Alexander Dolitsky: If walls could talk — remembrances of our red-brick house in Kiev, Ukraine

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By ALEXANDER DOLISTSKY

Vladimir Lenin characterized the New Economic Policy in 1922 as an economic system that would include “a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control,” while socialized state enterprises would operate on “a profit basis”—an economic policy similar to today’s economic system in China.

Many entrepreneurs responded to this policy with a great enthusiasm, including my grandfather Roman Umansky. In fact, the New Economic Policy — NEP — became an engine of the small-scale free market, economic growth, and accumulation of capital by many risk takers in the early years of the former Soviet Union until 1929 and, in some instances, for small businesses until 1941.

In 1938-1939, my grandfather and six other small Jewish NEP entrepreneurs cooperated in building a red-brick, two-story house in midtown Kiev, about 15 minutes, by trolley, from the center city (Khreshchatik). This was a luxurious house by standards of the 1930s in the Soviet Union—reasonable amenities in all seven apartments in the building, including: central city water and sewer system, central electricity and each family had a small storage and garden adjacent to the red-brick house.

These were hard-working, happy and friendly families, living in peace with each other and the world around them until an eruption of the German invasion.

On June 22, 1941 at 4 am, Kiev was bombarded by German Luftwaffe, the aerial-warfare branch of the German military. By August of the same year, the German army advanced to the steps of Kiev. As a result of this invasion, all families in the red-brick house were dispersed to all directions of the compass. Some fought courageously against brutal invaders.

My grandfather was killed in defense of Kiev in 1941. My mother (18-years-old), aunt (16-years-old) and grandmother were evacuated to Gorky (a city on the upper Volga River—today’s Nizhniy Novgorod).

Many families were evacuated to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. Some Jews, who could not escape Kiev on time, were captured and executed in Babiy Yar by Nazis.

Babyn Yar (Babi Yar) is a ravine in Kiev and a site of massacres carried out by Nazi Germany’s forces. The first massacres took place  Sept. 29-30, 1941, killing nearly 34,000 Jews. 

Kiev was largely destroyed during German occupation. But many historic sites survived, including St. Sophia Cathedral, Golden Gate, Prince Vladimir Monument, Bogdan Khmelnitsky Monument, Taras Shevchenko Monument, The Holy Dormition Kiev Caves Lavra, St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Andrew’s Church, Vydubtskiy Monastery, Marinsky Palace, National University, Opera and Ballet Theatre and some other historic sites.

After Kiev was liberated by the Soviet Army in November of 1943, many residents of the city came back to their homes and began a reconstruction of Kiev and normalization of their lives.

My mother, aunt and grandmother also came back from an evacuation, where they had worked in the military factory, to claim their property. However, upon their arrival to Kiev, they discovered that their apartment was occupied by a Ukrainian family who refused to evict the property. My aunt Lilya, a tough woman who survived a harsh evacuation in Gorky, told me once: “I opened a balcony door and a front door and threatened intruders that they have to choose one of the two ways out—balcony or front door. They walked out through the front door.”

In fact, some Ukrainians and Russians, for various political, economic or ideological reasons, collaborated with German Nazis during the war. Perhaps the most famous was The Russian Liberation Army (or “Vlasov Army”) under General Andrey Vlasov. This was a collaborationist formation, primarily composed of anti-Soviet Ukrainians and Russians. This army predominantly operated in Western Ukraine. After the war, many members of the Vlasov Army settled in West Ukraine and some fled Ukraine to South and North America, changing their identities and hiding from prosecution for their war crimes.

I was born and raised in the red-brick house in the post-War time. I lived in this house when Sputnik was launched in 1957, de-Stalinization was announced in the late 1950s, Yuriy Gagarin explored space in 1961, Cuban Missile Crisis frightened the world in 1962, Duke Ellington performed in Kiev in 1971, and President Nixon visited Kiev in 1972. I lived in this house during my secondary school and college years. I left the red-brick house to the West in March of 1977. Soon after my departure, my family and other Jewish families of the red-brick house followed my footsteps to the free world — the United States of America. And there was no red-brick house anymore. 

Memories of World War II and German occupation of Kiev for many years effected communication between various social groups and ethnicities in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. Jewish families, in fear of a possible new genocide against them, preferred to stick together, to choose their own, and somewhat mistrusted outsiders. Holocaust and betrayal were deeply rooted in their memories.

My grandfather Roman Umansky was captured by German Nazis and brutally killed in Nazi-occupied Kiev in 1941. He was betrayed by the Ukrainian woman who worked for him in his barber shop before the war erupted. She called the German SS on him for the reward of a small ration of food.

It was a shocking experience for my family, when my sister Rimma brought a Ukrainian man to our home as her prospective husband. This Ukrainian man, Anatoly, asked my father, in a traditional way, for his permission to marry my sister. Initially, my parents were reluctant to accept Anatoly.

Recognizing my parents hesitation, my sister cried out, “There are many stars in the sky. But I don’t want many stars, I want only one, this one.”

Later, we had a family meeting, discussing Anatoly’s marriage proposal. My sister was not present in this meeting. My father Boris Dolitsky was emotional and indecisive: “I can say YES and I can say NO,” he kept repeating. My grandmother had the last word. “We will never forget who they are and what some of them did to us, but we must forgive them. Let her marry Anatoly,” she said, with a look of concern.

A big wedding took place in the summer of 1972 in Kiev, with nearly 200 guests attending, enjoying plentiful Jewish food, cheerful music and dances. In fact, my sister Rimma and Anatoly will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage in June of this year. They have lived happily in Philadelphia since 1978, surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

Today’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and bombardment of Ukrainian cities, including Kiev, by the Russian army is shocking to everyone in the United States and around the world. In many ways, it resembles German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. 

I cannot quite settle these atrocities in my head. I cannot predict what will be the final outcome of this war. However, I know for certain that this brutal invasion of Ukraine will hurt Russia and Russian citizens to its core for many generations. 

Indeed, Ukraine will be victorious in this war because they fight for their freedom and right to exist. And, eventually, Ukraine will emerge as a free European nation.

This brutal invasion of Ukraine will be remembered by many Ukrainians, Russians and others for generations. Nevertheless, when the dust settles, we must recall a great wisdom: “We will never forget who they are and what some of them did to us, but we must forgive them.” 

Click on this link to watch Alexander Dolitsky speaking to Alaska World Affairs Council.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

A few of Dolitsky’s past MRAK columns:

Read: Neo-Marxism and utopian Socialism in America

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

Read: United we stand, divided we fall with race, ethnicity in America

Read: For American schools to succeed, they need this ingredient

Read: Nationalism in America, Alaska, around the world

Read: The case of the ‘delicious salad’

Read: White privilege is a troubling perspective

Read: Beware of activists who manipulate history for their own agenda

Read: Alaska Day remembrance of Russian transfer

Read: American leftism is true picture of true hypocrisy

Read: History does not repeat itself

Read: The only Ford Mustang in Kiev

Read: What is greed? Depends on the generation

Read: Worldwide migration of Old Believes in Alaska

Read: Traditions of Old Believers in Alaska

Read: Language, Education of Old Believers in Alaska

11 COMMENTS

  1. The Soviet Communists killed many more Ukrainians than the the Germans ever do!! Dolitsky conveniently overlooks the “HOLODOR” a time of forced starvation in 1922-1923 when a program of forced starvation was forced on the eastern Ukraine as the principals of agrarian “collectivization ” were forced on the farming populace . Entire villages were depopulated as an estimated 2-3 million Ukrainians perished. Being forced at gunpoint to turn over all form of livestock and crop yields at the onset of winter there was simply no way to survive. The German invaders were thus welcomed initially in the Ukraine and those with strong memories of the “Holodor” gladly joined the Wehrmacht to throw off the Russian Communist yoke.

    • To John H. Stone: Please note that, normally, columns are between 900 to 1,200 words long, with a very focused and specific objective. My present column is 1,244 words. As I stated in my article: “In fact, some Ukrainians and Russians, for various political, economic or ideological reasons, collaborated with German Nazis during the war.” You “conveniently” and, in some ways, inaccurately pointed to one of the political and ideological reasons. There are numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But this is not an objective of my essay.

      • A balanced perspective with the current situation in mind is always desirable when relating history and current events !! Too easy to blame the German military for the horrendous events of WW2 when JUST 20 PREVIOUSLY A MUCH MORE SINISTER EVENT OCCURRED BY THE VERY SAME NATION AND POLITICAL SYSTEM THAT IS CURRENTLY INVADING THE UKRAINE,!!

    • Hey John, maybe re-read the title. I don’t believe the title was complete WW history and I don’t believe he was making any comparisons between how many the Germans killed compared to the Russians. Just read and be kind, friend.

      • We all know the Jews suffered terribly and unjustly during WW2 but so did a lot of other people worldwide. The current situation in the Ukraine is is in many ways a repeat of what happened about 100 years ago by the same nation and with the same ideology and by a demented leader who is not comparable with Hitler in terms of military and political genius but equally or perhaps more evil.

        • John Slone – Russia has not had the same ideology, Communism, for decades now. They are crony capitalists just like us now. You would have to scrutinize the Ukrainian Azov Brigade to find followers of a failed past ideology known as Nazism.

  2. Loved this article Alex! Enjoy reading your personal perspective and memories as much as the factual content you provide.

  3. Stalin and Hitler took Poland together, as allies. Hitler took most women and children to the death camps while Stalin took the men and older boys to his labor camps. Stalin and Hitler only split when both wanted all the best parts of Poland, the agricultural regions and the industrial belt. As Suzanne Downing wrote several weeks ago, if one were to have looked at Berlin and Moscow on May 1, 1939 they would not have seen much difference at all in the ideologies, the symbolism, the fanaticism, and the bigotry. The National Socialist German Workers Party and the Communist Party are not very different at all. My father, as a US Army PFC, patrolled in Bavaria at the end of WWII and then was a guard at Nuremburg. My father-in-law, as a US Army 2nd Lieutenant, was captured by the Germans but survived the war. Both told me the German women were better looking and very clean; otherwise there was no difference between the Nazis and the Russians they said.

  4. Alexander,
    Once again thanks for the perspective. Maybe it was just my reading of it, but this commentary has a remarkably different feel to it than the previous one. I suppose when the land you fled is being torn asunder, in real time, that will happen.

Comments are closed.