I Went to Ukraine to Help Others — And Found My Ashkenazi Roots

What happened when three generations of Ukrainian and Polish Jews returned, during a war, to a place we once fled?

Before October 2022, if you had told me that my family and I would willingly enter Ukraine in the middle of a war, I would have called BS. The fact that I am a busy college student who values my safety notwithstanding, three generations of Ukrainian and Polish Jews returning to a place we once fled due to persecution — in order to help persecuted people — sounds preposterous. But it’s true. Last year, I was lucky enough to travel with my mom, my uncle and my grandfather to Poland and Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid to displaced Ukrainian refugees, and the trip connected me to my Ashkenazi heritage more than ever before.

Our trip began when my family and I, alongside the Israeli organization Lev Echad, traveled to Krakow, Poland to aid refugees in group homes. The itinerary included two days in Poland, followed by two days in Lviv, Ukraine (we drove to the border and crossed in and out of Ukraine on foot). In Lviv, we went to refugee camps and a pediatric hospital. We then returned to Krakow to finish our week-long trip.

Ukrainian aid trip
Courtesy of Maya Mehrara

During our time there, my mother, a urologist, worked as a medical volunteer alongside other doctors. Meanwhile, my grandfather, uncle and I worked with other volunteers to provide whatever other aid the refugees,  mostly displaced women and children, needed. (The majority of the men in their families had been drafted into the war.) We painted nails, drew with kids, helped cook and clean, painted a bomb shelter, made jewelry, played card games and more. I brought my guitar and was fortunate enough to bond with a lot of the people I met through music. We played, sang and compared music tastes — I even taught many of the kids to play. I never would have guessed how many Ukrainian women really love Queen. “We Are the Champions” was a big hit, reflecting their hope that someday soon, Ukraine will reign victorious.

More than anything, though, we just talked. This sounds impossible due to the language barrier, but thanks to Google Translate and one of the volunteers, Luba, who acted as a translator, we were able to talk to mothers, teenagers and even young children for hours, gleaning insight into their experiences — their choice to either leave their homeland or remain there in the face of danger. We talked everywhere — in living rooms, backyards and even in bomb shelters. While sirens went off warning us of possible missile threats in the sky above, we talked.

I heard stories from a 16-year-old girl named Nastia who missed her homeland and wished to find refuge in the U.K., and an 11-year-old boy named Kyryl who had lost both of his parents and yet still maintained hope, dreaming of playing guitar. We spoke to mothers who missed their husbands, brothers and fathers. Young children sang the Ukrainian anthem for us, showing their undying patriotism. Our experience helping the Ukrainian refugees was heart-wrenching, inspiring and rewarding.

Ukrainian refugees
Courtesy of Maya Mehrara

But this trip allowed me to do more than contribute to the effort to help the Ukrainian people; it also served to strengthen my connection to my family and heritage on my mother’s side. Growing up, I always had a very strong sense of who I am on one side of my family. My dad is an Iranian Jew, and he and my grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution. Because my father’s side of the family is big, loud and proud, I always knew what it meant to be a Mizrahi Jew — what traditions we uphold and what we believe in.

However, I’ve felt untethered from my mom’s side of the family, unclear on who we are and where we came from. My mom’s family is a fraction of my dad’s, size-wise. My grandfather, Benzion Rosenblum, immigrated to the US from Israel in the 1960s to pursue his education. His father fled Poland for Palestine just prior to the start of World War II, and my grandfather was born there. My grandfather’s entire family, excluding his father and mother, were all murdered in the Holocaust, and the same was true for my (now-deceased) grandmother, Ruth. Until recently, my identity on my mom’s side consisted of being Israeli. I never knew that we are not only Polish, but Ukrainian, and that my great-great-grandfather is buried in Kyiv.

What really cemented my relationship with my ancestors, however, was visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of the trip. We went on a gloomy Friday, the skies gray and overcast, and the air oppressive. Standing at the gates waiting to enter was chilling. My mother, uncle, grandfather and I linked arms, holding on to each other for strength as we stepped on the gravel, passing through cold, grave brick buildings, walking the very same perilous grounds that so many Jews did. While in the yard at Auschwitz, observing my grandfather light a candle in remembrance, I learned that in the very place I was standing, my great-great uncle was shot and killed by the Nazis. The very place I stood was where my great-great uncle took his last breath. We then went to see a book from Yad Vashem that contained 4 million names of the known victims of the Holocaust;  in a few minutes, we found the name of my family member who perished. The experience of saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and singing “Hatikvah” while hugging my mother, uncle and grandfather is one that will live in me forever.

Courtesy of Maya Mehrara

Overall, this trip is one that I will never forget. Helping people the way we did, even if it meant just making someone smile, was so rewarding. Connecting to my family’s not-so-distant roots is an experience I will cherish for all of my days. I am happy to say that I now fully understand that we are loudly and proudly Ukrainian Jews.

Here are some ways you can help the Ukrainian people: donate to World Central Kitchen, People in Need, the Ukrainian Red Cross, and other humanitarian organizations. You can also join local protests, support Ukrainian businesses and spread the word on social media.

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