A great-grandfather on my mother’s side had a loud mouth. The trait seems to run in the family.
Ivan Grodzensky – his first name was Israel before he Russified it – was leading a prosperous life in Moscow in 1914 when he was overheard in a restaurant denouncing Tsar Nicholas II for involving Russia in World War I. The tsarist secret police imprisoned him, but he got out.
Four years later, Ivan was again arrested, this time at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Why? “He wasn’t considered reliable,” my relative Gary Saretzky, a cousin who is our family’s unofficial historian, told me. “Either he was sent to Siberia or he was shot immediately. He goes completely out of the picture. Millions of other unreliable Russians will suffer the same fate in the following decades.
Another great-grandfather, Barnet Ehrlich, this one on my father’s side, had a frame shop in Kishinev – then a town in the Russian province of Bessarabia, now the capital of Moldova – when in April 1903 a vicious pogrom swept through the Jewish Quarter. Gangs of gunmen looted Jewish stores, burned down Jewish homes, raped Jewish women, and murdered nearly 50 people.
Barnet spent the pogrom standing behind the door of his house with an ax to strike at the attackers, but the house was spared. The family immediately decided it was time to emigrate to the United States. As for the Russian government, its ambassador in Washington, Count Arturo Cassini, called the pogrom an example “of the peasant against the moneylender and not of the Russians against the Jews”. It’s a classic example of deploying an anti-Semitic trope to deny an anti-Semitic fact.
I thought of my ancestors a few days ago as I watched Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov give an interview to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg. I thought of them days later watching the scenes of a Russian missile attack on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk that left at least 18 people dead.
Lavrov’s interview was a masterclass in what Joseph Conrad once called a Russian official’s “almost sublime disregard for truth.” The Maidan Revolution of 2014, Lavrov said, was a “neo-Nazi uprising”. The Bucha massacre was a “staged tragedy”. Regarding Ukrainian civilian deaths: “I tell you that the Kyiv regime is bombing its own citizens.” Later in the interview, Lavrov admits that “Russia is not blameless” and “we are not ashamed to show who we are”.
The Russians deny hitting the mall. Falsehood is as bottomless as cruelty; each reinforces the other.
After Ivan was kidnapped for the second time, his wife, Xenia, found a way to escape from Moscow with her four children, gold coins hidden in a seam of her dress. They reached the Latvian port of Libau, moved west to Berlin in the 1920s, and fled again to Italy after the Nazis came to power. One of my mother’s earliest memories, besides the Allied bombing of Milan, is of being hidden under a nun’s habit for reasons she didn’t understand.
My mother and grandmother came to the United States after the war, penniless, as displaced persons. With only one exception that I know of, the parents who remained in Latvia were murdered during the Holocaust.
Barnet and his family arrived on Ellis Island in 1906. He found employment at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for $8 a week. For them, there would be no more pogroms. Jews who failed to get out of Kishinev in time would not be so lucky.
I tell these family stories not because they are unique but because they are common.
The exhausted faces you see on Ukrainian women and children crossing from other parts of Europe; the anguished faces of Ukrainians recovering from wounds sustained in indiscriminate Russian fire; the sunken faces of Ukrainians who survived Russian captivity in filthy cellars – these are not the faces of foreigners. For tens of millions of relatively recent immigrant Americans, these are the faces of our parents or grandparents. This is true whether their roots are in Russia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Iran or Venezuela.
America’s concern for Ukraine is now clearly waning. The war drags on, Kyiv is not winning, and the United States is in turmoil over Supreme Court rulings, January 6 committee hearings, inflation, a potential recession. Problems: we have them.
But to understand the stakes of this war, it is useful to personalize them. Ukraine’s fight is not just about its own freedom. To use a phrase from “Fiddler on the Roof”, it is a question of keeping the Tsar “away from us”.
It’s also a reminder of what we struggle to keep in our homes. A nation that welcomes immigrants, especially the poor. A nation in which it is safe to speak our thoughts out loud. A nation that respects the rule of law. A nation whose leaders – current or former – cannot simply get away with an “almost sublime disregard for the truth”. A nation that keeps the faith with those who fight for freedom abroad. A nation that will not stand still when freedoms slip away at home.
Happy 4th of July.