Russia has now been attacking Ukraine for five days. Like most of the people I know, I’ve been watching events unfold, I’ve stayed up late surfing cable news and Twitter, I’ve been distracted from my work. As I’ve been following what’s happening over there, I’ve also been noticing how people over here have reacted, and I’ve been uneasy about how quickly the embrace of the innocent Ukraine can be joined by hatred of the attacking Russia without remembering that it’s not a country or a people attacking, it’s an army, ordered by a dictator. I think this will get sorted out, mostly–the pictures of the streets of Moscow filled with protestors ought to do it–but it’s made me think how we connect ourselves to conflicts a world away, how we are happy to pick sides, and also, for some of us with families from over there, a long time ago, how weird it is find ourselves doing it.
Like many American Jews, I descend from people from a variety of places around central and eastern Europe. There were people from Slutsk, a suburb of Minsk, the capital and largest city in Belarus, who came over in the 1880s; like many people now named Cohen, their name was changed at Castle Garden, the Ellis Island before Ellis Island. In the US, one of them married someone from Kyiv. There were people who came over much earlier, in 1840, from Königsberg, a city then in East Prussia, later (after they left) in the German empire, now in Russia as Kaliningrad. There were people who came over earlier from Prague whose last name indicates they may have been from Schlesien or Silesia, which means they might have been from Königsberg or thereabouts too. There is even one who came over from England but whose family was originally from the West Prussian city of Posen, then in West Prussia, before and after the Polish city of Poznań.
And that’s just one side of the family. The other I know less about, but it comes from Eastern Europe too, by different routes, as those grandparents met over here too.
The weirdness of my finding myself rooting for Ukraine, which is of course the wronged party and is fighting courageously, comes from that history, one that is, again, common among American Jews. I come from people who came from all over Eastern Europe and who got out, under circumstances I cannot imagine–one of them, my great grandfather, got on a boat with his older brother when he was twelve years old–and leaving behind circumstances and histories I also cannot imagine. But I know that they were marked by ill-treatment inspired by centuries-old anti-Semitism. We don’t know of anyone still left by the late 1930s, but many of the places my people were from were places that didn’t always treat Jews so well well before then.
Many were from the Pale of Settlement, the part of the growing Russian empire in the 18th century until WWI that included Belarus, most of Ukraine, and Eastern Poland. It was the only region of the expanding Russia where most Jews were allowed to live, other than a few with wealth or advanced education, but there were farm towns and cities within it that didn’t always allow them, such as Kyiv, and an eventual ban on all rural areas. This led to many having to live in impoverished shtetls, subject to quotas, restrictions of the kinds of work they were allowed (of which there was never enough), and brutal pogroms carried out by Cossacks and others.
So you see the problem. When I see a video from Ukraine of children doing athletic training after the style of traditional Cossack training, or a live recreation of a famous painting of Cossacks, the brave resistance to Russian aggression that I’m supposed to see is joined by what I know and imagine of the men who raided Jewish towns on horseback. When I watch live reporting from Kiev and hear the sirens and fear for the fate of the beautiful old churches and the families driven down to the subways, I’m also thinking of the Jews who were driven from those cities, joining the Jews expelled from St. Petersburg and Moscow. When I watch Putin leap back in time past the Cold War and try revive the imperial Russia of two hundred years ago, I see the Tsars, but the scenes of violence get all mixed up with the Cossacks of Ukraine and the Nazis who decimated the Jews, starting in earnest with the last, biggest pogrom, Kristallnacht.
I’m not saying my unease is logical. It’s all mixed up. I know that Putin’s claim that he’s pursuing deNazification in Ukraine is the worst sort of gaslighting. And I know that Zelensky is Jewish, and it’s heartening, though it seems that his election came as a surprise to some, given Ukraine’s past, and that it’s something he seemed to be trying not to mention during his campaign. And it’s heartening to see Ukraine rally around him, and Europe and the world rally around Ukraine. It’s just sometimes hard to know exactly where to stand in relation to this history as it happens, where my families’ uprooted roots allow me to plant myself in it.
This historical rootlessness, or uprootedness, the fact that I had to ask my father to refresh my memory on this family history, the fact that I know so little of the roots on my mother’s side–maybe it’s an effect and a cause. It’s the effect of the endless diaspora and the particular diasporas of Eastern Europe’s Jews, the expulsions, emigrations, name changes and language changes, an Old World that’s happy to see the back of you and a New World that doesn’t want to know where you came from, a partial amnesia and an urge to remember, and maybe even for some of us a disinclination to settle in, to join, to be fully of a place, even a place in history.
I should grow like an onion with my head in the ground. Maybe then I’d have some roots.