Bearing Witness

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My latest commentary on Ukraine. The KQED radio version can be found here

Since February 25th we have watched the Ukrainians hold back Putin’s invasion. The Ukrainians may yet prevail. Not because it will be easy. And not because it will end well. But because the opposite may be true. And that has proven historically to be one of the strengths of the Ukrainian people.

The Greek word ‘martyr’ literally means to bear witness, specifically through one’s own suffering or even death.

The Ukrainians bore witness during their forced starvation in the 1930s, during their occupation in WWII, during the Chernobyl disaster, and later in 2014 when over 100 civilians were gunned down during the Maidan Revolution. They know what it means to do this.

And now as Ukrainian teachers and mothers and storeowners and students stockpile their homemade Molotov cocktails, they continue to bear witness.

The Snake Island border guards did so when they stood defiantly as the Russian warship bombarded them.

Civilians have thrown themselves in front of military convoys to slow their advance. Ukrainian farmers have stolen stalled Russian tanks with their tractors.

A mother offered handfuls of sunflower seeds to invading soldiers. She told them to put the seeds in their pockets so that flowers would sprout from their bones.

When European leaders offered asylum to President Zelenskyy, he declined, stating that they most likely would never see him again.

Through all this, the unexpected has happened. This previously ignored country has reminded us what it means to defend democracy. They have reminded us what it means to be the principled and valorous human beings that we strive to be. They have borne witness not just for themselves or for Europe, but for us all.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.


trochenbrod 2In translation it means dry bread.

In the late summer of 1942, the Jewish ghetto was liquidated and the entire Jewish population of 3000 was murdered. Afterwards the village was set on fire. Less than 40 individuals survived.

Never in time will this place ever exist again.



The Welling

mermelsteinAfternoon drive time and I’m talking to my college friend Danny as he commutes home from work in Baltimore.

At times people have confused us as brothers which has sometimes made us wonder how far apart we really were. Before family emigrations, how many days afoot separated our ancestral villages? It couldn’t have been much.  Enough of my family came from Poland and Russia and enough of his as well.  Lives and families cast vast to the winds. People move across the oceans. Children are born and people die. One hundred years later, the son of one family and the son of another ascend the stairs to the third floor suites in Silliman College to begin their freshmen year at Yale. They set down their bags, they catch sight of one another.  They sense a vague recognition.

Now, twenty five years later, I tell Danny about my ancestry experience and he provides the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents. That night I go online and enter names and birth dates. Family trees and homes and turn of the century censuses coalesce and link to family trees compiled by other people. Danny’s maternal grandfather, Benjamin Mermelstein emerges out of the fog. Years in Baltimore. Naturalization, emigration. Poland. The Ukraine.

It’s two in the morning in California on an autumn night. It hurts to stir the waters and have this debris surface. I sense these people welling up out of Poland and the Ukraine and the Belorus in the 1880’s. Something ungood was afoot and by some miracle, Danny’s kin and my kin sensed it. They registered a tidal pull and one way or another they decided that now, in this moment, it was time to go.

Documents appear that identify Danny’s ancestral home. And here I feel a pit in my stomach.

Benjamin Mermelstein came from the village of Trochenbrod.