Writing and Witnessing Ukraine from Diaspora

by Xander Gershberg

In 2019 I traveled around Central and Eastern Europe to visit the places my ancestors had lived. My brother joined me in Poland, the country we were closest to in time. Our grandmother, we called her Safta, was born in the Polish town of Tarnow, one hour east of Krakow. Thanks to our great-great-uncle’s unpublished memoir, we had an archive to connect us to the area. We knew the names of Ukrainian towns we descended from and planned to travel there. We found Mariupol on a map, the city my maternal grandmother’s family came from. The port city resided in the Donetsk Oblast, bordering Russian separatist strongholds. We planned to stay west in Kyiv and Odesa, but our itinerary became packed and unwieldy. We would save Ukraine for another trip, we decided.

I have never been to Ukraine, and now I’m not sure if I ever will. I do not know of any family there. My maternal grandmother’s family left Mariupol for the US in the 1890’s. Grandpa David on my father’s side used to tell my brother and I stories of Kyiv, Odesa, the Carpathian mountains, stretching his arms and hands wide until the grandeur he hoped to convey expanded his whole body. It wasn’t until he died that I learned from my father that he had never been to Ukraine. 

For years now, I have attempted to write about the distance between myself and my family’s generational trauma. My ancestor’s memoir—translated by Safta— has offered me some proximity, as has my trip to Yiddishland. Before my trip, I had planned to write a travel blog and share it with my close family and friends. I never mentioned it to them, saving me the embarrassment of arriving in Europe without inspiration: the revelations I expected to experience from such historic places never came. I found little wisdom in this return to ruins. At least then.

I have finally found a way to write about Yiddishland, though only through distance. The trip, three years gone, still feels immediate, and so I write myself as a ghost, present and not present, seen and invisible, witnessing and unfeeling. 

I am not a ghost, so the “I” of my poems is a speaker separate from me. 

My speaker experiences events as having passed yet still reverberating in the ruins. The speaker is alive but also a ruin who mourns the dead. Safta died when I, my actual self, was alone in Prague, a week before I’d come to her birthplace in Poland.

On February 21st, 2022, I write a poem about Ukraine for the first time. Putin recognizes the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as independent sovereignties and threatens war against Ukraine to protect them. I write of Mariupol, assuming the incoming eastern incursion will resign me to never setting foot on its shallow Azov shores, and I wonder aloud what the day has taken from me, of which I can never know. Three days later, Russia invades from the north and south, laying siege to the Kyiv and Odesa Grandpa David dreamed himself into. It takes just three days for my Mariupol poem to feel dated.

Conventional writing wisdom suggests I refrain from writing about ongoing events. Writers require a kind of distance to write accurately and without sentiment. Czeslaw Milosz attributed this to what he concluded was the insufficiency of World War II Polish poetry in The Witness of Poetry: “[S]ome detachment, some coldness, is necessary to elaborate a form. People thrown into the middle of events that tear cries of pain from their mouths have difficulty in finding the distance necessary to transform this material artistically” (Milosz 83). While I am not within Ukraine’s borders witnessing the invasion, I read the news daily and don’t know what will come of the invasion. I exist inside a middle that Milosz would tell me is not yet recordable in craft. And who am I to argue with his encounters with ruin, himself a direct exile, a witness to the Warsaw Uprising? He wrote his poem “A Song on the End of the World” the same year as the Uprising. I choose to write of and from a distance. I write about separation, about the eternal diaspora I live in rather than a linear exile. My separation from Ukraine will remain the same tomorrow, in a month, in a year, in ten.

I do not claim Ukraine. Like many Jews, the circumstances of diaspora have obscured my relationship to the places of my ancestors. Europe’s antisemitism treated Jews as socially, legally, and geographically separate, prompting Jews to continue identifying as Jews alone rather than with the nation-state they resided in. To parse through the nuances of Ukrainian Jews vs Polish Jews vs Russian Jews was oftentimes useless because of the fluid history of the borderlands, only given the artifice of fixedness through force, most significantly through Tsarist Russia’s Pale of Settlement. It is why terms like Yiddishland are useful, to name the culture and language rather than the state powers. I am a descendant and tourist of Yiddishland, and so it remains at a distance, like most things I write about.

On February 25th, 2022, twenty-four hours into the invasion, the first images I see of the war via The New York Times come from Mariupol. A base with radar systems is bombed, and I see the smoke billow from machine into the dust of the sky over piles of rubber tires. I paste my poem from before the invasion onto the picture and leave the text unchanged, save the inclusion of the draft’s original date into the title, for now “a poem, as written on February 21, 2022.” I make the dated poem an archive in of itself, call attention to the distance that has grown in just one week. 

As I write this essay, the images and details of death and destruction that come from Mariupol build and saturate my thoughts, my imagination, and I wonder what will be left of the cities included in that saved itinerary. I keep the poem as is, a record of what I don’t know, for now. 

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 Milosz, Czeslaw. The Witness of Poetry. Harvard University Press, 1984.

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