Home is where we live. Often it’s shared with family. It’s the place we kick off our shoes and relax. It’s a label packed with emotion and nostalgia, a place we will leave at some point, hopefully of our own volition. Being forcibly removed from home is a dreadful punishment. It threatens our stability. It removes our independence and security. Like a raging river we are suddenly out of control. I’m going to tell you now about a home where everyone was dispossessed, with no warning, and no place to go. It is a building leveled by Russian terror, a building that did not survive. It is now hollow, with only the silent sounds of echoes and memories. We can impute its story. We cannot reliably relate it.
You’ve seen the photo. We’ve all seen it. It’s on TV and in daily newspapers. It’s on our computer screens. It’s a gracious and lovely building situated in Kyiv or Kharkiv or one of those other cities whose names now roll off our tongues. It was clearly built to attract the well-to-do. There is expensive decorative molding on the exterior, placed there only to add beauty. On every floor, in what I conclude to be the living rooms, there are beautiful arched bay windows, seemingly perfect for a custom velvet loveseat or perhaps two well worn club chairs facing the street so the occupants can sit indoors, protected against the outside elements, while watching the world stroll by. They can see if the weather is inviting or snowy and bitter cold, while they themselves are being comfortably heated and cooled by central units in each apartment.
When I enlarge my photo I can see a bit inside. I see refrigerators, white, broken, not yet part of the movement to stainless steel that is so ubiquitous here in America. And I see fragments of daily living, a torn piece of upholstered fabric, snips of carpet, splinters of wood. Everything more significant is left to my imagination. There is nothing left except the shell of the building, the shells of the owners’ lives and homes. And their recall of much better times in the beautiful pink building.
I browse through stylish online Ukrainian furniture manufacturers and I see wonderful contemporary design, expensive and colorful, all locally produced. I could furnish a bystunning 21st century apartment in that building with that furniture. Snappy kitchens featuring this year’s featured color, periwinkle blue.
As a real estate broker I would describe the building as an elegant, upscale luxury tower in a busy neighborhood, close to excellent schools, fine shopping, and transportation.
I wonder if any of the building’s former occupants are Jewish. Thousands of Jews can still be found in Ukraine’s largest cities, although the number is muddied by halacha and self-identification. The great Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv, for example, was sheltering over 100 Jews recently in the basement of its 1913 Romano-Gothic building. Were any of them escapees from the ruins of the pink building? Perhaps. Perhaps a neighborhood Jewish family living in the pink building prepared for a Bar Mitzvah in that beautiful shul. Perhaps another family welcomed a new son with a brit milah ceremony right in their sumptuous apartment. Or did a bride get ready for her wedding in one of its bedrooms? It’s hard to think of celebrating in the midst of total destruction.
I do not know if any lives were lost during the attack that destroyed the building. It’s hard to imagine that everyone, or anyone, could have escaped.
I can imagine when the building was brand new and the new occupants were moving in, perhaps 30 or 40 years ago. They brought with them their hopes, plans, aspirations and dreams. They came with infants who are now middle aged. They themselves may be now relocated to senior residences. Or beyond. But, on moving in day, they brought their furniture, their paintings and wall decorations, their silver and carpets, their books, their momentos, the artifacts of their lives, especially many things of which they were exceptionally proud. They filled the apartments with themselves and they faced each day with optimism that this new home would be a happy and tranquil place. They never expected to eventually seek shelter in subways.
For many years, no doubt, it was such a place. There were the joys of life and the defeats of life. The halls echoed with the sound of babies crying, and the elderly moaning, and the children running, and the lovers laughing, while normal life continued beyond the pink building. It was a secure, well constructed building that welcomed its occupants and called itself home to all of them. Regardless of where the day had taken them when they entered the lavishly adorned lobby they felt themselves to be safe and at home. The building itself never disappointed. It was built of stone and felt safe and secure, indestructible.
Many years ago when my Israeli brother-in-law Zeev first came to visit us in America he was nervous to be sleeping in our home. He was a fighter in the IDF and a refugee from the Nazis. What could frighten him in our suburban single family house? The neighborhood was safe and the house was very comfortable. He confessed. He was afraid to sleep in a building made of wood. He likened it to straw or paper,a fire-trap. In the town in Romania where he was born, buildings were stone. The same was true in Israel where he lived most of his life. In Europe, he knew, as did I, buildings were built to be indestructible. A building wasn’t built for 50 or even 100 years. It was built to be permanent. And so it was with the pink building, built to last.
But it didn’t. It should have but it didn’t.
Russian soldiers came, by tank, and foot, and air, and bombed our pink building so that it was a miracle that even the skeletal remains still stood. They sent powerful rockets that gutted the homes of those who loved living there. It left them bereft, homeless without the anchors of their friends, their neighbors and their belongings, some of which were undoubtedly family heirlooms going back generations. And for many it left them with nowhere to go, nowhere to rest at night. It left them with only one thing, overwhelming fear.
And this is the price of war against the innocent. And we here are impotent. I weep for lives torn asunder. But like you, what can I do? I fear a world war, a horrible way to stop a war for sure.
I know one thing. When this is over I wish to go to Ukraine and see that building and watch it being rebuilt. I want to see the homecomings and hear laughter mixed in with the tears, the infinite number of tears that were shed. And I want to join with the survivors and memorialize those who remain lost and put brass stones on the sidewalk in front of the building, the pink building, with the names of those still not found and the dates of their lives. The only thing I can do is remember. The same is true for you.