When the Fabric is Damaged

Posted on April 4, 2022

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I haven’t written about the Russian invasion of, and subsequent atrocities in, Ukraine. There is entirely too much out there, written by folks who are way more knowledgeable and way better writers than I. And I didn’t want to say anything that would have been said before. But now I am.

My mother was born in Ukraine, or rather in a town that is now part of Ukraine. Most Eastern European Jews weren’t welcome within the official borders of any country. Instead, they lived in the contested areas close to those countries, referred to as the Pale of Settlement. The Pale was akin to the Wild West, in the sense that there was often violence, as militaries of different countries fought for the land. The Jews were usually caught in the middle. The year my mother was born, Starokonstantinov was controlled by Russia. It is now part of Ukraine.

I have never referred to my mother as Russian, just as I have never referred to my father as Polish. They were simply Jewish. Throughout the centuries, their families lived wherever they were tolerated. When they no longer were, they moved on.

The small amount of knowledge I have about my mother’s family has been gathered over the last forty years. It took that long to find out the name of my birth grandmother. There were no records kept, or rather, what records existed were in obscure places, like local records, hand-written and stored in the filing cabinets of regional Eastern European offices. In my family’s case, almost none have made it to the internet.

I’ve thought on and off during that time that I would like to see the place where my mother was born and where she spent the first eight years of her life. It’s not an easy place to get to and even if I could get there, I wouldn’t know what I was looking at. Several years ago, I had gone to Warsaw, for a conference. Although Poland was officially the place of my father’s birth, Pinsk, his birth city, is now part of Belarus. I had hoped that being this close would give me some of the flavor of his early life that I sought. It didn’t.

I decided in February that I would try to find some kind of heritage tour to the see my mother’s place of birth, specifically a personal tour, since it was highly unlikely that Starokonstantinov would have been included in any general tour. On February 24, while I was sitting at my laptop searching possibilities, CNN’s breaking news was rolling across my TV screen in the background. Russia had invaded Ukraine. It took a minute for me to even process what was happening on the TV. I looked at the TV, then looked at my laptop, at the list of Jewish heritage tours that Google provided. I turned off the laptop.

Since that day, I have had the same feelings of outrage and helplessness that most American have. I have donated money and then donated more. Because I teach English to recently arrived adults, I have seen yet a higher level of my own emotions displayed by the students from Russia and Uzbekistan. They are appalled. More than that, they are afraid.

In addition to processing all of this, I am also aware that Starokonstantinov, elusive at best, has become even less of a reality for me than it ever was before. What World War II didn’t destroy of my heritage, Putin may do so now. My family has lost too much already. I know from their history that loss, like determination and resilience, has never been in short supply.

A lot of people have told me that family research isn’t important to them. I can understand that. The world is tough enough to maneuver the way it is now, without adding the huge effort it takes to look backward. But for me, it’s the only way I have of placing myself in time, of being a part of the thread that goes back in time and forward in time. Of that thread being part of the fabric of so much more than myself. If anyone asks me what my spirituality is, the answer is I believe in the fabric.

Putin, with his guns and bombs, is destroying some of that fabric.

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