Neither Russia nor the Ukraine has ever been a welcoming homeland for the Jewish people. Despite the singing and dancing in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the play was set in 1905 czarist Russia in the Pale of Settlement, the lands of Eastern Europe, including what became Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of Jews lived under the boot of the Russian Cossacks.
It is estimated that more than 1.5 million Jews lived in what is now Ukraine on the eve of World War II, according to a story in The Forward last week. “Some one million of those Jews were killed in the Holocaust,” the newspaper reported, “but a 1989 census estimated that close to half a million still lived in Ukraine in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” The story went on to say that under Soviet rule, Jews were persecuted and denied the right to emigrate, forced to hide much of their religious practice in a society “rife with anti-Semitism.”
Last week, once again, with Russian tanks crossing the border, the dwindling Jewish population was on the run. In a bizarre and nonsensical statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the invasion of Ukraine would remove Nazi influences, ignoring the fact that the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.
The story of the Jewish community in Ukraine today is a minor footnote to the greater story of a nation beaten into submission by a dictator on the march. The footnote, however, resonates with me, because many of my relatives fled Ukraine and came to America in the years before World War I.
My grandfather Morris Brownstein, born in 1897, left Ukraine in 1912 on the SS Zeeland. We don’t know how he managed to travel from Russia to Antwerp, but he boarded a ship in Belgium for the long crossing. He was 15 years old, and he was alone. What we do know is that he made his way to Brownsville, Brooklyn, became a tailor’s apprentice and found and married Anna, a second cousin.
In 1924 he applied for naturalization, was granted citizenship and was as proud of being a “yankee” as anyone who ever escaped oppression and found freedom on our shores.
For his first decade in America, Morris lived in a tenement in Brownsville, probably without running water, possibly with dozens of other new arrivals. According to Wikipedia, Brownsville was predominantly Jewish from the 1880s until the 1950s. An estimated 25,000 people lived there by 1900.
In the early 20th century, the majority of Brownsville’s residents were immigrants. By 1920, when Morris was living there, more than 80,000 of the area’s 100,000 inhabitants were Russian Jews, and Brownsville was known as “Little Jerusalem.”
For decades, the Ukraine he left behind was a sovereign nation, pulled between the magnetic poles of the West and Russia. Historically, it has always been an uneasy homeland for Jewish people, from ancient persecutions to the pogroms of the 20th century. It seems unlikely that the nation has any chance of surviving the Russian invasion.
I believe that if a 15-year-old boy can travel across Europe, book passage on a ship and make a new beginning in a new world, then those of us who have reaped America’s bounty must stand with the Ukrainians in their resistance to occupation in any way we can. We do not know yet what will be asked of us.
When Grandpa Morris signed his naturalization papers, he pledged his heart and soul to the United States of America. He was a good citizen, a patriotic American, grateful to this country for blessings he never could have imagined as a child in war-torn Ukraine.
The Forward added another footnote to last week’s invasion. According to Rabbi Shlomo Baksht, his staff was still looking into moving the 250 children from the three orphanages they run in Ukraine westward, away from the Russian border. His last message was that the effort was too late, and they were “hunkered down.”
Of all the what-ifs we ponder in our lives, one of the most intriguing is what our lives would look like if our parents and grandparents and great-grands hadn’t left their homes and all that they knew of the world to risk dangerous ocean passages to begin new lives, learn new work and absorb new customs in a new land.
The people of Ukraine will suffer mightily in the coming days and weeks, as Russia tramples their dreams of freedom. I think of the 15-year-old from Ukraine who made that harrowing trip 110 years ago, and I am so grateful.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at email@example.com.