August 17, 2022
I prefer to be alone with my grief, and so I decide to drive to the cemetery early in the morning. My father died three years ago. When my family emigrated to Germany from the Ukraine 27 years ago, Potsdam was our first stop, my sister and I moved out at some point, but our parents stayed there.
On the way to Potsdam on the S-Bahn, I think of yesterday’s phone call with my friend Nikolay Karabinovych – at a time when so many Ukrainians are leaving the country, his father is one of the few who have returned. It doesn’t seem to bother him that his hometown of Odessa isn’t exactly a safe place at the moment. He has important things to do there, he says, he has to take care of the family graves.
Unfortunately, I haven’t met Nikolay’s father yet, but a few years ago I looked into the history of his family. Nikolay is a multimedia artist, in 2018 he invited me to write a song for his project “The Voice of Thin Silence”. It was supposed to be about his great-grandfather, who lived in Odessa and fell victim to Stalin’s anti-Greek campaign in 1949.
Like many Ukrainian Greeks, he was deported to Kazakhstan, where he had to work in a tobacco factory and died within a few years. Nikolay showed me his last letters, which his widow kept in Odessa – sent from Chilik, a town in the Almaty region of Kazakhstan, full of a veil of hopelessness. They served me as inspiration for the lyrics, musically I oriented myself to Rembetiko, the Greek blues of the early 20th century. Nikolay flew to Chilik and installed a loudspeaker there in a snowy steppe, from which my song sounded.
My lyrics adorn his tombstone
Yesterday Nikolay sent me pictures of a tombstone his father had erected in the Odessa cemetery – my song is quoted. It is a strange feeling to see the lines I have written in such a context… At the end of April, part of this cemetery was badly damaged by Russian rockets.
It’s not even nine o’clock, but you can already feel it: the day is getting hot. I write to my mother that I will visit her later. At this hour the cemetery is completely empty – until I discover the lonely elderly gentleman with a hoe next to father’s grave. He sees me too – and is obviously happy to have company. Unlike me, he’s in a talkative mood.
“Alexander Gursky … your father?” he asks, I nod. He continues, immediately thinking of a lot of things he would like to ask and tell. I have the impression that he would have been waiting for me here. “Olaf! My name is Olaf. Your parents, they lived on Dortustrasse, didn’t they? We were neighbors! Are you also a Jew? If no one looks at you, you don’t have those curls or that black hat. Are you religious? Do you go to the Jewish church?”
For every answer I give, he seems to have more questions. He praises my German and when I say that although I grew up speaking other languages in Ukraine, I’ve been living in Germany for a while, he wants to talk about Ukraine. “But tell me, this Selenskyj, he’s also to blame for the war, isn’t he?” My father’s grave is the last place I want to have political discussions, but I stay there for a good 20 minutes and explain the situation to Olaf, how I feel about them.
I am interrupted by a text message, my mother sends me a screenshot of the WhatsApp message from her school friend from Kharkiv. I can’t see anything behind the clouds of smoke in the photo, but I can gather from the caption that the building of the Coal Chemistry Institute, where my father worked for years, was bombed during the night. I try to imagine how he would have reacted to that. But he left us in 2019 and didn’t experience the pandemic or the escalation of the war.