Sunday, August 21, 2011

Exploring My Poltava Homeland

I've always known my Dad's side of the family came from Poltava. To me it was just a name of a remote Ukrainian early 20th century farming village where there were nasty pogroms that caused my grandfather Petrov Wolfovitch to relocate the family to America. He left Poltava in 1904 when my grandmother, Olga was pregnant with my Dad. About six months after my Dad was born (in 1905) Olga and all of her children (Sonia, Sam, Sol and my Dad, then named Isidore) boarded a ship to America. None of them ever returned to visit Poltava.

Tears filled my eyes as my train neared the Poltava station. Finally, I was returning to my Ukrainian homeland! Obviously much has changed in the last 106 years! When they left and until the early 1940s, Poltava was a major Jewish there are some Jews, but not nearly the numbers there once were. What has struck me the most was how similar Poltava is to my hometown Palo Alto. I keep wondering if there is some bio-geographical gene that draws people to live in certain places. The overall feeling here is one of friendliness, safety, nature and beauty. Like my visit to Iasi, Romania (my maternal homeland), I feel this deep reconnection with my roots.

Being a second generation American, I was raised pretty much clueless about my homelands. Sometimes we would eat borscht, vatroushki, piroushki and mumiliga; but it was all pretty remote. Iasi and Poltava seemed like distant places in that grand geography of things. Growing up in California, I mostly heard about New York City as my family's cultural homeland. And truly if the two sides of my family had not migrated to New York, there's no way I would have ever come into existence!

The clouds and the light here in Poltava feel familiar. And despite that the Russian signage and language is a blur, I've been finding my way around just fine. Today one of the hotel desk receptionists gave me a note she had typed in Russian to use to buy my final train ticket to Kiev. I found my way down to the local bus stop and showed it to the money collector who then motioned to me when to get off. At the train station, I handed it to the ticket clerk and voila, $11 later, I had a ticket. Afterwards I explored the little market stalls by the train station and then caught a bus into town.

Having completely run out of hair conditioner, I thought I'd try to buy some. It was super challenging trying to figure out what was what by looking a pictures of split ends that then looked magically repaired after using these strangely named products. Suddenly an English speaking Russian woman appeared and explained it all to me. I bought her suggestion and then began to chat her up. She's an English teacher and a tour guide, I wanted to hire her on the spot! Already obligated, she walked me to the Poltava History Museum which apparently has one the best collections anywhere in the Ukraine. She then told me where to walk afterwards to find explore some of the city's spectacular temples.

The museum had no signage in English, but I could tell by the passion in which the Russian-speaking tour guides were explaining things that it was all pretty amazing. Being a seasoned museum-visitor, I could pretty much tell what I was seeing...and altogether I felt I'd absorbed much of what 18th and 19th century life in the Ukraine (when my family lived here) was like. My sense of rootedness increased exponentially!

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