If you asked my grandma Rosie, aleha ha-shalom (may peace be upon her), about the old country which she left when she was eight years old, she would dismiss the question by waving her hand and saying, “Eh! Life was terrible, the Russians hated us, and we left.”
They thought of themselves as being in Russian territory, but when she and her older brother and her mother left their shtetl in Volhynia in 1921 to meet their father who was already working in Boston, they were actually leaving Poland.
Today, that region is part of Ukraine.
There was not much affection or nostalgia for the Pale of Settlement on the part of most of the Jews who left there due to persecution in the late 19th and early 20th century. They fled pogroms, forced conscription, and all manner of indignities.
But every now and then, I open Google Maps and take a look at that little town, today called Butsyn, not much more than a few roads and fields, and I wonder, What was it like for Rose’s family? What is it like today? If I were to go there, would I see anything connected to the Jews who are now gone? A cemetery, perhaps? An old synagogue repurposed as a church, or maybe a convenience store? God forbid, a mass grave wherein the Nazi Einsatzgruppen disposed of those who failed to leave in time?
When we consider that the residents of Butsyn in Volhynia might at this very moment be fleeing for their lives, I suppose the ancient fears and grievances associated with the anti-Semitism embedded in those lands and those peoples might fall away.
We might be able to remember that even the descendants of those who made our ancestors’ lives miserable in those far-away towns are still people who are trying to eke out a life, to raise families and work the land and maybe occasionally take a vacation.
We should recall that nobody deserves to have their nation, their democracy taken away from them.
And we should pray for peace, as we do at the end of every Amidah and just about every Qaddish:
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisra’el, ve’al kol yoshevei tevel, ve-imru amen.
May the One who makes peace on high bring some peace upon all Israel and upon all who dwell on Earth, and let us say amen.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Friday evening, 2/25/2022.)