By Richard Friedman
It was an evening of poetry, purpose, passion and pain — and the unremitting power of a single voice.
Most of all, it brought those there into a deeper understanding of the brutal tragedy that has befallen the people of Ukraine.
Declaring “Everyone in this room is now a poet,” Jewish poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach — who, with her family, left Ukraine for the U.S. in 1993, at age six — pierced the hearts of her listeners and probed their minds; discomforting them at times, while affirming one more way they could align themselves with her besieged country of birth.
The program, held on May 18 at the Levite Jewish Community Center, was co-sponsored by a cross-section of Birmingham’s Jewish agencies. Brooke Bowles, LJCC executive director, reflected afterward: “I’m grateful that a cross-section of Jewish agencies came together to sponsor this evening. It is an honor to host such events at the LJCC.”
Dasbach began by talking about the Nazis murdering Ukrainian Jews and Jews elsewhere in the former Soviet territories, during the Holocaust, mowing them down with bullets. Unlike regions under Nazi occupation in Western Europe, in the vast territory of the east, extermination was done by shooting squads.
Nazis were aided by local collaborators who were most often the non-Jewish residents of those areas. Among those killed were members of Dasbach’s family, including her great-grandfather who fought as a partisan in Kyiv.
Through original poems she read aloud, Dasbach connected these horrors to the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the brutality of Russian forces as they have systematically murdered innocent Ukrainians. “To connect what’s happening in Ukraine with the ‘Holocaust by Bullets,’ we don’t have to travel very far,” she said.
She spoke in particular of the massacre of Jews at Babyn Yar, a ravine in Ukraine where, in September 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators gunned down 33,771 Jews in two days, leaving them there as human rubble and unmarked debris.
One of her poems that she read — a section from her long poem “Learning Yiddish,” which appears in her first book, “The Many Names for Mother” — called out to her great-grandfather, Simcha, among those gunned down at Babyn Yar.
Simcha, the prize,
the beloved, the listener,
the boundary for one
or all of us. His name
is not carved into a plaque
lit up by an eternal flame,
nor did we find it
in a book that lists
all those who burned
or fell away from bone.
The poet, her long dark hair adorning her sunflowered dress, was commanding, almost ethereal at times. She proved again that when one speaks or sings their own words — words they have birthed and labored over — those words come uniquely alive.
One of the most powerful poems she read was “Watching Masha i Medved as Russia Invades Ukraine.” It was written in real-time on February 24, 2022, as Dasbach listened to CNN’s initial coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while her children watched the Russian cartoon, “Masha and the Bear.” She was living in Arkansas, and her mother, also living in the U.S., watching and listening to this same news, called from Maryland.
are on the couch drinking their morning
milk and stuffing their mouths full
of warm croissants…
Mama tells me she finally reached her childhood
friend. They spoke as shells fell and maybe
Marina could see fires through her window.
My mother never thought this would happen.
None of us did. The subway stations turned
bomb shelters the way they were in the war
her parents lived through and grandparents
When asked how it felt to write that poem as the invasion was unfolding, she explained, “The act of writing poetry is spiritual. I feel overtaken by it. I am compelled to do it.”
It was during the reading of her poems that Dasbach gave those in the audience the chance to write their own.
Telling them about the initiative “Dear Ukraine”: A Global Community Poem, Dasbach invited her audience to use their phones to go to the Dear Ukraine website. On that site, they could share their thoughts about the ongoing atrocity in Ukraine and their responses would be translated.
She urged everyone to send a message of solidarity, especially if they were moved to send it in poetic form. It was a quiet moment, one that offered a new and powerful way of reaching out to the besieged people of Ukraine.
One person wrote:
The caverns of my heart
by souls of family
I never knew.
Not killed by bullets
but murdered by gas.
They call to me
to listen, Dear Ukraine.
To hear, to reach
into their echo.
They call to me,
Dear Ukraine, to listen.