The headlines in the New York Times today of the impending invasion of Ukraine by Russia opened up a flood of memories from my childhood: the radio playing melodic cantatorial music in Yiddish on Sunday mornings, my father listening intently while he read his Yiddish-language newspaper. It was the one day of the week he was not working his parking lot. I remember seeing him sitting there, listening to the music, his face wet with tears. I must have been five or six years old at the time and was shocked as he was not one to show emotion outside of his fiery temper. Cautiously, I asked why he was crying, and he responded, his voice twisted in pain: “You don’t know how lucky you are to have been born here!” He’was born in Ukraine, and it wasn’t until years later that I was able to piece together some of my father’s history. Few words were ever spoken in my family of the past. It was simply too painful. I learned that the letters so faithfully exchanged between my father and family members still in Ukraine – his father, mother, siblings, nieces, nephews–stopped after 1941, his entire family there having perished at the hands of the Nazis.
My father had grown up in a shtetl village called Kupel in Podolia. It was a region with a tumultuous history, and at various times in the first half of the last century was divided and claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, Poland, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Axis Romania. In the chaos following the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were pogroms, during which Jews were targeted by the White Russian Army, and Jewish youths were kidnapped to use as cannon fodder. His older brother had gone to America before the pogroms, and was settled in New York. So in 1918, at the age of 12, my father concluded that if he were to survive, he would have to follow in his brother’s footsteps. He fled Ukraine on foot, hiding out and stealing food from farms along the way. He made his way to an unknown port and stowed away on a ship, ending up in Argentina, where he lived and worked for the next five years, all the while planning and saving to get to America. His immigration documents, preserved in the U.S. National Archives, show he listed himself as a “salesman” in Buenos Aires. At the age of 17, he went to the American consulate in Buenos Aires and applied for a visa to the United States, signing a document entitled “Declaration of Alien About to Depart for the United States.” This time he went as a “passenger” on a vessel called The Hamburg, as listed on his Alien Registration Form, which was completed upon his arrival at the Port of New York. From there, he made his way to Rochester, set up a business as a “proprietor of a parking station” and the rest is history.
Years later my father retired to Miami, exhausted after years of working outdoors during Rochester winters. I would visit with him and accompany him on his various errands. Jn the Cuban grocery he would negotiate over a cantaloupe in fluent Spanish. In the kosher butcher shop he would speak Russian or Polish, depending on who was working the counter that day. He was also fluent in Yiddish and English. I asked my dad how he knew so many languages and his unforgettable response was, “Lenny, when I would wake up in the morning as a child, I would hear my parents speaking and depending on who was in control of the border at the time determined the language of the day. Some days it was Russian, other days Polish or German. I learned to speak with the occupiers.” The only consistent language of the father’s youth was the one spoken in his home between family members, their language of comfort: Yiddish. The cantor singing Yiddish songs brought tears to my father’s eyes, as he sat in his favorite chair on a Sunday morning, as he recalled a youth long ago in a country far away.