My husband’s great grandparents (Alexander and Efrosenia), grandmother (Raisa), and grand aunt were forcibly removed by the Russian government in the 1930s and sent to a gulag located on an island off of north-west Russia. The consequences were devastating: not only was the family with two young girls forcibly removed from their home country (Ukraine) but the inhumane living conditions ended up contributing to the death of the oldest daughter. What we know is that the family somehow escaped the gulag and ended up in southern Russia.
Before this traumatic experience, Efrosenia’s brother told her he was immigrating to Canada because he was worried what the future would bring. He tried to convince the family to leave with him but the family did not want to leave their homeland. I can’t blame them. How could they possibly foresee the horror that was coming? Hindsight is often cruel because we can see the choices that led to a negative outcome and the guilt that follows can be suffocating.
I wholeheartedly believe that my husband’s ancestors, as well as my own, did the very best that they could at the time with what they had. I wholeheartedly believe that any negative outcome they suffered was no fault of theirs, but the fault of those who harmed them.
As a genealogist one of the biggest questions I ask myself is “What was so terrible that my ancestors left their homeland? What was the deciding factor?” From researching I know that the majority of my ancestors left for religious freedom, freedom from tyranny, starvation, dictators, rape, violence, and war.
I think about my Irish ancestors during the great famine walking down roads lined with decaying bodies of the deceased, hoping to make it to a ship that will bring them to New Orleans – if they survive the passage. I think about my 16 year-old Polish great-great grandmother leaving her village, never to see her mother or homeland again due to war with Russia.
Many of my paternal ancestors who arrived in the American Colonies ended up fighting as patriots during the American Revolution. Even they were ready for a different country – not merely existing as a colony of England.
I wonder if when my ancestors left, they were told they were overreacting or making a hasty decision? They came from countries with hundreds and hundreds of years of war, strife, and foreign-occupation. Even so, did they expect they would leave? They were the lucky ones with some kind of resource(s) to get out. These are questions I wish I had answers to.
My own husband is an immigrant. His family left the USSR in 1991 for the USA in the hopes of a better life. I find their bravery remarkable. I lived in another country for a year and while I enjoyed it, I was immensely homesick for things I did not know you could be homesick for. And I knew I would be coming back home! My husband and his family, his ancestors, and my ancestors, knew they could never go home again.
When a big change takes place in the United States many people often say they will leave the country. I cannot help but read their statement and reflect upon it myself. The sacrifice my ancestors made for me to live a privileged life leaves me speechless. The answer to “When do you leave your country?” may seem obvious (war, loss of rights) but to me the answer is when I think my country is not worth fighting for. Right now there are too many things and people worth protecting and standing up for, too many things that I love about my country. Yet…I do hope for my ancestor’s wisdom in knowing when it is time to pack up and bring your values to a welcoming place.