Ukraine Musings by Miriam Sagan

I go to the dentist to get a temporary crown, and by the time I get home Russia has invaded the Ukraine.

Deep within me, fueling much of my personality, is the Ukraine my four Jewish grand-parents fled.

And it was Russia. Or “Russianize” as a student of comparative religion told me. A conquered territory. All of my grandparents referred to themselves as Russian. They spoke Russian, along with Yiddish, some Hebrew, and possibly Ukrainian. But the Russian tsar loomed over their stories, along with homicidal Cossacks.

They feared abduction into the Russian army, sometimes cutting off fingers or toes. Their money was Russian. If the Russian tsar stirred up Cossacks to raid Jewish villages, they died.

This was the world of the Pale. I never heard much about “Ukraine.” They were from shtetls between Kiev and Odessa—-pronounced the Russian way.

They ate borscht (which I loved). And kasha (still eat it). And drank shav in glasses (a cold sorrel soup—and I think they added celery. I hated it). Had samovars (which I coveted but never inherited). Slathered sour cream on everything. Pickled herring. Sliced radishes or kohlrabi on black bread.

You know that supposedly holistic diet—eat what your grandmother’s ate? Excuse me, chicken fat on rye bread? Not exactly health food.

My father’s parents were almost completely silent on the topic of the old country. Their policy seemed to be: It was a bad place and we left. Have something else to eat, kinde.

The local “graf” told my paternal grandfather to go to America. The word means “count” in Russian but I doubt he was any kind of lord-—probably just local gentry.

I thought of my mother’s parents as the Russian ones, the very short ones, the poor ones. I adored them.

My grandmother used a Russian word to describe me and my two sisters. She called the three of us a troika.

Although Russia was an empire it was also brewing a revolution. They were Russian in part because of politics. My grandfather Avrum was in the general strike of 1905. He had anti-tsarist pamphlets-—burned them in a back room stove when police came to call. My grandmother Sadie had a sister married to a Bolshevik sent to Siberia. They was killed by Hitler—or maybe Stalin. In any case, Sadie’s letters were returned.

“In Russia the cherries were sweeter” Sadie and Avrum used to say, spitting out the pits in their garden gazebo in Boston. A little house built to escape summer heat. Very Russian. It drove my mother crazy. How could the cherries not be sweetest here in the land of the free?

It wasn’t until I grew up that I became aware of Ukrainian culture—language, music, poetry, people. And then Ukraine became a modern nation. And once again, Russia came after it.

But it will never be only a real contemporary place to me. Inside me is the Pale—really that is the heart of it, more than Russia it is a place of Jewish settlement within different strains of Slavic and eastern European culture.

“Russian Jews,” my contemporaries, have suddenly been asking ourselves about our grand-parents. Where DID they come from? I’ve attempted to clarify for mine.

If I write more about this, I’ll investigate how this history compels me to automatically lie when faced with authority. To feel that my “ancestors” aren’t necessarily a purely good thing. How the Jews of Odessa were gangsters as well as otherworldly and pious. And more.

9 thoughts on “Ukraine Musings by Miriam Sagan

  1. I hope that you will write more about all of this. Thank you for what you have shared so far.

    I think most if not all of us, ias we learn about our ancestral cultures and our actual ancestors, have to face into a pretty mixed bag of good and bad, of truth versus lore, of the romanticized selectiive versus the full.

    • That is so true! From an early age I hated and feared the tough-assed bullying streak in my father’s family. But in a time of great need their spirits woke up in me and helped me to survived

  2. Wonderful reminiscenses, Miriam. Such rich material. My great-uncle was from Odessa, and he told me stories of what a great city it was and how he was actually sad to have to leave.

  3. Your fine story is my father’ story. Born in Zboriv, then a village of 5000, today a small city of 100,000. Once Austro-Hungarian, then Polish after 1919, then Soviet and today Ukrainian. During World War I, it changed hands four times. My father, who was Jewish, got but one year of schooling (in a Catholic school) before war ended his formal education. The generic anti-semitism of those pre-1914 days has given way to something much more complex–see Franklin Foer’s superb Atlantic article called Ukraine, not The Ukraine. Maybe the past really is past.

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