My Grandfather’s Brody Comes Back Alive - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
My Grandfather’s Brody Comes Back Alive

My paternal grandfather was a glassblower who, in the years before World War I, left his hometown of Brody forever.

Brody was in Galicia, the northernmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Populated mostly by ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, it also contained a fair number of Germans, Gypsies, and sundry Slavic peoples.

After Lviv, Brody was eastern Galicia’s second largest city, famous for the Jewish community that, at its 19th-century zenith, had made up nearly 90 percent of its population of roughly twenty thousand. In no Eastern European city was the percentage of Jews higher.

It was also famous for its importance as a regional center of intellectual, cultural, and artisanal activity. Its location near the Russian border made it a major trade center.

But my grandfather left anyway. I guess he saw trouble coming. Or, like other emigrants, he’d heard good things about America.

He didn’t get rich there. But I can’t imagine he expected to. He wasn’t indecently ambitious. He just wanted to survive. And survive he did.

His life was modest. He opened his own storefront business and made a decent living creating and selling his pretty glass objects. During his nearly half a century in America, he lived in the same third-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

I don’t think he ever set foot outside the state of New York. I know he never flew on a plane. And I suspect the notion of making a visit back to the land of his birth was as unimaginable for him as a trip to the moon.

But he loved his children, and I think he was content. In old pictures, he looks happy.

That Fox News reporter snapped me back into reality. Brody was still there, in the present day, at a certain latitude and longitude. It had been there every single day since my grandfather left.

In any event, the lives of his American children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would prove to be dramatically different from his own. His son would make a living, in turn, as a writer of radio and TV plays for the national networks, a medical researcher, an internist who practiced at some of the best hospitals in the world, and a medical editor with a corner office in a skyscraper, with a spectacular view of midtown Manhattan.

One of my grandfather’s granddaughters would live for many years in Los Angeles, where she worked at the major film studios on big-budget movies. Later, living in New York, she’d occasionally fly to L.A. for the weekend to have lunch with friends.

His other granddaughter had a successful business career and, living in a sprawling house in Scottsdale, Arizona, flew (pre-COVID) several weekends every year to some city around North America to attend a tennis match or football game. At least twice a year, she went on a cruise in the Caribbean, Baltic, or Mediterranean.

One of my grandfather’s great-grandsons enjoys a busy career that has him living, at the moment, in a gorgeous seaside house in Costa Rica.

In short, they all live, or lived, American lives — lives of a sort that my grandfather could never have imagined when he left that little town in Galicia to make a new life in a faraway place called America.

Of course, he was only one of millions of Eastern Europeans who took the same gamble. And my cousins and my sister and I are only a few of millions of living Americans who can trace their ancestry to those immigrants.

Anyway, cut to last weekend. I’m sitting in my home in the mountains of Norway, writing while listening with one ear to Fox News on Sirius XM radio, when a reporter says that, according to the mayor of Lviv, Russian forces in three helicopters landed that morning near a town called Brody and were repelled by Ukrainians.

Like almost everyone else on the planet, I’d been closely following developments in Ukraine. I’d wept at the images of families huddled in a Kiev subway station, of a missile slamming into a Kiev apartment building, of civilians lined up on a city sidewalk — in Dniepro, I think it was — to be issued guns to fight off Putin’s thugs.

Yet the mention of Brody hit me in a way I couldn’t immediately explain.

I’ve lived in Europe for over twenty years, and traveled the continent widely. But I’ve mostly stuck to the big cities. As for Eastern Europe — well, I’ve been to Warsaw and Prague and Budapest, but I’ve never made a thing of visiting small places way off the beaten track.

Besides, in my mind Brody wasn’t located in Ukraine. It was located in history.

That Fox News reporter snapped me back into reality. Brody was still there, in the present day, at a certain latitude and longitude. It had been there every single day since my grandfather left.

It had been through two world wars and the Holocaust. And its location — so good for trade, as long as there was an international border nearby — had also made it perilous.

In the century and more after my grandfather left, Brody had undergone convulsion after convulsion. Border shifts had robbed it of its role as a trading hub — and of its prosperity. The Holocaust had swept away its Jews. In each of the two world wars, it had been the site of major military engagements that caused massive death and destruction.

And now this.

I’d felt deep sympathy for the Ukrainians. But I hadn’t been particularly preoccupied with the fact that many of them are my relatives. Or that many others are the descendants of people who’d been friends, neighbors, and, I suppose, customers of my grandfather.

He’d left. They’d stayed behind. He’d founded an American family whose members would lead their mostly sunny and pleasant American lives. Meanwhile, the descendants of the people he’d left behind in Brody would take a long forced march through some of the darkest chapters of human history.

And now this. Here we are in the year 2022, and in the three decades since their release from the long dark night of Soviet despotism, the people of Ukraine, who nowadays can glimpse Western lives every day on their TV and computer screens, have struggled to attain a level of security and prosperity remotely approaching that of the West.

They seem to have come a long way. The Ukrainians I’ve seen on my own TV in recent days, as they’ve huddled fearfully in the subways or, tearfully, put their children on trains to be transported to safety in Poland, are a far cry from the small-town merchants or rural peasants — or storefront glassblowers — of a century ago.

In fact, they look a lot like other Europeans. They look like free people — or people longing, at least, to be free. And yet once again they’re being tormented by the Kremlin.

Their grandfathers stayed put. Mine left. Strange. No?

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