I’m not sure whether or not I should apologize for making this week’s column personal, but Ukraine has a special place in my history.
As I write this, we don’t know whether the airliner crash was caused by hostile fire or an accident. However, there is no question that Ukraine has witnessed – and caused – terror for hundreds of years. At least two of my grandparents came from Ukraine – by the way, it was always “the” Ukraine – so I’m always alert to what’s going on there.
How significant was Ukraine in my ancestry? Well, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was “Ukrainka,” meaning that was her family heritage. I was probably 9 or 10 when I saw her name on what I believe was some kind of American citizenship document. When I asked my father about it, he explained that his parents “Americanized” their names when they emigrated to the United States.
I know that many Americans have the privilege of knowing the outlines of their family tree, but that is not true for those of us with Russian, Polish or Ukrainian ancestors. Of course, Jews from eastern Europe are not the only immigrants to Americanize their names when they arrived on these shores, but the “new” names have made it almost impossible to look back more than two generations. My father’s parents, who arrived here in the second half of the 19th century, certainly were not born with the names Oscar Stevenson and Julie LaSalle. I was never able to discover what their birth names were, but I learned a little bit of their history.
My grandmother was very status conscious, and while this may be true of other immigrant groups, Jews were probably most likely to change their names. I am guessing that younger generations may be surprised that name-changing was not uncommon a hundred years ago. It may have been most common on Broadway and in Hollywood – as an example, the late comedian Jack Benny was born Benny Kubelski.
Name-changing was also adopted by Italians and Asians when they arrived here and it seemed that no immigrants wanted to be “stuck” with an ethnic name. Of course, if you were of English or Irish heritage, there was no reason to change your name. In fact, names from the British Isles were the favorites to be adopted by Poles, Ukrainians and Russians.
We in America have long since settled on our ethnic differences, but the same cannot be said in other parts of the world. In fact, ethnic and class origins can label someone for life when it comes to social and economic status. We’ve all heard of the “untouchables” – no, I don’t mean Eliot Ness or Al Capone – but the “class” in India relegated to the most demeaning roles throughout their lives. To this day, many untouchables in rural India still have one job, that of “night soil” collectors. I don’t have to explain what “night soil” is, but it’s not a job you would want.
I mention India and it’s not alone, because even well into the 21st century, in some societies it can be almost impossible to escape one’s birth “status.” What bugs me is that this social and economic rigidity is quite pervasive, except in one community. My understanding is that sociology, political science and history courses at many American colleges and universities ignore the awful class differences in the Third World as they focus on the alleged unfairness of our society.
Do the liberal professors devote as much energy talking about the success of the United States in so many respects, or compare us unfavorably to “tribes” in Third World societies? I’ve mentioned before my dismay when I looked at a high school history textbook a few years ago and saw that the chapter on our involvement in World War II began with a paragraph on the internment of Japanese-Americans, primarily in the western United States.
One wonders what kind of hatred those who destroy airliners in midair must have in their hearts.
Bud Stevenson, a retired stockbroker, lives in Fairfield. Reach him at [email protected]