On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, I was halfway through In Memory of Memory by the Russian Jewish author Maria Stepanova.
I was reading the letters that her relative Lyodik Gimmelfarb, a 19-year-old at the Siege of Leningrad, sent to his mother. They were matter-of-fact and uncomplaining. Shortly after his 20th birthday, he was killed.
War. What’s it good for?
The following chapters turn to another branch of her family, the Gurevichs, in particular Isaak Gurevich, a well-heeled businessman who opened an agricultural machinery factory in Kherson in the early 20th century.
I had never heard of this southern Ukrainian city, and suddenly I was reading about it in the news, falling to Russian forces, as I simultaneously read about this successful Jewish family who built a fine mansion and owned the first English Vauxhall car in the region.
In 1907, Isaak Gurevich had been there to welcome the railway to Kherson. He and his family had also witnessed the pogroms that swept across southern Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a reminder of the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism.
Brave new world
With the Russian Revolution, Gurevich had his factory taken off him and given to the workers. Soon it wasn’t simply a case of losing your wealth, but losing any trace of ever having had wealth. ‘Social background’ had to be filled in on government forms, and a hint of bourgeois ancestry spelt trouble.
At the conclusion of her family saga, Stepanova visits the Jewish New Cemetery on the outskirts of Kherson. It’s a desolate, windblown spot where the scrub is slowly reclaiming the gravestones. There are no Jews left to tend the cemetery.
More serendipity? How about Afghanistan Then and Now