One of my favorite podcasts, is the Geologic Podcast, a weekly hour-long show hosted by George Hrab, who has assumed a degree of leadership in the skeptical community, primarily due to his relationship with the James Randi Educational Foundation, on top of being a successful musician.
Anyone who has a degree of familiarity with slavic languages, would likely recognize the name Hrab as being Ukrainian. (As are many names that begin either Hr or Hl). In fact, both of his parents were born in Ukraine and emigrated to the United States in the 1940’s. They didn’t know each other in the “old country” but they met here in the US, got married, and raised their children here.
A couple of weeks ago on the podcast, George (or “Geo” as he likes to be called) announced that his parents were going on a trip to Eastern Europe to visit the towns where they were born. These towns, thanks to shifting national borders in the past 60 years or so, are now both located in Poland.
In the most recent episode of the podcast, Geo interviews his mom about the trip. Without going into any details about what was discussed, I found it fascinating, moving, and, well, intensely personal.
My paternal grandparents emigrated to the United States (a generation before Geo’s parents) from a town that was “a day’s horse ride from Kiev” whose name escapes me at the moment. I remember talking to my grandmother about how she carried her infant daughter across a frozen lake to get out of the country.
On my mom’s side, my grandmother was also born in Russia somewhere as well. The story we all heard growing up, was that she was born on the boat on the way over to America, but we have a document dated 1923 in which her parents, her brothers and sisters became naturalized citizens. It listed my grandmother as being 20 years old at the time. Knowing that it takes approximately five years to become a citizen, that means that my grandmother lived at least the first thirteen or fourteen years of her life in Russia.
So, when I was an exchange student in 1993 in Russia, I tried to track down people with whom I might have some kind of relationship.
This is entirely speculation on my part. But there is a very real possibility that, on Monday, November 1, 1993, at approximately noon (Moscow time), I stood alone, in a light snowfall before the grave of a distant relative of mine. Specifically, the grave bore the name Аврам Гольдман (Avram Goldman), who died about three months before my father was born. Under Jewish tradition, newborn children are named for the recently deceased, and this was my father’s Jewish name.
For reference, at that same moment, quite literally half a world away, River Phoenix died.
That was the closest I came to finding anything of my heritage while I was there. And even in not knowing anything with any certainty about what I found, standing before a small grave a few rows away from the grave of Anton Chekhov, I was overcome with emotion then.
I can only imagine the emotions that Geo’s parents went through a couple of weeks ago…..