A Family Trip to an Ancestral Homeland: Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Russia

Last month, Alan, Charlotte, and I traveled to Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Russia. The whole trip was a study in contrasts—to see the opulent palaces of the tsars in St. Petersburg alongside a history of oppression under both Stalin and Hitler was honestly hard to take at times … but it’s so important to understand the painful periods of history.

Both Alan and I have family roots in this region, so we were keenly aware of the courage it took them to leave in search of a better life. The history of the land still informs the people who live there today—it helped make them who they are. Yes, we encountered wonderful warmth and hospitality, but one of the first things we noticed was that people don’t smile unless they really have a reason. It’s a serious-minded culture, with little frivolity—though we were happy to see a more lighthearted spirit along the Dnieper River, with lots of young people smiling and laughing.

One day, we traveled for almost four hours from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to Starokonstantinov—the city where Alan’s ancestors once lived. Two elderly women met us there, both of them well into their eighties—and both of them Jewish. With our guide, Ivan, serving as translator, we asked them how they survived World War II. One of them was trained as a nurse, and used her skills to care for wounded German and Polish soldiers; they gave her a police guard to help keep her safe. The other fled to a cabin in the woods with her sister, where they remained for the duration of the war. When they returned to Starokonstantinov, everyone was gone. It was amazing to hear these stories because the women had such positive attitudes—which I suppose is exactly what they needed to survive.

Who are the most memorable people you’ve met in your travels? Next month, we’ll be featuring a sample of our European and Mediterranean Cruises in Harriet’s Corner, so if you’ve been, I’d especially love to hear your impressions. Email me your stories, or leave me a message in the comments.