The writer, and her cousin Mischa.

An old photo from Ukraine

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An old photo from Ukraine

The writer, and her cousin Mischa.

Like most of us, I have been watching the war in Ukraine with horror. And, like many American Jews, I have a personal link. In 1994, when the USSR was imploding, my husband and I traveled to Kharkiv to meet my long-lost cousin Mischa. My grandfather had left what was then Tsarist Russia as a young man to come to America.

Now, as the bombs fall on Ukraine, my American family is busy on a project that feels like a welcome distraction: unearthing old handwritten notes, tape recordings, and bruised, flaking photos to produce a family tree.

I have known that my grandparents, along with two and a half million fellow Jews, had left a place where life ranged from limited to lethal. I knew they had left family behind. My grandmother kept the photo of her Odessa family above her sewing machine, moving it from house to house. It kept her company every day for her entire life.

We had photos of my grandfather’s family sent from Russia too, including one of my great-grandfather, an old man in an Astrakhan fur hat and an overcoat staring directly into the camera. Mischa, in Kharkiv, had the same photos that we had, which is why we believed he was, indeed, our cousin.

When we decided to visit him, my relatives took up a collection, and I neatly packed three thousand American dollars into a money belt that bulged out from my waist. We didn’t know what Mischa would do with the cash, but we guessed that his situation was bad.

Mischa – soulful, proud, realistic – resembled my uncles to a shocking degree: same sunken eyes, wide frame, full head of white hair. His Soviet pension from his career as a physician was worthless. His health was precarious. The dollars allowed him, his wife, and his son to move to Germany. Although Mischa had fought the Germans in the Second World War, he knew that the wheel of history had turned. Germany, with its excellent health care system and its desire to reckon with its own history, was especially welcoming to Jews. Mischa lived in Germany for the rest of his life.

Now, with the current war raging, we, in our comfortable homes, are going through the old photos and, for the first time, are curious about the writing on the backs.

In my great-grandfather’s photo, his gaze is steady; he has the sad, soulful expression that seems to me particularly Russian. And on the reverse, several sentences in a Yiddish handwriting faded to purple and plopped with stains.

The title is a Hebrew catchphrase, meaning something like “A memento for generations.” Then, the rest, in colloquial Yiddish:

I thank my dear children Zelig and (illegible) with my dear grandchildren. The 30th August 1924 is approaching 78 years. My dear grandchildren (illegible) have a grandfather in Russia (illegible) who is not able to come to you. And you will not see me. But you will at least see my visit on this piece of paper.

And now, this man is alive, speaking to us, the progeny he will never see. His pain is here, as well as his determination to touch us, across time and space. Given the circumstances of his life, there is little that he can do. And yet, he tries. It is the Jewish idea of the golden chain.

In Ukraine, every day more families are broken. More people are injured and killed; more homes, businesses, lives shattered. People are scattering, trying to find safe places to live.

This message from a long-dead man is one hopeful thing to hold on to. Here he is, looking us in the eye, urging us to repair the fissure in the earth, to do what we can to heal the world. Θ

Miriam Weinstein writes from Gloucester.

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