War in my grandparents' land

April 2022
Ben Shragge

I was watching footage of Ukrainians defending Kyiv when a road sign caught my eye. It listed the distance to Zhytomyr, birthplace of my maternal grandfather. I was similarly struck when I read reports of Russian troops landing in Odessa, birthplace of my paternal grandmother. I’ve never been to Ukraine, don’t speak Ukrainian, and know of no distant relatives still there. Nonetheless, it’s jarring to see Russian tanks roll down the roads my ancestors once traveled.

Between 1880 and 1914, two million Jews left the Russian Empire. They largely immigrated to the United States, but other destinations ranged from Argentina to Ottoman Palestine to—in the case of my grandparents and great grandparents—western Canada. Manitoba Chief Justice Samuel Freedman, my Zhytomyr-born grandfather, described their motivation when he wrote, “The word pogrom was seared into the soul and flesh of my parents and the other immigrant Jews who were their contemporaries. Their European existence was lived under the constant fear that they might be victims of a pogrom—that is to say, of an organized attack on Jews (men, women, and children), of homes and synagogues burnt, of possessions looted. All this, while officialdom in Russia conveniently looked the other way.”

My European-born ancestors moved to Canada from what is now Ukraine, but before that country appeared on the map. They spoke Yiddish, not Ukrainian; were not considered ethnically Ukrainian; and left before an independent Ukrainian state emerged. They were, in government documents and their own self-description, from Russia. An exception is my paternal great grandfather, who is described in 1911’s Who’s Who in Western Canada as being born and educated in Austria. In fact, he was from Austrian-ruled Galicia, in a village near Lviv. As of this writing, Lviv (which my great grandfather would have known by its German name, Lemberg) is now a transit point for thousands of displaced Ukrainians fleeing into neighboring countries.

At the turn of the 20th century, Eastern Europe (and much of the world) was largely controlled by multinational empires: many of the states we know today only emerged with their collapse. Of course, the absence of a Ukrainian state does not mean there were no Ukrainian people, language, or culture. According to the 1897 Russian Imperial Census, carried out 11 years before my maternal grandfather was born, Zhytomyr was 46 per cent Jewish, 26 per cent Russian, 14 per cent Ukrainian, and 11 per cent Polish. Of these four groups, Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians alike had no nation-states at the time, but were instead the subjects of foreign empires.

The First World War led to the fall of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German Empires, which was followed by the 1918 independence of formerly partitioned Poland. The Ukrainian People’s Republic also declared its independence from Russia in 1918, but was conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1920. During this chaotic post-war period of competing nationalisms and ideologies, Ukraine’s Jews experienced more than a thousand pogroms. Historian Jeffrey Veidlinger describes their plight: “The Bolsheviks despised them as bourgeois nationalists; the bourgeois nationalists branded them Bolsheviks; Ukrainians saw them as agents of Russia; Russians suspected them of being German sympathizers; and Poles doubted their loyalty to the newly founded Polish Republic. Dispersed in urban pockets and insufficiently concentrated in any one contiguous territory, Jews alone were unable to make a credible claim to sovereignty.”

After the First World War, restrictive immigration laws in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere ended mass migration from Eastern Europe. If my ancestors had stayed in their hometowns until 1922, they would have become citizens (or dispossessed victims) of the newly declared USSR. If they had survived the Stalinist oppression of the 1930s, they would have faced the 1941 Nazi invasion of the USSR. The Holocaust killed 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine, including the remaining Jews of Zhytomyr. In its aftermath, the Jewish claim to sovereignty was finally realized in 1948. Only in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR, was the modern state of Ukraine born. Its current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is the descendant of Jews who stayed there and survived.

Now Ukraine is under attack by a Russian ruler who dreams of resurrecting his country’s empire. Quick searches of my ancestors’ hometowns bring up headlines like “Four dead after Russian missile strike hits residential building in Zhytomyr,” “Jewish orphans escape Odessa as Russian noose tightens around city,” and “Russian soldier holds up grenades to Ukrainians, threatens to raze city.” By the time this article is published, the headlines could be much worse. May peace come to the land my grandparents once knew.

Ben Shragge is the HJN’s digital editor. He lives in Boston with his wife Yelena and newborn daughter.