Sasha’s grand­fa­ther taught her how to row a boat, but not what it meant to be Jewish.

All pho­tos cour­tesy of the author

There were two things my favorite grand­fa­ther – my dad’s dad and the inspi­ra­tion for my nov­el Your Pres­ence is Manda­to­ry–nev­er talked about: being Jew­ish and the war.

I don’t remem­ber when exact­ly I learned that my Ukrain­ian grand­pa was actu­al­ly a mem­ber of the tribe. It must have been after the fall of the Sovi­et Union, when the con­cept of Jew­ish­ness first entered my periph­ery. Until then, all reli­gion was seen by Com­mu­nists as opi­um for the mass­es and was sup­posed to be hid­den away; I’d nev­er seen him light Hanukkah can­dles, touch a mezuzah, or eat chal­lah. In fact, I didn’t even know what these things were.

The fall of com­mu­nism opened the doors for Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions to set up shop all over East­ern Europe and allowed many Jew­ish par­ents and grand­par­ents – who’d been hid­ing their iden­ti­ty – to tell their chil­dren they were dif­fer­ent from their Slav­ic friends. 

Yet my grand­pa remained silent. Instead, the news about my iden­ti­ty was bro­ken to me by my moth­er, Jew­ish her­self from my mater­nal grand­moth­er, when she took me to a Purim par­ty in Moscow. I still remem­ber the elec­tric feel­ing of enter­ing a room of cos­tumed strangers who belonged to what seemed like a secret society.

In school the next day, I glowed with a sense of being unique among my class­mates. Spe­cial, even. And yet, I instinc­tive­ly felt that in Rus­sia my iden­ti­ty wasn’t some­thing to adver­tise. No one in my school knew I was Jew­ish because I hadn’t inher­it­ed a Jew­ish last name.

Grand­pa, whose patri­lin­eal last name I should have car­ried, had grown up in a large Jew­ish fam­i­ly in a Ukrain­ian vil­lage. His par­ents spoke Yid­dish. They prob­a­bly cel­e­brat­ed Shab­bat and maybe even went to syn­a­gogue, until the Com­mu­nist regime changed its views on tol­er­ance and it became safer to blend in with all things Russ­ian. By the time Grand­pa, already a World War II vet­er­an, mar­ried my Ukrain­ian grand­moth­er, the coun­try was going through an intense peri­od of anti­semitism in the last year of Stalin’s life. So when my grand­moth­er gave birth to my father, he was giv­en her Ukrain­ian last name for his safe­ty. That’s the name I car­ry today, the one on the cov­er of Your Pres­ence is Manda­to­ry. Grandpa’s last name, passed down from gen­er­a­tions before him, disappeared.

The thing was – he didn’t seem to mind. Even in the freer post-Sovi­et years, Grand­pa nev­er took me to Purim par­ties. When Grand­ma, a non-Jew, got a job at a Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion and began to teach me about Rosh Hashanah, he did not take part. In fact, I nev­er saw him express any form of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty what­so­ev­er. To me, he was a World War II vet­er­an, a retired geol­o­gist, and the best latke-mak­er on the plan­et. He was always the one to meet me when I arrived by train to his city in Ukraine, the one who took me fish­ing, the one who trust­ed me to row him around on a sim­ple wood­en river­boat. And though I ulti­mate­ly knew he was Jew­ish, I nev­er real­ly thought of him as such.

Sasha did­n’t inher­it her grand­pa’s Jew­ish last name because of Sovi­et antisemitism.

Main­ly, what I felt toward him was pride. He had not just fought in World War II, but made it all the way to Berlin,” which meant he’d fought dur­ing the entire war, through the final bat­tle that end­ed Hitler’s mad­ness. In short, a war hero. The fact that he was a Jew who fought the Nazis was a side note, even if a sat­is­fy­ing one. I had not real­ized how cen­tral Jew­ish­ness was to his past until after his death.

Sev­er­al months after his funer­al, my grand­moth­er called me to say she’d found a let­ter. Appar­ent­ly, despite burn­ing most of his old doc­u­ments, my grand­fa­ther had left a con­fes­sion let­ter addressed to the KGB in which he recount­ed the incred­i­ble lengths he’d gone to in order to sur­vive as a Jew in wartime Ger­many. The sto­ry was noth­ing like we’d assumed and it turned all that we knew of him upside down. At the time, I was work­ing as a jour­nal­ist in San Fran­cis­co, and to me, his unique wartime sur­vival sto­ry seemed just as intrigu­ing as his life­long secre­cy about it. It felt like the stuff of novels.

I began research­ing Your Pres­ence is Manda­to­ry in Berlin in 2017. Being in the city where Grand­pa had cel­e­brat­ed Vic­to­ry Day sev­en­ty years ear­li­er, I won­dered which of the total­i­tar­i­an regimes he lived through – Nazi Ger­many or the Sovi­et Union – was respon­si­ble for him not want­i­ng to pass on the tra­di­tions, lan­guage, and beliefs of his par­ents. Of course, I couldn’t ask him. And giv­en that I was fic­tion­al­iz­ing his sto­ry, I had to find my own answers about what hap­pens to one’s pri­vate iden­ti­ty in the face of pub­lic autocracy.

As I worked to turn my grandfather’s dra­mat­ic sto­ry into a multi­gen­er­a­tional epic about secrets, shame, fear, brav­ery, and love, I couldn’t help but won­der how it would have felt to write this book – and live my life – under his Jew­ish last name. And, per­haps more impor­tant­ly, how my own iden­ti­ty would have been dif­fer­ent if, while teach­ing me to fish, my grand­fa­ther had passed on the knowl­edge of his ances­tors and the belief that being Jew­ish was a quin­tes­sen­tial part of who I was.

Sasha’s grand­fa­ther was a Sovi­et WWII sol­dier who nev­er talked about the war.

As some­one who car­ries a Ukrain­ian last name, an Amer­i­can pass­port, has Jew­ish blood (along with a sprin­kling of Genghis Khan genes), and uses the Russ­ian lan­guage, my iden­ti­ty is akin to a pota­to sal­ad where Jew­ish­ness is only one ingre­di­ent– and per­haps not even the pota­to. I often crave that soul­ful feel­ing of belong­ing that I see between oth­er Jews. But per­haps, telling Grandpa’s sto­ry of sur­vival – and with it the untold sto­ry of hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­er Sovi­et Jew­ish sol­diers like him – will be my way of con­tribut­ing to the com­mu­ni­ty and reclaim­ing my heritage.

Sasha Vasi­lyuk was born in the Sovi­et Crimea and spent her child­hood between Ukraine and Rus­sia before immi­grat­ing to San Fran­cis­co at age 13. She has a MA in Jour­nal­ism from New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and her non­fic­tion has been pub­lished in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BBC, The Tele­graph, Los Ange­les Times, and else­where. She lives in San Fran­cis­co, Cal­i­for­nia with her family.