Image via KCMeesha.com
Today my mother reminded me that I’m lucky to be where I am. Indeed I am lucky to even be alive. If not for what happened on a day in early July of 1941, I might never have been born.
You see, that was the day my maternal grandparents left Kiev for a small town near the Ural Mountains. It is a town that was previously notable for being the birthplace of Tchaikovsky, but to my family it became important for a very different reason. It was the place that saved their lives.
The town itself had little to do with saving anyone of course. It was simply out of the way enough to avoid mass slaughter. The slaughter I speak of is to this day a black mark on the calendars of Soviet Jews. It happened on September 29, 1941. Had my grandparents stayed in Kiev for two more months, they would probably have been exterminated with the others.
My mother had not yet been born. She would not come into the world until February 20, 1951 and of course would not have come at all if her parents had perished. Her two older brothers were still very small in 1941. One had been born mere days before the family left. The war had begun for the Soviet Union in earnest in June. Kiev was already being heavily bombed and the lights had at one point gone out in the maternity ward when my grandmother was in labor.
Many Jews were obviously not lucky enough to get out. Many believed the story that they were simply going to be taken somewhere or made to work. Many respected the German people as an intelligent and genteel nationality and could not believe that they would sanction mass killings. Many were simply too trusting.
My grandfather very nearly became one of those people. The factory he worked in was being moved to this Ural town and his department was scheduled to be transported soon. His boss called him into his office a few days before and said that he was making a list of people who would be leaving for the new factory. He felt that my grandfather, with his wife and small children, might not survive the journey or that it would be exceedingly difficult. My grandfather came home to tell his wife that perhaps the man was right and they should stay in Kiev. My grandmother, who I remember to this day as one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, was already packed. We’re going, she told him.
Other Jews in Kiev soon realized that they should do the same, but at a certain point, my mother told me, it became too late. All the roads and all transit out of Kiev were blocked by the Nazis. The noose was tightened and escape became virtually impossible. Some Russian families hid Jews. They too would be put to death. And even their numbers were far too small. Though at war with Germany, Russians were historically not friends of the Jews by any stretch of the imagination. Still, many Gentiles died in the slaughter.
That this happened only a few generations ago is still difficult to fathom at times. We tend to, if not forget these ugly atrocities of history, then at least not think of them often. Sometimes though… sometimes it’s good to be reminded.
Years later, American Jews made it their sacred mission to get Soviet Jews out of the USSR. No one had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union for nearly five decades. Eventually, another summer day, June 20, 1989, saw my family ending our journey to the United States by landing in New York City and then, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
My father, my mother, my older sister, my paternal grandmother and both of my mother’s parents stepped off the plane and into our news lives. We were finally free.