All eyes are on Ukraine and Russia right now. We are glued to our phones, refreshing our Twitter feeds and news cycles to keep up with the latest on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Jews around the world know in times of war and turmoil, our people are the ones scapegoated — our people are the ones who end up suffering. But for Jews from Ukraine, this hits in a different way.
My name is Klarina Usach. I was born in Odessa, Ukraine in August 1990. Back then it was still known as the USSR; it would be another 16 months before the Soviet Union officially dissolved. With antisemitism once again spiking at disproportionate rates in the late ’80s/early ’90s, my family fled Ukraine in August 1992 with Jewish refugee visas.
I personally have never returned to Ukraine, but in the nearly 30 years since we left, members of my family have gone back to visit. The majority of their time was spent in Odessa, revisiting their old homes, schools, and places of work. The biggest surprise, however, was the contrast between Jewish life then and Jewish life now. Jews in the Soviet Union were indoctrinated to be ashamed of who they were. Soviet antisemitism — thinly disguised as anti-Zionism — became so embedded in the Jewish psyche, its ramifications can be felt in older Jews even today.
Jews learned to keep quiet about their identities from an early age even though we were “marked” as Jews from the moment we were born. While the Western world today fights over whether Jews are white or not and if Jews are their own ethnicity, the Soviet Union clearly decided we were our own type of people. Our birth certificates clearly labeled us as Jews. Not Ukrainian. Not Russian. Not Soviet. Jewish. And that label followed Jews around their whole lives. In school, every child’s name on attendance rosters would be followed by their ethnicity: Ukrainian? Great. Russian? Great. Romanian, Tatar, Georgian? Sure. Jewish? Welcome to a world of ridicule and bullying. Even the teachers bullied their Jewish students — stories of which my grandmother had many to share.
So imagine my mother’s surprise when she and my stepfather returned in the summer of 2018 as tourists. Kosher restaurants were thriving. Synagogues — which had been closed down by the Communist government — were now functioning. When they went to a synagogue on Shabbat, they were stopped by security officials to make sure they were Jewish. Except this time, it wasn’t to harass or assault them; it was to make sure they and the congregation inside were safe.
But my family is not in Ukraine anymore. Nor are we in the Soviet Union. Although if Putin has his way, we might very well see a Soviet Union 2.0 in the future. We are in New York, where we are watching a former KGB member wage an assault and invasion on the land most of us were born in. For us, this isn’t just another war. This is personal.
Admittedly, I don’t remember Odessa or Ukraine as a whole. The only things I have of my birth country are photos and memories passed down from my grandparents and parents. And my ancestors who lay buried in Jewish cemeteries which are constantly under threat of desecration. My great-grandmother whom I never met, but whom I was named after, lies in one of those cemeteries.
And here I am: watching from thousands of miles away as the Russian military follows the orders of a warmonger. I have never felt more pulled to the place I was born than I am now with the need to do something, anything. Every time I refresh my Twitter feed I want to scream. I want to scream because there are so many people rooting for Putin. I want to scream because there are so many people who remain silent with the excuse they don’t know enough even though they wouldn’t stop talking last May during the Israel-Hamas War. I want to scream because, even with all its faults, the land is in my bones and blood, and I am connected to it even if I never step foot within its borders again. I want to scream because the world is collapsing and the Jews are going to be the ones trampled over once more.
The fact that Israel will be airlifting Jews and giving them citizenship gives me hope. The Jews who wish to take Israel’s offer will be returning to their ancestral homeland. But there are still many who might not want to leave. And there are millions of non-Jewish Ukrainians in Putin’s path right now. And if he is successful in his pursuit of Ukraine, we know he won’t stop there. Putin wants to “de-Nazify” a sovereign nation that elected a Jewish leader. Ukraine is obviously not innocent in its antisemitic history, but we are once again witnessing Russia’s blatant antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism. We are watching history repeat itself and as Jews watch events unfold, we can’t shake the feeling of déjà vu.
For those of us who fled Ukraine, a familiar dread floods the deepest parts of our souls. Ancestral memory and trauma make our blood run cold with fear and hot with rage. We are watching what is happening to the first home we knew, donating what we can while praying for a peaceful end. As Western leaders try to appease Putin, we know all too well how appeasement ended last time. It didn’t work then. It will not work now. And our hearts are aching, bruised, and broken. Wherever we may be in the Diaspora, that is our temporary home. Israel is our ancestral and spiritual (and for many, physical) forever home. But for those of us born in Ukraine, it is our first home. “Odessa Mama” — a Yiddish song about a place where Jewish culture grew and thrived. Odessa Mama, we are praying for you right now.