I might never have been born


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.


  1. Anonymous September 29, 2010

    What a beautiful and touching story. I love learning about my family history, which parallels yours in a lot of ways including the flight of my grandparents (but from Belarussia, not Ukraine) before the German army as well as the Soviet authorities, to Uzbekistan to sit out the war. Like you, I often think about what would happen if my parents hadn’t left the Soviet Union. If you haven’t yet read this book, Emil Draitser talks about growing up in the 1950s in Odessa and it might interest you. http://blog.vickiboykis.com/2009/06/16/book-review-shush-growing-up-jewish-under-stalin/

  2. Anna Tarkov September 29, 2010

    That book sounds great! I’ve added it to me loooong list on Goodreads. BTW, if you’re on there… http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/3776506

  3. Anonymous September 29, 2010

    This is an incredible post. I read it a few times to myself and then I read it to my coworkers who were all awestruck. You mention that it is sometimes important to remember the tribulations that earlier generations overcame in order for us to be here today, and I agree with that because doing so helps us to remain grateful for the many blessings that we have. Today, you are a free woman in the United States–free to worship and live as you please–through no action of your own, but rather because of the actions of your predecessors. As I didn’t personally survive Middle Passage or early American life in the racist South, I, too, owe my comfortability to the work of those who came before me.

    I never could understand Jew hatred. You and I spoke about this personally a few years ago, and I still cannot understand it. It is so pervasive–anti-Semitism flourishes in the black community, among whites, and notable among Arabs and Persians. I can’t wrap my head around the many people who have tried to exterminate the Jews. How absurd and sick.

    I’m glad you were born, and I pray that anti-Semitism itself is exterminated.

  4. Anna Tarkov September 29, 2010

    Thanks Joseph, that’s very sweet of you to say :-) I’m also glad your co-workers found this meaningful.

    Indeed, African-Americans and Jews have a troubled past in common and we both have people in our histories who sacrificed a great deal so that we could live unmolested in relative comfort and piece. In fact, I’m sure you know that Jews were some of the most outspoken supporters of the Civil Rights movement and many actively participated in it. That is because our faith commands us very strongly to work on “perfecting the world” and speaking out against injustice. Sometimes this predilection has led well-meaning Jews down paths that didn’t turn out so well (Karl Marx), but much more often we are among the first to call out wrongs and try to right them.

    Conversely, as we both know, racism and anti-Semitism are both still alive and well today, as are other hatreds. It’s painful for good, kind, reasonable people to think about, but the way I figure it, all we can do it be an example of tolerance to our friends, family and children. In this way, hopefully tolerance continues to spread and one day there will be very few bigots left.

    As for Jew hatred in particular and why it’s so prevalent, I can assure you that Jewish scholars and other thinkers have given this considerable thought over the years and many books have been written on the topic. I know that some Jews favor the opinion that we’ve often brought it on ourselves, a distasteful and ugly narrative in my opinion. In any event, type in “anti-Semitism” into Amazon or Google and you’ll surely find many plausible explanations. One documentary I vaguely recall dubbed it “The Oldest Hatred” and did a good job of tracing it through the various historical eras.

    Again, all we can do is live our lives the way we feel others should and work within our communities (and outside of them) to shore up knowledge, understanding and encourage dialog and cooperation with groups of different ethnicities, different faiths, etc. The more understanding there is, the less hate there will be I think.

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