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Visiting poet talks about Ukraine, the Holocaust, and finding her voice

Ukrainian-American Jewish poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach will lecture and read her poetry at The J on Thursday, May 18, at 6 p.m. for “Lyric Witness: Intergenerational (Re)collection of the Holocaust,” an event sponsored by the Levite Jewish Community Center, the Alabama Holocaust Education Center, The Birmingham Jewish Federation, Hadassah, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Knesseth Israel, Temple Beth El, and Temple Emanu-El.

We asked Julia a few questions in advance of her upcoming appearance at The J… 

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in 1993 from Dnipro, Ukraine, and grew up in Maryland. Her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, “Lyric Witness: Intergenerational (Re)collection of the Holocaust in Contemporary American Poetry,” pays particular attention to underrepresented atrocities in former Soviet territories. 

Julia is the author of The Many Names for Mother, selected by Ellen Bass as the winner of the 2018 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry prize and finalist for the Jewish Book Award. Her second collection, Don’t Touch the Bones, won the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize. Her latest collection, 40 Weeks, was published this spring. 

She is assistant professor and Murphy Fellow in Creative Writing at Hendrix College and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her family. Her work has appeared in POETRY, American Poetry Review, and The Nation. 

LJCC: What were the circumstances around your emigration from Ukraine to Maryland?

America’s newest residents “get far too many hugs” back in 1993.

JKD: I was born in Dnipro, Ukraine, and as soon as the former Soviet Union fell, my parents did everything in their power to find a way to emigrate so that I could have a better life, one not subject to the antisemitism they endured [read more here]. In 1993, two years after Ukraine gained her independence, my parents, grandparents, great-grandmother, uncle, and 6-year-old me, were granted asylum in the United States as Jewish Refugees. We had family in Brooklyn, New York as well as the DC-area suburb of Rockville, Maryland, and my parents chose being close to the nation’s capital. 

When we arrived, all seven of us lived in a small three-bedroom townhome in a community of immigrants from all over the world, and we received a lot of much-needed support from HIAS and the local JCC.

I remember I was only allowed to bring one toy with me. The rest would have to be left behind. So the giant bear with the missing eye that my mother had grown up with and the big plastic doll that could kind of walk when you held her hand — along with so much else — couldn’t come with us. The only toy I took was a knock-off barbie with dark curly hair just like mine, dressed in layers of dresses my mom had sown for her. My parents stuffed army-green duffels with sweaters and linens and whatever fit within the immigration quota, and the rest was left behind.

The Question” is a poem of mine from back in 2015, written in the voice of my mother, that tries to get at the experience of the night we left.

What were your first impressions of the United States?

My first memory is getting off the plane in NYC and being greeted by strangers, who I was told were family and who had brought me fruit-roll ups to eat. I was absolutely delighted by this foreign concoction, so during our short layover there I ate my fill of processed sugar and got far too many hugs.  

“America seemed full of lights and food and possibility.”

When we first stepped into what would be our home it was cold and late on November 14. My eyes went straight for the giant bowl of fruit waiting for us on the dining room table. I had never seen such fruit in winter. Bananas, apples, pears, even peaches — these were such rare treats, and in winter, impossible. I remember going straight for the pear and plopping down on the couch. As the story goes, the next thing my parents hear is a loud thud. I’d fallen asleep and the pear had fallen to the floor before I’d even taken a bite. 

America seemed full of lights and food and possibility. It was also a place where, for the first time, it was not only okay for me to be Jewish, but where this identity was something I could be proud of and could share without fear of repercussions. Rather, sharing would lead me to find and build community.

What inspired you to become a poet?

I grew up in a Russian-speaking household immersed in poetry and song. For bedtime stories, my parents would recite — often from memory — Pushkin’s rhymed and metered epic fairy tales, or my dad might strum a few bard ballads on the guitar. My parents like to tell the story of how the neighbors would yell at my dad to stop singing inappropriate songs about “the alcoholic who takes care of stray dogs” to a baby. This childhood full of listening to the music of poetry in my mother tongue certainly explains why poetry ended up being how I found my own voice in English.

This happened in third grade, when a remarkable teacher, Ms. Finn, taught a unit on poetry and had the class put together a literary magazine of our own creative works. I remember feeling like I had so much to say but no way to say it in English. I remember feeling: how could I write poetry in a language I could not yet fully speak? Who would listen or understand? My family and I had only been in the United States for a little over two years, my language acquisition was largely from “Power Rangers” and “Barney,” I was still taking ESOL classes, I was still made fun of for being the foreign girl, and I was still called a “Commie” — even in 1995. Ms. Finn encouraged me to write into all of these feelings, into the uncertainty and inadequacy, to write into a language that wasn’t mine in order to make it my own. 

And so I did, and have been ever since.

And just last month, I got to virtually visit her classroom of 3rd and 4th graders at Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, and share my poetry. I have never been prouder in my career. What a full circle return to the teacher who first showed me I was a poet, returning as a poet who can now teach and inspire others in the way their teacher, now Mrs. Finn Bergman, inspired me long ago. 

“Ms. Finn encouraged me to write into all of these feelings, into the uncertainty and inadequacy, to write into a language that wasn’t mine in order to make it my own.” 

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

In terms of my continued commitment to poetry, and particularly to writing about the Holocaust, that’s all because of my great-grandmother, Vera, who raised me in many ways. She never spoke about her experience of fleeing Nazi occupation with her children (my newborn grandmother and her older sister) and two sets of aging parents. She never told me the story of my great-grandfather, Simcha, staying back in Kyiv as a partisan and likely getting murdered at Babyn Yar. 

She sang to me in Yiddish and prayed in Yiddish and held me with a love that carried generations. But, when I was 16 she began to see visions of a Nazi who had come back to life and was trying to take hers. She would scream and try to fight him with her cane. Her final two years of life were plagued by these hallucinations that may have been reenactments of what she had witnessed but never spoken about. 

After she died, at 92 years old, I began to investigate the past I had come from, and my way of coming to understand it is through writing. I scoured every archive to find a trace of my great-grandfather to discover how he’d died. When no record could be found, that proved to be an answer in itself. This is why we need poetry: to sing the stories that can’t be told. Poetry, while it cannot fill the gaps missing in history or archival record, can make us feel those gaps, feel the emotional truth of a past that remains unwitnessable. My poetry tries to bear witness. To remember and commemorate. To re-present, meaning to make the past present. 

Julia with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in Ukraine waiting for Grandfather Frost to arrive with New Year’s presents.

[Read this imagined interview with Julia’s great-grandmother.]

How has your relationship with Ukraine evolved since you left as a child?

Before the start of the war in 2014 — with the Annexation of Crimea, violence of Maidan, and fighting in the Donbass region — I never considered myself a Ukrainian-American. I’d always said I was from Ukraine but my identity, while deeply tied to place, was for me more connected to being post-Soviet, Russian-speaking, and Jewish. Ukrainian meant something else, as did Russian, because both of those identities had excluded Jews under Soviet rule, which stated Jewish as a nationality that was printed on our passports, and with that identity, my parents were forbidden from studying at certain institutions, getting certain jobs, or even being let into a taxi on the basis of being Jews. Though this changed when the Soviet Union fell, my family was no longer there to experience the transition and transformation that would take place in Ukraine over the next three decades. [Read “Dear Birthplace” about 2014.]

My family and I fully stand behind the Ukraine of today. It is a wholly different Ukraine from the one we left. Today, Ukrainian, for me and many of my generation, includes being Jewish. I am a Ukrainian-American Jewish poet, and each facet of this identity adds and complicates the other. It does not exclude but rather expands to fit more parts of myself.  

How would you describe your poetic voice?

I write lyric poetry with a strong narrative backbone, hoping to sing a story or make the absence of story felt. I am concerned with ancestry, intergenerational trauma, Holocaust memory, my multifaceted Jewish-immigrant identity, motherhood — always motherhood — and a reaching toward light in the face of present and past atrocity.

Having written extensively about the Holocaust in the former Soviet territories, the war against Ukraine — genocidal violence on the same soil that has already endured this — has been a brick on my chest. I cannot help writing about what is going on because it is all at once a conversation with who I am, where I come from, and what my family suffered and survived. Every time I write, this heavy brick lifts ever so slightly, for just a moment, before returning to its place of pressure. The weight on my chest is a reminder that I need to keep writing about this, so the horror of what is going on doesn’t fade from view. The same way I continue to write and sing my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ stories, bringing the Holocaust into conversation with the present moment, because violence, sadly, is never past. 

How did your “Dear Ukraine” project come to be?

Putin began his brutal and unprovoked war with Ukraine on February 24, 2022, dropping bombs on civilian city centers and allowing the Russian military to commit violent war crimes that have continued for over a year now. 

Three days after the invasion, acclaimed Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky posted on Twitter that in response to asking an old friend how he could be of help, his friend wrote back: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.” 

“In the middle of war, he is asking for poems,” Kaminsky commented.

Along with fellow Jewish poet and translator Olga Livshin, I organized and hosted a Zoom reading, Voices for Ukraine, which gathered Ukrainian poets alongside their translators and American-poet allies. The event had more than 800 attendees in real-time and featured 25 voices, seven of whom read from Ukraine, even from bomb shelters. Through audience donations, we raised more than $4,500 for UNICEF as well as $3,000 to go directly to poets in Ukraine.

In part as a result of the success of this event, the Wick Poetry Center, which selected my first poetry collection for publication a few years back, reached out to me to create a poem that would allow a broader response. And so, “Dear Ukraine” A Global Community Poem was born, showcasing how poetry and the arts can be an essential way to respond to trauma, make meaning, and connect communities across languages and borders, reminding us of both our individuality and our shared humanity. 

My poem, also translated into Ukrainian and Russian, is a generative prompt for readers and listeners to compose their own responses and share their voices in whatever language they have at their disposal. Regardless of the original language, responses can be translated across the languages spoken in the affected areas. 

After providing my own personal history and the context of what is going on in Ukraine, I will invite participants to share their voices, and we will see their responses join the global chorus in real time, on the screen projected before us.