My Russian roots - a glance at Jewish Russian life

The fighting in Ukraine is causing Russians to be considered "bad guys" - many Jews have Russian families that we should not be ashamed of.

 THE WRITER’S great-great grandfather is surrounded by his children. Great-grandfather Abraham Chernitsky is on the lower, far right, next to his wife Rivkah. (photo credit: Writer’s family photo collection)
THE WRITER’S great-great grandfather is surrounded by his children. Great-grandfather Abraham Chernitsky is on the lower, far right, next to his wife Rivkah.
(photo credit: Writer’s family photo collection)

With pristine phrasing and complete abandon, Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya carves through space, expressing the deepest and most subtle of emotions. She creates magic. Her artistic expression was born from the country and culture she loved.

My great-grandfather, Abraham Chernitsky, lived in the vibrant seaport of Odessa, then part of Imperial Russia. That was his country, the country he loved. A gifted artist, he made exquisite handmade, inlay furniture. My English mother is fortunate to have what we believe to be the last of his surviving pieces. It is a massive wardrobe, made in the early 1900s, adorned with the prettiest border of meandering vines, delicately carved from exotic woods.

I make sure to spend a few moments alone with this hand-carved gem every time I visit my mum. A wedding present, made for my great aunt Mary, it now resides in my mother’s bedroom and I am next in line to serve as its privileged caretaker.

Another great aunt, Elsie, wrote in her memoirs that, prior to leaving Imperial Russia to escape Jewish persecution, Abraham Chernitsky was among a select group of artisans who created furniture for the czar. She recalled his stories describing the lovely, handcrafted wooden toys he made for the czarina’s children. I have searched tirelessly for images of his work on the websites of Russian museums. However, he was a humble man who didn’t sign his work, so the chance of finding anything is slim.

Auntie Elsie, who served in the Israel Defense Forces, informed me that my great-grandfather was in the czar’s army. I can barely imagine the torment he, or any person, endures from having to kill their fellow man in the name of their country. I believe I recognized that same pain in my father’s eyes, a US Marine sergeant who fought in WWII. A humble man and an artist, like my great-grandfather, my dad was vivacious and bursting with life, although he never spoke of the war.

russian jews pioneers 248.88 (credit: Courtesy)russian jews pioneers 248.88 (credit: Courtesy)

Yet one day, while nearing the age of 90, a window to his past was gently pried open by a social worker who met with him in a private room at a veterans’ hospital. Memories deeply buried unraveled and images from the war flooded his mind like reels from an old black and white film. He sobbed as a child.

I come from a Jewish family of artists and artisans, and like most families, we have been affected by war. My English mum, who is 93, grew up in war-torn London during the Blitz, under the constant fear of Hitler’s warplanes. She adored her Russian grandpa. She tells me that he was one of the kindest and most gentle of men. I love hearing stories of how, as a young child, she would spend hours in his workshop, watching him spin magic from wood.

My great-grandfather lived a long and full life, surrounded by an adoring family. Although he passed away in his adopted country, Russia was his home. I believe that his heart would shatter if he were alive to see what is happening at the hands of the leaders of the country he loved.

I share these ancestral memories as much for the good people of Russia, who oppose this war, as for the good people of Ukraine, whose lives are being ravaged by it.

Why can’t the world see that we are all one?

The author, a former dancer and choreographer, is a dealer in French period art, garden designer and a writer who lives in New York. She is currently working on her forthcoming book Inspired By Beauty – A Journey Through Time.