The Kyiv of his youth was very different from today’s busy capital of Ukraine. The city was greener, and quieter. Life was calmer. The city was infused with the mysteries of the past, and held more secrets.
The climate was more bracing—with honest cold snaps and dry snowy winters. Kyiv springs were velvety and the summers hot, punctuated with cheerful sudden downpours of refreshing rain. And the fall was peaceful, generous with harvest and blazing yellow colors.
And so recalls the prize-winning Ukrainian Jewish poet and public figure Hryhorii Falkovych. Falkovych remembers as a very young child returning to his native city of Kyiv. He was already a fourth generation Kyivite. Along with his mother he had been evacuated as an infant to Russia at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The trip home was memorable for the boy. A locomotive with trailing black clouds. A crowded train chugging through endless steppe during a searing hot summer. Lunch breaks on faded grass. The aluminum cups filled with tea were too hot to hold. And there was no way to climb back onto the train by your self. It was too high!
Falkovych and his mother returned to their pre-war apartment in the very center of Kyiv, between Pushkin and Volodymyrska Streets. The boy’s childhood was defined by that well-known feature of old Kyiv city life, the courtyard.
The courtyard provided a protective shell for children. Parents could rush off to work but their children would be safely monitored. Falkovych recalls the courtyard as a free republic, a child’s own universe. Friendships were formed and talents emerged. Your character was developed and principles of life were formed.
Frequent childhood illness enforced periods of rest and books fell into the lap of the young Falkovych. They were the classics. Mark Twain. The Count of Monte Cristo. Sherlock Holmes. There was another world beyond the courtyard.
And through books, language. Falkovych studied in a Russian-language school. Russian was dominant everywhere—at home, on the streets, at work, at the library, at the polyclinic. Practically all of Kyiv at that time only wanted to speak Russian.
Falkovych now recalls in appalled tones how the Ukrainian language was ignored and despised by the chauvinists of the day. Ukrainian was seen by many as provincial and crude.
Falkovych’s first serious encounter with Ukrainian was studying for entrance exams to the university. Ironically, despite the Russification, he had to pass a Ukrainian dictation test. During three hot summer days he sat in his Kyiv courtyard with notebooks, a red pencil, and candy. The courtyard children read Ukrainian texts as he wrote and corrected his numerous mistakes. His neighbors got the candy for their trouble. And for his diligent labor, Falkovych got accepted into a language and literature program that launched his career.
Falkovych became known as a Russian-language poet but subsequently began to write in Ukrainian. Critics have hailed his work for joining the Ukrainian word with the realities of the Jewish worldview. Falkovych has also been lauded for his need for inner freedom through the Ukrainian language.
Falkovych has quoted the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky by saying the language chooses the poet instead of the poet choosing the language.
He also has stated that a slave has no origin and that the concepts of will and freedom are extremely important for both the Ukrainian and Jewish mentality.
Falkovych’s generation carries the burden of history. His two aunts and their children were taken to Babyn Yar. His father and his uncle were killed at the front.
But the birth of his granddaughter Michelle, now a sixth-generation Kyivite, inspired new creative directions for Falkovych. He created a beloved series of Ukrainian-language poetry books for children widely available in libraries and bookstores. Through these poems he was able to recall his own childhood.
And through these books Falkovych has said he hopes that all those who read them grow up to become smart, kind, and courageous people who are not easy to be fooled or intimidated.
This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!