“Ukraine, my birthland,” grandfather Aron (Arkady) used to say. He grew up in Kamianets-Podilskyi, and only in the 1920s He moved to Moscow. Became a paver, then a telephone engineer. My other grandfather, Peysakh (Pyotr), was also born in Kamianets. Prior to entering the gymnasium, he spoke Ukrainian not as well As Yiddish, but still much better than Russian. After a lifetime Of living in Leningrad, Grandfather Pyotr never forgot Ukraine— The high bank of the Smotrych, the Turkish bridge, the mills On the land our family used to rent from a Polish count.
Nyusya Moshkovna Studnits, my maternal grandmother, was born In the town of Bar, now in Vinnytsia Province. She studied At the Kharkiv Institute of Engineering and Economics. In the late 1930s, she married and settled in Moscow To become a consummate resident of the capital. She spoke Russian with barely a trace of the Ukrainian accent, Her speech giving away the old Moscow singsong intonation. And yet to her—a Jewish woman, a Muscovite—Ukraine remained The realm of youth and orphanhood, the house of first love.
My mother was born in Moscow, my father, in Leningrad. As young people they visited with the relatives—who had survived And returned to Ukraine after the Shoah—in Kamianets, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, and Odessa. During the twenty years I spent In the former empire, only once did I visit Ukraine. Summer of 1986, a brief stay in Luhansk Province . . . Years later Already an American, a Jewish immigrant, I came to Kyiv, First alone, then with my older daughter Mira. She was seven. Six months later, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
Visiting Ukraine during the post-Soviet years, I was in the grip Of mixed emotions. Yes, this was the birthplace of my grandparents, The land in which our family tree was deeply rooted. In this sense, my experience was typical of Soviet Jews. Could I think of Ukraine only as a place on the map of the past, Where generations of my ancestors had been born and raised, Went to shul, worked the land? How could I not think of Ukraine As a place on the map of Europe, where in ditches and ravines, At the bottom of ponds lay our bones—the bones of murdered Jews.
Why speak about it now? Because on February 24, All those jumbled, contradictory feelings receded Into the background. Ukraine became my own native land When the enemies of peace invaded it. Now Ukraine Is a target of Russia’s imperial aggression. A victim With which I feel both kinship and solidarity. Every day I undergo emotional torment because The troops of Russia, the land of my first language, Are massacring Ukraine—to my terror and shame.
As I think of the war in Ukraine, I cannot but turn in my thoughts To those men and women who wear Russian military uniforms, And especially to the culpable, the generals and admirals, The commanding officers of the Russian army, air force, and navy. If only one of them refused to carry out the orders. If only one hesitated to turn soldiers into statistics. If only one of them cared not to disfigure what little remains Of Russia’s culture and its hopes for the future.
Cursed be you, the bedlamite who dispatched the Russian troops To annihilate Ukraine, to die on my ancestors’ native land.
See the author’s parallel Russian-language version of the poem.
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