My Trip to Ukraine in April 2015 [an excerpt]

Transitions №6

Author: Nina Kossman


I get a last-minute seat, or rather, a last-minute ticket for the last remaining seat, Ukraine airline, flying from JFK to Boryspil, the Kyiv airport. This airline sells the cheapest tickets, even cheaper than Aeroflot, which I usually fly whenever my destination is Eastern Europe or any of the former Soviet territories. Usually, I ask for a window seat, but this time I was so late that there are no window seats left, and I get the last seat available, the last aisle seat. I’m flying to Kyiv.

When a stewardess pushes a food cart down the aisle and asks, “Pasta or chicken? Pasta or chicken,” a man on my right says, “Kuritsa”, and she gives him kuritsa, and after that, he speaks to me in Russian. He says that he flies to Kyiv regularly on business, and I say this is my first time going to Ukraine, I want to go to state archives in Rivne, Lutsk, Zhytomyr, Chudnov, and Nikopol since none of them answered my letters with requests for information about my great-grandparents and their children, so I have to go to these archives in person and see if I can find out anything, and I want to visit the mass graves.

The man asks: “Jewish?” I nod. In this part of the world, the part of the world we are   flying to, it doesn’t take long to understand what is meant by trying to get information about one’s great-grandparents, especially when it is followed by “mass graves,” since it is obvious who would want such information and what were the  circumstances of the ancestors’ deaths, so I don’t have to waste my breath on long and unnecessary explanations, the way I do in the part of the world I live in. I just nod. The man says that wherever you go in the former Soviet territories, mass graves are everywhere, you can’t help but walk on them, the living walk on the bones of the dead and don’t think twice about it, in fact, they don’t think about it all, not only in Ukraine or Belarus, it’s everywhere. The Red army did it, the White army did it, and in Ukraine, in addition to the red and the white, there was also the black army, and the green army, and they all did it, and then the Soviets did it, not the Red Army this time but the NKVD, and then the Nazis did it, to Jews and to others, but to Jews more than to anyone else, and the Poles did it to the Ukrainians, and the Ukrainians did it to the Poles, and in the other former Soviet republics, just start digging, you’ll unearth mountains of corpses, everywhere you go, every point, in Kazakhstan, in Chechnya, not even speaking of the late-nineties and early zeroes Chechnya, or take Mordovia where there was a huge network of camps in the late thirties and forties and fifties, or – ”

“That’s where my grandmother was interned,” I interrupt him. “In a women’s camp in Mordovia. It was a camp for widows of ‘enemies of the people’. She was a microbiologist, she studied malaria. In the camp, she had to fell trees.”
“…take Siberia,” he continues, “any point, Vorkuta, Norilsk, Yakutsk, Magadan…. Start digging at any point, you’ll unearth mountains of corpses every step of the way.”

The stewardess passes down the aisle again, this time to collect dinner trays, and I give her mine, with some food left, and his, with not a single morsel of food, nothing, except for an empty container and a plastic fork and knife. You’d think he had gone through Holodomor or served time in a camp himself, the way he consumed everything edible on his tray in seconds. But that couldn’t be, I say to myself. That’s just not possible, he is not that old. It must be something that gets passed on from generation to generation, this fear of losing everything, and this hunger, despite having plenty of food, which is what this fellow had on his tray.