Am I Ukranian? A Study in Eight Parts
Every two weeks or so, I am publishing an essay from an emerging wrier. This week, work from Mara Sandroff. Mara is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist based in Brooklyn and Tucson. She currently writes literary criticism for Newcity Lit and recently earned her MFA in fiction from NYU. She is an alumna of One Story’s 2019 Summer Writers Conference and Kenyon Review’s 2021 Writers Workshop, as well as a Voting Member of the National Book Critics Circle. Currently, she is working on a novel that explores Jewish identity, intergenerational storytelling, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world that is (possibly) coming to an end. Find her online at marasandroff.com.
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I. Family story
I used to think Ukraine only existed for me and my family. As a child, most of my friends had never heard of it. My maternal family hails from Ukraine, though at the time, they knew it as part of Russia. The Ukraine. “The Borderlands.” For generations, the Cholodenko and Kagonsky families lived in Korostyshiv, a shtetl on the Teteriv River. The first Jewish synagogue opened in 1602, and by 1897, over half of the town was Jewish. Life, of course, was not always easy. For Jews, it rarely was. But they chose to stay, which is saying something, so I suppose life must have been peaceful enough. Besides, what choice did they have?
Around the time of my great-grandparents’ wedding, this peace ended. Shortly after World War I, the newly-formed Ukrainian People’s Republic had to defend itself against the White and Red Armies. Militias and rebel factions also sought control of the land. As always, everyone blamed Jews. Pogroms, both large and small, erupted throughout Ukraine. At the end of 1918, Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian Republic Army targeted Korostyshiv, and a few months later, Konstantin Nikolayevich Sokolov’s Volunteer Army swarmed the town. I imagine earsplitting screams, the thunder of gunshots, glowing red flames, my great-grandmother cradling the belly of her unborn child. After that, the Bolshevik forces stepped in and protected Korostyshiv from future attacks. In his book In the Midst of Civilized Europe, scholar Jeffrey Veidlinger credits this period of violence with setting the stage for the Holocaust and World War II.
Around 1920, my great-grandfather and his brother-in-law were drafted into the Bolshevik army. This, they understood, meant certain death—at least, I assume it did. Before, the Bolshevik army had protected them. Now, it demanded its dues. My great-grandfather and his brother-in-law escaped immediately, and my great-grandmother and her sister followed behind them with their daughters. My great-aunt Beatrice was a baby and her cousin Clara four or five. The sisters were around 20 and 25. Two young women, two little girls, facing one of the most dangerous moments in Ukraine’s history. Until now.
Family lore says they left in a horse-drawn wagon. During the long, bumpy rides, the little girls were hidden in potato sacks, the rough burlap scratching their skin. The starchy, earthy smell stirred up memories of potato kugel. If they were caught, their mothers planned to leave the sacks at the roadside. There, they hoped the girls would be raised by peasants—assuming no one guessed that they were Jewish. My bubbie heard this detail from her mother. It’s the one I’m most confident is true.
After the horse went lame, they walked on dusty, unpaved country roads, trading off who held the baby. My great-grandmother learned to breastfeed while walking. They changed routes, hid behind haystacks, did everything they could to avoid people. When they could, they stole rides with others. It seemed like a different militia controlled every town, and their broken Ukrainian immediately revealed them as Jewish.
Eventually, they met their husbands near the Polish border. Somehow, they made their way to Amsterdam. I hope this part of their journey was easier, but the truth is, I doubt it was. From Amsterdam, they took the Zeelandia to Argentina, the rancid smells of steerage not so different from rotten potatoes. There, they waited nineteen months for America to admit them.
Three and a half years later, my bubbie was born in Chicago. She was the first of her family born in the United States.
My mom first told me this story when I was in fifth grade, living in southwest Michigan. I had been given an assignment to research a country my ancestors were from, and at my mom’s suggestion, I chose Ukraine. While I pasted Yahoo articles on my flimsy pink posterboard, my mom mentioned the Babi Yar massacre, where my great-great-grandmother—my great-grandmother’s mother—had possibly been murdered.
I stopped cutting the Ukrainian flag. Although I’d read Hana’s Suitcase and Anne Frank, I hadn’t thought about the relatives who were left behind.
“I’ve always wondered if we could find out exactly what happened to her,” my mother said. “Maybe someday, we’ll go back.”
I didn’t respond. My heart was pounding, and it took me a moment to recognize why.
“I need the glue stick,” I said. Anger shot through me, but it wasn’t related to the Nazis. I flinched when my mother touched my hand. In that moment, I resented her for sharing the news so casually.
I knew I could never include these details in my project. I was one of the only Jewish students at my Catholic school, and I thought about it every time the others prayed. To my classmates, I was the blue-and-white latkes girl, the Old Testament believer, the token Jew. I wasn’t ready to reveal something I was only just discovering. Being Jewish meant enduring a history of pain.
On the day of our presentations, we brought in traditional foods. My Polish and Lithuanian classmates compared their pierogis and cepelinai, and my friend’s mother, who was a professional chef, made a classic French souffle, the top impossibly fluffy. I brought in cheese blintzes, which we ate at home after every Yom Kippur fast. I pretended they were Ukrainian, but in fact, I was not sure. When I’d asked my mom if non-Jewish Ukrainians ate blintzes, she said she didn’t know. I was equally Jewish and American, no more one than the other. But I was beginning to understand that non-Jewish Ukrainians had been one thing, and my ancestors had been another. Because they were segregated, their respective cultures had also been distinctive.
Am I Ukrainian? I don’t know.
II. Some considerations
1. Until 1918, there was no country of Ukraine. Consequently, my great-grandparents never thought of themselves as Ukrainian. If it came up later—which it rarely did—my great-grandparents called it “the Old Country” or “Russia.” “Ukraine” meant more to us, their descendants, than to them personally.
2. For my great-aunt Beatrice, it was more complicated. The baby in the potato sack married a wealthy Jewish man from Texas and wore glossy pearls and red lipstick and spoke with a Southern drawl. She refused to say she was from Russia. Was it due to vanity? The Cold War? Prejudice? Who knows?
3. In Tsarist Russia, Jews needed a special pravozhitel’stvo or residence permit to live outside the Pale of Settlement, the region of the Russian Empire where Jews were authorized to live. In Nazi Germany and the occupied countries, passports were stamped “J” for “Jude.” In the Soviet Union, their nationality was marked “Yevrey.” For most of the twentieth century, Jews were not considered Ukrainian. If I were there, I would not have been either.
4. But I was born in 1994, three years after the Soviet Union was destroyed. And I have the birth record of my great-grandmother, proving she was born there. Today, Ukraine neither denies nor allows dual citizenship, but if I were so inclined, I might succeed at becoming a “real” Ukrainian under the eyes of the law.
5. According to the European Jewish Congress, there are between 360,000 and 400,000 Jews in Ukraine, though a 2019 Hebrew University survey says the number is closer to 49,000. Until I looked it up after Putin’s invasion, I assumed there were far fewer. I’m selfishly terrified they will leave and never return. Somehow, it makes me feel better to know that there are still Jews living in Ukraine. As long as there are Ukrainian Jews, my ancestral past is still alive.
6. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: a miracle as great as the Chanukah oil. I worry about him every day.
7. For most of Ukraine’s history, a Jewish president would have been unthinkable. As an actor and comedian, Zelenskyy used his outsider status to his advantage, and his reform platform won over 73 percent of the vote. Despite this, antisemitism rates have risen in the past few years. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100, 32 percent of the adult Ukrainian population answered “probably true” to questions relating to Jewish loyalty and power, such as whether Jews are more loyal to Israel than their home countries and if Jews have too much power in business and global affairs. The number rose to 46 percent in 2019. The same year, Russia came in at 31 percent, Hungary 42 percent, and Poland 48 percent. The United States ranked 10 percent in 2015. As of this writing, no newer data exists, but I assume U.S. rates have also risen.
8. Unsurprisingly, many Jewish immigrants grew to resent Ukraine. These feelings were sometimes passed on to their descendants, many of whom still see Ukraine as synonymous with antisemitism.
9. Of course, for some, immigration was more recent than it was for others. According to the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, almost two million Soviet Jews and their families emigrated from the former Soviet Union, which included Ukraine. My boyfriend’s childhood friend was one of them.
10. She still has family there. I cannot imagine how she must be feeling. If I have any relatives in Ukraine, they are very distant.
11. It doesn’t matter if my family left Ukraine one hundred years ago. I’m American. I’m Jewish American, and that should be enough.
12. When I first heard the news, my first thought was, Not my Ukraine.
13. It’s not mine. Not at all.
14. What if it disappears before I get there?
15. How can I be thinking of myself at a time like this?
Am I Ukrainian? Why does it matter?
III. Family story revisited
As it turns out, my great-great-grandmother might not have died in Babi Yar after all. Instead, she and my great-great-grandfather might have been sent to a Siberian prison camp—the Gulag, they called it—where they died around 1935. The Soviet government imposed a fine on people whose relatives had gone to America, and they were unable to pay.
I don’t know how to analyze this. I don’t know what I should be feeling.
I just thought you should know.
Am I Ukrainian? You tell me.
A man stands on the remains of an Irpin bridge. He looks out at the winter-blue river, where the rubble sinks below him.
A toddler in a train window waves goodbye to his father. The father’s back is facing us, so we can’t see his expression. The little boy is smiling.
In the middle of water, people struggle across a narrow, wooden plank. Rapids rush against it, though it’s unclear how deep the water is. Walking backwards, a soldier holds an elderly woman’s hands and supports her as she makes her way along the plank. According to the caption, the wood belonged to a former bridge. Unlike the one in Irpin, no hint of this bridge remains.
At a Polish checkpoint, a little girl Clara’s age clutches a cloth doll clothed in a red and blue folk dress. The girl’s gold rescue blanket shines like tinfoil. She was one of the lucky ones.
Yesterday, the Ukrainian First Lady shared images of children killed during the invasion.
A mother, a father, an old woman, an old man, a student, a child, a baby, a—
To me, Ukraine was always a setting in a story.
These people aren’t characters. Their desperation is real.
Am I Ukrainian? No.
I want to meet a relative with my hazel eyes. I want to walk through the pine forest where my great-grandfather laughed and played. I want to feel the warm wool of my great-grandmother’s favorite shawl. I want to taste blintzes with freshly-curdled farmer’s cheese. I want to see their home, their street, their shul, and inhale the forgotten smells of everyday.
But I will never know how life smelled then. We are better at preserving tragedy than the banal details of everyday life. That’s why I know—
—that the Nazis came in July 1941.
Before they shot the oldest Jewish residents, they forced them to eat grass.
The Petrovskiy Street ghetto had 360 women and forty men.
In September, the Nazis dug three large pits on the southern outskirts of town.
They shot the children in front of their parents.
Then they shot all the adults.
The policemen threw dirt atop the graves.
The Jews who weren’t yet dead were buried alive.
After the war, a few Jews returned. They built a synagogue, but in the Soviet Union, religion was forbidden. Twenty years later, that, too, was destroyed.
The last Jew of the old neighborhood is named Betya Kholodenko. There’s a video of her from 2017. I wonder how she is related to me. (“Cholodenko,” after all, was my great-grandfather’s original name.) By now, she may be dead.
As of this writing, I have no idea how Korostyshiv is doing.
I’m afraid to say anything more than that.
Am I Ukrainian? I wish I knew.
VI. All I don’t know
Today, I have a headshot shoot for my website. Coincidentally—or maybe due to “beshert”—the photographer turns out to be Jewish Ukrainian. While we scout photo locations in Brooklyn, I ask her about her family. It’s one of the first days where spring feels possible, and even the dogs look like they’re smiling. We pause outside a psychedelic pink wall. She was eight when her family emigrated from Ukraine. After a period in an Italian refugee camp, they settled in Brighton Beach. I don’t ask what prompted the move.
I say “Jewish Ukrainian,” although that is not how she identifies. In her Soviet school, she only learned Russian, and unlike her non-Jewish classmates, she never used Ukrainian at home. If she had to qualify it, she’d say she was a Soviet Jew, but that feels wrong too. How can she be a Soviet Jew if the Soviet Union no longer exists?
“I’m a member of the diaspora,” she says. Not Jewish American. Just Jewish.
I can relate to what she’s saying. Most of the time, I also feel more Jewish than American. I’m proud to be Jewish, and these days, I don’t have much American pride. But I wonder if this is my millennial anger talking or maybe my third-generation privilege. In times of peace, we have the freedom to ask these questions. I don’t think my great-grandparents ever questioned who they were. They were just focused on trying to survive.
I never had to learn Hebrew in secret. I never heard a Nazi’s shot. I never was exiled from my home country. I never survived a pogrom. Yes, there were the Holocaust jokes in high school and security outside my synagogue and even now, my heart pounds every time I tell people what I am. The Jews are tired, a popular meme says, shared when another antisemitic attack or statement makes the news. I do feel tired, but compared to my ancestors, I don’t even know what tired is.
I imagine what my great-grandmother would tell me. According to my mother, she was exactly my size, five feet tall. You have no idea, Mara, she says, clicking her tongue. She’s right, of course. I never will.
A world away, Ukrainians aren’t asking these questions. They’re continuing to fight because they know exactly who they are. Putin may try his hardest, but he will never take that Ukrainian strength away.
Am I Ukrainian? Was my great-grandmother? Are you?
VII. The second generation weighs in
Upon hearing about my essay, my uncle Mike says this:
“I had been thinking of a piece with the exact same title and concluded that we have as much of a personal claim to Ukraine as someone whose grandparents had a dairy farm outside Madison does to Wisconsin.”
My mom writes these notes:
“Going back to Ukraine to connect to something that you know runs in your blood to answer your initial question. Going back as your great-grandparents couldn’t. Refugees now being interviewed (teenage girl going to Spain), vowing to go back. Will they be able to? Will you? What will be left?”
Am I Ukrainian? They say yes.
VIII. A surprise discovery
Today, Korostyshiv is known for its quarry. Tourists from all over the world come to take pictures. Granite canyons—some thirty feet tall—overlook a large man-made lake. Regal pine trees watch over their reflections. Together with birch trees and shrubs, they span every shade of green.
During World War II, the quarry was the site of a resistance movement. Afterwards, the granite was used to rebuild Kyiv. Until a few days ago, I had no idea it existed. I was so scared of what I would find, I never looked.
Go far enough in, and you won’t hear the cars. Go far enough in, and you’ll leave modern life behind you.
Scream and let it echo around you.
Inhale the air. The pine trees still smell as sweet as they always have.
Am I Ukrainian? In this moment, I am.
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