Anti-Semitism forced my great grandparents to change the course of our family’s history. I am so grateful that they had the foresight to read the writing on the wall, and the courage to uproot their family from a small town named Zvenigorodka, in what was then Russia and is now the Ukraine, and move them to an unfamiliar place halfway across the world, namely Baltimore, Maryland. In doing so, they ensured the continuity and the survival of their family — my family.
In the early twentieth century, there were more than 6,000 Jews living in Zvenigorodka, making up around 40 percent of the town’s population. There were Jewish schools, synagogues, a mikvah (ritual bath), a Jewish hospital, a Jewish printing house, a Rabbinical court, and a benevolent society. The town was located along a river, and was a place of commerce and industry. All in all, it didn’t seem like a bad place to live; that is, if you overlook the Cossacks, who brutally terrorized Jewish residents and property mercilessly and without repercussion. My grandmother had a frightening run in with a Cossack who had clear intent to harm her, as she was collecting water in a pot along the nearby river. She was around 11-years-old, and she used her wits to get away, but she told me that she had nightmares about the episode for months.
My great-grandfather left for the United States in 1909 with his eldest son, leaving his wife and four younger children (including a newborn) behind in Russia for five years, until he could make enough money to send for them. The rest of the family, including my grandmother, left Zvenigorodka in 1914, thereby thankfully missing the pogroms of 1918, 1919, and 1920.
By 1939, there were only 1,500 Jews left in Zvenigorodka. Fortunately, a great number of Jewish residents had the same foresight as my great-grandparents.
In June of 1942, most of the remaining residents of Zvenigorodka were slaughtered by the Nazis, and buried in mass graves in the nearby forest. Statistically speaking, had my great-grandparents waited to leave for the USA, I would most probably not be here today. For that, I owe them a huge debt of gratitude that I can never repay.
And then, some 82 years after my grandmother arrived in the safe-haven of the United States with her family, my husband and I took our three small children and we left it. Like my great-grandparents, we too changed the course of our family’s history; however, in contrast, we were not running away from our nightmares, we were running toward our dreams.
Just before we emigrated from NY to Israel, we had a babysitter who had immigrated to the USA from India. When I told her that we were moving, she said to me “I didn’t know that anyone ever left the United States”. She could not fathom why anyone would ever want to give up living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I understand. Truth be told, it was not at all an easy thing to do, leaving the country that was so very good to me and to my ancestors. I do not take it for granted that I was fortunate to have grown up with inalienable rights, an excellent education, and relative economic prosperity, and I fully realize that it was my great grandparents, three generations earlier, who enabled this great fortune, thanks to the wise and correct choices that they made.
My husband and I had no reason to leave the USA other than the feeling deep in our souls that as Jews, we belonged in Israel, the land of our forefathers, our ancestral homeland. We chose to build a life that is very different than the one we left, because that is the life that we want for our future generations. We deliberately chose to change the course of our family’s history because we wanted to, not because we had to, and it is not lost on me how fortunate we are to have made our choice out of love and passion, and not out of fear and desperation.
Like my great-grandparents, we are now the immigrants, the ones who speak the language with an embarrassing accent and who make grammar mistakes. We had to learn rituals and customs that were foreign to us. We had to adapt our parenting to suit the country that we live in, and not the one that we left. We had to embrace the unfamiliar and pick up on the nuances of a different culture. We had to learn through our children. This whole experience has brought me closer to my Bubby Haya and my Zayde Getzel, whom I never met, but with whom I feel the connection of kindred spirits.
This weekend will be 21 years since we veered off the course set by our ancestors and set a new course for our family, here in Israel. It hasn’t always been easy. The hardest part is still the separation from the people who we love. That will never get any easier. However, I believe that in a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits win hands down. I only hope that my children feel the same way, and that generations down the line, our Israeli descendants will be as grateful to us for changing the course of our family’s history as I am to my great-grandparents.
Unlike my great-grandparents who left the familiar for a foreign land, I don’t feel like I have left home — I feel like I have come home. And it’s true what they say, there’s no place like home.