I have known Igor for many years. But to be precise, I did not know him at all. I knew Igor the same way you know many people at your synagogue. You know their name and who they are. A face in a familiar crowd. Enough to say hello when you meet them on Shabbat, during holidays services, and other synagogue activities. Igor was quite a bit older than me, and was perhaps better known at our synagogue as Anna’s husband. And everyone knew Anna. She played piano at many of the synagogue services and activities. Still, Igor remained just another face in the crowd we call our congregation.
All that changed one day a few years ago. Igor and I happened to sit next to each other at a Shabbat lunch, and naturally, we struck a conversation. As is often the case when two Jews meet for the first time, we played a game known affectionately in certain circles as Jewish Geography. Who are you? Where are you from? Where is your family from? How did you end up here? Jewish people are numbered by a few millions around the world, and this game offers its players an opportunity to discover common connections and relations through their Jewish ancestry. I was born and raised in Israel. Igor and Anna were members of a Russian Jewish group of people who came to Omaha following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Except that they were not from Russia, they were from Ukraine.
Igor asked about my life growing up in Israel, and about my family history. When I mentioned to Igor that my father was born and raised in Chernovitz, Romania, his eyes lit up. Chernovitz, Romania? That turned out to be a defining moment in our relationship. The moment we became real friends. Igor, as it turned out, knew Chernovitz quite well.
My father was born in the winter of 1929 as a single child to a sheet metal fabrication plant supervisor father and a homemaker mother. The Second World War found his small family as an oppressed minority caught between the Axis forces and the Red Army. Following the reincorporation of Chernovitz into the Ukrainian SSR, the remaining Jews who lived in the area left. I know my father’s family spent four years as refugees in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, before finally setting sail to Israel. And that was all. I knew little else about my father’s life and childhood. The most I dared to ask him about that time period was for a Holocaust Remembrance day paper I worked on in fourth grade. My father brushed off my inquiry, and I learned to not ask again. This was not unusual. Many Holocaust survivors chose to leave their past behind, and concentrate on their new life in in the young State of Israel. My father was an educated man who spoke seven different languages. But with us, he only spoke Hebrew, a language he learned for the first time as a twenty-one-year-old when he made Aliya in 1950. Dad spoke perfect Hebrew, without any trace of a foreign accent, the same way he spoke the other European languages he was fluent in. Chernovitz, Romania, and the life he had before he immigrated to Israel were left buried in a heap of a forgotten past.
Igor was younger than my father by a few years, but their makeup was similar. Both men grew up in the same region, and as young men suffered through oppression for being Jewish. They each were fluent in a number of languages. They worked and succeeded as engineers to build the world and better secure it. They both had multiple areas of interest, and possessed a vast knowledge in a number of intellectual fields. Above all, they were both loving and devoted fathers.
By the time Igor and I sat for that conversation, my dad had already passed. But here next to me sat a man in my father’s likeness. In his heavy Russian accent, Igor told me of the birthplace of my father, and of the life of a Jewish community gone for a long time.
Igor knew Chernovitz well from his many business trips to the region, while he lived in Kiev. Igor’s stories were informative and funny, and our many conversations interesting and enlightening. Igor’s homeland tales opened for me a new window of knowledge and understanding about a place I knew little about. They added form and details to my own family history, and gave me a new way of appreciating my father’s early life. Our conversations continued to soar beyond that town from a different world and time. Igor and I talked about politics, Jewish life and customs, world history, and many other topics Igor knew a lot about and was happy to engage on. Our conversations were akin to those I enjoyed with my dad at earlier times. Meeting and talking with Igor was always enjoyable.
There was another thing. Following that first conversation, Igor had a nickname for me. “Ukrainian.” A term of endearment. Each time we met, he would greet me with a big “Hello Ukrainian!” and a big smile. It sounded great in his Russian accent. He often introduced me to others in that way. Not everyone got the joke, but we had a lot of fun bantering in this way.
All this ended unexpectedly in January 2017. Igor passed away suddenly following a short illness. His untimely death left a hole in the hearts of many, first and foremost his wife Anna and his loving children and grandchildren. After his funeral, I sat down and wrote a note of condolences to Anna. I included part of this story in the note, and handed it to her during his Shiv’a, the seven days of the mourning period in the Jewish tradition. I am now happy to share this story here with Anna’s blessings and encouragement, as a testimony and honor in Igor’s memory. May his or her memory be for a blessing.