Bombs fall as the Russian invasion advances on Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine beat near the places I once called home. When I first heard that a rocket had hit a TV tower near Babyn Yar in Kyiv, I thought, “That used to be my park.” Because of this attack, more people know that Babyn Yar was the Nazi site built a concentration camp, then murdered 33,000 Jews in just two days. For me, the site is a symbol of both the Holocaust and my childhood in Ukraine.
I spent the first 10 years of my life in Kyiv. When my mother and I moved to the Syrets neighborhood, the grassy parkland that included Babyn Yar became my playground. I made friends there and made my mother read to me for hours. My parents had their wedding photos taken in the park shortly after a memorial was erected commemorating: “To the Soviet citizens and prisoners of war shot by the Nazi occupiers.” It did not explicitly emphasize Jewish death. For my parents, the photos were a way to honor murdered Jews against extermination and to infuse our culture into their wedding when there might still be a cost involved in publicly displaying Judaism.
When we left Ukraine in 1993 we had to pack for months, but we didn’t take many photos. Today’s refugees have so little time to think about what to take with them when they flee. Because my family brought little memorabilia, maintained few connections and never returned, Ukraine lives largely in our minds. The longer we stayed away, the more nostalgia shaped our memories, taking the sting of what drove us out, though it didn’t erase it. The Kyiv that existed just before this war was not the Kyiv that we left. But there’s a difference between knowing cities change over time and seeing them reduced to rubble. The current war, with its destruction of my childhood places, has felt personally more violent and traumatic than I expected.
I came to California as a kid. The more I assimilated, the more I told people I was Russian. It was my native language, and unlike Russia, Ukraine meant little to Americans. Also, it took too long to explain Soviet policy on language and identity — how one can be Jewish, Ukrainian-born, and Russian-speaking. As a Jew, I never referred to myself as Ukrainian, even when I planned to return and walk the cobblestone streets of Kiev’s Andriyivskyy Descent, the street we so often walked. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, I increasingly began to say that I was “from Ukraine,” both a show of solidarity and a response to Americans’ greater awareness of a place they still “like.” called Ukraine”.
My trauma from the current war is not the trauma of people digging city ditches and escaping bombs. It is the trauma of an emigrant who feels both distant and close. One night before I went to sleep, I saw footage of a tank rolling down a city street flanked by buildings known in the West as the “Soviet Bloc.” The caption said this was the Obolon district of Kyiv, where my school was and where my maternal grandparents and uncle lived. My mother and father had joined them after their marriage and for a number of years the six of us shared three rooms and a bathroom. Now there is news about the shelling of residential buildings in Obolon.
In the meantime a reported Strike in the Podil district on Monday damaged people’s homes. For me, Podil was where my great aunt lived and cooked us special meals until she went to Canada. I also visited the synagogue there, where I celebrated my first Seder and found the “Afikomen”, the piece of matzo hidden as a ritual.
“Before and after” pictures are flooding social media. I am continually confronted with intact buildings and their bombed out skeletons, clean sidewalks now filled with rubble, busy streets that have become silent and empty. There is a video like this from Khreschatyk, Kiev’s main street where my mother grew up and where we used to ride the tram to buy our favorite bread.
The pictures made me call my mother. She takes the news more slowly than I do, but like other immigrants in San Francisco, she feels the war. While on the phone, I open Google Maps to check the distances between different locations, how close the Kiev Tower is to where we used to live.
My mother never wanted to leave Kyiv. Like many emigrants, she felt she could take the hardships, but she didn’t want me to. For years she joked that she would retire in Odessa, the famous Black Sea city. But the jokes have stopped, the mere thought of going home seems impossible.
Some social media posts say the destruction is only temporary as Ukraine is being rebuilt and made even better. the EU and Great Britain have promised help. It’s surreal to see this level of support. I am encouraged that the people who survive may have the space to live and rebuild community. But I also wish that the same enthusiasm and material support would be channeled regularly to other places suffering from war and occupation, such as Gaza.
The longer this war goes on, the more difficult it will be for the millions of refugees to return home. And there’s no physical return for those killed, just the kind of haunting Babyn Jar feels when you remember that green grass can obscure mass graves. I hope as we continue to bear witness we see how much cannot be restored, rebuilt, made whole again.
Maggie Levantovskaya is a writer and teaches at Santa Clara University.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-03-15/ukraine-russia-war-refugees-migrant-diaspora-kyiv Op-Ed: Watching the bombs fall on Kyiv, my former home