Ukraine’s suffering evokes a distant echo

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The war in Ukraine, or as Russian president Vladimir Putin would have it, the “special military operation,” has evoked strong feelings for me. They are emotions that have not been easy to pin down.

Like most Americans, I have viewed the senseless carnage Russian troops are visiting on Ukraine with a mixture of horror, anger and sympathy for the many killed, injured, forced to flee their homes or suddenly cruelly deprived of basic necessities like food, shelter and medicine. 

Leon and Fanya Morrison with son, Donald

My family’s roots reach to Ukrainian soil, making the country’s current dilemma more personal for me than it might be for some. But then my family’s history in Ukraine was not a happy one. That adds another dimension.     

An email from a cousin helped things fall in place. It came on a family list serve in which my cousin Leonette Morrison wrote about the flight from Ukraine 100 years ago of her grandfather, Leon Morrison, his wife, and Leonette’s then seven-year-old father, Donald.

“(I am) reminded recently of our ancestors’ journeys to the U.S. (and to) other destinations—Canada, Israel, Argentina—from Ukraine,” the email began. More than a dozen cousins chimed in.

The story she told is one I had never heard. Hearing it now brought me to tears. The grisly similarity it bears to events taking place in Ukraine a century later is chilling.

Flight from Ukraine 

Reading the story felt like reading about a long-ago and distantly recalled childhood home, some place you only dimly and imperfectly remember, a wispy felling whose imprint is, nevertheless, indelibly stamped on your psyche. 

I have never been to Ukraine, but I recall stories I heard as a small child from my maternal grandmother, stories of horrors that still echo strongly seven decades later. 

The intensity of my feelings now could have something to do those stories. They could perhaps also have something to do with epigenetics, a phenomenon documented in animals and people whereby the way a descendant’s genes express themselves are influenced by environmental factors affecting its forebears.

Some believe that the effects of trauma can be passed down from generation to generation and that in this way, emotions can be passed from one generation to the next as part of the younger generation’s psyche. 

In any event, just as my cousin Leonette was moved to think about her grandfather, my paternal grandmother Rona Morrison Astor’s brother, the news of deepening carnage in Ukraine made me think of my maternal grandparents, Morris and Clara Gichtin, who fled Ukraine around the same time as Leon Morrison and who, like Leon, ended up penniless in Buffalo with a child, my mother, in tow. And who, like Leon, carved out a life in a strange land.

A few years ago, I wrote in the Beacon about my grandparents’ flight from what is now Ukraine and then was part of Russia. It occurred during a period after the end of World War I, when numerous groups—including Ukrainian nationalists, Bolsheviks, anarchists, and the White Russian army, as well as Polish forces—fought for control of Ukraine, which after a few years of independence became part of the Soviet Union. I described how my grandparents were forced to flee, made their way across Europe and ultimately settled in Buffalo, where my grandfather worked as a “junkman,” collecting rags and scrap to resell with a horse and wagon. Ultimately, they bought a house, sent four children to college, helped build a synagogue, and organized a burial society formed by himself and other Jews who’d fled Sokoleivka, the Ukrainian town they had been forced flee. 

The powerful emotions Leon Morrison’s story stirred in me, I am certain, had to do with the power of a name. 

Like many Ashkenazi Jews, I am named in honor of deceased forebears. My first name, William, is after my maternal great grandfather, Wolf Kuperchinetsky, who died in a pogrom. He was buried alive in Ukraine in a grave Cossacks forced him to dig. My middle name, Leon, is after Leon Morrison.

Leonette’s family left Buffalo when she and I were toddlers, and our families lost touch. She and I connected again a few years ago through the family list serve, after a DNA search connected her to my first cousin Ron Avi Astor. Until I read Leonette’s account a week or so ago, all I knew about middle name was that I had been named after someone named Leon who had been shot in a drugstore.

Leonette’s recent post filled in the picture. In the post, she detailed a 1925 interview with Leon in the Buffalo Courier-Express. It gave a detailed account of his family’s flight from Ukraine. 

The occasion for the interview was the opening of Leon’s drugstore at 310 Sycamore St. in Buffalo a few days earlier. By then, the family had been in Buffalo for four years. In that time, Leon had learned English and taken a one-year course at the University of Buffalo’s pharmacy school to be certified as a pharmacist.

“Now I have my own drug store at last,” he proudly told the reporter.

In Ukraine, he added, “I owned a large drug store and a wholesale house dealing in chemicals and acids in Odessa in 1918. Both were worth about $75,000. When the Bolsheviki came, they seized everything I possessed, including furniture and clothing. We retained some jewels by hiding them in the soles and heels of our shoes. With these jewels we later paid our way to freedom.”

After confiscating his property, the new Soviet regime put Leon to work in a hospital. During the next year, he told the newspaper, “almost daily I saw large wagon loads of corpses being borne through the (streets).”

One midnight, the Morrison family sneaked out of Odessa on the first leg of what turned out to be a two-year trek that took them across five countries. 

“It took us two months to cross into Rumania,” Leon told the newspaper. “Ordinarily, the trip from Odessa to the border can be accomplished in 14 hours. At night, we hid in farmhouses for fear the Bolsheviki would capture us. We negotiated for several weeks with farmers before one would consent to carry us across the Dniester River, the boundary between Russian and Rumania in a small rowboat. 

“There must (have been) thousands of bodies in the river. The Russian peasants would drown a man if they suspected he had money or jewels with him. We gave our last jewels to pay for passage across. When we were in the middle of the river, a Soviet gunboat appeared on the scene. They could hear the sound of our oars but could not see us because of the intense darkness. Lead spattered the water around us but we escaped unharmed.”

There is a sad coda to Leon’s story. I alluded to it briefly before. In 1939, 14 years after proudly declaring his joy at opening his own drugstore, he was shot and killed in that store.  

In a follow to Leonette’s post on the family list serve, Leonette’s brother Elliot posted a newspaper account of the shooting. Leon was alone in the store, but had spoken to his son Donald on the phone not long before he was killed. Police calculated that there was a roughly 20-minute window between the call and the fatal shot.

A customer discovered Leon’s body behind the soda fountain counter after finding the store open but apparently unattended. Leon had been drilled so neatly with a single small-caliber bullet through the heart that police at first thought he died of natural causes, a heart attack perhaps. He was 51 years old.

Only under a medical examiner’s more thorough probe was Leon’s death revealed as a murder. Police at first were baffled. No money was missing from the register and the shot was delivered from a distance. It did not seem that there had been a robbery or that Leon had confronted his assailant at close quarters as one might wrestle with a stickup man. Besides, Leon had taken out a $1,000 holdup policy precisely so he wouldn’t have to confront a robber.

A policeman personally acquainted with Leon stated that Leon had told him that a couple of Russians had been in the store a few years earlier warning him to stop spouting off about his hatred for the “Bolshevikis.”

Leonette told me in an email that a man had eventually been arrested and convicted of the murder, but she is not sure that the convicted man was guilty. The convicted man had no apparent motive and it might as well have been members of a local workers circle, she believes. 

Two nightmares

With very few changes, Leon’s account of what he and his family endured in 1921 seems similar enough to what millions of Ukrainians are suffering now to be a contemporary account out of Putin’s Ukraine war. 

What can be made of that, I am not sure.

Recalling what he and his family endured in Ukraine, Leon told the Courier-Express, “it’s all like a horrible nightmare to me. When I realize how free I am here in Buffalo, I shudder to think of what I went through. I can laugh once more. I don’t have to fear for my family or myself every time we go into the street.” 

The lesson the unnamed reporter who interviewed Leon in 1925 distilled from Leon’s story can be read in the first line of the article: “Americans do not appreciate fully the institutions under which they live guaranteeing freedom of speech and action.” 

Nearly 100 years later, maybe that hasn’t changed either. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Images courtesy of Leonette Morrison.

The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “Ukraine’s suffering evokes a distant echo

  1. Wil … I was tremendously moved in reading this story about your family so thanks for sharing. And your closing thought is extremely poignant and cause for reflection among all Americans.

    All the best … Bill

  2. Will,
    Thanx very much for sharing this most personal, both horrible and hopeful story.
    Like you, I am outraged at what Russia is doing to the innocent people of Ukraine, and perhaps equally outraged that no one, including NATO, is stepping up to stop the carnage. I personally don’t believe that Putin will stop at Ukraine and that war is nearly inevitable in the future. If Putin is ready to unleash his nuclear weapons, so be it. He must be stopped, and I don’t see it happening peacefully.

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