It’s more than a week before Thanksgiving as I write this, but I’m already feeling thankful.
The midterms are over, and they seem not to have inflamed tensions as much as they might have. Accusations of stolen elections are muted; election deniers lost. At least for now, the immediate world seems safe.
That’s something to be thankful for.
But I felt more immediately, less abstractedly thankful when I sat down with Alexander Smukler, whose insights about Russia and Ukraine appear in this paper, and his wife, the musician, music teacher, amazing cook, and marvelous storyteller Alla Straks.
When you talk to people who have lived through experiences you can imagine but know that you’re imaging inaccurately; people who have entirely given up their old lives to create new ones and do it with enthusiasm and vitality and grace; people who have had to live through experiences that have taught them wisdom but at great price, you have to have the sensitivity of a large rock not to feel thankful for what you have.
I don’t know how they do it.
I know that there are Holocaust survivors in our community, who have lived through horrors and now have grown old. The community is blessed as well with their children and grandchildren, people who have horror encoded in their DNA as well in their handed-down alertness to danger.
Those of us whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents came to this country before the apocalypse are so lucky. I will be forever grateful to my ancestors who evaded the horrors years before they happened.
Alla and Sasha talked a little about coming to this country and learning English. They applied for visas when they were in their early 20s and had to wait a full decade before they were allowed to leave. It would have been different starting a new life in a new country when you’re really young, Alla said; you’d be starting a new life anyway. As it was, their two older children were old enough to have to adjust, instead of being born into this country.
We Americans are lucky — and at the same time unlucky — because we have no reason to speak any other language than English, and many of us do not. Sacha tried to tell me how he, as a Russian speaker, can understand Ukrainian, although he cannot speak it fluently; it’s the same thing with Polish, he said. There’s lots of overlap. It’s a facility that many of us American-born uniglots simply do not have.
Then there’s something else. When he talks about Ukraine, as this week’s story makes clear, Sasha can feel two things at once — overwhelming sympathy for the Ukrainians, and an instinctive understanding of why some eastern European Jews do not share that sympathy. Their inherited memories of the horrors Ukrainians inflicted on Jews are too close to the surface to allow them to forget. It wasn’t an accident that the men Lenin chose to kill Tzar Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, and their children were, yes, Bolshevists, as history tells us, but also Jews. The hate was that molten hot.
Those of us born and brought up here — particularly if we are white — live in a much gentler world. It’s not that there haven’t been horrors here. There have been. Terrible ones. But most of us who were born at any after World War II — certainly for me and my family and friends, and I think for most of the Jewish community — we have lived charmed lives. No Cossacks, no pogroms, no gulags, no labor camps. No famine, no re-education session. None of the horrors of postwar eastern Europe.
We have been very very lucky, and I am very thankful for that luck.