Our family’s history reflects Ukraine’s long struggle for peace

We witness, again, a round of horrific and unimaginable images as the resilient citizens of Ukraine find themselves trapped in circumstances of geography.

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People, mainly women and children, arrive at Przemysl on a train from Odesa in war-torn Ukraine on March 28, 2022 in Przemysl, Poland.

Refugees, mainly women and children, arrive at Przemysl, Poland on a train from Odesa in Ukraine on Mar. 28.

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty

Our grandson, during his customary Sunday evening phone call, recently brought up our family’s legacy vis-à-vis the horrific circumstances unfolding upon Ukraine.

Years ago, I had related to him what my grandfather long ago had recounted for me. Our grandson, Jared Ebner, obviously had absorbed it.

As best I can recall, here is what my grandfather — Herman Metsky — told me some 70 years ago when I was somewhere beyond age 10, comfortably residing in New Jersey in the shadow of Manhattan.

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His parents had departed Ukraine in about 1905 when he was approximately 17, with their offspring in tow, during one of the many perilous and episodic upheavals characterizing Russian history over the centuries.

The Metsky family made its way to the consequential Black Sea port city of Odessa, which Russia today intends to control yet again.

I had asked my grandfather to tell me more. The city was aflame. Smoke billowed. Synagogues may have been torched.

From time to time my grandfather also talked, fearfully and disparagingly, about marauding Russian Cossacks. Murderous pogroms assaulted and terrorized the Jewish communities of Ukraine. Amid the pandemonium, the Metsky family boarded a vessel that would transport them westward to a new world. America!


Herman Metsky

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Now we witness, again, a round of recurring horrific and unimaginable images as resilient citizens of Ukraine find themselves trapped in circumstances that encapsulate the consequences of geography.

Amid the tumult of 1905, some of the Metsky offspring, unknown to them, had not boarded the same vessel as their mother and father. Maybe Charlie, the youngest child, remained with his parents. I wonder about Lilly, Molly, Harry and Morris. Perhaps Gussie, the oldest of them, had stayed with the young ones. I know for certain that my grandfather esteemed his sister. Once he had made the point by taking me to meet her.

Our family was at the seaside town of Bradley Beach on the storied Jersey seashore. Perhaps for grandfather and his sister this bucolic setting rekindled memories of summertime resorts along the Crimea, the region of Ukraine preemptively overtaken by Russia two years ago. All of this — across many decades and now fixed in the present of 2022 — prompts me to contemplate what the Metsky family experienced in its quest to reach a safe haven. Separation from their parents, most of all, surely must have proven unimaginable — horrific —during their trans-Atlantic journey. Some arrived in New York City, the presumed destination. I surmise the scattered Metsky kinder found themselves disembarking at such far-flung trans-Atlantic port cities as New Orleans, Baltimore or Boston.

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Mother? Father? What will happen next? Where? When? Gussie might have assumed a calming role.

Over many decades, I have repeatedly pondered how the Metsky family eventually reunited. I surmise that the kindness of strangers — ever-present in 1905 as it is in 2022 for the afflicted of Ukraine — offered shelter, sustenance and guidance. Presumably representatives of immigrant aid societies furnished solace, amid the entangled circumstances overtaking the fraught lives of these emigres.

In the present, I incessantly view the horrific day-to-day scenes of the Ukraine people — elders, adults and grandchildren — fearfully trying to avoid the treachery of Russian aerial assaults and artillery bombardments. Maternity hospitals, residences, universities, museums, libraries, revered historic structures have been desecrated, and some destroyed altogether. The Russian army erasing symbols of Ukraine’s heritage. Mass throngs of refugees, migrating over to the west and north, crossing international borders in pursuit of safety.

Unendingly, I reflect on the fearsome journey of my Metsky ancestors as they intrepidly sought to negotiate their fraught world. Reaching America!

In the most recent phone conversation with our grandson Jared Ebner, I inquired as to whether he was keeping up with news of the dire circumstances raining down upon the suffering people and cherished institutions of Ukraine. Instantly — indeed strikingly — he proclaimed: “These are our people.”

I am heartened that Herman Metsky’s great-great-grandson possesses the presence of mind to translate the fraught sagas of our ancestors. Wisely, Jared had co-joined parallel narratives as we observe, in real time, the unrelenting horrors inflicted upon Ukraine’s people in 2022 while also mindful of the circumstances of 1905.

Michael H. Ebner is the James D. Vail III professor of American history, emeritus, at Lake Forest College.

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