Growing up in Soviet era Ukraine, it was crystal clear to me that I was not Ukrainian. I had many things in common with my classmates and neighbors. We looked alike, wore the same school uniforms, spoke the same language (Russian back then), rode the same crowded trolleybuses, stood in the same lines for bread… but they were “them” and we were “us”. It said so right on my birth certificate. Nationality: Jew. In Ukraine we were the “others”.
Being “us” meant that nearly everyone I know experienced some level of discrimination for being a Jew. Even as children. Even, frequently, at the hands of adults. Antisemitism was so baked into Ukrainian society that it was completely normal and understood by all parties. It was the status quo that my male friends would get beat up regularly, that my mom had her skull cracked as a child in summer camp, that my friend’s teacher emptied a bowl of oatmeal on her head. But more than that, it was the reason our parents couldn’t attend the schools they wanted, or hold the jobs they deserved. It was the reason we had to live in fear and secrecy. It was a well-known fact that many Ukrainians systematically helped the Nazis round up Jews. They collaborated so much that every time my grandmother remembers our relatives murdered in Babi Yar, she asks, with tears in her eyes, how our own neighbors could do this to us?
We were rescued out of that oppressive regime as children by the bravery of our parents and the hard work of Israel and the Jewish community in the United States. We started our American journeys in Brooklyn, West Hollywood, Rogers Park, and everywhere else that was willing to take us. I landed in second grade in Skokie, Illinois. Arriving in 1989 meant I was one of the first kids in that Soviet immigration wave. My American classmates promptly informed me that I was the new “Russian” kid. I protested that I wasn’t even from Russia! Fine, then, Ukrainian they consented. But I was not Ukrainian. I was a Jew! That’s not a nationality, they would tell me. The teacher agreed. I was frustrated and confused. If I wasn’t allowed to be Ukrainian in Ukraine, why did I have to be Ukrainian in Skokie?
To this day, I have never called myself Ukrainian. I always say I am a Jew from Ukraine. But this war is changing my feelings, and those of many of my Soviet immigrant peers. In an unexpected twist, we feel passionately protective of Ukraine for the first time in our lives. This war and the destruction brought about by Russian aggression is a humanitarian tragedy. But in addition to that, for us this war is deeply personal. Maybe it is the courage and charisma of a Jewish president leading the country through this assault, one who despite the history of antisemitism was democratically elected. Maybe it’s the similarity to Israel’s early wars – a people fighting for their right to self-determination and freedom against incredible odds. And yet there are clear echoes of the place we left and why we left it. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister’s anti-Semitic comments about El Al last week, drawing on all-too-familiar tropes of greedy Jews dealing in gentile blood, summon the painful question that we are all wondering deep down – can a society change all that much in one generation?
Now, as we have spent two weeks glued to our screens in horror, watching the devastation and suffering in our hometowns that is so reminiscent of World War II, my entire social network is in full action. My fellow Jewish Soviet immigrants are mobilizing in truly impressive ways, from grassroots efforts to fund purchases of buses for evacuation, organizing networks to deliver medication and baby formula to families in war-torn towns, to fundraising for larger charities, even coding unique systems to transfer cryptocurrency securely… everyone I know is in full action mode. On top of that, many of us are so distraught that we can’t sleep, can’t focus on our responsibilities, can’t carry on as usual.
We mobilize not because we are or aren’t Ukrainian, and not only because many of us have family there, or because the scenery, the voices, the cries for help are so viscerally familiar. We mobilize because helping people in a time of need and standing up against injustice are fundamental human values, and Jewish ones too. We mobilize because democracy is under attack.
Last weekend my family and I attended an anti-war protest in Los Angeles. All around me people were speaking Ukrainian. There were Ukrainian flags, national costumes, and cries of “Slava Ukraini!”. My immediate reaction was to recoil. These were the visuals and sounds of the oppressor. And yet, I reminded myself how far Ukraine has come. I reminded myself that right now, on the shores of Odessa and the streets of Kyiv, Jews are fighting alongside ethnic Ukrainians for their shared country’s freedom. I reminded myself of my own kind and beloved Ukrainian relatives who willingly married Jews and took on the burden that that decision entailed in Soviet times. I reminded myself that Ukraine today is not the Ukraine of my childhood. A teary-eyed, elderly lady handed me a vinók (traditional Ukrainian flower headband) for my daughter. I let her put it on. Hesitantly, and then louder, I joined the crowd in chanting “Slava Ukraini!”