'Return' to Kiev

Article excerpt

There is an American ambivalence that comes when we stand, for the first time, on the ground that supported and buried our families. Kiev seemed neither home nor foreign.

Midnight approached the city's Independence Square and I sat alone, listening to my heart pump Russian blood through American veins.

Small groups passed sporadically -- a broom-wielding woman and young men bundled in municipal workers' coats; three giggling and chattering young women. They dented the smooth silence of the square with the language heard so often in my grandparents' house.

Hearing it here, farther from home than I had ever been, provided me a private, mysterious joy. I recognized a word here, a phrase there -- the messages small, certain and elusive.

Down the street, my hotel room and just-packed bags awaited. Just out of sight, to my right, a great monastery stood. I had visited it that morning, a little more than 60 years after my father was christened there.

He, his brother and my grandmother left this place during a desperate, violent time about which he speaks sparingly and with a stiff jaw. The family name, prestigious and ancient, made them targets in Stalin's dystopia. Their nationality made them targets in Hitler's.

There were executed relatives. There were final farewells to those still living. There was a westward march across Europe.

There were stolen meals of discarded potato peels. There was the concentration camp fence where my grandmother and grandfather, a captured artillery officer, reunited.

And there was my father, a boy growing up in the madness of a burning continent.

My grandmother's medical training bought them time in the camp. Each Nazi soldier's wound she bound kept their captors from becoming their killers. Then the Americans came, and my grandfather drove their trucks through Allied Germany. Then, finally, came their visas and the great, gray Atlantic.

They sailed on a Liberty ship to New York Harbor, arriving late at night on Dec. 23, 1951 -- two parents with five children and $6. The New York dockworkers had left for the holiday, so they spent Christmas on the USS General Hershey, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The next day, a clerk saw they had come from Germany, and so the first letter of my last name is W instead of V.

They spent half a decade getting away from Ukraine. …