Almost 100 years ago, in November 1929, the SS Leviathan steamed into New York City, carrying my Ukrainian great-grandfather Mykhailo Mazur on his first trip to America. I live a few blocks from the Brooklyn waterfront, and sometimes when I stroll along it, I imagine his ship sailing up the East River, smoke billowing from its row of stacks. It is one of the uncanny resonances of my life with his. At the moment, they are multiplying daily.
At the time of his arrival in the United States, Mykhailo was 31 years old and the father of three. A lifelong farmer, he didn’t know any English. He was barely literate in Ukrainian, his native language. He had left his wife and children behind in a picturesque hamlet in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice. Like generations of his forebears, he faced a life of grinding labor, occasional famine, a crowded home. He wanted better for himself and his children. So, like many Ukrainians of his time and place, he took advantage of a relatively new opportunity: to work in the United States.
The plan was not to stay long. As difficult as his life there was, Mykhailo loved the land of his birth. At the time, it was part of the Republic of Poland, but the village where he lived, Staryava, was ethnically Ukrainian for the most part. In the years before he left, he took pride in helping found the village’s branch of Prosvita, an organization that promoted Ukrainian language and culture. With the money he earned in the United States, he planned to finance a house for his family in the village and purchase fields that could sustain them and generations to come.
He was lucky: despite the advent of the Great Depression, he landed on his feet. He made his way to Cleveland, where his elder brother John had settled a few years earlier, and found work in a bakery. The job involved using his hands, just like farming did, and he did it well. Within a few years, he had hit his stride. The church he attended was just a mile’s walk from the house he shared with his brother, as was the Ukrainian National Home, a former mansion that the Ukrainian community used for concerts, art exhibits, lectures, and other cultural events. He found meaning in union life and was an active member of the Teamsters.
Mykhailo took such a shine to the United States that it was decided that his wife and kids should join him permanently in America. In 1935, he filed a declaration of intention to apply for citizenship. But the timing—oh, the timing—was terrible. It was clear that the employment situation was dire, that even Mykhailo’s good fortune was precarious. “The smokestacks were just empty tubes sticking into the sky,” a memoirist of Depression-era Cleveland related with dismay. “No black smoke, no white smoke, no red, yellow, or orange smoke.”
His citizenship came through by 1938, but he elected to wait to bring his family over. He wanted times to be a bit better, for jobs to be more plentiful and desperation to stop crackling in the air. So the Mazurs waited in their village, thinking that a better time would surely come. What they got instead, in September 1939, was something far different from what they hoped.
I started visiting Ukraine in 2003. I was in college, eager for adventure, and curious to explore the land of my heritage, one I knew mostly from church, the stories of my mother and grandmother, and the pungent cuisine—kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, fried onions—that appeared so often on our kitchen table. The Ukraine I arrived at stunned me at every turn: it was so vibrant and so broken. Mixed into this I found a persistent internal striving, though sometimes to contradictory ends. To make a long story short, I fell in love.
That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I have traveled across the country, from Mykhailo’s native village about 10 miles from the Polish border to the slag heaps of prewar Donetsk, from salty-aired Maripol to chic Odesa. I have returned again and again to Kyiv and Lviv, my favorite Ukrainian cities. I obtained most of my political education from witnessing Ukraine’s fractious politics and its fitful attempts at democracy and reform.
In that time, I have seen the country change in ways big and small. In the past five years in particular, Ukraine seems to have blossomed—while the Russian occupation of the Donbas ground on in the east, it did so relatively quietly, and Kyiv thrummed with youth, style, and energy. The country’s filmmakers have won major prizes at Sundance; Ukrainian literature is increasingly translated into other languages. I have watched my cousins’ children grow up in a Ukraine that is resolutely independent and cosmopolitan; in a departure from previous post-Soviet cohorts, their opportunities seemed to be growing, not shrinking.
I am privy to all of this in part because I have a large extended family in Ukraine whose members enveloped me in love the second I stepped foot on Ukrainian soil, who have tolerated my broken Ukrainian and bizarre culinary requests (no caviar for breakfast), and have helped me in my quest to understand this country as best I could. And to understand our family story as best I could. After all, it was the vagaries of history that split our family in two, half in Ukraine and half abroad. It was a random but not uncommon occurrence—as we are seeing now, displacement is part of the Ukrainian story.
Within two weeks of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the small towns closest to Staryava in what is now far western Ukraine were under attack. With the invasion, the Mazurs’ immigration plans evaporated, and Mykhailo’s contact with his family was severed.
In recent years, I have been researching and writing the story of my family’s experience in Ukraine during and after the war. I have unearthed little about Mykhailo during this time, and so I wrote the sentences covering it quickly and with little thought: He was cut off from his family during the war. There was nothing he could do to help them. I turned my attention to the next event.
This month, a portal opened.
I now have a much better sense of the devastation my great-grandfather felt as he watched from afar as war consumed his family and his homeland. Over the past week, I have woken up regularly in the middle of the night, my mind churning. I have cried over my Twitter feed. I have written lots of texts to Ukrainian family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. “I’m thinking of you,” I write sometimes. “I love you,” I write other times. Occasionally, I just send emojis, because while both words and emojis are useless, at least emojis convey less expectation of response. I have started to try to understand the process for applying for refugee status in the United States.
At each of these moments, I have felt the pain of the present and the weight of the past.
My great-grandfather faced this wrenching helplessness not once but twice. After the war ended in 1945, he was able to reestablish contact with his family and started once again to try to bring them to the United States. But the war had already left a horrible mark on their lives. His eldest son, my great uncle, was in the forest fighting with an army of far-right Ukrainian nationalists; he would die in battle with Soviet forces within two years of the signing of the Yalta Accords. My grandmother was 22 and already a mother and a widow, her first husband (an ethnic Ukrainian) killed in a Nazi concentration camp. The Soviets had deported Mykhailo’s elderly mother-in-law, my great-great grandmother Julia, to Arkhangelsk in the Arctic Circle because her son had also been a Ukrainian nationalist fighter; within a year, she too was dead.
Amid all of this, the opportunity to emigrate slipped through the Mazurs’ fingers. In October 1947, the Soviets arrested them, along with 77,000 other Ukrainians, for being family members of Ukrainian nationalists. Again, Mykhailo must have felt helpless, horrified, and scared beyond measure as he absorbed this news from newspaper clippings and long-delayed family letters. My mother, who was born in Siberia, would spend the first 12 years of her life in a gulag exile settlement, where her parents labored as coal miners. It wouldn’t be until 1966—almost 20 years after the Mazurs were exiled—that my grandmother would leave the Soviet Union, by then divorced and with her two youngest daughters in tow, to join her father in the United States.
Because Soviet emigration policy was notoriously strict, and men were essentially barred from leaving the country, many members of my family did not get this opportunity. Instead, when their exile sentences were canceled, they returned to Ukraine. Mykhailo’s inability to bring his surviving son, my grandmother’s younger brother, to the United States was a long-standing source of pain. With his savings from his years of work at the bakery, he had bought a multi-structure property in Cleveland, big enough to accommodate the families of both his children. The space he purchased for his son would never be filled with its intended occupants. Every day it would be an outsize reminder of the split that the war had dealt that would never fully heal.
All Ukrainian families have such difficult stories in their past. A new, terrifying chapter is now upon us. As I sit today in my apartment in New York, glued to Twitter and CNN, watching Russian tanks roll across the border, the thought of how the next few months and years will unfurl for my family, friends, and ancestral homeland fills me with dread. The ghost of my great-grandfather accompanies me. Together we ask: How does this end? What will their story be?
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