A letter from London - My Ukrainian family
By Antony Lerman | 11/02/2010
Ukraine almost has a new president. Ten years ago Kuchma was in power and I was having dinner in a restaurant in Kiev with Jewish community activists when they told me that my grandfather, who I never knew, was born, and lived the first 24 years of his life, just two hours west of where I was sitting. It was as if a brilliant light had suddenly been switched on in a dark corner of my brain. And yet, it was a bitter-sweet moment. I had a nugget of knowledge no one else in my family knew, but it reminded me of how little I had questioned my father about the past before he died.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that Shmuel bar Yaacov Yosef was famous. He arrived in England in 1901, uneducated and with no trade. It's just that I had sheepishly mentioned that he came from Korosten—sheepishly, because I didn't know exactly where that was, never having explored my family history in any depth—when my new friends, with great delight, immediately told me just how close we were to his birth place.
I had two full days of visits in Kiev ahead of me—the Institute of Judaic Studies, the collection of Jewish books and periodicals in the National Library, the Podol synagogue and much more—before I was due to fly on to Dnepropetrovsk, so I had no time to go to Korosten. But I knew that I would come back and make that trip.
It took eight years, but in September 2008, my two brothers and I arrived in the town in the pouring rain, with our guide and translator Lena, in search of something that would bring us closer to our grandfather. I say ‘something' because, despite the fact that more than 300 Jews still lived in Korosten, we already knew that we would find no relatives and that there were precious few buildings left which dated back to the turn of the century when a community of about 1,300 Jews lived there. Emigration, a pogrom and two wars denuded the town of its original Jewish population. Practically all the Jews living there when we visited were had come from elsewhere, after the Second World War.
And yet out of nothing, we heard echoes of the past. The Jewish welfare centre building run by the Joint was on the site of one of Korosten's two synagogues, probably the one where Shmuel married his first wife Rosie. We met two Lerman families, unconnected with each other or us, and even though their memories did not go back to the 1890s, just hearing them talk about the past of which they did know drew us closer to our grandfather. We visited the sites of two cemeteries, but found no Lermans.
Back at the Hotel Rus in a drenched Kiev, we warmed up on vodka and imported red wine and talked animatedly for hours about philosophy, God, Israel-Palestine and family. We shared stories about our parents that we had never before told each other and we all regretted the missed opportunities to quiz them about their family origins. But if we'd found relatives, we wouldn't have brought them home with us, as my partner sensibly remarked back in London.
The Orange Revolution was already fading, although our elderly, welcoming guide Lena was passionately loyal to Yulia Timoshenko, still just about clinging on to the premiership as I write. We visited Hesed Avot, the large Joint-run welfare and community centre, a more subdued place than it was in 2000. It brought to mind thoughts I'd recorded on that first visit: ‘There is something about the nature of Jewish life [in Ukraine] . . . which makes one think of a front line . . . in the positive sense of pushing forward the boundaries of Jewish life. It's as if the soil is so rich that wherever and (practically) whatever you plant grows and flourishes.'
I don't regret the absence of a neat resolution of our quest. Messy politics, the fluctuating fortunes of Jewish life, a vague sense of loss, the remarkable power of recovery humans have—better this jumble of pulsating uncertainties than a deathly museum or a mausoleum.
We didn't discover the family we were, but we rediscovered brotherhood: the family that we are.