Avoiding the word "zhydivskyi" means silencing trauma: Oleksandr Averbuch

"I am not afraid of the word zhyd. It does not hurt me, and I want it not to hurt anyone else." So says the poet and translator Oleksandr Averbuch during a conversation about his new collection, Zhydivskyi Korol, on today's episode of  Encounters, our program about Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

"I am not afraid of the word zhyd"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You have already explained why you chose this title; that's what your grandmother called you. Nevertheless, I think that this word is very shrill, and it hurts me. Why was it important for you to title your collection this way?

Oleksandr Averbuch: Yes, this is an autoquote I introduced into the title of the collection. In reality, the original title was supposed to be The Last Supper of My Body. But after some hesitation, I changed it at the layout stage, practically at the last moment.

You must understand that this is a thorny, even taunting, term, whose problematic nature I wanted to denature. This is like some unspeakable words, specters that cannot be touched or even pronounced. People sometimes fear these concept words; they convey some kind of heavy atmospheric load, occasionally a sense of guilt and shame. After all, there are Jews who, to this day, are ashamed of their Jewishness and Ukrainians who are ashamed of something in their past. Various therapeutic, psychological practices recommend talking about trauma, giving voice to what troubles us. They urge the banishment of fear and engagement of this comfort zone.

This non-use of the word zhyd (and zhydivskyi), its avoidance, is a comfort zone, a zone of suppression. But if you think about it, you'll see that in culture, and not just in Ukrainian culture, we have different words and concepts that cannot even be pronounced. And this tendency is foreign to me as a poet because, in my understanding, a word cannot be shameful. It can be anything: painful, powerful, or horrible, but it should never elicit shame.

Ukraine and Ukrainians have a complicated relationship with Ukrainian Jews. In recent years, people have begun to discuss, talk, and somewhat recognize this trauma and this problem, but I see that shame and guilt are not disappearing. These feelings are generally destructive; they help no one, and silence merely aggravates the situation. Therefore, having no problems with this word, I, a Jew, have used it in the title of my collection, wishing to free this word of all the encumbrances it carries and of all the fuss surrounding it.

Having no problems with this word, I, a Jew, have used it in the title of my collection, wishing to free this word of all the encumbrances it carries and of all the fuss surrounding it.

Simply put, I am not talking just about this word. There is an entire discourse out there on guilt and understatement. It makes it awkward for everyone, both Ukrainians and Jews. That is why I am releasing everyone from these discomforts. I am not afraid of this word, and I want it not to hurt anyone else. And if it does not hurt people, the problem will vanish, as I see it. It won't offend me or anyone who now finds it offensive, who uses it — they will be stripped of the power to offend or hurt me.

This denaturing that I mentioned is kind of relieving the stress around Jews, the guilt, and the complicated relationship between Jews and Ukrainians. I hope that, by my bringing this word, this phrase into the title of my poetry collection, I have in some way violated established superstitions and the prohibitions on something symbolic, on restrictions that are placed on us by the authorities, discourse, norms, society, and history. One of the aims of poetry is to deconstruct these established norms, to talk about what is forbidden, to violate the universally accepted, sometimes obligatory order or various rules governing human behavior in a society, and finally — to mock them. I hope that this is what I did with this title.

"I discovered and became aware of various parts of my ethnic identity"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: I have no doubts about the point you just made, especially after reading and delving into the poems in your collection. I am quoting a fragment of the poem that has now become quite popular:

"I forgave myself for my Ukrainian great-grandfather, who took part in a pogrom against my Jewish great-grandfather
I forgave my Polish great-grandmother, who tore the braids of my Jewish great-grandmother
I forgave myself for my Muscovite great-grandfather, who grabbed the last scrap of food from my Ukrainian great-grandmother
I forgave my Jewish great-grandmother, who wrote a denunciation against my Ukrainian great-grandfather."

(Translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky)

I can only guess how painful it was for you to work on this and go through it. As I understand it, writing this collection took quite a long time. How much time did you spend before arriving at these lines?

Oleksandr Averbuch: You mentioned the work done on myself, about that path. I would define this as recognition of something that cannot be repudiated. In other words, our ancestors exist; they brought us into being, and nothing can be done about this. You must understand that at every stage of my rather short life so far, I clung to another part of my ethnic identity. It was important to me, especially in my teenage years.

Until I was around 13 or 14, I read a lot in Ukrainian. I belonged to a bunch of clubs and a choir; we performed songs for various holidays, especially Christian ones. My Ukrainianness was total. At that time, my grandmother was teaching the Ukrainian language and literature at my school. This was also a period of intensified Ukrainization in the early 1990s, that is, the mid-1990s.

A little later, I began reading more about Jewry and Judaism. I was invited to visit the Jewish community in Luhansk. People began lobbying about immigrating to Israel. And this was terribly interesting for me. This was something completely new for me. Later, in the letters written by my great-grandmother on my grandfather's side, I read that she was Polish. This was even more interesting to me. My Ukrainian, Jewish, and Russian parts had always been there. I was aware of them, but the Polish one — this was something so distant; it was not mine at all at the time.

I began to ask questions about what was what and who they were, those Poles. You emphasized the work that I did on myself. I would say that it was, rather, gradual self-discovery. It was not like having a family and knowing everyone — your ancestors, who they are, and where they came from. It was quite the opposite. I had a sense that all my ancestors were coming together gradually. This reminds me of the way photographs are developed. You don't see everything immediately, but silhouettes, details, and various facts eventually emerge.

For example, my great-grandfather, whom I mentioned in this poem, was indeed denounced by a Jewish woman. Because of this, he was imprisoned for 10 years. I only found out about this when I was 15 years old. This process of forgiving is gradual. It runs parallel to self-discovery — what and who you are, what you are made of.

A few years ago, I learned that one of my great-grandfathers was a German, who lived in the village of Novhorodske, now renamed New York (Donetsk oblast). And this also perplexes me as a Jew, but that is the texture of life, so to speak. It is not monotonous but interesting, full of problems, and at times painful. I sometimes watch documentaries about the descendants of Nazis who knew nothing about their grandfathers and their actions during the Second World War, how they had been SS men, and the like. And when they discover this, sometimes it breaks them psychologically, causing severe trauma. But I didn't suffer a collapse like that. On the contrary, it spurred me and continues to spur me on to realizing something that is very natural to humanity, full of contradictions and conflicts, because life is not smooth and simple. This is the truth of life. This is life itself — the one which lies ahead of us, which is in us, and which we live every day.

I think that I am not the only person in Ukraine with such an ethnic hodgepodge and family mix-ups in my veins. And I am certain that I am not the only one who thinks about this constantly and tries to come to terms with his past and present, even these days when all processes have accelerated, and the question of identity is very important.

"Various countries and nations are helping you to understand yourself better"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: We have already talked at length about this process of becoming aware of oneself, accepting oneself, or understanding oneself. I would like to clarify something. You were born in Luhansk. From 2001, you lived in Israel, where you served in the army, and since 2015 you have been living in Canada*. Has this wide-ranging experience of living in different countries helped you become aware of and understand yourself? Did it bring some special moments that you would like to share?

Oleksandr Averbuch: I was not born in Luhansk but in the large village of Novoaidar, in Luhansk oblast, approximately 60 km from the city of Luhansk and 15 km from Sievierodonetsk. You've mentioned geography and space. They are essential for me because constantly being in one place is intolerable. I am a nomad at heart and want to see and feel new places, [meet] new people, and hear new languages. Yes, absolutely, this helps me to understand myself better. I sometimes imagine myself in Novoaidar to this very day. I left in 2001, but who would I be if I had stayed? Who would be my friends and colleagues? What would my views be? I would have been a different person, but at the same time — me.

Out of the blue, I found a few relatives in Canada. I was doing genealogical research and posted to a group on Facebook a photo of my great-grandmother that was taken in Vinnytsia sometime in 1923. And a woman who had the exact same photograph wrote to me. It turns out that they are the descendants of my great-grandmother's cousin, who immigrated to Canada in 1914. They managed to escape some two months before the war. This was so unexpected that I was shocked.

We met, and they brought the very same photograph, because my great-grandfather had sent it to them from Canada. But they lost contact after 1923. Nearly a hundred years later, we were sitting together, and I looked at their faces because I wanted to recognize something of myself. It was so moving! This is not my native country. I have no one here, yet here I am, finding people who are like me in some way.

Besides this, I communicated a lot with the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, especially in the first few years. This had a profound impact on me. It was in this very milieu that I began to write a lot in the Ukrainian language. Before Canada, I had never written anything in Ukrainian.

Israel influenced me mostly in the context of understanding my Jewishness, but Ukrainians were practically inactive there. During the 15 years that I lived there, I did not speak Ukrainian at all. To this day, it is easier for me to communicate in Hebrew. Each country where I lived showed me something new, but at the same time, I tried to search for and discover something or someone similar to me, even physically. In my Canadian relatives, I very much wanted to find something that unites us — and I found it. In other words, this self-discovery quest is conditioned both by external circumstances and the fluidity of time, when a person simply matures.

Each of the countries where I lived showed me something new, but at the same time, I tried to search for and discover something or someone like me, even physically

I have never seen my father, not even in photographs. But I know that he lives in Rostov, Russia. I have a half-sister whom I've never seen either. I have a poem about this. I want to see him, to see her, because my self-knowledge is incomplete without this, without this half. It's like looking at a photograph that is only half-developed. I don't know whether I will be able to do this today because it's Rostov. But I would really like to see this part and get to know it, because they are my father and my sister. These are very close people whom I simply do not know, have never seen, and can't imagine what they look like.

"After the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I realized that the Holocaust was also a Ukrainian tragedy"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: I watched the launch of your collection The Jewish King, where you read a few poems. It was difficult to listen to them because it is such a powerful shock. At a certain moment, I asked myself: Would this have affected me as much had the full-scale invasion not happened, if I had not experienced all those horrors that I am experiencing and have already experienced? And I couldn't even reply honestly to myself. In your opinion, will that which is happening in Ukraine today help us understand Ukrainian Jews and the Holocaust tragedy and discover something, perhaps? What is your general view?

Oleksandr Averbuch: In general, history and its horrors teach us something. We gain historical experience. Even if some tragedy has happened to another nation or territory, this is still experience.

You mentioned the Holocaust, which is directly connected with Ukraine. In my view, this was a Ukrainian tragedy, and it is not disconnected from Ukraine and ethnic Ukrainians. When we talk about the Holocaust, this is a Ukrainian national catastrophe. I recently discussed this with someone I know, a good friend and a well-known Ukrainian poet. He emphasized that the Holocaust is not just a Jewish tragedy but also a Ukrainian tragedy. Until that moment, I perceived the Holocaust as something purely Jewish, as a catastrophe, and thought that understanding and honoring the victims was the exclusive domain of Jews. This war fundamentally changed my view of this.

The Holocaust is not just a Jewish tragedy but also a Ukrainian tragedy

I am familiar with numerous monographs on the Holocaust in the Ukrainian context, memorials, and projects. But in my perception, before the war, all this was somehow disconnected from the real tragedy that we know and write about and which only we, Jews, can write about because this is our tragedy.

There is an expression often applied to "untouchable" religious figures or topics: "Don't bring it up." It is so painful that you can't even imagine how someone will broach it. In a certain sense, this is a monopoly on a topic, a segment of culture into which an outsider is denied entry.

However, this ongoing war in Ukraine and the horrors experienced by Ukrainians and Jews on the territory of Ukraine are connected in some way and provide a context that is crucial to understanding what is taking place right now. Of course, we are talking about some precedent, but we understand what the Holocaust was. And this remark of my friend was an epiphany for me and liberation from the prison in which a Jew is one-on-one with a catastrophe, or a Ukrainian is one-on-one with a catastrophe. It is a prison where, because of great pain and fear, these communities do not see those suffering alongside them, even if this is the enormous Ukrainian diaspora that doesn't live in Ukraine. How does one deal with this segment of Ukrainian society?

Put differently, this realization is also part of some new aspect of the identity of Ukrainian society, which is changing these days.

"Ukrainian literature today is ideal"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In conversation with Oksana Lutsyshyna for Chytomo, you said that "European literatures, especially post-Soviet ones, are ethnocentric for the most part — the consequence of centuries of colonialism. This is normal for cultures that are building themselves and seeking self-understanding." So, how do you see the process of creating Ukrainian literature, and what is the Jewish voice in it? How do you see the ideal version?

Oleksandr Averbuch: I want to see it the way it is today, as one that is evolving, seeking to understand itself, seeking to be independent and, mainly, beyond the control of those who have tried to subordinate it. In my opinion, the way that Ukrainian literature exists today, both within the country and outside it, is ideal, even if there are occasional disputes and arguments. All this is literature. Literature cannot be ideal in the sense that it will always be free of problems and conflicts. That is not the ideal. Literature must be discordant, sometimes quarrelsome, one that poses questions but does not always provide answers. The kind that unites, builds, and kills. This is power, and that is what contemporary Ukrainian literature is doing both in Ukraine and in the international context. It is spirited, and its life is very fast-paced, fascinating, and confounding, with sharp turns and unexpected discoveries.

In my view, literature is created and evolves on the basis of such fractures, tragedies, and joys, and we have all this. And let it be thus.

*Averbuch is currently a research fellow at Harvard University (USA).

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.