Hugging grandpa, or the story of one 'vyshyvanka'

Grandfather's faces, 1939–1941–1945. Mykhailo (Michael, Misha) Pomyansky, my maternal grandfather. Transformations of a Jewish youth from the Ukrainian Myrhorod, sung by Gogol in the Poltava region.

I look at photo #1: The face of a perky young man, May 1939. A fine graduation suit with a rhombus-shaped Soviet award badge, "Ready for work and defense" that was awarded either for sports achievements or for parachuting. His face radiates optimism, supplemented by some naivete.

I look at photo #2: Spring 1941. The horror of the ongoing war is evident in the eyes. On the back of the photo, there is an inscription with a Yiddish accent/grammar: "In memory of my dear parents, from the service in the Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet, Tiurin-Saari Island."

Behind him lies the Winter War, his participation in the occupation of the Finnish islands near Viipuri (Vyborg). After being drafted into the army from the warm Poltava region, Michael was thrown into battle to storm Finnish reinforced concrete fortifications in the winter of 1939-1940.

Of that war, my grandfather remembered only crawling in the snow with a heavy walkie-talkie. And a short moment of fate: standing under a pine tree, as he bends down to fix something, a shell fragment digs into the tree trunk precisely where his chest had been a second earlier. In a moment of rare luck in wartime, he was not hurt.

Sometimes, I have a desire, or rather a spiritual need, to apologize to the Finnish people, although no one authorized me to apologize, and there is not much to apologize for, but... In short, I continue to reflect further.

My grandfather and his comrades were evacuated from Tiurin-Saari in October 1941 to Kronstadt under the blows of a new war. In October 1942, they were transferred from the Baltic to the Black Sea for service in the Novorossiysk detachment of "Sea Hunter" boats.

I look at photo #3: The face of a seasoned "sea wolf," a sergeant major of the second degree, with the Order of the Red Star in Sevastopol in May 1945. "Anti-aircraft gunner, squad leader," says a military ID.

Grandpa Misha never said why he received a military order. When I asked him about the war, he laughed it off or mentioned oddities like the dead dolphin that he and his comrades fried near Constanța, Romania.

It was only thirty years after the death of my grandfather that I learned the truth of his participation in the Tarkhan landing on 10 January 1944 in Crimea. It occurred during a storm and in icy water on the prepared German defense line north of Kerch without Soviet air support.

The landing was unnecessary — except for Stalin's Marshal Voroshilov's desire to command his own operation when his rival commanders were already entering Crimea from other bridgeheads.

Almost 3,000 sailors and marines were thrown to the slaughter. They were shot at point-blank range from the shore and the air, and storm waves drowned those who had not yet landed.

I learned about the details of that nightmare only from the archival description of his award.

"Comrade Pomyansky showed bravery and courage during the Tarkhan landing. He spotted four enemy planes in time and opened fire on them. Being a gunner, he aimed his gun precisely, not paying attention to the enemy's artillery and mortar fire. Thanks to his precise fire, the planes strayed from their combat course and dropped their bombs into the sea without harming either the boat or the personnel landing on the shore.

The boat emerged victorious in the duel of the boat with 36 Junkers Ju.87 (popularly known as "Stuka" — Ed.) aircraft. Comrade Pomyansky calmly aimed his gun at the target, transferring fire from one group to another. Accurate shooting from Comrade Pomyansky's gun forced the enemy planes to turn off their combat course, which saved the boat. All attacks by enemy aircraft were repelled, and the boat gained its victory.

Comrade Pomyansky showed exemplary courage and bravery, rescuing people and weapons from sinking motorized boats. At the threat of being washed away by a wave, he unloaded weapons and ammunition from motorboats while showing endurance and contempt for death."

Contempt for death. Tell us, you antisemites, more about the "Jews who sat it out in Tashkent." Tell this to the Russian artist and Putin's hanger-on Khabensky, who speaks of the courage of the leader of the uprising in the Sobibor death camp "despite his belonging to the Jewish nation."

When I look from the height of decades at an unnecessary, stupid slaughter on a secondary sector of the front, and I think that because of the ambitions of the marshal, it could be that neither my grandfather nor I would exist, then a mystical horror seizes me. It demonstrates a civilization that spits on its people as well as on other people's lives.

All I dream about on Victory Day — and this is not May 9th, which Putin has spoiled for several years, but the all-European May 8th — regaining the right, as in childhood, to polish military awards for my grandpa, a Jewish front-line soldier. And to feel this wiping of medals with a cloth as a bygone happiness of a distant childhood.

His Red Star Order and other medals are now kept in my Israeli house. I show these awards to my children, born between Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea.

I emphasize to them: When you are told about that terrible era on the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism, you should know that your great-grandfather, a simple Jewish Misha from Ukrainian Myrhorod, beat the Nazis with weapons in his hands and defeated them.

Contempt for death from the one who has seen it. An anti-aircraft gunner, and after the war — a cheerful shoemaker in Kharkiv, "a master of individual tailoring of shoes" in the old part of Moskovsky Prospekt, a lover of Myrhorodska mineral water from the town of his childhood. My beloved grandpa Misha.

In the late 1950s, he bought a Ukrainian cambric vyshyvanka (embroidered shirt), light and silky, with beautiful ornaments. It was not only the fashion of the Khrushchev era, but also the memory of his youth in the Poltava region, where such embroidered shirts were the norm.

In this photo, taken around 1958–1960 with my then-eight-year-old mother, he wore such an embroidered shirt.

A Black Sea sailor, handsome as a young Robert De Niro, he accompanied each award of "Hero Stars" for Brezhnev with very salty sea curses. "Well, we did not see this [obscene] near Novorossiysk!" — my grandfather exclaimed.

In the late 1970s, my grandfather lost first one and then the other leg due to illness. He moved around in a wheelchair, but he nonetheless remained a great optimist. I proudly pushed his carriage or walked with him along the alley when he pushed himself, listening to his memories of the war and life, and telling him about the books I've read.

My grandfather's sister, Katya, married a Polish Jew and left with him in 1946 for the future Israel. Brother and sister saw each other only once in 20 years, when Katya came to Kharkiv, and then they never saw each other again.

But the Israeli aunt showered us with gifts and Israeli postcards. Coming to the apartment of Grandpa Misha and Grandma Yulia, the first thing I did was open the drawer of the sideboard, which contained new letters from Israel, examining strange envelopes with the emblem of a flying deer — a symbol of the Israel Post — and peeled off stamps with views of a distant country and words in Hebrew.

The postcards featured a candelabra with seven branches, a ram's horn, an open book with the inscription "Happy New Year!" sent for some reason in September; in another picture, soldiers were smiling against a high wall of huge stone blocks.

My mother married in 1970 in an Israeli dress sent by an aunt from Haifa. Only now do I understand that in the grayest years of the late Soviet era, I was dressed in colored shirts and played with outlandish toys from Israel.

The Haifa-Kharkiv postal service in my grandfather's house, which lasted for decades, eventually filled me, a Soviet teenager, with a craving for Israel. The view of Haifa Bay was familiar to me from a postcard from the early 1980s. Therefore, it is not surprising that I chose the shores of Carmel to live my life.

My mother brought her father's embroidered shirt to Haifa as a piece of memory about him. And then she gave me this shirt. Grandfather seemed big and broad-shouldered, but his Ukrainian summer shirt suited me perfectly.

Yelizaveta Bubelo, a researcher of ethnic clothing from Left-Bank Ukraine, determined that this is a festive vyshyvanka with ornaments from the Poltava region. My grandfather bought it in his native Myrhorod when he rested there.

I rarely wear this vyshyvanka — for example, on Ukrainian Independence Day, and even then, not every year. The shirt is already 65 years old, but its ornament looks bright and rich.

Look at the picture. I called this photo "Hugging Grandpa".

Because I can no longer hug him — he is buried in a cemetery in Kharkiv, which Russian missiles have shelled for the third year. In the same way, Russian aggressors are striking with missiles and Iranian drones the peaceful Ukrainian cities of Myrhorod and Poltava — in front of a silent world.

But my tallit — a Jewish prayer veil — can "hug" grandfather's Ukrainian vyshyvanka.

These two items are quite comfortable together — both in the wardrobe and in my modern worldview, in which Jewish and Israeli things are typically combined and intertwined with many things Ukrainian.

This is the story of one such vyshyvanka.

Text and photos: Shimon Briman (Israel).