On December 23, 1791, Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) signed the order restricting Jews of the Russian empire to living in what was called the Pale of Settlement. Although the borders of the Pale (the word comes from Old English, and refers to a “pole” or “stake” used to define an enclosed area) changed with time, as did the specific regulations that limited the movements of Jews, the restricted area remained in existence until April 1917 when the provisional government of Russia abolished it.- Encyclopedia Brittanica
Some time before World War I, my paternal grandfather and grandmother went beyond the Pale and emigrated from Odessa, Russia to the United States. Yes, the same Odessa that is a port city on the Black Sea, which will be under assault during the current Russian incursion into sovereign Ukraine. My grandfather’s parents and siblings also fled what I can only assume was a profoundly restricted lifestyle under the constant threat of pogroms, otherwise known as organized massacres. I know very little of their history although periodically I’ve dug into European records to unearth bits and pieces of their early life. I know that my grandparents moved to Chicago while other family members settled in Lafayette, Indiana. Those grandparents died early in their lives leaving no significant familial connections which embraced my young father. The only memory he conveyed to me was of a visit to his grandfather and his uncles when he was a boy. He recalled that his grandfather had piercing blue eyes which frightened him as he barked, “who is that boy?” Hardly what you’d consider a significant legacy. Who knows what issues may have existed between my grandfather and his family of origin? All the key actors are long dead.
My maternal grandparents emigrated from a small village in Eastern Poland called Wysckowa. That village was wiped off the map during World War II. The ever-changing borders between Poland and Russia blurred their nationalities. My grandmother told me that her father was a tinsmith who at one point, worked on the roof of the czar’s palace in Warsaw, when Poland was still considered part of Russia. Several of my grandmother’s sisters and one brother also emigrated to the U.S. Most of my grandfather’s family vanished in Europe during World War II. I’ll never know what made my known family push across the borders of the Pale while their relatives stayed behind. As I’ve watched the destruction of Ukraine these past days, and witnessed the enormity of the current and growing refugee numbers cascading further into western Europe, I realize that untold numbers of people will simply disappear into that commonly used descriptor, “the fog of war.” Life instantly changed for millions who, for whatever their reasons, will leave their country behind, perhaps never seeing family members again, while others will stay home, maybe surviving or maybe not. History is packed with untold individual stories like this, the difference being this time’s daily televised blow by blow accounts of the new diaspora over turf that has seen more than its share of power struggles that displace so many people. Will the advanced technologies like cell phones, many filled with photos, addresses and contact information forestall the losses experienced in the past? For the sakes of all those caught in the current nightmare, we can only hope they can somehow, some day reconstruct their rapidly dissolving reality.
Some people can trace their families back through multiple generations, going back hundreds of years. Maybe their ancestors were in the right places at the right times. Maybe they were astute enough to anticipate what disruptive forces were headed in their direction and were resourceful enough to get out of harm’s way. Or there might have been combinations of dumb luck and insightful planning that secured an orderly progression of descendants. I imagine that if I made a more whole-hearted effort to dig into the past, I might unearth a bit more of my history. Before my mother, the longest-lived survivor in her family died, we sat together, trying to identify the people in old photographs that were passed to her by her mother. Unfortunately she either never knew some of their names or had long since forgotten them. I have saved these photos, periodically staring at them, trying to dredge up a familial resemblance from certain faces, unable to discard these ghosts from the past. Who were they? What happened in their lives? Are they part of me? So many unanswerable questions.
Once again, we are witnessing a profound disregard for life and the wanton destruction of entire communities. The fearful emotions aroused by the violent munitions attacks, tangled with the potential threat of nuclear terror, astonishes me as we rapidly regress to the atmosphere of my childhood, when air raid drills were part of the kindergarten experience, as we ducked and covered our heads, waiting for bombs to rain down on our little bodies. But for the fact that my family left that part of the world and although I might never have come to exist, in my head there is some identification with these places thousands of miles from where I live. I suspect that I share part of my DNA with a certain number of those on the run, trying to stay alive. There is the historical, geographical definition of “beyond the Pale,” as described above. But there is also the more modern usage of that phrase, the one that is defined as this – “To be ‘beyond the pale’ is to be unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency.” That is where we are right now. The horror of it, so impossible to bear. A dark, dark time indeed.