“So, are you Russian?” The short answer has always been, yes. The long answer is, “Well, I am a Jew, from a Russian speaking city in Ukraine on the border with Russia, but really from the former Soviet Union.”
My family immigrated to the United States the “easy” way when I was a pre-teen. We left our home town of Kharkiv on a bus, got on a plane in Moscow, and landed in New York. For my parents, the grief of leaving their home and their life as they knew it had to wait its turn in a huge line of emotions that immigrants tend to experience and often disavow. It’s been 30 years, and I imagine my mom expected that she had put to bed all the complicated feelings of coming to this country, having watched her children do what she had wished for – build successful lives and have families of their own. And now Russia has invaded Ukraine, and with this a flood of grief and pain as my mom sees pictures of her beloved city bombed, as she talks with friends who still have family there, as she tells me that our old apartment building is still intact, for now.
My memories of this past life are like a dream. Images and scenes of a life that is so much more my family’s than mine. This dream has faded over the years and has felt put to rest, but it has once again been stirred by powerful feelings. The grief, the panic, the sadness, the guilt, and the terror of wondering what the next day will bring. Immigration connects one to the intergenerational pain and trauma that comes with leaving a place that hurt you so badly that no other choice existed but to leave. War awakens the internal battlefield of disparate identities shaped by the conflict of leaving one life for another. And now, as I watch the evening news, I feel so much confused compassion and heartbreak for a people, a country we had to leave behind in order to have a life worth living.