The International School at the University of Haifa welcomes students from 40 different countries every year to study in Israel and join our diverse community. Ruth, originally from Ukraine, is a student in the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. Following a reading assignment for one of her classes, Ruth prepared the following letter for her classmates. The letter is eye-opening and profound, and is just one example of the many amazing students in our international programs.
Excerpts taken from the Holocaust Studies blog.
A Letter from Ruth
Foreseeing our tomorrow’s discussion about “Bloodlands”, I would like to share with you something personal. Those events described in the book have occupied a particular place in my family’s memory.
This research has come out of a long personal journey. To explain this I need to go back to my childhood in Kiev. The house where my family lived then was not far from Babi Yar, a major place of mass murder during the Holocaust. But in my childhood memories, Babi Yar is a ravine in a beautiful park where people go skiing in winter and picnicking in summer. I remember my parents mentioning a tragedy that had happened there, but as a young child I couldn’t grasp this. I went to a public Soviet school where nothing was taught about the Holocaust and I never participated in any commemorative events (because they simply didn’t exist at those times). How could I possibly put together the beauty of this peaceful landscape and the tales of my parents about Jews being murdered there? My perception of the Holocaust and my knowledge of the subject by that time remained fragmentary. I didn’t even know who or what exactly those “Jews” were.
My father is Jewish but he never practiced his faith, as the majority of Soviet Jews. He was born in 1946, in war-torn Kiev, and grew up in a “kommunalka” – an apartment shared by several families. Each family had only one room, which served as a living room, dining room, and bedroom for the entire family. All his childhood my father slept on a cot and did homework on a windowsill, which had forever distorted his spine. The day when Stalin died he got publicly punished by his father for cleaning shoes with a mourning ribbon. My grandfather was afraid that one of the neighbors might report them to the authorities for not respecting the Leader. In those times everyone lived in fear. My father didn’t tell me much about his childhood, but his body and his habits are eloquent enough. He always finishes every last crumb on his plate. He considers that one of his biggest accomplishments is having survived the Soviet regime.
My mother is Ukrainian. She was also born in Kiev, in a big family, and grew up in poverty. Her mother, my grandma, who is now 89, lost a child during the war. Because of the hunger that she went through, she prefers fat food and doesn’t like greenery: it reminds her of eating grass and bark during the famine.
My parents met each other in the end of 70-s. Both of them dreamed of a different life. My father, who had never crossed the border of the Soviet Union (a Jew and a non-member of Communist party couldn’t even dream about it), managed to master Spanish language on a very high level and found his refuge in literary translation. Of course, he wasn’t admitted to the official Union of Writers, that’s why, to avoid repressions, he had to work as a stoker at a factory, while translating masterpieces of Spanish and Latin American literature in his “free” time.
He deliberately became a translator to Ukrainian and not to Russian. This was a form of protest at the time when people speaking Ukrainian and wearing national clothing were marginalized and persecuted. The aim of the Soviet government was to create an overarching “Soviet identity” which was supposed to supersede ethnic and national orientations. This was done through institutionalization of Russian as the lingua franca of the USSR.
Despite of political repressions, in 60-s and 70-s there was a dissident movement in Ukraine which could be described as a combination of national liberation and human rights movement. My father, being part of the non-conformist intelligentsia, joined the protest. His cultural identification and values were shaped at that time. My mother was an ethnographer. She worked in the newly opened Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine. She traveled to villages and collected folklore. Many people from this museum were persecuted for being “Ukrainian nationalists”. For both of my parents national independence meant freedom from oppression and lies; a possibility to see the world through their own eyes and not through propaganda machine, to speak the language they wanted to speak and not to be afraid.
This long introduction was to explain the roots of my own personality. I was born in 1982, when the first signs of the Soviet Union’s collapse were in the air. I remember shortage of basic goods and my mother standing in endless lines for food and clothing. In 1994 my father became a diplomat and life improved. He worked as a cultural attaché in the first Embassy of Ukraine in Cuba. After grey Soviet landscape that sunny island was heaven on earth to me. I think right then and there my passion for traveling was born. With time I have developed a great ability to learn new languages quickly and to adjust to different environments. I have visited different countries. This experience has enhanced my tolerance to a diversity of cultures. At the same time, surrounded by multicultural and multilingual influence, I often found myself wrestling with questions of self-identity.
In 2011, in search of a new life experience, I came to Israel. I liked its warm climate and beautiful sea but I had little understanding of what this country was about. Although I used my half-Jewish roots to make Aliyah, I had practically no Jewish identity at all. I found it problematic to identify myself with values relevant to the Israeli collective because of my Ukrainian patriotic education on one side and my cosmopolitan worldview on the other.
My interest in the Holocaust grew from the will to better understand Israeli society, its psychological and spiritual foundations. I’ve been also willing to challenge my own beliefs and assumptions. I’ve faced an inner conflict, due to the difference between my personal perception of the Holocaust and the dominant Israeli narrative. To explain this briefly, according to the political scientist Yaacov Yadgar, there are two different perceptions of moreshet haShoah (“heritage of the Holocaust”): the peculiar “Jewish narrative” and the universalistic “peace narrative”. The former is essentially, “a story of Jewish isolation in a hostile world”. From this point of view, “The Holocaust is the ultimate expression of the world’s hatred toward the Jews”. Therefore the Jews should by all means defend themselves from the “world”. From the perspective of the “peace narrative”, the meaning of the Holocaust is quite different: “‘we’ should be humane, open up to the world, transcend the limiting realm of our ethnic-national identity, and adopt a universal world-view”. Because of my background I got used to see the Holocaust as a universal lesson, and I found it quite difficult to deal with the peculiar Jewish narrative. I discovered too that the opinions of Israelis about present-day Ukraine, as well as Poland, Hungary, etc. – were often negative, because these countries were automatically associated with anti-Semitism. Although unfortunately there are still anti-Semites in that part of the world, for me such an unambiguous perception wasn’t something easy to accept. I need to say though that my Israeli experience has made me constantly doubt my own beliefs, which, I am sure, is a good sign.
I decided to make a research about people who, like me, immigrated to Israel from those places that are viewed primarily as “the death-world of Jewry” and experienced a kind of identity confusion – because the historical narrative in their homeland was very different from the Israeli one. Because the Holocaust is a central reference point for Israeli collective identity, the perception of the Shoah by new immigrants and their agreement/disagreement with the mainstream narrative is a very interesting issue.