In 1988, just three years before the fall of the Soviet Union, I traveled with a group of American teens to Moscow and throughout the Ukraine. We came from all over the U.S. and we were part of a theater group. Because it was still the Cold War, we carried a message of peace between our two countries. In Kyiv, we met a group of Ukrainian teenagers. Together we spent five weeks creating a musical about peace, and we traveled along the Dnieper River performing in cities from Kyiv to Odessa. We were 14-18 years old, 30 teenagers whose daily lives were starkly different during the remaining 47 weeks of 1988; yet we were also so much the same. That was our message as we performed on stages in theaters and Communist Party youth summer camps.
We became the best of friends, and almost 35 years later, I remain connected with so many of them, these Ukrainian and American friends I dropped in so deeply and so quickly with that summer. Some of my Ukrainian friends still live there. Others who have since moved to other countries have family and friends who remain there. When I heard about bombings in the city of Cherkasy, my heart skipped a beat and then sank. We had performed together there, and I have photos of the children who surrounded us with smiles, hugs and flowers afterwards. I remembered that Kyiv had reminded me of Paris, with its broad avenues and romantic architecture, bisected by a river of its own. The striking difference was the ten story tall statue of Lenin at the center of the city.
That summer changed my life. Barely a year and a half after my parents’ divorce, I found home, community, confidence, and deep connection with these 15 Ukrainian and 15 American teenagers and our adult chaperones and directors. I remember the details like it was yesterday, the images and feelings still so vivid in my mind and heart. Massive statues, tapestries and murals of Lenin in every city where we performed. Standing on a bridge with our Ukrainian friends as they pointed far into the distance to where Chernobyl was. Sparse department stores, the opposite of our overflowing ones, yet still places where I managed to find treasures to bring home. I still have the small watch on a chain that needs to be wound daily to keep the time.
We visited Babyn Yar, where Jews had been shot and buried in mass graves by the Nazis; for the first time I learned that the Holocaust had reached Ukraine too. My grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors who had lost nearly everyone and everything they had known before. My grandfather fought in the Polish army and was taken prisoner by the Russians at the beginning of WWII. I think about how they escaped Poland after the war, non-Jewish Poles who had taken over their homes pushing them out, and how today Ukrainians are escaping into Poland. Poland is now a safe haven, Polish mothers leaving strollers in train stations for Ukrainian refugees arriving with children. I don’t even know how to think about that… Is that bitter irony? A message of hope amid darkness?
I can still hear the camp counselor we called James for his James Dean-like hair, who couldn’t have been more than 20, playing a tragic folk song on his guitar about the loss of young life in the Soviet-Afghan War…… which was still being fought in 1988. I think about the first time I heard the protest songs of Tracy Chapman, on a cassette I borrowed from one of the other American teens, which I think she left with our Ukrainian friends when we returned home. We left all of our remaining toiletries and some of our clothing with our Ukrainian friends, too, because this was the Cold War and there was still so much they couldn’t get in the USSR. I try to remember where I was during college when the Berlin Wall came down and young people from both sides danced and sang to that Scorpions song, Wind of Change, to celebrate the end of the Cold War. I remember wondering how my Ukrainian friends would fare in that moment and the years that followed, if I would be able to see them again more easily now. This was still so long before social media.
My father always helped me understand history, geo-political conflicts, diplomacy and war. He taught me about the long arc of history, and all the events before that led us to each moment. I wish he were still here to explain this moment to me. I wonder if he could, or if even for him this would be incomprehensible. Is the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war, on again? Is this where we’ve returned after all these years? Is this just another cycle of war and fragile peace, over and over again, past, present and future?
I know I’m not the only one feeling the whiplash. I turn my attention towards the global pandemic we are now all living through for the third year. Before I have a chance to integrate the meaning of this current stage of Covid-19, my head spins in the other direction towards a cover photo in the New York Times of a mother and two children in Irpin, Ukraine, shot dead as they tried to escape, their rolling suitcases laying flat beside them. Last night my husband asked me, “Remember the hostage situation at the synagogue outside Dallas? That wasn’t even two months ago.” I looked outside our window at the Black Lives Matter flag that hangs from our flagpole, which we put up in the summer of 2020 after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. How do I tell my nine-year-old son that everything isn’t awful, that things are going to get better? How do I apologize to my eighteen-year-old for the mess we have made of her world?
As I washed the dishes from dinner last night, I thought about all the places I’ve lived and traveled in my 50 years. I thought about being an immigrant and living on three continents by the age of seven, and how much a part of my identity that has always been. That feeling of separateness and oneness at the same time, because if I don’t completely belong anywhere I have lived, in a way I can belong everywhere I have ever gone. Like my Ukrainian and American friends in 1988, are we really that different? If I were evacuating my home with my children in a war, what would we pack in our rolling suitcases, which stuffed animals would we bring? Would we make it to safety, and where? Will there be more visits to new countries in my future, or is the world always going to feel this unstable, this chaotic?
I woke up this morning thinking of women in Ukraine who are preparing food and making camouflage nets for Ukrainian fighters with the other women in their communities. I read an update from a female rabbi from Odessa who found safety in Israel. I thought about the Iraqi, Syrian, Afghan, Congolese and Somali refugees I worked with several years ago, everything they had been forced to leave behind in their home countries, and the different ways we view refugees and immigrants when their skin is not white. The way in which people are scattered throughout the world because of the wars we are insistent on continually waging on each other, and the colonialism that has defined human history. I think of my Polish grandparents who ended up making their post-war life in France and then Israel. I think of my Sephardic Egyptian family, including my father, who emigrated all over the world in the late 1950s when their home for over 100 years, this British colony they had thrived within, became its own nation again. Had they felt like they belonged in Poland and in Egypt during the generations those countries were their homes, or were they always other there as Jews?
Who gets to belong in a world so divided by invisible borders and conflicts waged in the name of money and power?
We asked this same question in our performances on those stages in Ukraine in 1988, 30 idealistic teenagers who hoped with all our hearts that our time together would help to bring about peace. I love every single one of those teens so much – for our hopefulness, our connectedness, our determination to be part of the change. That’s what I want my children to trust in themselves. That’s what I want us all to remember.
At our core, we are all the same, after all. Aren’t we?