her daughter and her husband in Kharkiv are being bombed, they need access to life-preserving medications, food and a transfer to a safer place. Could you connect me with anyone on the ground?”
If all goes well, Anna and Natasha will soon join the million-plus Ukrainians fleeing their country, and join the 26.4-million strong club of global refugees. How many more would it take to tip the balance until no one feels safe anywhere?
My aunt was four years old at the end of World War II. The people who remember the horrors of that war are nearing the end of their lives, and soon, they will all be gone.
The lessons they learned are dying with them. My 11-year-old Canadian daughter asked, “What if someone decides to bomb us?”
“Canada is safe,” I told her, while feeling as if I was planting in her a false sense of security.
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