Ruth’s Roots – Ruth Morris

This essay is about “roots,” but not my “roots.” It does go back to “the old country,” though, to a part of Eastern Europe that was home to both my grandfather’s family, and that of my best friend from childhood. I will call her Nina, and her father, Maximilian, to maintain anonymity.

My relationship with Nina changed forever, one day coming home on the high school bus. To this day, I remember the moment she said to me, “my parents are pleased that I finally met a “nice, Russian, Catholic girl” for a friend. Being Jewish myself, this comment hurt.

I hadn’t thought of it for years, until recently, when we reconnected here in Culver City. I asked after her father, who is nearly 90. In recent years, I have undertaken the task of interviewing a few Holocaust survivors here and there, from among my relatives and friend’s relatives. It occured to me that, although not Jewish, Nina’s father had come from Eastern Europe after World War II. I asked if I might interview him.

I grew up knowing that Nina’s father, Maximilian, is a Ukranian by nationality, and (Greek) Orthodox by religion. Nina always seemed proud of her heritage. She told me stories about how sad it was that her extended family had been broken apart by the Iron Curtain, after World War II.

Different from the Jewish experience, however, after the Berlin Wall and Communism fell in 1989, a person could make a trip to the Ukraine, and find a brother within four days, which is what Maximilian did. I had heard these stories growing up, but with my more recent interest in learning about Holocaust history, I had questions to ask.

My mother called Maximilian an “old-school gentleman” and, “The Student Prince,” because he had attended Heidelberg University. Although I’d understood for the past 45 years that Maximilian was from the Ukraine, I found out during the interview that both of our fathers’ families were actually from South Eastern Poland. “Our” city, Jaroslaw, would have been (and is now) a few hours from her father’s city: Lutsk. The map here shows the distance from Jaroslaw to Lutsk, as well as the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Maximilian, the only parent still living of both Nina and I, has always been a kind, gentle, generous, intelligent, good man, who is loved by everyone who knows him. He would have been a teenager during the war.

First, I wanted to know what life had been like before the war. Maximilian spoke of his family owning a farm, and being relatively well to do thereby. As with the memories I have of my own family’s stories, he spoke of Lutsk having an important river in the town (the Styr) and a medieval castle. I pulled it right up on Google Maps, to find that although it is indeed now part of the Ukraine, it was actually part of Poland until 1939.

Maximilian, then and now, identified as a Ukranian, but he was actually a Polish citizen, with a Polish passport, just like my own grandparents. Jews, at that time, were not considered to be a religion or a race, but to be a “nationality,” like Ukrainians; both were Polish citizens. These days, the term we might use in the U.S. would be “ethnicity.”

For non-Jews, a key to possible survival just before the war was to have lived in Poland; the Soviets were far worse to landed “peasants” living in Soviet Ukraine, due to the Communist ideology of “collectivism.” The Poles, however, resisted Communism at the time. Significantly, Poland eventually played a key role in the eventual fall of Communism in the 1980’s.

Maximilian’s family farm would have been taken over by the state, and they may have at least been sent off to Siberia, but more likely been starved or killed by the government. Once the Nazis came into the picture and fought over this region against the Red Army, Jews were safer on the Russian side, while non-Jews sometimes found a haven that may have seemed preferable to Communist rule. For example, my father’s first cousins survived the war, because they were pushed across the San River into Soviet territory in 1939. Maximilian escaped the worst of the so-called Great Famine of the Ukraine by being in Poland at the time.

I asked about the Jews in the town of Lutsk. It is well-documented that Jews made up 50% of this town’s population, and Maximilian recalled this as well. I asked if he had known any Jews. He said no; the Jews kept to themselves, had their own schools, and did not live in the countryside, but rather the city center, where they were shopkeepers and business people. Just for comparison, Latinos currently make up almost 50% of the population here in Southern California. Can you imagine what it would be like to have 50% of a town’s population disappear?

I asked about how Maximilian eventually made his way out of the region. I don’t recall getting the full story of how he ended up with a full ride scholarship to Heidelberg University after the war, but Maximilian recalled a particular day that he had gone of his own will to Police Headquarters, but was then captured and taken to Germany, as a prisoner, at the end of August of 1943. After the war ended, he went on to the university.

That means that he was about 15 years old and living in the city when, on August 21, 1942, the Jewish women and children were taken to a place called Hirka Polonka and shot into a pit, while the men were taken to the courtyard of the castle mentioned above, and killed. I inquired about this event. Maximilian said that he heard the sound of lots of trucks one day, and his parents told him, “they are shooting the Jews.”

My childhood friend seemed a little shocked. She remarked, “You knew that?” and “I’d never heard this part of the story.” I believe that he could not have stopped what happened. I don’t blame him for the killing of the Jews or for how he ended up surviving, along with virtually his entire family intact, both during the war, and after it, even through all of the years of the Communist regime. It is chilling, however, for me to know that he was there on that day.

This is why I am so interested in interviewing people who lived through World War II, and our time is limited to do it. When you think about what would it have been like to go back into any time period, you sometimes romaniticize the era, without thinking about what your specific role might have been. People often say they’d like to go back to the chivalrous times of knights and princesses in England. But during their Crusades, which was an effort by the Catholic church to “reclaim” the “Holy Land” from the “Infidels,” the knights who may have practiced chivarly at home, raped and pillaged through the Rhineland on their way to the Levant.

Back to Nina’s comment about how her Eastern European Catholic parents would be happy with her new (Russian) Catholic friend. Whether for religion, ethnicity or national identity, I think that the chauvinism of “pride” creates systems of insiders and outsiders. Being relieved, or overly comfortable, when we form community with people of similar backgrounds harks back to “not knowing” our others. Let’s instead be joyous when we are afforded the chance to know people of different backgrounds.

The Actors' Gang


  1. Hi Ms. Morris,
    After reading your second article I’ve learned that your friend Nina went through some rough times with her father Maximilian. I too am curious of how living before the war was like and what it felt like to prepare for all you know can be something terribly tragic. I learned much history from this article and most of the information wasn’t even something that I would personally think to think of ever. Thank you for sharing this information with not only me but every one of your classes. It was an incredible experience and I have learned much. See you on Friday!

  2. Hi Ms. Morris,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I’m very interested in the Holocaust because I’m also Jewish and my family has Eastern European background too. I’ve gone to the Museum of Tolerance before and am very interested in the children’s stories. It’s very sad to me what happened in the 1930’s and 40’s. Your story taught me alot about history and I really liked it.
    Thanks for a great article!

  3. I loved this article it was interesting to learn about your friends hard times I wonder how modern ( kids) would do in that situation?

  4. I loved how you talked a little bit of your childhood in this essay and a little bit of what your religion is about

  5. The Jews suffered so much but were always strong , they had so much courage even though they were being killed.What a great story!

  6. Dear Ms. Morris,
    Thank You for sharing this special heart touching article with us. I think that every individual should be proud of their own heritage and background. It is equally important that we all respect each other and our differences. I do agree with you that there is a joy in the opportunity of knowing people of different backgrounds. I think it is impressive that you have chosen to undertake the task of interviewing Holocaust survivors. I think their stories and experiences are so valuable and special. Love your Title. Very catchy!!

  7. The topic “Ruth’s Roots” was an interesting.The story did not have much excitement in it but was fun to read what it was like in the Poland/Ukrainian border in the Holocaust.

  8. Ms. Morris,
    I think your article is very interesting because I am Jewish also.
    Knowing that you’re with someone who was there when the death of so many people happened is a little scary, but I think it just shows that everyone has their stories to tell and there are always new things to discover about people. I also think it is interesting that you had a friend who’s father was so young when these scary, but significant events took place. To know how he felt at the time about what was going on would be very interesting too. All in all I found your article really interesting!

  9. Hi Ms.Morris,
    I really enjoyed reading your article. Your article was an insight to the World War 11, and the Holocaust history. It was very touching to read about Maximilian’s recalling the sound of the trucks and the shots fired. It is a lesson for humanity to exercise tolerance, and not repeat the atrocities of the World War 11.

  10. Thank you Ms. Morris for this interesting article. I now understand more of the rough times not only Nina’s family, but also a lot of other people, had to experience. This is something new I have learned and makes me appreciate a more peaceful environment we live in now. Again this was an interesting article and thank you.

  11. I really enjoyed this article because it was an really interesting article. Now I understand the difficulties Nina’s family had. I read this article to my little brother and he really liked it also

  12. hi Ms. Morris,
    i found this article very interesting. i also thought that it was sad that the Jewish women and children were taken to Hirka Polonka where they were shot into a pit, and that the men were killed. i remember you told us in class that the Holocaust survivors are dying, and that the time for interviewing them are running out, just like you said in the article. i think the article was very interesting, and i enjoyed it very much.

  13. Wow Ms. Morris

    Great article and it was a nice high reading level too. I was very moved by the figures, especially the what if 50% of the population disappeared? In the 14th paragraph it was an example of a bystander. Even if they had tried to do something they would be dead and this article would not have been written. The title is very clever and catchy.
    An all round great article,
    Liam Wall P.4

  14. Ms. Morris,
    I find your article very interesting. I now realize how hard it was for some people during Maximilian’s time. I think we are very lucky to be living so peacefully compared to the holocaust times. I think that some of your examples really made people realize how big of a deal this was, for example when you said that 50% of the population in Maximilian’s town kept to themselves as though the others didn’t exist. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Hi Ms.Morris,
    I really enjoyed your “Roots” article about your friend Nina. I found it very interesting. I don’t have a lot of background knowledge about the holocaust, so to hear these stories really shed some light on what happened. I really liked the last paragraph because it said how important it is to be open to everyone with different religions and backgrounds.

  16. I liked this article because it explains about your religion and to respect other peoples religion also.

  17. Well I have 3african-amarican brothers, 1 african-anarican sister, and 1 german sister. I love the ending o your article. I am very lucky that i can go to school with kids of other back rounds

  18. I enjoyed this article not only because it tells me more about your religion but, all the horrible things that were done to Jews some times I just wish people were not so mean but in the end it was a nice article

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