Julie Levine's grandfather Jacob with his mother Anna and sisters Molly and Sara
Julie Levine's grandfather Jacob with his mother Anna and sisters Molly and Sara

My grandpa’s story of survival in Ukraine is our story, too

Even though my grandfather Jacob died when I was 24 and it would be another 10 years before I had children, he’s helped me raise our kids.

Throughout his life, he suffered hardship, persevered and ultimately thrived. Our kids know his story well.

He was born in 1902 in Kupyn, a small shtetl town in Ukraine. He lived with his mother, his two younger sisters, Molly and Sara, and his grandfather, Moishe. (His father left the family shortly after he was born and immigrated to the United States).

Moishe was a men’s tailor and made clothes mostly for Russian and Polish priests and their families. My grandfather would often tag along when Moishe went to see his customers. He learned the trade by watching Moishe work. He also learned how to speak Russian and Polish from Moishe’s customers.

In the spring of 1917, an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out. There were no doctors in their town nor any hospitals. A few weeks before Passover, Jacob, Sara and their mother got sick. Though Jacob and Sara eventually recovered, their mother did not, dying the day after Passover. Jacob and Moishe were left to raise Molly and Sara. Jacob found odd jobs to earn extra money. He helped around the house and taught his sisters how to make challah for Shabbat.

Later that year, pogroms swept through the villages near where Jacob and his family lived. Russian soldiers went from town to town looking for Jews — anyone they found, whether young or old, they’d torture with bayonets and kill. When a pogrom came through Kupyn, Jacob was able to flee with his sisters. But he was stopped along the way by some soldiers who asked him if he had seen any Jews. Jacob spoke to them in perfect Russian. They never detected he was Jewish, and he was able to get away. Moishe was not so lucky. Jacob returned home to find his house ransacked, and his beloved grandfather shot and killed.

Jacob, at 15, was now the sole provider and caretaker for his sisters. He went to Moishe’s customers to plead for work. They liked him, knew he was responsible, and gave him business. He worked hard, and by 1920, was well established. But with the Russian Civil War, there was now a draft that included Jewish men.

Jacob knew he would be called and didn’t want to leave his sisters. He figured out a plan to get them out of Ukraine. He would try and get to America to start a new life, just as some of his relatives had done several years prior.

They left Kupyn for good in the winter of 1921, traveling in the middle of the night to Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Germany, Paris and eventually New York by sled, foot, train and ship. It was an arduous journey. They landed at Ellis Island in the spring with hardly any money, few clothes and belongings and just a handful of extended family contacts.

Teaching grit isn’t easy. It’s not just about convincing  our son to stick with soccer when he wanted to quit midseason, and it isn’t necessarily about the time that I, wanting our daughter to figure out how to handle the situation on her own, held back from calling the school when a teacher made her cry.

Real grit is what my grandfather had.

Fortunately, our kids won’t have to endure life without hospitals and doctors. They won’t experience a pogrom and they won’t ever truly know what it’s like to be a refugee. But perhaps when they are older and encounter setbacks (though I hope those are minimal), they won’t feel alone — they’ll think about their ancestors and know we come from hearty stock.

My hope in sharing my grandfather’s story with our kids (despite the occasional eye roll) is that they gain a more profound understanding of who they are and where they come from.

My grandfather’s story of courage and resilience is their story, too.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.