KYIV, Ukraine — My great-grandfather Jacob Estrin, who was from Ukraine, said goodbye to his family and landed at Ellis Island in 1912. Eight days later, the Titanic sink. According to family legend, his mother believed he was on board and died before his first letter could reach his home.
100 years and 10 years later, my father’s family left me behind. I now board an elevator in a Kyiv apartment to visit them. Our family, which has been separated and reunited over decades of wars is now caught up in a new conflict in Ukraine.
“Your hair has become gray in the past ten years.” Lusia Kuznetsova (81), teases me in Russian. “I remember a boy with gray hair.” I was here once before, in 2011. Fanya Estrin was Lusia’s younger sister and my great-grandfather Jacob’s oldest brother. This makes Lusia my grandfather’s first cousin.
Sergey Kuznetsov is Lusia’s 45-year-old son and photo editor at a Ukrainian publication. He gives me slippers and takes me into his mother’s living room to set me up at a table with homemade sauerkraut, and cherry varenyky.
“Is your grandfather still living?” Lusia questions. I inform Lusia that Grandpa Paul, her father Jacob, is 101 years old. He still lives in Minneapolis.
Lusia’s 1970s Kyiv apartment is unchanged since Soviet times. The wallpaper is still in place. A vintage Soviet refrigerator keeps her shoes safe in the foyer. My family and she share a common trait: We don’t throw anything away.
She opens a cabinet and takes out the old Soviet photo ID of my great-great-grandfather David Estrin, born in 1863. He looks just like my father under the beard.
Sergey raises the top of the couch and takes out a down comforter. The feathers inside were plucked by my great-great-grandfather from his own geese. Jacob, his son, brought the fabric from Minneapolis around a century ago. I rubbed the soft bedding and touched what was there.
After more than 40 years, the family was split and reunited.
Jacob, my great-grandfather, and his siblings were raised by Jacob in Verbychi (a village north of Kyiv), in a one-room house with no floor. Jacob, the oldest, was the one to leave for America in search of a better life.
We still have the letters they sent each other. Jacob, in Minneapolis, would send them photos of my Grandpa Paul and his siblings would reply with stories from Ukraine. Some of Jacob’s siblings moved to Russia and Belarus over the years while his youngest sister Fanya settled in Kyiv.
Fanya’s husband was a Red Army officer and told her to flee the city with their daughter Lusia in 1941. In one of the most brutal mass shootings of World War II, the Germans invaded Kyiv and captured all remaining Jews.
Fanya, Lusia, and their accomplices, Lusia, were on the run for 2 years. They first went to the South Ural Mountains, then to Siberia. They returned to Kyiv via train after the war was over. Fanya found a job at a Soviet plant.
The Cold War began and Soviet officials summoned Fanya. She stated that she had relatives in other countries on one of her employment records. Another one said that she didn’t have any. Which one was it? None, Fanya said. Fanya said, “It was dangerous. Lusia said that you could be considered an enemy to the state.
Fanya broke off contact with our family in America.
My grandmother, more than 40 years later, opened a Minneapolis newspaper to find a notice. A new Soviet immigrant was searching for the Estrin family.
We didn’t know she was there: Roza, Jacob Estrin’s sister and another first cousin to Lusia, my Grandpa Paul. Roza gave copies of photos Jacob, my great-grandfather, had sent to his family decades back. These photos Lusia had kept on for all these years. It was the reunion of our long-lost family.
A new war has been fought for decades.
Sergey makes tea and I discuss a new chapter in our family history. In 2015, just a few years after my first meeting Sergey, I saw him upload a photo on Facebook of an armored personnel carrier.
Sergey said that Facebook reminded him. He was drafted in the Ukrainian army seven years ago today.
Russia supported fighters in the war in eastern Ukraine. At 38 years old, Sergey was assigned as a paratrooper brigade leader. He slept in a tent and carried a loaded rifle. “What is most important?” I didn’t fight. Sergey says that I wasn’t in action.
Sergey is now ready to answer questions. He would like to know more about my reporting in Ukraine. “Tell us, please, Daniel. What’s coming to us? He asks.
His mother pulls out a list she wrote on the back of a package of toilet paper. It lists what documents, medicines, cash, flashlights, money, and food to bring in case of war.
“You’re going carry all that?” Sergey questions her in Russian.
She says, “It’s really not that much.”
“Where will your run?” He asks. He then recalled when his mother was last on the run, from the Germans during World War II.
History’s unexpected twists and turns
The past feels very present in Kyiv. Should my cousins leave again? Should they have emigrated to America as my great-grandfather did over a century ago. What would I do in their shoes?
Sergey says, “Sometimes this is what I think about,” “What if, I would have been born here?”
He laughs, “You would be Ukrainian.” “People live here. We are all people. We are all humans.”
Over the years, our Ukrainian and Russian families lost touch. However, I have maintained contact with both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. Sergey tells me that I will call my Russian cousin in Moscow. What would he like?
“If you ask him to tell me something?” We are humans. We are people. He says that we are human beings.” “If propaganda shows us like devils, yes? But we are human.”
I text my cousin Eugene in Moscow a picture of our mutual great-great-grandfather’s Soviet ID. “Wow!” He replies, “Wow!”
He said that Russians are anxious.
He says, in voice memo: “I think it would be crazy to start the war.” “No one would support that.”
He sees panic when he reads American media reports about Russia’s actions. He believes that Russians are devilishly portrayed.
“Russians see Ukrainians as enemies because of propaganda.” He said that it is not true. “I really hope that war doesn’t start… it will be obvious that we can live together as good neighbors.”
He then wished his family in America and his family in Ukraine to “stay healthy, positive, and happy.”