Growing up, I often felt like an outsider: a son who never knew his mother; a Russian Orthodox Christian who attended Catholic school; a boy whose grandparents seemed to be from another world, speaking a language I couldn’t understand from a far off place nobody ever heard of, called then “The Ukraine,” a constituent part of the Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire” Vladimir Putin has made it his life’s mission to recreate.
I’ve long since come to embrace my family’s history of misery, tragedy and unceasing yearning for freedom and justice, a history shared by most Ukrainian Americans, and why I am so proud today to stand with Ukraine in its latest hour of triumph and tragedy.
My grandparents, Ilia and Alexandra Solominow, were born in Kharkiv Oblast shortly before World War I. They emigrated to America with my mother and her brother in 1951. Until arriving in the City of Chester, they had known nothing during the first four decades of their lives but war, revolution, famine, forced labor, and death—unspeakable horrors imposed upon them by despots named Lenin, Stalin and Hitler.
Sadly, the best thing that ever happened to my grandparents, besides the births of their children, was being brought to Germany as slave laborers during the Second World War, where they were at last liberated by American GIs.
I once asked my grandmother, the hardest and fiercest woman I ever knew, why they chose to live stateless and in poverty on the streets of Europe for six years after the war, striving to come here. She told me simply that the American soldiers who had liberated their camp were the first men in uniform she ever met who were kind, and she had decided then and there that no matter what the cost, she wanted her children to live in a country that could produce such noble men. Our Greatest Generation indeed.
I think a lot about my fellow Ukrainian Americans these days, as well as our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, bravely showing the world what a free people will do in the face of tyranny.
My mother, Henrietta, was 5 years old when the Nazis invaded her Ukraine, 15 when she arrived in America. Tragically, she had, in the refugee camps, already contracted the illness that would lead to her death in childbirth, but from all accounts she blossomed in America, enjoying immensely the freedoms and liberty we too often take for granted. She excelled in school, was loved by many, and married a tall handsome American serviceman home on leave. We call that the American Dream.
Although I never met my mother I think of her constantly and she is the inspiration for my life’s work of public service in pursuit of the ideals of justice I know she treasured so highly. I also think a lot about my fellow Ukrainian Americans these days, as well as our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, bravely showing the world what a free people will do in the face of tyranny.
Vladimir Putin is a fool to think he can break the spirit of this great people who have suffered so much misery and tragedy over the centuries, often under the lash of their Russian cousin. That’s why I’m proud to be Ukrainian, a people fearlessly carrying the torch of liberty, for all of us, in an increasingly dark world.
Jack Stollsteimer is the district attorney of Delaware County.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash