"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Nov 4, 2014

Shades of Grey

I’ve been going through an identity-crisis of sorts; not alarming, but in the immortal words of Glinda the Good, “I’m a little muddled!"

This has nothing to do with discovering I might be a transgender yet strikes at the core of my DNA just as deeply:

I’m Russian.  You couldn’t surprise me more if you said I’d been found under a bush as a baby.  When I recently read that identifier online I was shocked.  I’m not one of those genealogy types, but I did intend to write a short story focused around inscriptions I read in Dad’s 1939 Junior High School autograph book, uncovered at Mom's, and the surge in WWII stuff prompted me to pick it up again.

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough information (SSN, service number) to readily dig into his WWII records, most of which were destroyed by fire in 1973 (80% Army; 75% Air Force veterans). I stumbled upon the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island website, and decided to look up my Dad’s parents, which took me on a different quest.

But first I’m obliged to get this off my sagging chest:

As long as I can remember I’ve been subjected to lame Polack jokes from friends and strangers who should've known better, but which oddly enough helped me become more tolerant of others.  Relatives are already digging into Mom’s British roots, but Dad’s been gone for about 30 years and I know very little about his side of the family, now scattered about.

I figured Chester wasn’t Grandpa’s birth name but the website only needs the first initial and last name to get started, plus offers additional filters such as “similar spelling and sounds like”.  Up popped 17 choices, which I managed to narrow down (for free).   You gotta love those Mormons for tediously transcribing each scribble of the immigration agents, confronted day after day with thousands of foreign names.  Think Vito (Andolini from) Corleone.

As well as a relative's basic information, which you can purchase on a fancy looking certificate, you can view scans of ship’s manifests which contain a lot more information (including whether the immigrant was an anarchist or polygamist).  You can read for yourself mistake after honest mistake in transcriptions, particularly of names, places of birth and former residences.

All I knew was that Grandma and Grandpa lived on abutting farms somewhere in Poland; emigrated to the U.S. via NYC during a famine in the 19-teens; and that Grandpa subsequently helped many of his relatives come over, too.  Period.  By the time I came along they were already old and grey, so I what I remember most are smells from Grandma’s wonderful cooking and Seagram's 7 from Grandpa’s riotous card games before I was placed upstairs in a downy bed next to a dark, spooky-looking armoire.

They came from a tiny settlement called Leonowka, very close to the Ukrainian border. You won't find it on a map anymore because it’s been wiped off the face of the Earth so I kept Googling old maps and eventually hit gold.

Briefly, the surrounding territories, fondly known to refugees as the Kresy, pretty much changed hands between Russia, Prussia, Germany and who knows who else throughout the centuries.  You know how it was in Europe.  In the 14th century it was absorbed by Lithuania; then ceded to Poland, where it remained until 1793, when most of Poland was transferred to Russia.  After WWI it was divided between Russia and Poland, and after WWII it became part of the Ukrainian S.S.R.  This part’s important and hopefully interesting, even if you’re not a history buff.

Much of Polish romantic literature centers around the Cossacks.  Until the 1600s Cossacks admitted Roman Catholic Poles into their ranks, but after 1635 they were required to convert to the Eastern Orthodox faith of their overlords or else be conscripted or exiled.

Fast forward to the 1940s and ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists (see footnote * below).  The number of murdered Poles is estimated at 500,000; it must have been terrifying as fires increasingly lit night skies.  As often happens in history, neighboring border towns get along fine until politics interferes…

That was the case between Leonowka and Zalanka, a similarly pastoral Ukrainian settlement, whose children all shared the same school.  The Ukrainians came during the night on August 1, 1943, burning Leonowka’s farms, humans and livestock; skewering children and babies with pitchforks.  They reportedly eviscerated pregnant women and sewed dead cats into their bloody bellies.  Who the hell could think up such horrors?  That’s when I almost puked, and stopped reading for awhile.  It was so bad the survivors fled to the Nazis for safety. 

Polish grocer, NYC 1920s
Perhaps my ancestors got outta Dodge just in time, fleeing religious persecution as well as famine.  My 18 yr old grandfather, Czeslaw emigrated in 1913, and Grandma came over in 1914.  At that time there was no Polish nation, so they were classified as Russians.

New York City was full of immigrant neighborhoods (still is) and Greenpoint was like Little Poland.  If my family hadn’t emigrated when they did they undoubtedly would have been slaughtered or shipped off to Siberia.  No wonder Grandpa was sending so much of his tiny grocery store proceeds back home to help save others.  (The reason I’m adding familial facts and details here is in case long-lost relatives are poking around the ‘net, too.)

So the question remains whether I am Polish, Russian, Lithuanian or something else?  Of more interest to me now is whether this explain my lifelong penchant for so many things Russian?

I can watch Taras Bulba, Gorky Park and The Russians are Coming over and over.  College courses included Russian history and socialism. I just wrote about the Red Violin; my best gourd was a Faberge Egg and I’ve even got a pen pal in St. Petersburg.  Is it the soil of one's birthplace or its inhabitants which determines nationality?

Listening now to broadcasts covering troubles in the Ukraine, I suddenly have mixed feelings about their struggle for independence.  I can’t get the dead cats out of my head, and secretly want revenge for atrocities I’d never even heard about until last week.  How absurd.  Besides, I could be all wrong.

All that from one name.  Consider: What if the United States was suddenly taken over by Canada?  When your descendants want to emigrate to Mars, will they list you as being American or Canadian?  It could make a difference, and with a stroke of an electronic pen your heritage is wiped out.

I split my time now between New Jersey and Oregon and my identity is now tied to those two places.My parents became Christian Scientists when I was 2, but I've always been fascinated with the Pomp of the Pope, so is that in my genes, too?

In my humble opinion here's just another reason to advocate Carnivores and Vegetarians as the ultimate distinguishers, since in time we'll all be shades of grey anyway.

Update: Please read my (corrected) Shades of Grey 2 for more on the story of Wolyn.

*From Genocide and Rescue in Wolyn; Recollections of the Ukrainian Nationalist Ethnic Cleansing Campaign against the Poles during World War II, by Tadeusz Piotrowski.

1 comment:

  1. How intriguing? My mystery grandfather gave me a similar pause for thought as no one alive now knows hi name or background!


Add a comment

Original gourd art designs Copyright 2020 Andrea Jansen Designs. Please write for permission.



Email *

Message *