All eyes are on Ukraine and Russia right now. We’re glued to our phones, updating our Twitter feeds and news cycles to keep up to date with the latest news on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Jews everywhere know that in times of war and unrest, our people are the scapegoat – our people are the ones who end up suffering. But for the Jews of Ukraine, it hits in a different way.
My name is Clarina Usach. I was born in Odessa, Ukraine in August 1990. Back then it was still known as the USSR; it would take another 16 months before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. As anti-Semitism rose again at disproportionate rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my family fled Ukraine in August 1992 on Jewish refugee visas.
Personally, I have never returned to Ukraine, but in the almost 30 years since we left, members of my family have returned to visit me. The majority of their time was spent in Odessa, revisiting their old homes, schools and workplaces. The biggest surprise, however, was the contrast between Jewish life then and Jewish life today. The Jews of the Soviet Union were indoctrinated to be ashamed of who they were. Soviet anti-Semitism – thinly disguised as anti-Zionism – has become so entrenched in the Jewish psyche that its ramifications can be felt among older Jews even today.
Jews were taught to remain silent about their identity from an early age, even though we were “marked” as Jews from birth. While the Western world today struggles over whether Jews are white or not and whether Jews are their own ethnicity, the Soviet Union has clearly decided that we are our own kind of people. Our birth certificates clearly identified us as Jews. Not Ukrainian. Not Russian. Not Soviet. Jewish. And this label followed the Jews throughout their lives. At school, each child’s name on attendance rolls would be followed by their ethnicity: Ukrainian? Awesome. Russian? Awesome. Romanian, Tatar, Georgian? Sure. Jewish? Welcome to a world of ridicule and intimidation. Even the teachers bullied their Jewish students – stories that my grandmother had a lot to share.
So imagine my mother’s surprise when she and my stepfather returned in the summer of 2018 as tourists. Kosher restaurants were booming. The synagogues – which had been closed by the communist government – were now functioning. When they went to a synagogue on Shabbat, they were stopped by security guards to make sure they were Jewish. Except this time it wasn’t to harass or assault them; it was to make sure they and the congregation inside were safe.
But my family is no longer in Ukraine. We are not in the Soviet Union either. Although if Putin gets his way, we could very well see a Soviet Union 2.0 in the future. We’re in New York, watching a former KGB member lead an assault and invasion on the land where most of us were born. For us, it’s not just another war. It’s personal.
True, I do not remember Odessa or Ukraine as a whole. The only things I have from my native country are photos and memories passed down from my grandparents and my parents. And my ancestors who are buried in Jewish cemeteries constantly threatened with desecration. My great-grandmother, whom I never met, but whose name I took, rests in one of these cemeteries.
And here I am: from thousands of kilometers away, I watch the Russian army follow the orders of a warmonger. I have never felt more drawn to where I was born than I am now with the need to do something, anything. Every time I update my Twitter feed, I feel like screaming. I want to scream because there are so many people supporting Putin. I feel like screaming because there are so many people who keep quiet on the pretext that they don’t know enough even though they kept talking last May during the Israel-Hamas war. I want to scream because, even with all its faults, the earth is in my bones and my blood, and I am bound to it even though I will never set foot within its borders again. I want to scream because the world is collapsing and the Jews are going to be trampled on again.
The fact that Israel is airlifting Jews and giving them citizenship gives me hope. Jews who wish to accept Israel’s offer will return to their ancestral homeland. But there are still many who might not want to leave. And there are millions of non-Jewish Ukrainians in Putin’s way right now. And if he succeeds in his pursuit of Ukraine, we know he won’t stop there. Putin wants to “denazify” a sovereign nation that has elected a Jewish leader. Ukraine is obviously not innocent in its anti-Semitic history, but we are once again witnessing Russia’s blatant anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism. We watch history repeat itself and as Jews watch events unfold, we cannot shake the feeling of deja vu.
For those of us who fled Ukraine, a familiar dread floods the deepest parts of our souls. Ancestral memory and trauma freeze our blood with fear and burn it with rage. We watch what happens in the first home we knew, give what we can while praying for a peaceful end. As Western leaders attempt to appease Putin, we know only too well how the appeasement ended last time around. It didn’t work then. It won’t work now. And our hearts are sore and bruised and broken. Wherever we are in the Diaspora is our temporary home. Israel is our ancestral and spiritual (and for many, physical) home forever. But for those of us who were born in Ukraine, this is our first home. “Odessa Mama” – a Yiddish song about a place where Jewish culture developed and flourished. Odessa Mama, we are praying for you at this time.
Klarina Usach was born in Odessa, Ukraine. Her family fled as Jewish refugees to the United States in 1992. She grew up in New York but Israel is in her heart. She is currently working on her first book.