Opinion: Red-brick house, Kiev, Ukraine

By Alexander B. Dolitsky

Vladimir Lenin characterized the New Economic Policy in 1922 as an economic system that would include “a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control,” while socialized state enterprises would operate on “a profit basis”—an economic policy similar to today’s economic system in China. Many entrepreneurs responded to this policy with a great enthusiasm, including my grandfather Roman Umansky. NEP became an engine of the small-scale free market, economic growth, and accumulation of capital by many risk takers in the early years of the former Soviet Union until 1929 and, in some instances, for small businesses until 1941.

In 1938-1939, my grandfather and six other small Jewish NEP entrepreneurs cooperated in building a “red-brick two-story house” in midtown Kyiv, about 15 minutes, by trolley, from the center city (Khreshchatik). This was a luxurious house by standards of the 1930s in the Soviet Union—reasonable amenities in all seven apartments in the building, including: central city water and sewer system, central electricity and each family had a small storage and garden adjacent to the “red-brick house.”

These were hard-working, happy and friendly families, living in peace with each other and the world around them until an eruption of the German invasion. On June 22, 1941 at 4 a.m., Kyiv was bombarded by German Luftwaffe. By August of the same year, the German army advanced to the steps of Kyiv. As a result of this invasion, all families in the red-brick house were dispersed to all directions of the compass. Some fought courageously against brutal invaders.

My grandfather was killed in defense of Kyiv in 1941. My mother (18-years-old), aunt (16-years-old) and grandmother were evacuated to Gorky (a city on the upper Volga River—today’s Nizhniy Novgorod). Many families were evacuated to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. Some Jews, who could not escape Kyiv on time, were captured and executed in Babiy Yar by Nazis.

Babiy Yar is a ravine in Kyiv and a site of massacres carried out by Nazi Germany’s forces. The first massacres took place Sept. 29-30, 1941, killing nearly 34,000 Jews.

Kyiv was largely destroyed during German occupation. But many historic sides survived, including St. Sophia Cathedral, Golden Gate, Prince Vladimir Monument, Bogdan Khmelnitsky Monument, Taras Shevchenko Monument, The Holy Dormition Kyiv Caves Lavra, St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Andrew’s Church, Vydubtskiy Monastery, Marinsky Palace, National University, Opera and Ballet Theatre and some other historic sides.

After Kyiv was liberated by the Soviet Army in November of 1943, many residents of the city came back to their homes and began a reconstruction of Kyiv and normalization of their lives. My mother, aunt and grandma also came back from an evacuation, where they worked in the military factory, to claim their property. However, upon their arrival to Kyiv, they discovered that their apartment was occupied by a Ukrainian family who refused to evict the property. My aunt Lilya, a tough woman who survived a harsh evacuation in Gorky, told me once: “I opened a balcony door and a front door and threatened intruders that they have to choose one of the two ways out—balcony or front door. They walked out through the front door.”

In fact, some Ukrainians and Russians, for various political, economic or ideological reasons, collaborated with German Nazis during the war. Perhaps the most famous was The Russian Liberation Army (or “Vlasov Army”) under the General Andrey Vlasov. This was a collaborationist formation, primarily composed of anti-Soviet Ukrainians and Russians. This army predominantly operated in Western Ukraine. After the war, many members of the Vlasov Army settled in West Ukraine and some fled Ukraine to South and North America, changing their identities and hiding from prosecution for the war crimes.

I was born and raised in the red-brick house in the post-War time. I lived in this house when Sputnik was launched in 1957, de-Stalinization was announced in the late 1950s, Yuriy Gagarin explored the space in 1961, Cuban Missile Crises frightened the world in 1962, Duke Ellington performed in Kyiv in 1971, and President Nixon visited Kyiv in 1972. I lived in this house during my secondary school and college years. I left the red-brick house to the West in March of 1977. Soon after my departure, my family and other Jewish families of the red-brick house followed my footsteps to the free world—United States of America. And there was no red-brick house anymore.

Memories of World War II and German occupation of Kyiv for many years affected communication between various social groups and ethnicities in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. Jewish families, especially, in fear of a possible new genocide against them, preferred to stick together, to choose their own, and somewhat mistrusted outsiders. Holocaust and betrayal were deeply rooted in their memories.

My grandfather, Roman Umansky, was captured by German Nazis and brutally killed in Nazi-occupied Kyiv in 1941. He was betrayed by the Ukrainian woman who worked for him in his barber shop before the war erupted. She called the German SS on him for the reward of a small ration of food.

It was a shocking experience for my family, when my sister, Rimma, brought a Ukrainian man to our home as her prospective husband. This Ukrainian man, Anatoly, asked my father, in a traditional way, for his permission to marry my sister. Initially, my parents were reluctant to accept Anatoly. Recognizing my parents hesitation, my sister cried out, “There are many stars in the sky. But I don’t want many stars, I want only one, this one.”

Later, we had a family meeting, discussing Anatoly’s marriage proposal. My sister was not present in this meeting. My father, Boris Dolitsky, was emotional and indecisive, “I can say YES and I can say NO,” he kept repeating. My grandmother had the last word. “We will never forget who they are and what some of them did to us, but we must forgive them. Let her marry Anatoly,” she said, with a look of concern.

A big wedding took place in the summer of 1972 in Kyiv, with nearly 200 guests attending, enjoying plentiful and delicious Jewish food, cheerful music and dances. In fact, my sister Rimma and Anatoly will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage in June of this year. They have lived happily in Philadelphia since 1978, surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

Today’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and bombardment of Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, by the Russian army is shocking to everyone in the United States and around the world. In many ways, it resembles German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

I cannot quite settle these atrocities in my head. I cannot predict what will be the final outcome of this war. However, I know for certain that this brutal invasion of Ukraine will hurt Russia and Russian citizens to its core for many generations.

Indeed, Ukraine will be victorious in this war because they fight for their freedom and right to exist. And, eventually, Ukraine will emerge as a free European nation.

This brutal invasion of Ukraine will be remembered by many Ukrainians, Russians and others for generations. Nevertheless, when the dust settles, we must recall a great wisdom, “We will never forget who they are and what some of them did to us, but we must forgive them.”

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1977; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an adjunct assistant professor of Russian studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; social studies instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center from 1990 to present. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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