by Barbara Loney Zamochnick
When my husband, Sidney, and I went on our Viking River cruise through Ukraine last spring, I had lots of “I can’t believe I’m really here” thoughts.
The “I can’t believes” came with every new port of call and amazing experience: watching the sun set on the Crimea’s Black Sea coast with dolphins frolicking beside our ship; sailing the Dneiper River where the dachas dot the shore; feeling the history while strolling the beautiful port city of Odessa; walking in the footsteps of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov, getting bear hugs from be-medaled World War II veterans at the stirring Victory Day parade in Sevastopol; standing in the fields at Balaclava while picturing the Charge of the Light Brigade; in Yalta, touring the Tsar’s White Palace where they held the Big 3 conference of World War II; in Zaporozhe, watching descendants of Cossacks put on dazzling displays of horsemanship, and finally beholding the splendor of ancient Kiev, her golden domes so glorious in the sunlight.
But as marvelous as it all was, the biggest “I can’t believe” moments had to do with two small miracles, the first of which was that Sidney was actually with me. Sidney had been reluctant about traveling to Ukraine, and it took so long to coax him into it that we got the last available cabin on the ship. Prior to the booking, I insisted, “You need to visit the home of your ancestors; think of your heritage,” etc. I even tried to cajole him with the wild idea that we might meet up in Kiev with Kateryna “Kathy” Yuschchenko, his tax client of some years back.
She had gone off and married none other than Viktor Yuschchenko, then-president of Ukraine and hero of the “Orange Revolution.” You may recall from news stories that it was her husband Viktor who was poisoned by his political enemies and almost died, leaving his face deeply scarred. Kathy’s life was also in danger.
Sidney always came up with the same answer: “I wouldn’t feel at home there,” he’d say. “Look at what they did to the Jews.” I finally gave up on trying to convince him that the Tsar and Hitler were long gone, and got my own way by using a tactic that always works: I turned it all around to make him think it was his idea.
No doubt Sidney had good reason for his reluctance, given the sad history of Jews in Ukraine. His dad, Sam, lived in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement until age 10 when the pogroms drove Sam and his family out, joining the vast Jewish migration to the U.S. Sidney grew up hearing Sam’s stories about boyhood memories of shtetl life with his 12 siblings, of attending his one-room Hebrew school, of his father and uncles who were locksmiths and blacksmiths. It all ended with pogroms and, according to Sidney, Sam’s shetl was leveled, gone forever, just like Anatevka, the village in “Fiddler on the Roof.” In fact, computer searches for Sam’s shtetl proved fruitless, as if it never existed.
As we flew to Ukraine, I worried about Sidney having a good time, given the memory of Sam’s tales of persecution and his vanished village. But when we landed in Odessa and looked out over the tree-lined boulevards and the famous Potemkin stairs, I felt he’d be all right.
One couldn’t help but fall in love with Odessa, the City of Dreams, a cosmopolitan place rich in history and culture. We also learned that Odessa was once home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in all of Europe. It was on our second day there, following our “Jewish Life in Odessa” tour, that Sidney said the words that were music to my ears: “I feel at home here.”
As the River Dneiper took our ship to Kiev, I wondered if Kathy Yuschchenko had received the last-minute email I sent about our arrival in Kiev, and if so, as Ukraine’s former First Lady, would she be able to fit us into her busy schedule? On the day we docked, there was an email from Kathy saying she’d meet us at 3 p.m. the next day in a café on Volodymyrska Street.
That would have been fabulous except for an unexpected turn. At the last minute Sidney became so sick to his stomach that we had to summon Dr. Olga, the ship’s doctor, who gave him a pill and ordered him to stay in bed. Calling Kathy to cancel our meeting was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I had to leave Sidney behind in bed, pale and motionless, when I boarded the bus for the Kiev tour, but it was my only chance to see Kiev since we were leaving for home the next day. When I returned, I was shocked to find Sidney completely energized, his color back. I learned that while I was gone the most incredible thing happened, our second miracle of the trip: Kathy Yuschchenko, the Michele Obama of the Ukraine, had come to the ship to visit Sidney.
Dr. Olga’s pill must have worked because when Kathy asked if Sidney would be well enough for a tour of Kiev, he made a Lazarus-like recovery. So off Sidney went with Kathy and two bodyguards (according to Sidney, straight out of a James Bond movie) for his personal tour of Kiev. Of course wherever they went, Kathy was recognized, and when they got out of the car for their strolls, crowds made way for them, with everyone wondering about the American dignitary with Kateryna Yuschchenko.
That night, given Sidney’s new VIP status, he was the talk of the ship. The crew couldn’t do enough for him, and rumors even circulated that their mysterious passenger could even be on Putin’s enemies list. Ladies onboard asked if I was jealous, seeing Kiev from a tour bus while Sidney went on a two-hour, private celebrity dream tour with the beautiful and gracious former First Lady.
But how could I feel envy when Sidney told me the tour with Kathy was up there with the happiest moments of his life? I also thought how proud Sam would have been to know that his boy, Sidney, had returned to his homeland as an honored guest of the former First Lady with a police escort to keep him safe, in a place where 100 years before Sam and his family had hidden in the forest from the Tsar’s Cossacks in fear for their lives.
Sidney now has a sense of belonging that only comes from walking in the ancestral land of your forebears and making a connection with your past. Just the other day he again told me how glad he was that HE had thought of the Ukrainian trip. “Yes, that trip was spectacular”, I responded, “and it was such a brilliant idea that from now on you’re in charge of all our travel plans. And by the way, didn’t you tell me that your mom was from Romania?”
Barbara and Sidney Zamochnick live in Wyndmoor.