Only a few weeks ago, the news was not filled with story after story of the War in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, we were focused on what the next surge of the COVID virus would bring, what it would mean to this pandemic that has affected the world. Only a few weeks ago, we all waited for the next report: what countries were open to travel? How would life be different after these two years of the global COVID pandemic? Although these were not easy questions, we did not know how quickly and completely the news, our attention, the attention of the world would shift to Ukraine. Like so many of you, I cry every day now.
My mother’s first language was Ukrainian. Mary was born in 1918 to Alex and Frances Markowski – Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mary was the third living child of my grandparents, after her brother, John, and her brother, Michael. She was the second child to be born in the United States of America. After her would come Anne – Hannah – and Peter.
Like immigrants of all times and places, my grandfather and grandmother must have had their dreams, their hopes, for their new life in their new land. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s hope, and my grandmother, dependent on him, left her home and all she knew in the “Old Country” to come to a land she would not know as her own, as his spouse, without a dream of her own. They brought their first born – Ivan – and their memories of the land they knew, the people and customs of the land they knew, to this unknown place, where life would surely always be a struggle, as it is now, to the poor and the immigrants among us. Maybe my grandfather had a dream, a hope, some sort of light in himself that would surely come to shine in this new land. It did not. All of these thoughts now are speculation, because the poor and the uneducated among us are only numbers, so seldom is their story told.
The memory of my grandparents and how they came to be here is only memory, now. My grandfather died when I was one, and my grandmother, who only spoke Ukrainian in my memory, died when I was 19. Many times in the life I’ve crafted for myself, I’ve wondered about them. And I wonder who else now, in my generation, wonders about them, thinks about what their lives must have been like, what they held in them and with them as they came to this new place. Only questions arise, not many answers. As I think about my family in this country, I think that pieces of the story must exist somewhere, in someone. Who knows?
I’ve always had questions, I’ve always wondered, from the time I was young, about what lives my grandparents had. People who struggle to survive seldom leave deep marks on the path of their lives. Their children and their children’s children – and so on – are all that remain of them. I expect they had a dream, or a hope for this new place. I keep looking for that dream, that hope. I’ve been looking my whole life.
Were they content? Why leave their homeland, then? Why go to somewhere unknown, into an unknown future, with only hopes for something better, and nothing else? Whatever their dreams, they were not fulfilled. “Ukrainians have not done well in the United States,” I once heard a commentator say.
In my search for who they were – who I am – I have turned to DNA research. Several years ago, I connected online with a distant cousin who came from Ukraine, and who now lives in Canada. Through our connection, he had hoped to find a way for me to go to the place of my grandparents’ birth, their home. These days, instead, my cousin speaks daily to his family in Ukraine, helping them decide where to go for safety.
And this same story is being told for millions, millions of people, today.
Now, of course, another dream is lost. The dreams of millions in Ukraine have been smashed to death in just these past couple of weeks. As I write, people who could not think of leaving their home only a few days ago are leaving their homes, hoping to find safe passage to – to where? As I write, a war that started in the mind of one man is dismantling lives and livelihoods, forcing human beings to look for safety somewhere far from home. It’s an old story, older than the scriptures.
“Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me…”
– “Far From the Home I Love,” Fiddler on the Roof
Now, as the world watches, the Ukrainian people on the move again, people who were living their lives like the rest of us, just a few weeks ago. We are stunned as we watch, but our discomfort, our tears, our fears are only that. Today, we sit in our comfortable places, lamenting for these other human beings. Their history – their long history, has been full of violence, of turmoil, of poverty, all these things often at the hand of their leaders.
God save us all.