Ukraine is engulfed in a war not of its own choosing.
This is not a news flash.
Ukraine is half a world away from us, but much of it was in the Pale of Settlement, the place where many of our grandparents or great-grandparents were born. We watch the pain and suffering civilians continue to endure, all over Ukraine, every day. We look at maps of Russian advances and retreats and wish that we could do something that would make a difference. Other than volunteering to go over and fight ourselves — which is hardly an option — and donating to one of the many big charities that have pivoted to support Ukraine, there isn’t much we can do.
Except, perhaps, that we can learn from people who know a lot about Ukraine. Perhaps from the four people who will hold an art auction they’re calling Art for Peace in Glen Rock. (See box.)
The group’s leaders include Dimitri and Regina Viadro of Glen Rock and Dana Lazich and Vitaly Zaslavsky of Summit.
The Viadros and Mr. Zaslavsky were born in Moscow, and Ms. Lazich was born in Bosnia. Mr. Viadro’s grandfathers were Jewish, one grandmother was Russian Orthodox, and the other was half-Jewish. Neither of his parents converted to Judaism, and he is not Jewish. Ms. Viadro, however, is fully Jewish on both sides of her family, and the Viadro children all are being raised as Jews. Mr. Zaslavsky, who came to this country in 1995, is fully Jewish. While Ms. Lazich’s mother’s family was fully Jewish—she arrived in the U.S. in 1996—her mom did marry a man who was Greek Orthodox. However, he insisted that Ms. Lazich and her sister be raised as Jews.
So their stories all are complicated — but none of them are Ukrainians.
Mr. Zaslavsky is a financial engineer — that means he tests and issues new investment tools and methods of analysis for clients — at JP Morgan. He and Ms. Lazich are parents to Dasha, 24, Maya, 16, and Polina, 4. The need to support Ukraine is clear, he said. “It’s about the injustice.” HIs friends back in Russia share his reaction to their country’s savage and indiscriminate war, he said. Although they’re being fed Kremlin propaganda about Russia’s euphemistically named special military operation, “they all know the truth.”
Well, almost all of them, Mr. Zaslavsky continued. He has three uncles on his paternal side. “One of them lives in Kyiv, a second in Haifa, and a third in Moscow. My uncles in Kyiv and Haifa are on the same page with us,” he said. But no matter what they tell him, his uncle in Moscow doesn’t believe that the Ukrainians are the victims. Instead, he parrots the Putin line that Russia is liberating Ukraine from the Nazis. Mr. Zaslavsky’s uncle feels Ukraine is a threat to Russian autonomy. “None of this is true,” he said. “But we can’t convince him otherwise.”
Though seven in 10 Americans see Russia as the enemy in the war, according to a recent Pew study, that means that about 30% agreed with Mr. Zaslavsky’s Moscow uncle. Mr. Viadro sees the auction as a perfect opportunity for him and his co-organizers to change the opinions of those who are willing to listen with an open mind.
The Viadros have four children — Anna, 23, Eric, 18, Michael, 11, and Nina, 8. Mr. Viadro is the CFO of a division of a hedge fund headquartered in New York. His father, a physician and Ph.D. specializing in cancer research, earned permanent residence in the United States with status as a person of extraordinary ability; that allowed Mr. Viadro and his mother to get green cards in 1996. Like Mr. Zaslavsky, Mr. Viadro is passionate about his support of Ukraine.
He plans on talking at the auction about what it feels like to be in Russia these days. His Russian friends tell him that the atmosphere is stifling. It’s a society that never has been truly free, but by now offers no freedom except the freedom to leave — and people are exercising that option in droves.
“We have a pretty good perspective about everything that’s going on,” Mr. Viadro said. “We read many news sources. We’ve gone to Russia at least a dozen times over the last years. Every time we’re there, we feel there’s less and less air left.” His colleagues and friends tell them how unbearable it has become to live in Russia. “You can’t speak your mind or have an opinion that’s against the official party line. Over the last few months, life in Russia has gotten progressively worse.”
The atmosphere in Ukraine couldn’t be more different, Mr. Viadro says; his observation is based on his frequent trips there. It should be clear to even a casual observer, he notes, that while Russia and Ukraine have a lot in common — the same or a similar language (many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language) a similar history and culture — the Ukrainians have something the Russians don’t.
Ukraine offers basic, Western-style democracy, Mr. Viadro said. Ukrainians chose democracy over a Kremlin style dictatorship during the 2014 Maidan revolution, when they protested President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to draw closer to Russia and then overthrew his government.
In the minds of Russia’s leaders, Mr. Viadro said, “Ukraine has emerged as the anti-Russia. They don’t want an anti-Russia on their borders. It’s true. Ukraine is anti-Russia,” he added, laughing. “That’s in a good way.”
Both of his grandfathers were from Ukraine, Mr. Viadro said. “They lived in typical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’-type shtetls, one in the Dnipro region, the other in the Cherkassy region. Those areas were constantly changing hands. Sometimes it was the Red Army in control, sometimes the White. Or it was the anarchists or the local militia. It didn’t really matter who it was. It was always the Jews who were the most vulnerable.” It was the Jews who paid the price in violence.
Before the Russian Revolution, it was against the law for Jews to leave the Pale and live in Russia proper. But then, in early 1917, the law was abolished and Jews were permitted to live wherever they wanted in the Russian empire. Mr. Viadro’s grandfathers were able to move, in the early 1920s, and they both did..
People fleeing violence in Ukraine today aren’t running toward Moscow, as Mr. Viadro’s grandparents did. There aren’t any shtetls, per se, in Ukraine now. But just as his grandparents’ generation were victims of Russian aggression, so are Ukrainians the victims of this generation of Russian soldiers.
Speaking of the horrors and atrocities his own family went through 100 years ago and what we see today on TV and online today, Mr. Viadro is horrified. “I can’t get the stories I was told of what my family went through out of my mind,” he said. The world, reading about seeing images of the barbarities Russian troops committed against Ukrainians in places like Bucha, can’t get that out of their minds either.
Ms. Lazich, who is a clinical trial manager at Bristol Meyers Squibb, also struggles with trying to erase the horrific images. As she thinks about the terrors that Ukrainian women confront as they decide whether to stay or go — will their children l be safer trying to find shelter against Russia’s indiscriminate bombing or seeking safe haven elsewhere — she remembers her own Ukrainian family’s story.
Her grandmother’s father and brother were killed in battle soon after the Germans invaded in World War II. Ms. Lazich’s grandmother, her great-grandmother, and her great-aunt were shoved onto a train going to Uzbekistan, with no food or water, and her great-grandmother and her great-aunt died of typhus on that train.
And she also remembers when she was 13, in 1993, and the war in Bosnia was in full swing.
Ms. Lazich’s mother, who was born and grew up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, married a Serbian in 1978 — that’s Ms. Lazich’s father — and the family moved to Zenica, a city north of Sarajevo in Bosnia.
On April 19, 1993, the Croatian Defense Council launched a howitzer-fired grenade that hit a marketplace in the middle of the city. Sixteen people were killed and 50 were injured. Until then, similar attacks had destroyed some of the city’s suburbs, but that was the first time the city center was hit. As the sounds of exploding bombs came closer, Ms. Lazich felt that Zenica was being encircled — and the circle was being tightened.
After the attack on Zenica’s center, Ms. Lazich, her mother, and her 5-year-old sister somehow managed to escape their house. “We got on a train going to Belgrade, where it was safe,” she said. “The trip should have taken six to eight hours. Instead, because of the fighting everywhere, it took days.” They arrived exhausted, unsure of where they were going and what would happen to them. “This is exactly what’s happening to those fleeing the fighting in Ukraine now,” she said. (Later her father joined the family, and her parents live in Springfield today.)
As Ms. Lazich imagines what it must be like trying to escape Kharkiv, Irpin, or worst of all, Mariupol, she is brought to tears. “As a child you look up to your parents and hope they can save you,” she said. From her experience in the Bosnian war, she knows full well that while her mother saved her and her sister, parents cannot always save their children. Sometimes there’s nowhere to hide — maybe there’s a cellar with no heat, no water, and no food. Or maybe the family can escape. Hers did.
Ms. Viadro, who is a vice president and co-head of Epam North America, a multinational company that delivers digital and other software solutions for some of the world’s biggest brands, also knows what it’s like to be a refugee. She and her parents and older brother came to the United States in 1993, as the former Soviet Union was falling apart. “We had the option to come here or to go to Israel,” she said. “We chose here, because my brother had been accepted into a Ph.D. program at Yale in math.
“At the start of the war, Epam had 14,000 employees in Ukraine,” she continued; many of them were in the eastern part of the country, where the Russians have focused their assault. “I’ve traveled to Ukraine many times. I’ve built deep connections with many people there over the 17 years I’ve been with Epam. I work with these people on a daily basis.”
When the war started, she took on a new role at work. Helping the refugees pouring out of Ukraine became part of her job.
“I found myself working seven days a week,” Ms. Viadro said. “The men who work for Epam couldn’t leave because of martial law.” Ukraine has mandated that men between 18 and 60 must stay in the country, but everyone else can leave. “But their families could, and so could Epam’s female employees.” So she began to move people out of danger zones.
“We have offices all over eastern and central Europe,” Ms. Viadro said. “People from those offices came to the Ukrainian border and took Ukrainians back to the offices in their cities. The offices became shelters. To accommodate the needs of the children, we built playrooms for them. Volunteers brought in food and other necessities. Many people opened their homes.” In fact, the Viadros are hosting three Ukrainian refugees in their home in Glen Rock: a 21-year-old woman from Kharkiv, and a 50-year-old woman and her 14-year-old daughter from Odesa.
Because they see the auction as an educational opportunity as well as a fundraiser, the Viadros, Ms. Lazich, and Mr. Zaslavsky will be on hand to talk to visitors “We hope people will leave more knowledgeable than before,” Mr. Viadro said. “They will know more about Ukraine and what’s going on there.
“And if they buy one of the pieces of art being offered, they will have something they can take home to remember the event.”
“There’ll be an opportunity to speak to the artists,” Ms. Viadro added. “It will be a fun day, with activities for the children, and of course refreshments.”
For Mr. Zaslavsky, the art auction is a way to put a truth into action. “If you know something isn’t right, no matter how far away that it’s happening, you have to stand up and do something about it.”
What: A silent action by Art for Peace NJ
When: On Saturday, May 21, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Where: 460 Doremus Avenue, Glen Rock
Why: To raise money for Ukraine
For more information, including how to donate artwork, call (201) 590-5060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More than 100 items have already been donated by artists and will be auctioned off, including paintings, ceramics, and jewelry. It’s still possible for artists to donate their work for the auction. All the proceeds will go to the Leleka Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that provides medical equipment for Ukrainian hospitals. Receipts for tax purposes will be provided.
Also, please note that the organizers know it will be hard for observant Jews to participate in the auctions, because it will take place on Shabbat. They regret the timing. If the auction is successful, however, they would like to repeat it, and hope that the next one will be at a time when observant Jews can attend.