The camp survivors who were honored during the Tucson ceremony had all emigrated from Russia or the Ukraine relatively recently, in the nineties. I didn’t know in advance, coming to Tuscon, that the camp survivors would all be recent Russian or Ukrainian immigrants…
The woman I accompanied and her family had – amazingly – survived the pogroms, the Second World War, and communism, which didn’t favor Jews either. Only in the nineties did she and her family have the chance to finally leave thanks to Perestroika. This woman, who was then in her sixties and had endured incredible hardship, started a new life in Tucson, Arizona. She was happy, charming, and showed no sign of bitterness. She was a very proud woman, in love with music.
In Western Europe, when we think about camp survivors, we think about Dutch or German Jews and not about Eastern Europeans. The camps that were mentioned were all unfamiliar to me. Most Eastern European Jews were not transported to camps. They were murdered in their own villages. This could have happened to my own family, too, if they hadn’t fled from the pogroms, from the Ukraine to the USA in the 1910s.
This terrible tragedy plays a central role in the book (and movie) ‘Everyting is Illuminated’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, who went searching for traces of his ancestors. A few years ago, I made a similar trip to the Ukraine to get to know more about my family background. The documentary ‘Terpe Kind Mains, Terpe’ centers on this trip. What is interesting, in retrospect, is that everybody I encountered in the Ukraine told me all Jews had left. At the time, I didn’t make the connection with the most recent ‘exodus’ of Jews from Russia in the nineties. So this trip to Tucson, Arizona has provided me with missing pieces in the puzzle of my own family history.
What didn’t happen during my trips to the Ukraine, now happened in Tucson: I met Jewish people exactly from the same region in the Ukraine from which my family originally comes. That was very moving. The woman I was accompanying was from Kharkov, Ukraine. At least half of the survivors attending the ceremony in Tucson were from the Ukraine. It is stunning how much they had to endure, and how strong and determined they were to start a new life in a foreign country even though they were already in their sixties.