THERE IS A PLACE that does not exist yet. It may be black, or a color we cannot imagine, or no color at all. It goes on forever in every direction. In the center (can there be a center?) is a golden egg, gilded and burning. The egg is wrapped in nothingness like a royal bathrobe. I don’t know how the egg got there.
It is even harder to describe what happens next. The golden egg cracks from within. There is a god in there. He is called Rod. Later, we will use his name to describe ourselves: narod (people), rodyna (family). But today, in this place that will soon exist, Rod sloughs off the broken bits of shell like birthday confetti. He looks about, sees how the oceans and seas are mixed up with the sky and understands that he has a lot of work to do. No one can survive in such chaos. He begins to move, but wait!—there is a problem. Rod is attached to the egg. He gropes about in the nothingness. He hits something: a bow. It is frighteningly sharp. Seething, razor sharp. Rod doesn’t want to have to do this, but he sees no other way. The tie must be severed. It has to be slashed. Rod cuts his umbilical cord with a rainbow and goes about creation.
My Ukrainian grandmother is dead. I am standing in Busia’s Chicago-area kitchen, having flown here last-minute. My plane circled her neighborhood before landing at O’Hare, where my uncle picked me up from the terminal in his sleek, black Jeep.
Busia’s kitchen feels dead. It doesn’t smell like onion or boiled cabbage or anything at all. Busia has not been here for weeks. She has been dying at a facility where people go to die in America. Before she went to the facility, she was not cooking much for herself. Instead, my uncle would bring large packages from Costco: giant trays of shrimp cocktail, pre-mixed greens, meatballs, salmon fillets with lemon slices. Everything was delivered in plastic containers, and so at the end, it all slid cleanly into the dumpster.
I am standing in Busia’s kitchen in the embroidered vyshyvanka blouse I have decided to wear to her wake. Using the mirror above the microwave, I tug at the wrinkles, strategically tucking them into my black skirt. I adjust my Orthodox cross necklace—one Busia gave me off her own neck while she was dying—and hide the clasp under my hairline. I’ve always appreciated the extra bar at the bottom of the Orthodox cross. A footrest for Jesus. Or, if he felt like it, a way to jump off. I smooth my brown flyaways and the single silver strand mushrooming up from my part. Someone offers to feed me, but Busia is dead, and I do not have an appetite.
The most famous Ukrainian kitchen in the world is located on the corner of Second Avenue and East Ninth Street in Manhattan. It’s difficult to measure a thing like fame, but regular people in Ukraine know about this restaurant in New York, and three thousand varenyky (pierogi) a day seems as good a measurement as any. They sell for nearly two dollars each, scandalously high by Ukrainian standards. Busia—who occasionally visited an all-you-can-eat buffet but otherwise preferred to cook for herself—would have found the prices unforgivable.
The place has a storied history, serving as a favorite haunt for artists, writers, and runaways in the East Village of the 1960s. Penny Arcade, a performance artist who first started frequenting the restaurant in 1967, recently told the New York Times, “It had the Village Voice before anywhere else, a row of phone booths, smokes for a dime and cheap good food that never changed.” The restaurant has played host to movie productions and celebrity diners like Jon Stewart and Parker Posey.
Veselka, the Ukrainian word for rainbow, is stamped on the window.
Actually, in my mind, Veselka is not the most famous Ukrainian kitchen. It is not even the second most famous. My list goes like this:
1) Busia’s kitchen in Chicago
2) The oselia kitchen in Baraboo, Wisconsin
For much of my life, Busia’s seemed like the only Ukrainian kitchen in the world. I split my childhood between my mother’s house in South Dakota during the school year and Busia’s during the summers. I did not know any Ukrainians in South Dakota, and so Busia’s world felt like an island.
Kitchen number two existed in a place that was like a very small island off the coast of another island. Between the ages of eight and fourteen, I attended Ukrainian soccer camp every summer. This is exactly what it sounds like: a weeklong camp at the beginning of August for children of the Ukrainian diaspora who like playing soccer. But even more than the soccer, I liked just being there, in the leafy woods of Wisconsin, surrounded by other American kids whose grandmothers fed them blueberry varenyky and forbade them from whistling inside the house. At camp, our English was braided with the vocabulary of a pre-war Ukrainian village, and we didn’t have to explain ourselves. At camp, my name felt effortless.
The camp is owned and operated by the Ukrainian Youth Association, a scouting organization often referred to by its Ukrainian-language acronym, CYM. Every summer since 1961 CYM members have fled Chicago for the Wisconsin campground oselia, a word that means roughly “settlement” or “dwelling.” My father’s family and their diaspora friends had gone there for decades.
At camp our schedule was rigorous. We awoke at seven to the shrill of a whistle and a commander yelling, Vstavayte! Get up! Vstavayte! Dobroho ranku! Good morning! The commander led us in group stretches and push-ups before we were dismissed to get cleaned up, prepare our barracks and tents for inspection, and march down the hill for morning assembly. We stood at attention, cold dew licking our toes, for the flag-raising ceremony—both Ukrainian and American—while singing “Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrayina,” the national anthem. We recited the Our Father in Ukrainian and sang “Bozhe Velyky,” another hymn that seamlessly combines religion (“God is great”) with patriotism (“Give Ukraine strength and glory, freedom and power”).
After morning announcements, we proceeded to the converted barn where middle-aged women in hairnets with strong accents served hot plates of varenyky, eggs, sausage, and Styrofoam cups of tea.
Between mealtimes, we practiced soccer for several hours a day, swam in the pool (an enormous Ukrainian tryzub painted on its floor), and played card games in the grass. At night we told flashlight stories and sent scouts from tent to tent with messages about who had a crush on whom. In this respect it was not unlike your typical American summer camp: the strangeness of shaving your legs in a shower hung with spiders; the temporary freedom from nagging parents; the instant nostalgia of an inside joke among young girls; the nervous thrill of holding hands at dusk while the outline of Alligator Mountain faded before your eyes. But more importantly, his eyes—blue and yellow mixed together, swirling tie-dye eyes. This teenage boy smells incredible there beside you. He is drenched in Chrome Azzaro cologne, almost pickled. He smells like flowers and bacon and rain and the way nostalgia makes your stomach feel. In the future, when you are grown and moving through the sidewalks of the world, you will catch a whiff of Chrome Azzaro and be flung back to those hills. But right now you are not thinking of the future, or of the past either, or of the rock you’ve perched on to watch the sunset, which is actually a memorial rock. It is marked in memory of the millions of Ukrainians (three to four million perhaps, though the exact figure is unknown and widely disputed) who lost their lives in the Soviet-engineered famine of 1932 and ’33, called the Holodomor (hunger-extermination) and recognized by seventeen countries as genocide. You are so busy kissing the bacon-rain-tie-dye boy that you forget about the genocide.
At camp I was concerned with the stink of my cleats and the new Missy Elliott CD playing on repeat in the girls’ tent. I was in love with the hills and how I didn’t have to explain myself. I was so in love that after my first year at camp, I remember clipping my toenails and saving the clippings in a small, secret box. Every so often I would open the box and cradle the trimmings. At camp, these were part of me. They touched that grass and those hills. If a scientist could test them, I thought to myself, they would find my DNA and the DNA of the oselia grass, both together! After cradling the nail crescents, I gingerly closed the box and tucked it high on my bookshelf.
At camp I was not concerned with the origins of CYM, or the project of Ukrainian nation-building, or even the fact that my father and uncles and cousins had attended camp here too and that Busia had, at one time, worked in the kitchen. Only as an adult would these historical details start to assume meaning. Youth, instead, is lived as reaction, as instinct.
CYM, the Ukrainian Youth Association, has thousands of members spread across roughly nine countries, from Belgium to Argentina. Its objectives are listed on its website:
To organize, nurture, and educate youth in the spirit invoked by the ideals “God and Ukraine.” To form Christian and patriotic values as well as morally sound individuality. To cultivate the unity of Ukrainians around the world. To work for the good of the Ukrainian Nation and to strengthen its statehood.
As a child, I did not consider these objectives with any seriousness. What does a child know of state sovereignty? But today I find myself poring over these details as I once studied the beauty products in Teen Vogue.
CYM officially attributes its founding to a Ukrainian university student, Mykola Pavlushkov, who, encouraged by his uncle, began an underground youth organization bent on resisting the Soviet regime. The organization was interested, allegedly, in restoring private property and reestablishing a free Ukrainian state. CYM’s website invites you “to put yourself in the shoes of eighteen-year-old Mykola. To organize an underground organization, in a country controlled by a totalitarian military regime [was not a simple thing]… Even taking into account an eighteen-year-old’s fearless idealism, this was a step that could only be undertaken by a courageous person with truly extraordinary convictions.”
And Pavlushkov’s convictions were indeed extraordinary. It was the late 1920s, and the Bolsheviks were already tired of their short-lived policy of Ukrainization. In the eyes of Moscow, Ukrainian patriotism could not be properly controlled, and any manifestation beyond brief ceremonial use of the language or a kitschy appreciation for, say, hopak dancing, was dangerous. In 1930 Pavlushkov was arrested and put on trial in Kharkiv, alongside forty-four other Ukrainian intellectuals, including three women and two Jewish men, all charged with founding the parent organization to Pavlushkov’s youth association. According to CYM’s account, Pavlushkov and the others were found guilty of planning terrorist acts. All of them died either in prisons or concentration camps, including Pavlushkov, who was executed at Solovki gulag camp seven years later.
CYM’s origin story is iconic and inspirational, but it’s also a bit misleading. According to the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, the 1930 trial at the Kharkiv Opera Theater was a show trial, and CYM and its parent organization were fictional, dreamt up by Soviet authorities as a pretense for persecution. The Soviets fabricated their administrative structures and “appointed” their leaders. Pavlushkov and the others were arrested and killed simply for being members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, well-versed in Ukrainian literature and language, and thus natural proponents of Ukrainization. It’s unlikely, however, that the accused were in fact participants in a single underground movement.
By leaning into this pseudo-history, CYM is passing along the same falsehood once used by their Soviet enemies, albeit for different reasons. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that CYM, which today exists and operates around the world, was established in homage to Pavlushkov and the other victims of the show trial.
CYM as I know it was started in 1946 in the displaced persons camps in Germany by those who had lived through Polish repression, Soviet aggression, and the brutal German occupation. Its founders desperately needed to revive and protect their Ukrainian heritage in the midst of so much tyranny. It was started by people like my grandmother.
But when I was at soccer camp, I didn’t care about the history of CYM. I cared about whether my clothes stayed dry.
We older girls sleep on cots in an army tent, a sweeping mass of dark green canvas. It smells ancient, like a leftover from the war our grandparents fled. We call our home the shatro, an old Ukrainian word that means tent, but which also implies something grander. It is the tent of the Old Testament, dwelling of the tabernacle. Shatro is a holy tent.
It is the middle of a summer night in Wisconsin. Mosquitoes, cicadas. I am exhausted from hours of soccer. A single drop of water hits my pillow. I roll my cheek into the wetness. Dark figures are circling by on nearby cots. Oh shit, someone grumbles. There is lightning, thunder like artillery. Everyone is awake now, cursing the sky. I throw on Adidas sandals and drag my cot into the center of the shatro. The walls are rushing waterfalls.
We will talk about this small flood for years. Outside, we slip on rivers of grass. The sky flares. We run screaming toward the bathroom, where we perch on a wooden bench and spend the rest of the night beneath the fluorescent lights. We sing along with a stereo. Our shoes will be soaked. Blades of grass stick to my calves, mud in the beds of my toenails. Accidental camouflage.
At camp, I cared about rain.
Busia is dead in a box. The lid is closed now, but inside she is wearing a vyshyvanka to match mine and an Orthodox crown of glory. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. I spin the clasp of my cross backward. The sun is glaring on our Ukrainian section of the Chicago cemetery, where Busia is to be buried between her husband and her youngest son, only a few paces away from her sister, her brothers, and her mother.
One of my cousins is wearing sunglasses to hide his crying. Another is wearing his father’s suit, a bit too roomy. Another wears a priest’s collar and pulls a small jar from his pocket. It is soil from Busia’s ancestral village. He offers the jar to my uncle and father, who sprinkle it onto Busia’s casket. It is that same fertile soil which earned Ukraine its reputation as the breadbasket of Europe. That famous, fertile dirt made the Holodomor famine an especially cruel irony. That famous dirt put the conquest of Ukraine at the center of Hitler’s “ideological colonialism,” as historian Timothy Snyder calls it. “Had Hitler not had the colonial idea to fight a war in Eastern Europe to control Ukraine…there could not have been a Holocaust,” he writes, “because it is that plan that brings German power into Eastern Europe where the Jews lived.”
We scatter the village dirt on Busia, then walk toward our cars. Like all good dirt, it is mostly composed of dead things.
Kyiv (Kiev, in its Russian transliteration) is a city of hills sliced in half by the Dnipro River. Atop one of the highest hills is a neon rainbow. Start here. Understand that this rainbow only looks like a real rainbow at night. During the day, it is the color of steel. Under the rainbow are several giant figures cast in bronze and granite. Two hold hands. They are a Russian worker and a Ukrainian worker. They are good Communist workers. Other giant men are doing business. They are signing a document. The Ukrainian Cossacks are pledging their allegiance to the Russian czar. These giants are wide as three hundred years of history.
The People’s Friendship Arch monument opened in 1982 on the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, which also happened to be the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city of Kyiv. The monument is dedicated to the unification of Ukraine and Russia. From up here, you can see the ex-president’s Spanish ship, the white beach at Trukhaniv, and the Breshnevki apartment blocs that spike like teeth from the left bank. Up here, you can see almost everything.
You also have a nice view of Podil neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest and the birthplace of its commerce and industry. Podil’s historic buildings curve with the right bank of the Dnipro. Its name, podil, means lowland. It is a floodplain. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this was where the Russian authorities allowed Jews to settle.
The Great Choral Synagogue is here in Podil. It was Kyiv’s first permanent house of worship for Jewish residents and the only one to remain functioning in the post-war years. It is bright red, with white window trim as intricate as cake frosting. During the war, the German army used it as a horse stable.
If you pass through Podil to the west, you’ll see the grounds of the old Zaitsev brick factory where Menachem Mendel Beilis once lived and worked. Beilis was a Jewish man accused of the “ritual murder” of a thirteen-year-old Russian boy in 1911. Two lamplighters said a Jew had done it, and Beilis sat in prison for years awaiting trial, while the prosecution played with the evidence, twisting and turning public opinion. At trial, the lamplighters admitted they had been played with too: vodka, poured by the czar’s secret police. Beilis was acquitted. But do not dwell on this—Beilis left for America years ago. He is long gone.
Past the brick factory, just a few kilometers northwest of the synagogue, is a park. There aren’t many cars here. It is a retreat from the horns and shopkeepers and sirens of Podil. The park is lush and purring. Mosquitos, cicadas, distant traffic humming like a box fan. It is both calm and noisy. Both quiet and loud, like a long, soundless scream. The park is where a ravine used to be. Now, it is a hill. It is a mountain of corpses covered in dirt. This park is Babyn Yar, which means old woman’s ravine.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, a crude headstone.
I am afraid.
I first learn of Babyn Yar from a Russian poet with a Ukrainian last name. My family does not speak about Jewish Ukraine, about the tens of thousands of corpses thrown into a yawning ravine. No, we try not to look down there.
I am sitting in a Catholic high-school classroom in South Dakota. I flip through our English textbook and there is a Ukrainian name. Right there, in our American textbook, in South Dakota! The name is attached to a poem. In the poem, I read of an unfamiliar Kyiv. This Kyiv is not part of my family’s tour.
Start at the People’s Friendship Arch. Trace a line up and over through Podil, up and over through the brick factory. End at Babyn Yar. Notice how you’ve made a bow.
I was living in Lviv, Ukraine, when I first saw the article online about Baraboo, Wisconsin. “Monuments to Ukrainian Far-right Movement Erected in US.” A friend must have posted it on Facebook. At the time, I was three years out of college and had not visited the Wisconsin oselia in seven or eight years. I had become more interested in books and traveling and politics and less in playing soccer. I had mostly lost touch with my old camp friends, save for an occasional happy-birthday text from the boy with the blue-yellow eyes. I had not actively severed any ties, but they were out of sight, tucked on a high shelf, not easy to reach.
My work in Ukraine was all consuming, until—“A group of monuments to Ukrainian nationalists has been set up in the US city of Baraboo in Sauk County, Wisconsin.” The article was published on Voice of Russia, a Kremlin-funded news outlet. It had the look of an early HTML site, with bright blue hyperlinks. “Several bronze busts of Symon Petliura, Yevgeny Konovalets, Roman Shukhevich, and Stepan Bandera, all members of Ukraine’s twentieth-century violent independence movement, have been erected on the territory of the Beskyd summer camp, which belongs to the Ukrainian Youth Association (CYM).” And there was a photo. A shining green hill, the same hill at which I had stood every morning to sing and pray in Ukrainian. At the base of this familiar hill were four unfamiliar pillars. Atop each pillar was a golden bust, all stern-faced and short-haired. They looked like brothers.
I vaguely recognized all of the names, but it was the last, Stepan Bandera, that gave me pause. Bandera was born in what is now western Ukraine. During the 1920s the region was still under Polish rule, though the League of Nations had urged Poland to give Ukraine national autonomy. Instead, Polish authorities closed Ukrainian schools, abolished Ukrainian professorships, censored newspapers, and barred Ukrainians from participating in the political sphere. The Poles even opted to call them Rusyn—which has a more provincial connotation—rather than the modern term Ukrainian. Busia explained village life in western Ukraine matter-of-factly: We go to school, they make us speak Polish, then we go home and speak Ukrainian.
While the Poles were repressing Ukrainians in the West, Bandera was also aware of atrocities committed against them in the East. In 1932 and ’33, the Soviet authorities manufactured famine conditions by seizing grain and murdering Ukrainian peasants who attempted to keep or consume their own harvests. (The authorities were starving people in other parts of the empire too, Kazakhstan in particular, though I did not learn this until much later.) All this was part of Stalin’s five-year plan to jumpstart the collectivization process and rid the USSR of one of its more economically and ethnically problematic groups. Accounts from the Holodomor are the stuff of nightmares: People burying potato skins, hoping they’ll grow. People eating leaves and worms. People eating excrement. People eating their own children after they died. One Thanksgiving I remember Busia whispering the story of Great-Uncle Vasyl, how he climbed a tree to escape a man who threatened to eat him. I imagine the starving man, hungry as a wolf, howling up the trunk. Busia shrugged, Everyone is hungry.
Against this backdrop, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was growing, with Bandera as a prominent young member. (Konovalets, one of the other golden busts, was elected as its leader.) OUN wanted justice for a repressed Ukraine, but they wanted it at the expense of nearly everyone else. Bandera and his fellow nationalists envisioned a free and sovereign Ukraine governed by Ukrainians. They were not concerned with granting rights to ethnic minorities, and Bandera’s vision was a dangerous and narrowly nationalistic one. OUN set about its work by assassinating high-ranking Poles, Soviets, and even Ukrainians who compromised with outside forces.
When World War II began, the OUN resistance viewed the Germans as perhaps their only hope for defeating their oppressors, avoiding further Bolshevik rule, and gaining autonomy. Though the Ukrainian nationalists and the Nazis had different and distinct aims, the echoes between them remain deeply unsettling. It was an ugly collaboration, fueled at least in part by the historical conflation in Ukrainian popular consciousness of Jewry with Bolshevik rule. The conspiracy theory of Jewish Bolshevism alleges that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was orchestrated primarily by Jewish activists. Although several Jews did hold prominent positions in the early days of the revolution, they had also endured life in an empire riddled with anti-Semitism and pogroms. It is not surprising, then, that some individuals may have found hope in the promise of communism, though many Jews suffered tremendous repression under Stalin as well. In the years since the October Revolution, the notion of Jewish Bolshevism has been blown up and used to justify more anti-Semitism. Hitler himself cited the “annihilation of Jewish Bolshevism” as a goal worth achieving with every ounce of strength and fanaticism.
When German armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some contingents of OUN fighters and followers of Bandera marched alongside them. That summer the newly formed OUN police assisted Einsatzgruppe C in carrying out multiple pogroms against the Jewish residents of Lviv. (One of those pogroms was undertaken in the name of Petliura, the first of the golden-bust brothers.) Jewish residents were beaten and kicked by restive mobs. Women were stripped naked and paraded through town. A Ukrainian man dressed in a vyshyvanka shoved the face of a Jewish man against a Lenin statue, forcing him to kiss it. Killing lines, stacks of bodies. When I first heard the news about the golden busts in Wisconsin, I was walking those same streets in Lviv that Jewish families had been made to scrub with toothbrushes.
When the Nazi troops moved into Ukraine, the OUN used the window of chaos to declare a free Ukrainian state, promising that it would continue to “cooperate closely with the National-Socialist Great Germany, which, under the direction of its leader, Adolf Hitler, is creating a new order in Europe and the world and helping the Ukrainian people to escape Moscow’s occupation.” It is almost laughable now to think that Hitler would ever have been interested in such an arrangement. After all, he had appointed Erich Koch as Reichskommissar of Ukraine precisely because Koch hated Slavs. “If I find a Ukrainian who is worthy of sitting at the same table with me,” Koch once famously said, “I must have him shot.”
Despite the OUN’s apparent willingness to cooperate, Hitler demanded that the Ukrainians withdraw their proclamation of statehood. The OUN leaders refused, and so the Germans detained prominent members of the group and had Bandera brought to Berlin and put under house arrest. He was later transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. While he was in the camp, Bandera’s followers took to the forest and formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) to continue fighting the Germans, Soviets, and remaining Poles. (The fourth bust, Shukhevich, served as a UPA general.) Over one hundred thousand Ukrainians died fighting for liberation—a liberation that, at least for some of the fighters, still assumed a menacing, nationalistic bent. As Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Review of Books, “In their struggle for Ukraine, we see the triumph of the principle, common to fascists and communists, that political transformation sanctifies violence.” The Red Army ultimately triumphed, and Ukrainians would endure decades more of cultural and political repression. Bandera remained in exile and was assassinated in 1959 by the KGB in Munich.
The busts are still there, four bronze foreheads glowing in the summer heat. I stare at my computer screen, mouth open as a gate. I am shocked that the campground of my youth—of teenage crushes, of Missy Elliott, of soccer stats, of lip gloss and new razors and blueberry varenyky—has attracted the attention of what is so clearly a Russian propaganda website. That it has become politicized. Was it always political?
I learn from CYM’s website that in 2013 they held a dedication ceremony to bless the new memorial. From the photos, I can see that the weather was beautiful, the crowd large. The president of the local CYM branch gave a speech about the four figures. All four were murdered by Russian Bolsheviks whose goal was to destroy Ukrainian freedom, suppress the Ukrainian independent nation, erase the distinct Ukrainian identity from the face of the earth, and make Ukraine a part of greater Russia. The CYM president is a tall and serious man, his uniform neatly pressed. We want our children who come here to camp, summer or winter, to know the history of our heroes. To understand why it was so important for them to sacrifice their lives so that Ukraine may one day be free. There is one mention of Nazi cooperation, which I am oddly relieved to hear. Ukraine’s conflicts with two totalitarian regimes: Communists and Nazis, former partners, yet in the eyes of Ukraine still united through an identical ambition of conquering Ukraine. Campers hang floral wreaths on the four pillars. The color guard carries the Ukrainian flag as well as the red-and-black flag of the OUN. Glory to Ukraine! I admire the green hillside, which now appears to have a man-made waterfall running between the statues, another new addition. Glory to her heroes!
I begin to daydream about other busts. I wonder what different faces might look like there against the hillside. A bust of Alla Horska, perhaps, the dissident painter murdered by the KGB in 1970. Or the smooth forehead of Volodymyr Ivasyuk, the songwriter last seen alive in KGB custody and found hanging from a tree in 1979. Or Tanya Chornovol, the corruption reporter beaten nearly to death during Maidan, the revolution of 2013 and ’14.
Why not a bust of the unnamed Ukrainian man, from the same region as Bandera, who hid a Jewish woman in a garage during the Nazi executions? He had been delivering beets in his cart that day. When the shooting stopped, she asked if he might transport her out of town. The man agreed, quickly fetching a vyshyvanka for her to wear, and fled with her on his beet cart.
It is Busia’s funeral luncheon, and I am killing time in the women’s restroom. A stranger introduces herself. She is the wife of CYM’s president. What a beautiful young lady, she says, as we are washing our hands. We are all so proud of you. I had not known that Mr. and Mrs. President were family friends. She takes me to meet her husband.
They are a handsome couple, well dressed, soft spoken, and kind. I find their words of condolence very moving. They are so impressed by the woman I’ve grown to be. They are here to support my uncle and father but also to honor my babusya’s legacy within the Ukrainian community of Chicago. She was a good woman. Not many are left from her wartime generation. As they are speaking about my grandmother, it occurs to me that I really do want them to be proud of me. I wonder if I would have grown to be the same woman without them, without CYM, without those few glorious weeks of not having to explain myself. That is, had I not first gone to the oselia, would I have gone to Ukraine? Had I not sung “Shche Ne Vmerla” in the cold dew each morning, would I have been ready to sing it on Maidan? I thank Mr. and Mrs. President through watery eyes, before proceeding to find my seat at the table.
My cousins and I get drunk at the funeral luncheon. The spread is imposing: long white tablecloths, salad, breadsticks, three kinds of pasta, pork chops, chicken cutlets, endless dessert, an open bar. All the guests are dressed to the nines and the waiters wear cufflinks. One of my cousins and I begin planning a hypothetical trip to Ukraine, but settle instead on a third gin and tonic. It feels like a wedding, and we are at the head table. We are happy, almost. My father’s second cousin tells me how much I look like my mother these days. Did you even know her? I ask. (My parents have not lived in the same state since their divorce.) Of course, she nods, as if there is a whole history I am unaware of. My cousin jokes that every Ukrainian funeral is Groundhog Day. The same funeral home. The same church. The same motorcade. The same section of the cemetery. The same Italian restaurant. The same game of who-is-related-to-whom-and-how. The same hangover. At some point in the afternoon, I start to cry.
After the funeral, I return to Busia’s empty house where I will sleep in her bed before my flight the next morning. I spend the rest of the night watching soundless old home videos: my grandparents twirling in their finest clothes, my father and uncle riding tricycles on the sidewalk. There are several long shots from the oselia in the 1960s, many minutes of silent, sweeping panoramas from other dedication ceremonies and prayer services. The young scouts—my father’s generation—are sweaty and restless in their uniforms. The golden busts will not be erected for another fifty years, but the hills are there. The hills are green, and gorgeous, and screaming.
Prior to World War II, an estimated twenty percent of Europe’s Jews lived in present-day Ukraine. Lviv alone had some hundred and thirty thousand Jewish residents. When I lived there, I didn’t meet any Jewish people, save for one or two visiting scholars from America.
I did, however, eat dinner at a “Jewish themed” restaurant in the center of town. It is called Pid Zolotoyu Rozoyu (Under the Golden Rose) and is adjacent to what used to be the Golden Rose synagogue, Lviv’s oldest until its destruction in World War II. The modern-day restaurant, opened in 2008, is operated by a local Ukrainian company whose owner claims to have “studied Jewish history for three months.” The place is cozy, with crocheted tablecloths and Klezmer music playing in the background. But when I saw the waiter wearing a black hat with fake payot sidelocks, my stomach sank. He invited me to try it on for a photo. I declined. When we got the bill, there were no prices listed, as apparently it is Jewish “tradition” to haggle and bargain after the meal. The restaurant deals in kitsch, non-kosher food, and anti-Semitic stereotypes. Perhaps it’s also worth noting that the place never seemed busy. When I walked past it—which was often—the waiters were usually standing outside, smoking cigarettes with bored, blank faces.
The same company also operates a UPA-themed bunker restaurant just a few blocks away. In order to gain entry, diners must swear to the uniformed doorman that they are not Moskali (a disparaging term for Russians). In return, the doorman will give you a shot of vodka from his army canteen. I spent Easter night 2014 drinking with friends in this brick bunker, surrounded by images of Bandera and a collection of toy guns. Just a few weeks prior, we had watched Putin illegally seize Crimea and call Ukraine’s politicians modern accomplices of Bandera. Crimea will be home to representatives of all the ethnic groups that reside in it, but will never belong to Banderovtsy, he announced from a television screen. What Putin didn’t announce, of course, was that for the past several years the Kremlin has been supporting far-right parties in Europe, including France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League, and Germany’s AfD, which won 12.6 percent of the vote in 2017, making it the third largest party in the German parliament. Far-right politicians in Ukraine, meanwhile, secured only around 3 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2014 election.
But who is Bandera, anyway? For Ukrainians, he is an anti-Soviet warrior. For Russians, he is a convenient pretext for anti-Ukrainian policies, including invasion and annexation. He is a Nazi whose brothers died in Auschwitz. He is a fascist. A boogeyman. A hero. A myth. He is a violent fanatic who, as a university student, was known for sliding pins and needles beneath his fingernails, preparation for future tortures he might have to endure.
I do not know who Stepan Bandera is, but I know this: In 2006 a magazine published by a fringe university in Ukraine ran an article questioning Menachem Mendel Beilis’s acquittal in the ritual child murder case, though he had been dead for seventy-two years. In 2014 two Molotov cocktails were reportedly thrown into the courtyard of the Great Choral Synagogue in Podil. And for many years it has been difficult for Kyiv city officials to keep spray-painted swastikas off the memorial at Babyn Yar. In the gray light of morning, when city traffic picks up like wind, four red spikes appear on the stone. They are evil, seething weeds, grown under the camouflage of night. They have razor-sharp points and are hard to wash off.
I do not know who Stepan Bandera is, but I also know this: In 2017 a vandal desecrated a Holocaust memorial in Rivne oblast. Ukrainian students from the nearby technological college who heard about the incident went out to the site that very day, got down on their knees, and scrubbed.
In the move, everyone was accounted for. The fat dog with no spleen. The cat with a crunched-up face. The rabbit with a silver feeding tube. The pigeon that flew backward. The horse skeleton, the human skeleton, the monkey. A lady made of leather brought up the rear. When the German coroner moved, it was like the unloading of the ark, or maybe it was the resurrection.
Dr. Edward J. Messemer, deputy coroner of New York City, lived at 144 Second Avenue. In 1884, when he decided to move down the street, the New York Times reported on the objects of curiosity filing out of his townhouse. He had a large private collection of bones.
In the early 1900s, Philip and Benjamin Menschel, Jewish brothers from Austria, purchased the building and opened a movie theater. The building would become famous in the 1930s when a group of robbers dubbed the East Side Boys shot a detective there. Various shops, cafés, and offices moved in and out. For a few months during the Great Depression, the Communist League of America—an opposition party accused of Trotskyism—had its headquarters on the third floor. From there they published The Militant, a newspaper whose first issue warned in bold type of “the Right danger.”
In 1954, a Ukrainian immigrant named Wolodymyr Darmochwal had saved enough money from his janitorial job to rent the corner storefront from the Menschel brothers. Darmochwal and his wife Olha had been forced to flee Ukraine during the war and had just come from the refugee camps in Germany. Maybe they were in the same camp as my grandparents. Darmochwal opened a small shop called Veselka where he sold coffee, cigarettes, candy, and Ukrainian-language papers. By 1964 the East Village was thoroughly Ukrainian, and the Menschel brothers were looking to sell. The New York City branch of the Ukrainian scouting organization Plast (its mission: “To be faithful to God and Ukraine”) purchased the building from the Menschels. Plast’s headquarters remain there today, just above Veselka, which is now a 24/7 diner serving chic Ukrainian fare alongside Jewish specialties like gefilte fish.
Considering the historical demographics of Ukraine, it’s no surprise the cuisines have cross-pollinated. Darmochwal, for example, was close friends with Abe Lebewohl, owner of the famous kosher Second Avenue Deli, which opened the same year as Veselka, a block away. Lebewohl was originally from Lviv. When the city fell under Soviet control, his father was condemned as a business owner and arrested, while Abe and his mother were deported to Kazakhstan. After the war they were allowed to return, but all the Jews they had known were gone.
I imagine Abe and Wolodymyr standing together on the corner of Second and Tenth, chatting about the weather or the price of meat. They are looking outward, watching people cut through the small sliver of park opposite them. There are certain things they don’t talk about. Certain things, between them, that don’t need explaining. The traffic here is loud, but they have both gotten used to it. After Abe’s death in 1996, that tiny triangular park will be named in his honor. In the center stands a memorial flagpole from 1944, dedicated by the Ukrainian American Society to the victims of World War II, “in memory of their sons.”
I first visited New York in 2000, when I was twelve years old. The trip was my father’s idea, and for months leading up to it he had been talking about Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant that apparently even celebrities liked. My father didn’t tell me about the German-Jewish-Communist-Ukrainian history of the building at 144 Second Avenue, but he did tell me that Julianne Moore liked their borscht.
We went in the middle of the afternoon, after climbing into the Statue of Liberty’s crown. I remember it was bright outside the window. The menu was paper. I ordered varenyky. Some with potato, some with blueberry for dessert. They tasted familiar. I couldn’t believe it—Busia’s food was here, inside a real restaurant in the biggest and loudest city I’d ever seen. Ukrainian food had always been confined to the oselia dining room or to Busia’s retro kitchen. I didn’t know it could exist outside those two places, places far too personal to hold any significance beyond myself. I didn’t know our food had consequence.
On the window, the name Veselka appears in the shape of a bow. Did you know that every rainbow is a full circle? From where we stand on earth, we just can’t tell.
On the night of Busia’s funeral, after the luncheon and the silent home movies, I look around her house. I pick things up: small figurines, old pill cases. I blow the dust off and set them back down, exactly as they’d been. In later months, I will keep some for myself—a pair of shoes, an embroidered pillow, a headscarf—but tonight I am only looking around. I am breathing in mothballs like incense. It is too soon to disturb the house of the dead.
On the night of the funeral, above the coat closet, I find a bowl of pysanky, Ukrainian Easter eggs. They are red and brown and black with accents of yellow and orange, the colors arranged in geometric folk designs. To make traditional pysanky, you use hot wax to write on raw eggs. Pysaty means “to write.” During Soviet times, pysanky were outlawed, like religious samizdat.
Behind the bowl of pysanky, tucked beneath a bouquet of fake flowers and other tchotchkes—so high above the coats you couldn’t possibly see it from the ground—I find a framed portrait. It is the face of Stepan Bandera.
Several months after Busia’s funeral, while I am writing about Bandera, I dream of our Wisconsin oselia. It is my first camp dream in many years. I am there with the boy whose eyes look like a swirling Ukrainian flag. We are sitting on a green hill with some camp friends, watching a soccer match. It is lush and humid and the hills are buzzing, and I am so glad to be back. I am remembering how much I love this place. But after a moment, I realize the hill we are sitting on is creeping. It is a bed of snakes. I am worried about what the snakes will do to this place I love. We must acknowledge the snakes. I suggest we put the snakes down in the gulley below, but my friends panic. That’s where the other animals are kept, they say. We cannot move the snakes down there.
My friends look at me like my suggestion is a betrayal. Like I have double-crossed them. Like I am the wickedest creature of all.
Rod is a god of fertility. He crashes about the new world, eyeing its chaos. He aims to organize it. To say to the sky, you belong there. And to the sea, you belong there. He gives birth to order, a direction of life.
Rod is chiefly concerned with bloodlines, with the extension of clans. His egg has just cracked open. Outside, the new world is colorless. It is chaos, pandemonium, a seething, empty place. He breathes in nihilism like mothballs. The air itself is nihilism, though that word cannot exist yet. Rod aims to organize. To say to the family, you belong. Rod makes a people with lineage. A clan must have a history, he reasons. A bloodline must have direction. He cuts his umbilical cord with a razor-sharp rainbow and goes about creation.
But my family never believed in Rod. We lived after the time of ancient Slavic gods. Busia was Orthodox. Orthodoxy meant icons and incense and crossing yourself thrice. Busia did not believe in Rod, but in Christ resurrected. She believed in redemption. She believed in the legend of the pysanky.
There is a young Jewish woman from the Gentile town of Magdala. Her Christ has been crucified, nailed to a piece of wood, as casual as a curtain, hung for the crowds to look through. On the first day of the week, this woman decides to visit the tomb and anoint his body. She wraps precious oils and places some eggs in a basket. She might get hungry. The eggs will be an easy luncheon after the funeral.
She arrives at the tomb early, while it is still dark. Outside the tomb, she sees the stone has been moved. The hulking boulder, gone. Her instinct is to run. Help! she thinks. They have taken my Lord. But she pauses for a moment there, at the tomb, in the soundless, screaming dark. She lifts the cloth from her basket. The eggs are still inside, and they are no longer white but the color of rainbows. They are every color—tangerine, raspberry, lime—and the brightest are red. Red as an open wound. A red ravine.
How can she hold a repast with the dead missing? And what of these strange colors? Could she scrub the red off if she tried? Should she run for help?
She looks at the tomb. Then at the eggs. She looks back at the tomb and at the eggs again. Tomb, eggs. She turns from the tomb and takes off, sprinting down, down, down the dusty hill. Beneath her feet, it curls like a skull.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.