An old photograph, and a clarifying moment in Ukraine

In March 2015 I participated in a congressional delegation to Ukraine to assess its security needs. The visit stoked strongly divergent emotions. I share this because it’s a reminder that the world is not black or white, but often a turbid gray, occasionally illuminated with incandescent clarity. 

I’d always had, in the back of my mind, a conflict about Ukraine. My maternal grandmother was born in 1906 in Pryluky, about 90 miles east of Kyiv. Her village sat squarely in the dark shadows of early 20th century Eastern European antisemitism; a place of pogroms, persecution, poverty.  

So brutal were the conditions that leaving her family at the age of 16, crossing an ocean alone, and settling in a strange country was considered a safer bet than remaining. When I see today’s refugees leaving Ukraine, I see my grandmother. 

She was always reticent to talk about those days. She’d purse her lips as if chewing something distasteful, and her eyes would grow vacant. I once tried to interview her for a college project. She glossed over recollections of her childhood, as if to say, “let’s skip this part.” But when she spoke of the day her ship crawled into New York Harbor and she caught first sight of the Statue of Liberty, her eyes beamed, she smiled softly and said, “That’s when I knew we were free.” 

And so I arrived in Ukraine on that congressional delegation with some heavy baggage: anger that my grandmother and so many others had been hounded out of that place for the crime of being Jewish. I was there, I told myself, to settle a bit of a score.  

At a meeting in Kyiv, my colleagues and I met with then-President Petro Poroshenko. I introduced myself as a “grandson of Pryluky.” He looked confused. I explained that my grandmother was born there but had to flee because she was Jewish; that I was back in her honor. I give Poroshenko credit. He smiled knowingly and offered to take me to Pryluky.  

We never went. 

After that visit, my conflicts weren’t eliminated, but assuaged. I’d visited a country that rejected despotism in the Orange Revolution of 2003-4 and the Maidan Revolution 10 years later. In 1922 my grandmother was forced out of Ukraine because she was a Jew. In 2014,  President Viktor Yanukovych was forced out for being a Kremlin puppet. And while Ukraine never purged itself entirely of the dark currents of antisemitism (What country has?), it did elect a Jewish president. (Our country hasn’t.) 

Now, my conflicts over Ukraine have different contours. I’m conflicted by the emotional desire to do more while understanding the geopolitical imperative of not miscalculating our way into World War III. I grasp the incandescence of Ukrainian President Zelensky, calling out in the darkness, for more weapons, planes, money, a “no-fly” zone; but I recognize the calamitous global risk of being drawn into a battle with a deranged and isolated combatant who appears ready to launch nuclear weapons. I see a path where Russian President Vladimir Putin fails, but also one where he triumphs. (For two completely divergent views of how things may unfold, read Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic piece in American Purpose, then Samuel Charap’s grim forecast in The Economist.) 

Which brings me back to my grandmother. On a wall in my congressional office, I displayed her citizenship documents. There was Rae Kass, her Americanized name. There was her photograph: 24 years old, with brown hair tied back and a meek, nervous smile. Her eyes brimmed with the despair they’d witnessed in Pryluky. 

But they also seemed wide open to the hope and opportunity of her newfound nation.

When that photo was taken, she never could have known it would one day hang in the United States Capitol; specifically in the office of a grandson with the title “Congressman,” who’d one day travel to the country she’d fled and say to its president, “I am a grandson of Pryluky.” But she must have imagined that if it was possible anywhere, it was possible only in America.

When I think of American exceptionalism, it is proven in that photograph. We were the last best hope for her in 1922. Now, 100 years later, we are the last best hope for 2.3 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing in her footsteps. This is one of those clarifying moments which will either illuminate the future or cast Europe and beyond deeper into the darkness.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Petro Poroshenko Pryluky Russia-Ukraine crisis Russia-Ukraine war Steve Israel Ukraine Ukrainian people Vladimir Putin

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