The recently published story about an 11-year old boy fleeing Ukraine, traveling 600 miles alone brought to mind an image of my grandfather, Saul, who was also 11 years old when he fled war-torn Lviv in 1921. Lviv is one of Ukraine’s main cities and now serves as a major transit point for people escaping to Poland. It was, back then, part of the “Pale of Settlement,” established by the Russian Empire in 1791, where “permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden.” (Wikipedia.) Perhaps you have heard of “shtetls” (Yiddish for small villages) where Jews lived in Eastern Europe – many of these were located throughout the Pale of Settlement.
In 1917, as World War I ended, Tsar Nicholas abdicated his rule in Russia and the Pale was formally dissolved. The story gets complicated here, with different countries and ethnic groups vying for land and power, often violently. The area around Lviv was contested by Poland, the newly formed Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the new Soviet Union. Meanwhile, anti-Jewish “pogroms” raged; in a prelude to the Holocaust, an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed between 1918 and 1921, including Saul’s father. Saul’s mother died a year earlier, during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1919, and so he and his younger brother were placed in an orphanage in the shtetl of Jaryczow Novy, east of Lviv.
My grandfather often recounted to my family that he learned so many languages because in this contested region, a different army would march into town nearly every day. Today it was the Poles, tomorrow the Ukrainians, and the day after, the Soviets. The orphans would be hustled outside to sing the national anthem of the invading army as it marched into the town. Echoing the scenes we see today, my grandfather recalled the day when a bomb crashed through the roof and landed right in the middle of the orphanage – fortunately, without detonating.
My grandfather was lucky. His sister came back to get him from the orphanage in early 1921. With their younger brother, they made it to England and then across the Atlantic to New York. Ultimately, Lviv and other parts of western Ukraine ended up in Poland, which the Nazis invaded and occupied in 1939, murdering most of the Jews who remained. (Notably, Lviv residents helped hide and save thousands of Jews, risking the death penalty, and many of them were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel.)
Just over a century later, here we are again. Instead of Spanish Influenza we have COVID, and war has shattered nearly eight decades of relative peace since the end of World War II. Once again, mass graves are being dug in Ukrainian fields. The suffering and loss of life is tragic and heartbreaking. One of the very few bright spots is that despite Eastern Europe’s history of anti-Semitism, a Jewish Ukrainian president has rallied the people to the country’s defense, inspiring the nation with his courage and calling on the world to take action.