Updated February 13, 2022 2:33 PM ET
KYIV, Ukraine – In 1912, my great-grandfather Jacob Estrin said goodbye to his family in Ukraine, landed on Ellis Island, and eight days later the Titanic sank. Family legend has it that his mother believed he was on board and died of grief before his first letter reached home.
One hundred and ten years later, I board a rickety elevator in an apartment building in Kiev to visit the family my father’s father’s father left behind. Our family, separated and reunited through decades of wars, now unexpectedly finds itself straddling a new conflict in Ukraine.
“Your hair has turned gray in ten years. I remember a boy without gray hair,” 81-year-old Lusia Kuznetsova teases me in Russian. I had been here only once before, in 2011. Lusia’s mother, Fanya Estrin, was my great-grandfather Jacob’s younger 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 also present. He offers me slippers and leads me into his mother’s living room, to a table set with homemade sauerkraut and cherries. varenyky.
“Is your grandfather still alive?” Lucia asks. I tell him that Grandpa Paul is 101 years old and still lives in Minneapolis, where his father Jacob had left the Ukraine.
Lusia’s modest 1970s Kiev apartment hasn’t changed much since Soviet times. The old wallpaper remains. In the lobby, a vintage Soviet refrigerator stores his shoes. She and my family share a particular gene: we don’t throw anything away.
She opens a cupboard and pulls out the old Soviet passport photo of my great-great-grandfather David Estrin, born in 1863. Beneath his beard, he looks like my father.
Sergey lifts the top of the couch and pulls out a down comforter. The feathers inside were picked by my great-great-grandfather from his own geese. The fabric was shipped here from Minneapolis by his son Jacob about a century ago. I hug 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, one-story house in Verbychi, a village near Chernihiv, north of Kiev. Jacob, the eldest, was the only one leaving for America, in search of a new life.
We still have the letters they wrote to each other. Jacob in Minneapolis would send them pictures of his son, my grandfather Paul, and his siblings would reply with stories from Ukraine. Over the years, some of Jacob’s siblings settled in present-day Russia and Belarus, while his younger sister Fanya moved to Kyiv.
In 1941, Fanya’s husband, a Red Army officer, told her to flee the city with their infant daughter, Lusia. A few weeks later the Germans occupied Kiev, rounded up the last Jews in the city and killed most of them in the ravine of Babi Yarin one of the biggest mass shootings of World War II.
Fanya and Lusia fled for two years, first to the southern Ural Mountains and then to Siberia. When the war ended, they returned to Kiev by train, and Fanya found a job in a Soviet factory.
Then the Cold War started and Soviet officials summoned Fanya. In an employment file, she wrote that she had relatives abroad. In another, she said she had none. Which was it? None, says Fanya. “It was dangerous. You could be seen as an enemy of the state,” Lusia says.
So Fanya cut off contact with our family in the United States.
More than four decades later, as the Cold War ended in 1989, my grandmother opened a Minneapolis newspaper and spotted a notice: A new Soviet immigrant to Brooklyn was looking for the Estrin family.
She was a relative we didn’t know existed: Roza, the daughter of Jacob Estrin’s sister, and another first cousin of Lusia and my grandfather Paul. Roza presented copies of photos that my great-grandfather Jacob had sent to his family decades ago, photos that Lusia had kept all those years. Our long lost family has been reunited.
Decades later, a new war is underway
Sergey pours tea, and I move on to a new chapter in our family history: in 2015, a few years after meeting Sergey, I saw him post a photo on Facebook inside an armored personnel carrier .
“Facebook reminded me of that,” Sergey says. “Today marks seven years” since he was drafted into the Ukrainian army.
Russian-backed fighters had launched a war in eastern Ukraine and, at 38, Sergey was assigned to an elite paratroop brigade, sleeping in a tent with a loaded rifle. “What’s more important? I didn’t fight. I [wasn’t] in action,” says Sergey.
It’s Sergey’s turn to ask questions. He wants to know more about my reports in Ukraine. “Tell us, please, Daniel. What’s happening to us?” he asks.
His mother fetches a checklist she has scribbled on the back of a packet of toilet paper, what to take in case of war: Documents, medicine, cash, flashlight, cell phone, charger, notebook , pen, warm clothes, blankets, water, food.
“Are you going to wear all this?” Sergey asks her in Russian.
“It’s not that much,” she said.
“Where are you going to run?” he asks. Then he remembered the last time his mother was on the run – from the Germans in World War II.
The unexpected ripples of history
In Kiev, the past now seems very present. 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 it,” I tell Sergey. “What if I was born here?
“You would be Ukrainian,” he laughs. “People live here. All of us are people. We are humans.”
Over the years, the Ukrainian and Russian sides of our family have lost sight of each other. But I kept in touch with both parties. I tell Sergei that I will call our Russian cousin in Moscow—what would he want to know?
“If you ask me to tell him something? Well, here live humans. We are people. We are human humans,” he said. “If the propaganda shows us as demons, yes? But we are humans.”
I text my cousin Eugene in Moscow a photo of our common great-great-grandfather’s Soviet identity card. “Wow!” he has answered.
He tells me that people in Russia are anxious.
“I believe it would be foolish to start a war,” he said in a voice memo. “No one would support him.”
He reads the American media on the movements of Russia and sees the hysteria there. He thinks Russians are portrayed as demons.
“Russians and Ukrainians because of propaganda see each other as enemies. In fact, that’s not the case,” he said. “I’m really crossing my fingers that war doesn’t start… and it will become clear that we can live as good neighbours.”
Then he wished my family in America, and our family in Ukraine, to “stay healthy and positive.”