3. My Exciting Adventure in Ukraine
(eleven minute read)
19A. Are You a Jew?
"Are you a Jew?"
His name was Ivan, a common Ukrainian and Russian name. Mid-twenties. Unkempt thatch beard. Lean with intense eyes.
It was 1990 and I was visiting Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. This was a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ukraine was one of 15 countries along with Russia that was then part of the USSR. Within a year, the USSR collapsed. Russia and Ukraine became independent countries.
Ivan and I were drinking beers at the modest dining table. The young woman teacher's apartment was small, and on that evening, full of people eager to meet me. Now they lined the kitchen walls and crowded the doorway, listening to Ivan ask me if I was Jewish.
The only people who'd ever asked me that question before were some Jewish clients of Gotham Craftsman, my Manhattan interior design and renovation company in the 'eighties. They were reacting to my name. Irving Berlin was a famous song writer in the 'thirties. My folks named me after him. I know they weren't Jewish. I'm not sure if they knew Irving Berlin was Jewish. There were few, if any, Jews in Pomona, California at that time.
Mom and Dad thought the name Irving sounded musical. They liked it and so do I. Sadly for them, I am not musical.
But let's get back to the young Ukrainian man at the welcoming party for me in Kyiv in 1990. I wound up in Ukraine because I'd volunteered to serve as the official photographer for a group of Bay Area police officers interested in police work in Russia.
What a time! The Berlin Wall had separated the western European countries from the eastern ones that were dominated by the USSR after the end of World War II. They soon became independent. The thaw between east and west encouraged the leaders of the USSR and the United States to meet and sign historic treaties limiting nuclear weapons.
Russia opened up. Americans Welcome. Even cops.
I’m a socialist so I was curious to see if the Russian working people could hold on to all the social benefits of the Soviet system and also gain the freedoms of speech, press and association that we treasure.
I’ve never hidden my political views even from the police. In fact, dozens of them signed up for the American Government night classes I taught at Chafee College in California.
However, the socialist photographer and the American cops soon developed a love-hate relationship during our three weeks in Russia and Ukraine. In fact, a drunken undercover narcotics agent from San Jose almost punched me out in a Moscow elevator. He called me a communist! He'd spent the afternoon chatting happily with dozens of Ukrainian policemen, most of whom were communists. But he goes after me, a fellow American. Go figure.
But that's another story. Not now.
You’re probably eager to hear why anyone, especially Ukrainian college teachers, would ever throw a welcoming party for me. It had less to do with my politics, more to do with my diverse teaching experiences over many years.
The day before, an English teacher and the wife of an officer in the Kyiv Police Department rescued me from the Bay Area cops for an afternoon. I heard a few sighs of relief from my fellow Americans.
My first subway ride in Ukraine landed Tatana and me at the entrance to a boring concrete school building. She'd only asked me an hour before to speak and take questions from her English Class. I did not expect to walk into a huge auditorium overflowing with students.
Tatana had called her colleagues ahead. It's remarkable what a few young people can do while you're sitting on a subway.
I've taught remedial English for foreign students along with other subjects over many decades. I applied the lessons now. Careful choice of vocabulary. Speak slowly and clearly. Pauses. Watch their faces to see if they are following you. Stop every few minutes to ask for a show of hands to affirm comprehension.
I'd already learned that half the Ukrainians speak Ukrainian to each other. Half speak Russian most of the time and all of them speak Russian.
The teachers and students had all learned in school the official history of Russia. They’ve been part of that same country for centuries. Theirs was very much like the official American history we learn in school.
I know. I've taught it.
The teachers who huddled around me on the stage before they introduced me to the students were adamant. "Pick any topic you want, Mr. Hall…Irving." Total agreement on that.
The final request came from Tatana who was youngest teacher. The one who lived in the apartment with her policeman husband. Her family came from the Donbass region, two large provinces in eastern Ukraine along the border with Russia.
I'll never forget the intensity in her eyes. "Please, Irving. Tell us something you think we need to know for what's coming next to our country."
Short greeting to the students in English and stilted Russian.
"I'm going to share with you, a short history of your country that’s quite different from what you've learned. If we don’t know our history, we cannot understand our present and prepare for the future."
I started with an accurate account of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and ended my talk in the 'thirties when the last vocal critic of the Soviet autocracy under Stalin was executed after a show trial.
Ivan was the last questioner. The facilitator hadn't called on him. He just blurted it out, in passable English.
"Please talk to me afterwards," I said, before the room broke into loud applause.
Now I had been a philosophy major at Stanford. I'd read some Nietzsche. The Professor was Jewish. Nietzsche was very popular in Nazi Germany. His philosophy was blatantly racist. The world was divided between the superior white race like the German people and inferior races destined by history to be controlled and dominated by the Master Race. Specifically, Jews and the Slavic people of eastern Europe.
This was the "philosophy" that inspired Hitler’s German army and their local recruits from the countries they invaded, like Ukraine, to slaughter as many as six million Jews and more than 25 million Russians.
Ivan disappeared after the class. But he showed up at Tatana’s party that evening. Now he was sitting across the table from me in the crowded kitchen.
That's when he asked, "Are you a Jew?"
I asked him why he wanted to know. Ivan's grandfather had died fighting in a Ukrainian division of Hitler's German army. They executed Jews and shot Russians. By the hundreds of thousands.
"I'm not a Jew," I said.
"I hate Jews and Russians," Ivan said with steely intensity. The rich Jews steal from Ukrainians. The Russians need to leave Ukraine. They don't belong here."
He showed me a photograph of Stepan Bandera, his hero. Bandera was the military leader of the Ukrainian nationalist forces working side by side with the Nazis to cleanse Ukraine racially like Hitler had done in Germany.
Ivan carried in his pocket a lapel pin with the insignia of the Ukrainian white nationalists. The design was modeled on the German Swastika. I was relieved I could tell Ivan I was not a Jew.
But I then proceeded with a ten-minute history of World War II in Eastern Europe.
"That's why, Ivan," I said. "I'm not going to help get any Nietzsche books for you. The Berlin Wall is down. I'm sure you'll find plenty of books in English and German around here soon. Like his “Beyond Good and Evil” and “The Will to Power.”
19B. Ukrainian Teachers Yearn for the Freedoms We’re Rapidly Losing
Ivan walked out of the party in a huff.
It was as if he'd been a lid on a barrel of energy that was now released.
"Mr. Hall…Irving. We've been denied understanding our own peoples' history. You laid it all out."
"But we heard some of those stories from friends of family. It was always hush hush."
"You couldn't read it anywhere. They got rid of the books. The TV and radio always gave you the official story. No one could challenge it. You got in trouble if you did, especially on the job. You never knew who you could trust. Even family. People are compromised. It will be different when we have freedom like you do in America."
I wanted to say, "Be careful what you wish for."
The final words came from the young woman from Donbass.
“I suspect after your talk this afternoon my students will start asking questions that we teachers aren’t accustomed to. I’d like to be able to refer them to sources for all ideas and help them learn how to make up their own minds.”
Another: “If you read or watch sources that challenge the official narrative. You’ll be fired. They’ll accuse you of being ‘anti-communist’.”
I chuckled. “I spent the early ‘sixties opposing American McCarthyism.”
The teachers liked my stories about May 13, 1960 and my two-week Southern California tour speaking and debating “Operation Abolition” and defending the First Amendment.
“So, I love the irony of the ‘anti-communist” charge,” I said.
“In my country at that time, they called me a ‘communist’. One night, for fun at a debate, I quoted Thomas Jefferson on liberty. I made sure my ultraconservative debate opponent would notice the title of the newspaper I’d quoted from.
“He ripped it out of my briefcase, jumped to the front of the stage, waved the paper in the air and shouted, ‘Look! People’s World. Official communist newspaper. Hall’s a communist. You can’t ever believe one word he says.”
The Ukrainian teachers were silent.
“Here’s the punchline,” I smiled. “Most of the audience took to their feet, sang the National Anthem, and marched out followed by my opponent with his fist in the air.”
Tatana said. "If we don't fight for freedom of speech and the press it's our own fault if we never get it.”
“Excuse us,” she said with her finger to her lips, as she followed her sisters into the kitchen.
Heaven knows, I’ve had more than my share of surprises in eighty-some years. But the offer the teachers brought out of their kitchen meeting is among the sweetest.
“Irving, we invite you come back and teach at our college. The faculty will find you an apartment and fund your salary.”
Coming Here March 25 28
I've been without a computer for two weeks. So next week's posting may be as many as four days late. It will be worth waiting for. Plentry of surprises.
Next week we return to Rockwell Central School. Peg Shaw gets an emotional boost from several unexpected sources. Pop Shaw agonizes over his responsibility for the MAGA Boys' display of Confederate flags on their pickup trucks in the school parking lot. And Major General Agnes Grendel discovers something beyond belief in the Mercedes Benz in the spooky hotel parking lot.
Remember, The Lorax Rules! The Woodchuck Babes Rock!