“How does this change how you see yourself?”

“Friendly reminder: we are Ukrainian. Our great-grandparents left Ukraine in 1906.”

I sent that text to my sisters the night that the Russian military invaded Ukraine, and I’ve felt heavy ever since.

As a child of the Cold War, I always lumped the citizens of the entire Soviet bloc into one category: Russians. While I always referred to our great-grandparents as Russian Jews, the far recesses of my brain would simultaneously process “Kiev” when I would say it.

I double checked a couple of nights ago, looked again at my great-grandfather’s naturalization record. His place of birth listed on the form? Kiev, Russia.

Except not Russia. Ukraine. 

I know so many scattered stories and histories of the various branches of my family tree, but a lifetime of conflating Russia and its collection of now-sovereign states as one has created a giant hole in that narrative.

I do not descend from Russian Jews, I descend from Ukrainian Jews.

I watch Finding Your Roots every week, and when the host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shares his findings with the celebrity guests, he often asks them, “how does this change how you see yourself?”

I’m feeling that question this week, deeply. How does it change how I see myself, how I feel about current events, to remember my great-grandfather was a Ukrainian Jew, not a Russian Jew? 

From what I’ve seen on the news this past week, it makes me feel a deep sense of solidarity with the Ukrainians in part because of my love of democracy. But I also feel deep sadness and fear, because they are, in part, my people. 

In times of crisis, people often want to find ways to help. Here’s a couple of ways to help, if you’re feeling so inclined:

World Central Kitchen: Jose Andres is at the Ukraine-Poland border, providing meals to refugees.

UN Refugee Agency: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively are matching up to $1 million in donations.

International Committee of the Red Cross: Always a reliable group to send funds to.

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