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Letters From the Past

As I came to embrace my Ukrainian heritage, I tried to find out what really happened to my great-grandfather in Kyiv during WWII. A collection of old letters finally offered some clues.

Samantha Shokin
August 30, 2023
An undated photo of Hersh and Hannah and the family’s only photo of Hersh

Courtesy the author

An undated photo of Hersh and Hannah and the family’s only photo of Hersh

Courtesy the author

My mother’s family immigrated to Brooklyn from Kyiv in the late 1970s, about a decade before I was born. Growing up, I had identified, like everyone else in our immigrant community, as a Russian Jew. That narrative started to shift, first slowly, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014—then quickly around 2016, when a group of friends first opened my eyes to Ukrainian language and culture. Until then, everything Ukrainian had been foreign to me. Everything about my own Ukrainian Jewish heritage—from the Yiddish dialect that my grandparents had spoken, down to the nuances of my grandmother’s cooking—had been obscured by the monolith that was Russian-speaking Soviet culture.

Later I would think about these implications quite often, but back in 2016 I was just starting to pay attention. Curious, I asked a Ukrainian friend if he thought I could claim Ukrainian identity for myself. After all, my ancestors had lived on Ukrainian soil for centuries (though for a variety of reasons, they had never identified as Ukrainians).

“That’s for you to decide,” my friend shrugged, aware of how fraught my question could be in another context. And if I had to pinpoint it, that was probably the moment my personal journey began. Five years and a few Ukrainian lessons later, I landed a job in my mother’s home city and bought a one-way ticket to Kyiv.

I spent three months there in the summer of 2021, officially on work, but unofficially retracing my family footsteps to get in touch with my Ukrainian Jewish roots. Reflecting on the experience in Tablet that summer, I wrote: “As for my Ukrainian identity, I wish I could say the trip helped solidify it, but I think it only served to complicate it further.”

Then the war broke out, and everything changed.

Even from the comfort of our home in Brooklyn, the Russian invasion shook our lives considerably. After the initial months of protests, fundraisers, donation drives, and social media diatribes came the smaller ongoing shows of resistance. I had never given so much thought, shopping at our local East European grocery store, to the origins of the cooking oil I purchased. To this day a bottle of sunflower oil, sans label, sits in my pantry from the time my mother-in-law inadvertently purchased a Russian-made brand. (My husband would have thrown a fit if he knew.)

These gestures, however symbolic, felt depressingly futile. What really helped me cope was channeling my pent-up energy into genealogical research. I threw myself into this hobby with complete abandon and discovered a number of eye-opening truths about my family along the way—most notably, about the fate of my great-grandfather Hersh.

On paper, Hersh (who went by the Russian name Grigory—Grisha for short—to sound less Jewish) had died missing-in-action during the Nazi invasion of Kyiv. Or at least that’s what my mother had always told me, with the caveat that nobody really knew, or could ever know, what happened. When his wife, Hannah, and daughter Raisa—my late grandmother—returned to Kyiv after being evacuated to the Ural Mountains, Hersh had long stopped writing and there was barely a shred of hope that he remained alive. If he hadn’t been killed while serving in the militia, he must have been among the 33,771 Jews who had been rounded up and shot at Babyn Yar.

I lived with this ambiguity most of my life. If asked if anyone in my family had perished in the Holocaust, my answer would always be vague. I accepted that some things were to remain a mystery and focused on the small stuff instead—the little bits of folklore and Yiddishkeit I could piece together from family artifacts.

I started by leafing through my grandmother Raisa’s handwritten recipe book, so discolored from years of cooking that the pages looked decades older than they actually were. My mother and her sister, in their characteristic manner of eschewing sentimentality, found my determination to scan each of Baba Raisa’s grease-stained pages to be a colossal waste of time. But I was adamant. When I came across her instructions for making gefilte fish, my heart soared.

“Look! Baba Raisa clearly uses the Ukrainian word for beet here,” I said. “A buryak-based gefilte fish recipe? Doesn’t get more Ukrainishe than that.” My mother all but rolled her eyes.

My earnestness couldn’t be dampened. Next I took to the JDC archives to uncover my family’s transmigrant records, which contained details about my grandparents’ lives that we had never known. Here was the name of the Jewish agricultural colony in Crimea that my grandfather had grown up on. A genealogical breakthrough!

“Yes, and the Russian Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the fact that it was once a Jewish colony. How charming,” my mother said dryly.

Motivated by my discovery, I emailed the Ukrainian State Archives in a long-shot effort to procure some family papers. After multiple failed attempts, I finally struck gold: The archives sent me a scanned copy of my grandfather’s original birth certificate, handwritten in Ukrainian. There in plain ink was my grandfather’s given name: Berko Ayzikovich Itsikson. Having always known him by his Russified name, Boris Kaprov, I was delighted to see the original in writing.

Again, my mother was nonchalant. “There’s nothing here I couldn’t have told you myself,” she said, though I couldn’t help but notice a flicker of curiosity in her eyes.

I wasn’t sure what exactly I was searching for, but I stubbornly kept searching, and eventually I learned of something significant from my aunt that had been right under my nose the entire time. It wasn’t a family secret or anything; just something that nobody had ever bothered telling me about. Or if they had, I hadn’t been paying attention.

My aunt handed me a manila envelope with the admonition that its contents were incredibly delicate. I nodded and gingerly took out nine tattered pieces of paper, some that were fragmented and missing sections. Letters from Hersh, in Russian. The first was dated Aug. 8, 1941. It read:

Hello Hannah. Hello Raichka. I don’t know if there are any pleasant things I can share with you. For now we’re in Kyiv. I can’t sleep at night and keep thinking about you both. How is it that they took you there to [the ends of the earth], even though you rode through such nice areas and could have gotten off the train at any point. Now I am again reminding you that you must give this serious thought and relocate to a warmer place. I know that this will be a difficult step. But what I can do is try to help you, my dears …

The letter trailed off into illegible writing. It was apparent that Russian hadn’t been Hersh’s first language, as his writing was peppered with grammatical mistakes. Another letter stated:

Get Raichka shoes or boots or whatever you need based on the weather. You forgot your valenki (felt boots) at home … Don’t panic, it won’t help you. Do everything you can to make it easier on yourselves. Again, don’t take the clothes with you, sell them if you can so at least you can buy something to eat …
Hannah, I’m asking you to please make sure Raichka gets an education. She’s a child and needs to learn. Nevermind that Kyiv is nothing like where you currently are, but school began here on September 1st. I am ending this letter. Please be alive and healthy. I wish you all the very best.
Your husband, Papa Grisha

Most of the papers weren’t dated, and it was hard to make out the order with so many sections missing. The last was a small fragment of the original:

I am ending this letter after a good cry. How have we come to this. But if it ends here, it’s for the best. Kisses to you Raichka, if you can get an education, please do so, otherwise you must relocate to a place with schools.
I will send you a package. I’ll get something and send it to you. Goodbye. –Grisha

Having read these letters I had even more questions than before. I scanned the pages and called my mother in a frenzy, hoping she could make something out in Hersh’s writing that I couldn’t.

“The details mainly concern their day-to-day survival. Baba Raisa’s education and so on,” she said, to my disappointment. I was hoping there’d be more.

“But there is something I hadn’t noticed before,” she continued. “Pay attention to the dates. August and September of 1941—Kyiv.”

“Yes, and? I thought we knew as much,” I said.

“Well yes, but the fact that he was writing from Kyiv is interesting. I had always thought that he had been out in the forest somewhere, with the militia.”

“Not sure that I follow,” I said.

“Sam, all the Jews that were in Kyiv in September 1941 were murdered. Look, he even mentions mailing a package. Mailing from where? He had to have returned to the city then. I never paid attention to this detail, but it makes sense.”

It was hard for me to accept that these details had been simply overlooked before. My grandmother Raisa passed away in 2017, and after the family inherited her possessions, most documents were stored away and forgotten. I wondered if maybe they’d been too painful to dwell on.

“You know, I remember seeing something of Baba’s among her documents—a testimony of sorts. I can’t recall exactly. Maybe you’d want to come take a look?” my mother asked.

“Yes! Absolutely,” I said. I showed up at my parents’ apartment the following day and started digging through dozens of papers spanning decades—Soviet birth and death certificates, school transcripts, naturalization papers, stacks of old IDs and more. Finally, I found what I was looking for: three pages of composition paper with what was recognizably my grandmother’s cursive. It was a draft of a letter to a scholar who was working on a book about Babyn Yar that came out in 1983. She had written to him requesting for Hersh’s name to be included. She wrote:

During the months of August and September we received several letters from my father which stated, among other things, that he witnessed panic in the city—people were fleeing, and even many of his fellow soldiers were disappearing one by one. He wrote that he wanted to take revenge on the fascists, and that he loved Kyiv and couldn’t leave the city during such difficult times. I quote from his letters, which I still have in my possession: “We won’t surrender Kyiv. We will fight until the last drop of blood.”

The words felt chillingly familiar against the backdrop of today’s war. She went on:

Kyiv was of course surrendered, and my father together with his fellow defenders was surrounded and captured by German fascists. According to eyewitnesses, including our neighbor—a Ukrainian man who served in the same battalion as my father—they were placed behind barbed wire under the open sky. Then they singled out the Jews and shot them at Babyn Yar. All of the non-Jews were let go.

How was it that she wrote these words with such conviction? Moreover, how had this testimony been kept from me my entire life? My mother claimed to have never known about a witness—perhaps Baba Raisa had mentioned something about the Ukrainian man to her once, but like me, she hadn’t been paying attention.

Baba Raisa also wrote in her letter that she visited the memorial with her mother before immigrating to America. She had been outraged by the monument’s generic inscription, which failed to mention that the victims had been primarily Jewish. Since then, the Ukrainian government has officially recognized the event as a Jewish tragedy, and an important part of the nation’s history. Like my great-grandfather, the Jews who perished at Babyn Yar may not have identified as Ukrainians, but their descendants fighting on the front lines today do—a testament to the inextricable histories of both people.

In the summer of 2021, shortly before I left Kyiv, I visited Babyn Yar. I remember approaching the memorial uncertain how to feel. Would the 80-year mystery of my great-grandfather’s disappearance stir up something within me? When I finally reached the tree-lined ravine, the surroundings had felt eerily tranquil.

Looking back, one thing that I can now say with certainty is that both identity and remembrance are volitional acts. I think Baba Raisa chose to believe that her father had been killed at Babyn Yar to gain a sense of closure. At the very least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe now—just as I’m choosing to identify as a Ukrainian Jew. It’s a small gesture, but it speaks volumes.

Someday soon, I would like to return to a victorious Ukraine. I would like to visit the part of Crimea where my grandfather grew up, and all the other places where my ancestors trod. I would also like to revisit Babyn Yar in light of everything I now know.

There’s one other thing that I now know for sure. One day, when I tell this story to my children, I’ll make sure they’re paying attention.

Samantha Shokin is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.

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