Reflecting on a Family’s Flight

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Viktoria Lasna sat on a couch in the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, Poland, where she had come to observe Passover, the celebration of the Jewish flight from Egypt. The night before, she had arrived from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, a city that had come under unrelenting Russian bombardment.

“We are facing a great emptiness,” she told me. “But we will rise from this as we have done before.” Reaching into her bag, Ms. Lasna, 51, pulled out a photo of her late mother, whose family survived the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

“All the world is a narrow bridge,’’ she recited, quoting a Jewish folk song, “and the most important thing is to not be afraid.”

The power and simplicity of the lyric, which, as a Jew of Eastern European descent, I recognized from when I was younger, took on new meaning. I had been in Poland since early April to report on the war in Ukraine, and I came to the community center in this once-thriving hub of European Jewry to attend a Seder with 40 Ukrainian Jews who, like their ancestors before them, had fled persecution and death.

As I moved from table to table, documenting the searing tales of escape and survival, I was reminded of my own family’s story of flight.

My ancestors on my mother’s side had emigrated from Chernihiv, Ukraine, to the United States before World War II. For years, I had pressed my grandmother for information, but the details always remained hazy, the answers clipped, likely by design. “They came to America to flee persecution,” my grandmother Shirley, now 93 years old, told me. “They arrived to assimilate. They were there to survive and to move on.”

My family’s heritage was always regarded as more of a cultural than a religious inheritance. Our Jewish calendar was a device for pulling people together. We did not spend time recounting what or who had been lost throughout our crippled history. Despite all the rituals, customs and myths intended to recall the adversity endured by Jewish people, we were never forced to confront the vulnerability that our family had faced.

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At the Seder table in Krakow, I found myself listening to tales of flight both new and old. The refugees were grappling with the traumatic turns in their own lives by grounding them in the tragedy and resilience of their ancestors.

Ms. Lasna’s daughter, Nastya, 31, told me that this was the third genocide in her family. The younger Ms. Lasna fled to Krakow with her daughter shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Tatiana Bolldanova, 68, told me that she had fled from Darnytskyi, on the outskirts of Kyiv, after a Russian missile destroyed a home close to hers. She said it felt complicated seeking refuge in Poland — a country that shares the indelible scars of extermination: During World War II, the Nazis killed over three million Polish Jews and over one million Ukrainian Jews.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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Russia’s economy. Russia’s central bank cut interest rates again, in the latest effort by Moscow to try to stabilize its economy, which has been harmed by sanctions and months of fighting in Ukraine. The move came as President Vladimir V. Putin promised to increase the minimum wage and military benefits.

Russian oil ban. The European Union has stalled on its proposed ban on Russian oil. The measure is being held up by Hungary’s refusal to back the embargo, claiming it would devastate the country’s economy.

On the ground. Moscow’s military has narrowed its focus to a 75-mile-wide sliver of land in the heart of the eastern Donbas region, which has allowed Russian forces to make incremental gains. Russia’s main immediate target remains Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control.

My family owned a tobacco farm in the northern region of Chernihiv. But they left following the pogroms in the early 20th century, before Chernihiv became one of the killing grounds of the Holocaust. Jews were murdered and dumped in mass graves. I was told by my family (though it went without saying) that relatives who had not made it to America likely did not survive. The trail was extinguished and, through decades of determined suppression, our history paled.

At the Seder, a refugee named Jacob Tamarkin 77, told me that he had recently restored a memorial plaque at a Jewish cemetery in his village, Vasylkiv, a city about 20 miles outside of Kyiv. In the 1950s, Mr. Tamarkin’s father had helped build the cemetery to rebury the Jews who had been killed in Vasylkiv. Watching Ukrainians dig more graves around the outskirts of Kyiv was, for him, like watching history repeat itself.

At the start of the Seder, Mr. Tamarkin rose from his chair and requested that the room recite the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for death and mourning. It was a subtle but poignant twist to the holiday. And a reminder, for me, of how these glacial traditions, while they often fail to encompass the weary and quickening quality of mourning, still challenge us to honor and resurrect what has been lost.