In a twist of fate, a family straddles the Russia-Ukraine conflict
Updated February 13, 2022 at 2:33 PM ET
KYIV, Ukraine — In 1912, my great-grandfather Jacob Estrin said goodbye to his family in Ukraine, landed at Ellis Island, and eight days later, the Titanic sank. The family legend is that his mother thought he had been on board, and died of heartbreak before his first letter could reach home.
One hundred and 10 years later, I board a rickety elevator in a Kyiv apartment building to visit the family that my father's father's father left behind. Our family, separated and reunited through decades of wars, now unexpectedly straddles a new conflict in Ukraine.
"Your hair turned gray over these ten years. I remember a boy without gray hair," Lusia Kuznetsova, 81, teases me in Russian. I had been here just once before, in 2011. Lusia's mother, Fanya Estrin, was my great-grandfather Jacob's youngest sister, which makes Lusia my grandfather's first cousin.
Lusia's son, Sergey Kuznetsov, a 45-year-old photo editor at a Ukrainian magazine, is here too. He offers me slippers and leads me into his mother's living room, to a table set with homemade sauerkraut and cherry varenyky.
"Is your grandfather still alive?" Lusia asks. I tell her Grandpa Paul is 101 years old and still lives in Minneapolis, where his father Jacob had moved from Ukraine.
Lusia's modest 1970s Kyiv apartment hasn't changed much since Soviet times. The old wallpaper remains. In the foyer, a vintage Soviet refrigerator stores her shoes. She and my family share a particular gene: We throw away nothing.
She opens a cabinet and takes out the old Soviet photo ID of my great-great-grandfather David Estrin, born in 1863. Under the beard, he looks like my father.
Sergey lifts the top of the sofa and pulls out a down comforter. The feathers inside were plucked by my great-great-grandfather from his own geese. The fabric was shipped here from Minneapolis by his son Jacob around a century ago. I squeeze the soft bedding, touching what they touched.
The family was separated and reunited after more than four decades
My great-grandfather Jacob and his siblings were raised in a one-room home with no floor in Verbychi, a village near Chernihiv, north of Kyiv. Jacob, the eldest, was the only one who left for America, in search of a new life.
We still have the letters they wrote each other. Jacob in Minneapolis would mail them photos of his son, my Grandpa Paul, and his siblings would write back with tales from Ukraine. Over the years, some of Jacob's siblings settled in present-day Russia and Belarus, while his youngest sister Fanya moved to Kyiv.
In 1941, Fanya's husband, a Red Army officer, told her to escape the city with their baby daughter, Lusia. Weeks later, the Germans occupied Kyiv, rounded up the city's remaining Jews and killed most of them in the ravine of Babi Yar, in one of the largest mass shootings of World War II.
Fanya and Lusia were on the run for two years, first to the south Ural Mountains, then on to Siberia. When the war ended, they returned to Kyiv by train, and Fanya got a job in a Soviet factory.
Then the Cold War began, and Soviet officials summoned Fanya. In one employment record, she wrote she had relatives abroad. In another, she said she had none. Which was it? None, Fanya said. "It was dangerous. You could be considered an enemy of the state," Lusia says.
So Fanya cut contact with our family in the U.S.
More than four decades later, as the Cold War was ending in 1989, my grandmother opened a Minneapolis newspaper and spotted a notice: a new Soviet immigrant in Brooklyn was looking for the Estrin family.
She was a relative we did not know existed: Roza, the daughter of Jacob Estrin's sister, and another first cousin of Lusia and my Grandpa Paul. Roza presented copies of the photos my great-grandfather Jacob had mailed his family decades ago, photos Lusia had held onto all those years. Our long-lost family was reunited.
Decades later, a new war is ongoing
Sergey pours tea, and I turn to a newer chapter of our family history: In 2015, a few years after I met Sergey, I saw him post a picture on Facebook inside an armored personnel carrier.
"Facebook had reminded me," Sergey says. "Today is seven years" since he was drafted into the Ukrainian army.
Fighters backed by Russia had launched a war in eastern Ukraine, and at age 38, Sergey was assigned to an elite paratrooper brigade, sleeping in a tent with a loaded rifle. "What is the most important? I didn't fight. I [wasn't] in action," Sergey says.
It is Sergey's turn to ask questions. He wants to know about my reporting in Ukraine. "Tell us, please, Daniel. What is coming to us?" he asks.
His mother fetches a checklist she scribbled on the back of a toilet paper package, what to pack in case of war: Documents, medicine, cash, flashlight, cellphone, charger, notebook, pen, warm clothes, blankets, water, food.
"You're going to carry all of that?" Sergey asks her in Russian.
"It's not that much," she says.
"Where will you run?" he asks. Then he recalled the last time his mom was on the run — from the Germans in World War II.
The unexpected ripples of history
In Kyiv, the past feels very present now. Should my cousins run away again? Should they have left for America like my great-grandfather did a century ago? What would I do in their place?
"Sometimes I think about this," I tell Sergey. "What if I would have been born here?"
"You would be Ukrainian," he laughs. "People live here. All of us, we are people. We are humans."
Over the years, the Ukrainian and Russian sides of our family fell out of touch with each other. But I've maintained contact with both sides. I tell Sergey I'm going to call our Russian cousin in Moscow — what would he like to know?
"If you ask me to tell him something? Well, here live humans. We are people. We are human humans," he says. "If propaganda shows us like devils, yes? But we are humans."
I text my cousin Eugene in Moscow a picture of our mutual great-great-grandfather's Soviet ID. "Wow!" he replies.
He tells me people in Russia are anxious.
"I believe it would be insane to start the war," he says in a voice memo. "No one would support it."
He reads American media about Russia's moves and sees hysteria. He thinks Russians are portrayed as devils.
"Russians and Ukrainians because of propaganda look at each other as enemies. In fact it's not the case," he said. "I'm really keeping fingers crossed that the war won't commence ... and it will become obvious that we can live as good neighbors."
Then he wished my family in America, and our family in Ukraine, to "stay healthy and positive."
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