Seeing Ukrainians flee across the Polish border this week has been emotional for my mom and me.
My grandparents, Alice (Elke Rany) and Harry Wasserman grew up 10 miles apart in the villages of Krystynopol and Belz just north of Lviv on the Polish border. Ukraine? Only for 6 months between World War I and World War II and again in 1990. This area of Europe was Austria-Hungary, Poland, Germany and Russia at various times during the 20th century. We grandkids didn’t know about Ukraine.
Jews in this area were always unsettled, often persecuted. Most of my grandmother’s family — parents, sisters, all the brothers but one — were slaughtered in Krystynopol during the German occupation. Grandma Alice had emigrated to the U.S. to marry Harry, her first cousin, in 1930. Her one brother and his family were only spared death because he was arrested and sent to a prison camp.
When World War I broke out, Grandpa Harry’s family crossed the border and made their way to Vienna, Austria, illegals in a foreign land. When the Nazis occupied in 1939, they were refugees once again, making their way to the U.S. any way they could under harrowing circumstances.
In 1985 Mom and I traveled together to Lviv (and also Kyiv) to try and visit Krystynopol, which was under Russian rule. We were in a group with eight Ukrainian-Americans mostly from Baltimore and Chicago. When I met Mom in Budapest, Hungary, to begin our trip, Mom brought me to the center of the crowded airport and whispered that we were “on a mission.” I didn’t know it until then but she had visited the Committee on Soviet Jewry before the trip, gotten the names and addresses of Refuseniks, instructions on how to connect with them , and items to give them — radios, jeans, electric shavers — that they could sell for much-needed cash. Refuseniks were, generally, Jews who had applied to emigrate and were denied. In most cases they were identified by the KGB, lost their employment, and lived in fear.
Each day in Lviv, we were told by local authorities that we could go to Krystynopol (which had been renamed Chervonograd by the Russians) but it never happened. By night, we stood on the street hitching a ride until someone looking to make a few bucks picked us up. The Refusenik addresses were on small strips of paper. As instructed, we tore the paper in two, giving the handwritten address without an apartment number to the driver. With the other half of the paper strip in hand, we’d climb the stairs to an apartment, knock on the door and softly say, “Sholom” — Hebrew for hello or peace. A nervous person would open the door. One invited us in, another was too scared that they were being watched. Another met us in a park the next day. They were glad for the stuff we brought.
On our last day in Lviv we decided to go for it. We waited on the street for someone to pick us up. The driver spoke some German and she spoke to him in Yiddish. For a serious amount of money, he agreed to take us for the 45-minute trip to Krystynopol. He had us crouch down in the back seat as he nervously drove. We made it to the town on the Bug River and drove around for a short time. All of the buildings were new, gray blocks. There was little to see from Grandma Alice’s days. We found out that, after the Nazi occupation and extermination or deportation of most of the residents, the Russians came through and burned the village.
[See website about the history of Krystynopol created by Diane’s brother, Charles.]
As we headed out of town back to Lviv, we stopped roadside. Mom pushed some dirt into a film canister, our one memento from Krystynopol. (She later placed the soil in the ground at the site of the monument erected as a memorial to the town by the Krystynopol Benevolent Society at their cemetery site in Queens, New York.
My heart is sad to see another war in this area of the globe. I renew my commitment to refugees from throughout the world who have come to Alaska seeking peace and a good and safe life.
If you would like to join me in helping refugees, please consider a donation to Catholic Social Services, which is preparing to welcome Ukrainian refugees in the months and years to come and already is resettling refugees from Afghanistan. Learn more here.
Posted by Cici Schoneberger
Thank-you for identifying a place to give a donation to that will help refugees who are in need while giving locally. This fits my needs perfectly.
Posted by Paula Peterson
Reading your story is so powerful. It breaks my heart everyday watching the news and seeing what is happening in Ukraine.
It’s so senseless that people treat other people like this, and history repeats itself. My prayers are that the day comes when we can treat each other with respect, that we realize that everyone has a right to their “Way of Life”.
As an Alaskan Native, our “Way of Life” has been taken from us.
Bless you and your mom, and family
Posted by Ira Perman
Diane – I really enjoyed your telling of you and your Mom on a mission. My grandparents are from north of Ukraine: Warsaw,Poland – Bialstock, Belarus and Lithuania and Latvia. They came to America between 1902 one 1911. They left family behind. After WWII the European family members could not be found.
Posted by Jan
Thank you so much, Diane, for sharing this deeply emotional and meaningful family information! It well may reveal some of the underpinnings of your Mom’s and your admirably adamant commitments to justice and peace! Such a dynamic duo! Shalom!
Posted by George Cannelos
Diane, Thank you for writing. I’d love to meet your Mom! This terrible war is another reminder we’re all in this together. No man is an island, as John Donne wrote. We gave to Catholic Relief Services for Ukraine, and will do so again.
Posted by Lisa
My family too has a similar story of being chased from Ukraine. It’s heartbreaking to see it happening again. Thank you for posting
Posted by Charles Kaplan
I am Diane’s brother, Charles. I put together a little website about the history of Krystynopol:
Posted by Shari
Your story captured and touched me— thank you Diane. English was my parents’ common language— father from Riga and mother from Hungary, so rarely Yiddish. My heart bleeds for Ukraine
Posted by Gordon Glaser
Powerful story. I traveled to a failing USSR with the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry in the late 1980s to Moscow, St Petersburg, and Odesa. Not dramatic or personal as your trip. Perestroika was beginning to bloom. More dissenters and refuseniks were allowed to leave. However it was a dangerous and dying community. We had no problem hailing a cab as long as we waive a pack of American cigarettes. Went back about 3 years ago to St Petersburg. Rebirth of a community institutions and hope (for the moment). I fear for those in Odesa and St Petersburg.
Posted by Kathie Wasserman
Diane, my husband, Harry Wasserman, heard stories much the same from his grandparents who escaped from Riga, Latvia.
Posted by Debby Bloom
Thank you for writing your story, Diane, and also for all that you and your mother did on your trip—and do in your lives.
My own grandparents’ story (from Poland and Romania) is much the same. Perhaps you, too, grew up hearing the sad song in Yiddish, “Belz” by the Barry Sisters. My mother would cry. Now, when I hear it, I do too.