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Travel Notes from Kharkov

February 27, 2011 | by Avital Chizhik

Why go back to the place we had tried so hard to leave?

I decided not to tell my great-grandfather about my upcoming ten-day organized trip to Kharkov, Ukraine. I was afraid he'd get upset. I didn't want to remind him of the city of his youth, the one he had left in 1941 as a young soldier in the Red Army, and the destroyed one he had returned to in 1945, as a military captain, husband and father.

I didn't want to tell him that soon I'd be walking the same streets he had, years and lifetimes ago, the same streets into which his father-in-law had disappeared into in 1937, accused of being a Zionist and shot soon thereafter by Stalin's secret police.

Perhaps I'd even, unknowingly, stroll by the very apartment which the family had owned since after the Revolution. Klochkovskaya Street 3 was an address I had grown up hearing stories about: the botanical gardens across the street, the river nearby, the gastronomie just up the block. It was the same address they had bid farewell to, one early autumn morning in 1981, having fought for the right to leave and seek a better life elsewhere.

But the rest of the family was well-informed and as the day of departure grew closer they felt an imperative, having come from the place themselves, to hand out advice. It would be cold there, colder than my inexperienced Amerikanskiy thin skin had ever experienced. I was not to respond if I was called a 'zhid' on the street; all I was to do was to walk by, just as my predecessors had done for decades. If I saw that our male participants were wearing their yarmulkes openly, I was encouraged to separate myself from the group – better not to look so obvious. Just in case.

They thought the idea itself – imagine, our Talechka going back to Ukraine! – amusing in its naiveté. Why go back to the place we had tried so hard to leave, 30 years ago? And to Kharkov, of all places, my proudly Kiev-born father shook his head sadly. Why not to Kiev? That's like bringing foreigners to America, skipping New York and taking them to Springfield, Massachusetts instead.

My relatives looked skeptically at me and dismissed my choices as so unbearably American, so liberal.

The idea of a volunteering mission, run by Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future and Joint Distribution Committee, was strange to them: why not tour more historical sites, visit museums, go to the opera? I tried explaining that the CJF conducts missions for humanitarian aid; we 20 students would be visiting the elderly, working with children, doing manual labor, spending time with Ukrainian peers. My relatives looked skeptically at me and dismissed my choices as so unbearably American, so liberal.

My friends, however, gushed with excitement for me. "It's going to be a real homecoming!" they all cooed. "You'll be checking out your roots!" Home? Roots? It sounded like some awful American idea, spending money on a trip to eastern Europe to discover that all that remains is a quiet rustling field, a street corner that has been rebuilt three times over, a name in Cyrillic letters in some dusty government archive.

No, no, Ukraine was the farthest thing from home; the thought of it was like asking an ancient Israelite if his home was Egypt. Rather than finding my past, I was convinced I was going in order to confirm that, in fact, I had nothing to do with a place like Ukraine. The people were different now, the streets not the ones I had been told about – the scenery behind my family's stories would be one of ghosts. I would step off that Aerosvit plane and feel like a complete foreigner, estranged in my Americanized-ness, and thus return content that I had done my duty as curious first-generation American. I would come back to America and one day write a story about my experience, perhaps spend several afternoons in the New York Public Library writing reflections, but no more than that.

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Land of Chilling Fairy Tales

It takes me a good two hours to stop shaking when I step out in Borispol Airport in Kiev. Perhaps it's the drab colors of the place, the fur hats, the archaic trolleybuses, the same Slavic features and grim expressions: why, it's exactly as I had imagined. Hours later, arriving in Kharkov, I am stunned by the sheer familiarity of the place. The language I had heard at home is now broadcasting on the radio, over loudspeakers, in the hotel. I am suddenly in a country where my last name is pronounced correctly and understood.

Our group is greeted at the airport, after a long tiresome journey of flight delays and missed connections, by twenty-some smiling Ukrainian students and mentors, and whisked to the city's kosher restaurant for our first delicious meal. The local students are excited, though most come equipped with little English, and somehow their energy is infectious enough that we forget about our own exhaustion. We plunge into a dinner that would be the beginning of many cultural bridges. I find myself thrown into the role of translator, however awkward and shy I am to speak in my rusty native tongue.

"Tell me what's it like in New York City?" one student, Igor, asks me. “It's been my lifelong dream to visit there. I've seen it before, of course, on that American TV show. You know, Spletnitsa?”

Spletnitsa? I fish around for the direct translation. Newsmonger? And then I realize what he means: Gossip Girl.

I smile clumsily and say, “Yeah, New York...It's kinda like Gossip Girl. But not really."

Another boy, Dmitry, turns to me, and bitterly says, “I'd never want to live like those Americans do. Everything is about money, isn't it? Isn't that how it is there?"

"For most people here, life here isn't about living, it's about surviving."

Students are bursting to tell us their stories. “Do you know that minimum wage here is 750 grivnas a month?” one girl, Ilona, asks me.

Less than $100, I calculate. I shake my head in disbelief.

"For most people here, life here isn't about living," she says simply. "It's about surviving."

Dmitry, a timid 14-year-old, stutters that he doesn't like going to school. When one of our boys asks him why, he explains his classmates hate him; he's the only Jew in the class.

In the meantime, Boris, a student at the polytechnic, explains that his closest friends are not Jewish. “It doesn't matter who's Jewish or who isn't, among my friends,” he says, sipping from a bottle of mineral water. “It's just not a topic of discussion."

Related Article: Back to the Shtetl

The stories are told in a fast, excited Russian. The students had been surprised to meet someone who spoke their language, albeit mine is outdated, based on whatever I had heard around the house and streets of Brooklyn. I came thinking of myself as an American, and suddenly I am taken in as a local almost, a fellow Ukrainian Jew. “You even look Ukrainian,” one girl tells me, hugging me and calling me 'sister.'

Until that moment, the place I had grown up on, the stories and photographs, anecdotes and films, endless love songs and war ballads, had existed only in the imagination of my childhood. For the past 19 years, my parents and grandparents and extended family had tried their utmost to preserve whatever culture they could in me. Don't forget your Russian, you'll regret having forgotten the most beautiful language in the world, I was drilled constantly by grown-ups.

And now that land of chilling fairy tales was coming alive, in a sense. The faces in my family's black and white photographs were now growing a slight shade of pink; the sad dark eyes were returning their sparkle, the wrists turning warm and pulsing again. I was shocked by how real everything was, how familiar and how comfortable.

Within ten days, past and present came together, between tours of the city of Kharkov and its Jewish history and meeting with its various community leaders. We prayed in the city's choral synagogue, a building taken over by the Communists and converted into a sports club for decades, now restored to its former grandeur as shul and place of learning. Kindness was done in all sorts of capacities: sitting in the poverty-ridden homes of the elderly, we heard stories of evacuations of Jews from the city towards the east, faint memories of prayers and traditions that would then be lost under Communist rule, old Yiddish songs that were all-but-forgotten. We spent a morning cleaning the newly-built JCC of debris, an afternoon in a struggling yeshiva day school, doing minor repairs and preparing for Tu B'Shvat celebrations. Shabbat was a whirlwind of fervent song, dance and stories, and all language barriers were forgotten effortlessly.

Time was allotted for bowling and ice skating, even shopping, through which our Ukrainian peers grew to be very close dear friends, like any other fun-loving college students we would befriend back home in New York. And when our hosts organized a farewell evening that last night, full of horse sledding, Ukrainian folk songs and a spread of traditional food, all we Americans could whisper to each other was our deep reluctance to leave these people.

Paper and ink is not enough to fully encapsulate a complex community of thousands, so foreign in mentality and context to American readers, a community facing an assimilation threat as dangerous as, if not more than, the one here in the States.

"Now do you see why your family left this place?"

Some things are beyond words, like the time I was walking along the river, on a promenade overlooking rows of decrepit buildings, and the Kharkov-born Oksana walking alongside me said quietly, "Now do you see why your family left this place?"

I can’t write fully about the moment I stood above Drobitsky Yar, speaking with a Ukrainian partisan who had seen the 15,000 Jews gunned down there in 1941, and the passion in his 90-year-old eyes when he told me that he stands at that sacred ground daily, to serve as testament to anyone who comes looking.

Nor can I put onto paper the frustrations of translation – the realization that feelings and associations can never be exactly transferred into another language. There simply is no direct Russian translation for “privacy” or “fun” or “excitement;” there is no English for soulful, deep words like “oschushenya” or “vpechatlenye”.

Or the warm gifts which our Ukrainian friends came bearing for us, that last night. Mementos, small china tea sets, statuettes, loving greeting cards, the scraps of paper exchanged, scribbled with Facebook names and email addresses.

How to explain that morning, when we had happened upon a boy at the Chabad House in Poltava, on his thirteenth birthday? And how hard we danced and sang, and how heartbreaking it was to watch the bar mitzvah boy's father walk in late, pat his son on the shoulder, and then walk out again?

Or the children that clamored to take pictures together with us, to take down contact information so that they could have an adoptive older sibling. “I think I've found myself a new mother,” one girl, ribbons in her hair, said as she hugged me goodbye.

Or the time on Friday night that the JCC youth director turned to me incredulously, after the singing had ended, and whispered that this was the first time she had ever seen the students sing. "You guys have had an incredible influence...what will I do next Shabbat"?

No essay will give justice to the amount of crucial aid the Joint Distribution Committee gives to those in need, nor to the eager volunteerism of the youth there, nor to the level of poverty which we witnessed: shacks with no heating, hay roofs, empty pantries.

And no poem will fully depict that clear evening on which I ventured to Klochkovskaya Street 3, how I stood and looked at the once-elaborate building, now boarded up and soon to be knocked down, a liquor store established next door, the botanical gardens still right across, traffic whizzing by, and how all I could hear was my great-grandfather's Chopin records that used to play out of those very windows.


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