Like the super-majority of Americans, I’m directly related to a family of immigrants. As is true for so many millions of my fellow Americans, what motivated my grandparents to leave their native countries was a thirst for freedom and a hunger for a better life.
I am fortunate to know much of my family’s heritage and history because as a child, I listened to my Grandfather Aaron Cohen and Grandmother Minnie Golub tell their stories of courage, sacrifice, faith and fortitude, the key ingredients for building their new lives in what they called the New World.
All of my ancestors had roots in the vast landscapes of rural Russia, ruled by the Romanoff Tsars, whose autocratic Moscow-based monarchy controlled the world’s most expansive national territory.
My Grandma Minnie’s homeland was Belorussia, and Grandpa Aaron was Ukrainian. When they were children, both of these regions, west and south of Moscow, contained a few cities, but they were also home to hundreds of small villages, the shtetles, where the lower-class peasants, many of whom were Jewish, struggling to survive. They lived with the ravages of poverty every day.
For centuries, by edict of the Tsars, the Jews were prohibited from residing in the cities, a policy of strict segregation which kept them from participating in the economic, educational and cultural lives of the Russian ruling class.
These separation policies were enforced and enflamed by decades of pogroms, violent raids, decreed by the Tsar and implemented by dozens of military bands of Cossacks, armed with rifles and long swords, with orders to viciously attack the villages, burn the wooden shacks, murder the men, rape the women and girls, slaughter the livestock and annihilate the entire shtetle – wiping it off the map.
During the 30-year period between the mid-1880s and World War I, hundreds of these pogroms occurred, motivating hundreds of thousands of Jews and other peasants to flee for survival. Many of these refugees, most of whom were teenagers and young adults, carried meager belongings with their aspirations to escape to the West and, if possible, earn enough money en route to afford boat passage to emigrate to America.
The glowing lantern held high by New York’s Statue of Liberty was their dream destination. Whenever Grandma Minnie and Grandpa Aaron told that part of their story, their eyes welled with tears and their voices quivered with gratitude.
Their account of unjust segregation historic, economic discrimination, violent aggression and racist extermination was tragically repeated in Europe over the decades of the first half of the 20th century.
The Nazi reign of the Third Reich and Holocaust perpetrated under Adolf Hitler, and the Soviet Communist purges under Josef Stalin resulted in the deaths of millions of innocents, young and old alike.
Now, history is repeating itself in the same contested territory with similar terrorist aggression.
The current invasion of Ukraine at the decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin is yet another example of violent suppression of rights, piercing established national borders to subjugate the innocent into submission.
Our news broadcasts are revealing the military onslaught upon Ukrainian civilians, destroying lives and decimating property under a false pretense of ethnic brotherhood.
The Ukrainian people are courageously defending themselves with resolve, but they are obviously unable to withstand the onslaught without military resources provided by the United States and our NATO allies.
War is ugly, costly and always a perilous alternative to negotiated peace. We who are fortunate to live in relative safety and security should be aware that our quality of life is neither free nor guaranteed.
History has taught us that as long as autocrats prevail in their thirst for power, steadfast resistance must be consistently the choice we make to brighten our collective futures.
If we learn the lessons taught by our ancestors, many who struggled to survive despite the odds that threatened their lives and livelihoods, then we should support our leaders’ bi-partisan call for assistance in defeating unjustified aggression at this critical time.
In the face of this international crisis, silence is not golden, and can be deadly.
Jack Levine, founder of the 4Generations Institute, is a family policy advocate, based in Tallahassee. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.