My Family’s Story: Our Hearts are With Ukraine

My Family’s Story: Our Hearts are With Ukraine (STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What is the definition of war? Is every war the same? What turns a war into a genocide? Where do we draw the line? According to the Oxford Dictionary,  war is “a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state.” A genosocial group. Which one is happening in Ukraine today?

Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been cut off from the world economically and has been labeled a genocide prosecution against a certain pariah state. Russian citizens have no idea what is going on in Ukraine. They are unaware that their soldiers are killing thousands of innocent people and that their own soldiers are dying by the thousands. It is now illegal in Russia to call what is going on in Ukraine a war. 

Russia has always had a history of aggressively suppressing freedom of speech and information. I know it because my own family has been a victim.

Ukraine holds the graves of my ancestors. In 1918, during the Russian Revolution, my great-great-grandfather was murdered in a pogrom which is an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group by the White Army, and my great-grandfather was saved by his grandfather when he took him to Moscow, where he married my great-grandmother Bertha.

In 1938, my grand-aunt Tania was born. Three years later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, occupying Ukraine. Isaac’s grandparents and Bertha’s mother were on vacation in Ukraine and were murdered by the Nazis.

I am here in San Francisco because my mother’s family fled the former Soviet Union to escape totalitarian and religious persecution. My mother left Moscow in 1980 with her parents; they held just $400 in their hands. Life for my family at first was hard; my grandfather swept floors to make money, while my grandma became a medical assistant. They worked hard, and about 10 years after arriving  they had enough money to have a comfortable life.

But, something was missing. My great-aunt Tania, was married to a refusenik a person who was refused permission to migrate. Together they stayed behind in Moscow. Between 1981 and 1986, my grandma and great-grandpa started a campaign to get her out.

They met with then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, asking her to contact major political figures in the world who could help my great-aunt and her husband escape. 

Afterward, my grandma and her dad went to Washington D.C., where they were able to talk to my great-aunt via government phone lines. During their conversation, five senators were present.

Our government negotiated my aunt’s release and she landed on U.S. soil in 1986, holding the world record for the longest waiting refusenik. She and her husband, Benjamin Bogomolny, are featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest waiting refuseniks to leave the USSR. Aunt Tania was given the key to the city of San Francisco by Mayor Feinstein, which she holds to this day in her small apartment on 11th Avenue.

It is because of my family and their long history of suffering that I am able to so deeply understand the pains of the Ukrainian people, and my will to help them is stronger than ever.

During dinner, my mom had CNN on the TV and after Russia’s invasion,  I would come home from school, sit down at the dinner table and eat as I watched people suffering and fleeing Ukraine.

I couldn’t deal with knowing that there were people starving and dying in the world while I sat comfortably eating my dinner.

And thus I had the idea to start a food drive to help Ukrainian refugees. My friends at school helped me  ask for permission from school staff and helped set out containers in which to collect the food. Together we spent countless lunches and breaks working on banners that I hung on the school walls to advertise.

Soon the donations came flooding in. By the end of the school year we had filled two large bins with food items. I drove them to a facility in Sacramento that distributes food to Ukrainian refugees who have fled to the United States.

I also began selling baked goods at Friday night services at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
I raised around $2,000 which I donated to two different organizations that are working on the ground in Ukraine: World Central Kitchen and Hearts for Ukraine. I urge you to help, as well, in any way you can.

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