A saliva sample confirmed Olena Prokopiv’s decades-old belief. After Prokopiv peered down at her computer screen, the lingering sense of difference forever dogging her disappeared as quickly as one can click an email. Staring the Greenfield resident and Ukrainian immigrant in the face was a message with the results of a DNA test she submitted a month before. According to the findings, Prokopiv was 50 percent Jewish.
Stunned, relieved and uncertain what to make of a conclusion wholly inconsistent with her upbringing, Prokopiv grabbed a phone and dialed her sister, Lesya Khatsevich.
“I asked her, ‘Do you remember anything?’” Prokopiv said in a recent interview.
Khatsevich, who lives in Kalush, Ukraine, posited that maybe their grandmother was Jewish.
Prokopiv scoffed at the idea.
“What do you mean? I’m 50 percent,” she said.
Prokopiv phoned her brother, Sergey Khatsevich. The Ukrainian man offered a similar suggestion that maybe their mother’s mother was Jewish.
She phoned her sister once more and probed for any explanation as to how a Christian girl raised in a Christian family in western Ukraine could suddenly be Jewish. Defying a vow issued decades ago, Khatsevich shared a memory that started Prokopiv along a narrative web knotting countries and entangling characters from the United States, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and Israel.
“We need to seriously speak,” said Khatsevich. “It’s time to tell you everything.”
Prokopiv was born on Aug. 16, 1970. Twelve years earlier, Ida and Mykhail Khatsevich welcomed their first child, a son, Sergey. Five years later, Lesya was born. The family of four lived in Kalush, a western Ukrainian city in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
Kalush is known for its rather rocky recent history. After the 1939 invasion of Poland, Kalush was annexed by the Soviet Union. Between 1941 and 1944, the city, which once boasted nearly 4,500 Jews, was occupied by Germany. By 1942, the majority of Kalush’s Jewish residents were murdered, and any trace of Jewish life, which dated back to the 16th century, was gone.
After World War II, the Soviets resumed control of the town. In the years following, the area became one of the largest producers of potassium salt in the Soviet Union, but excessive mining threatened the city’s foundation. In 1987, 40 houses sunk into the ground. Dumped chemicals mixed and by 2013, several hundred million cubic feet of salty mining wastewater had joined thousands of tons of carcinogenic toxic sludge to collectively infest the Dniester River, a water supply for approximately 10 million people in western Ukraine and Moldova, according to the Kyiv Post.
Like the city they inhabited, the Khatseviches experienced their own turbulence. In the summer of 1969, Ida and Mykhail separated. Mykhail retreated to a nearby farm where his father lived, but despite the split returned to Kalush periodically to visit his children in the family’s apartment.
Even for those enjoying marital bliss it was a challenging period, as the perils of rationing and want plagued inhabitants of the Soviet-controlled city. Simple items were in short supply, so when someone came to Kalush Polytechnic College with a stock of pantyhose, Nikolay Mikhailovich Toleroit, a mathematics and physics professor, purchased a pair.
“I did not need them, but I bought them anyway,” he said.
Toleroit brought the pantyhose back home. His residence was not far from the college. It was also close to where the Khatseviches lived on Khimikiv Street. Months prior to the purchase, Toleroit, a divorcee, attended a colleague’s birthday party. Ida Khatsevich was also there. She was working as a cashier in the dining room.
“We joked a little,” recalled Toleroit.
The party concluded and its attendees dispersed, but in the weeks following Toleroit and Khatsevich infrequently passed each other on the street. One day, as Toleroit stood outside the college, he noticed her. The two talked and Toleroit mentioned the pantyhose. He offered them to Khatsevich. She asked him to deliver them to her apartment. He countered and insisted she come to his.
“They liked each other,” said Prokopiv.
Finally, the two agreed to meet at Toleroit’s residence, and on an autumn afternoon in 1969 Khatsevich ventured to Toleroit’s place. She later left, having received the hosiery and more. Months passed and life within Khatsevich continued. Lesya, who was 8 at the time, remembered very little from the period, apart from a single event.
One day she was peering outside and saw a man approaching. He was holding flowers. As he reached the doorstep, Lesya saw her father nearing as well. There were shouts. Her father ripped the flowers from the other man’s hands and threw them to the ground. Khatsevich yelled, “This is my family, not yours.”
Khatsevich then entered the home. He saw Lesya by the window and understood what she had seen. In an outburst he declared, “This guy wants to take your mother away from us,” and instructed the child to never mention the incident again.
Lesya adhered for 48 years, until at the urging of her younger sister she unloaded the memory. Moments later, the sisters completed their phone call and Prokopiv resumed reading the genetics report. The message indicated a “close relative” of Prokopiv’s was living in Germany. Unaware of the details but determined to solve her biographical puzzle, Prokopiv reached out.
Anna Ostrovskaya replied. Similarly surprised by the newfound relation, Ostrovskaya asked her father, Mikhail, whether he had engaged in any extramarital relations. The Moscow resident replied no, but remembered something his father had told him nearly three decades earlier.
Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the communist regime opened its borders and permitted Jews to leave — 35,200 Soviet Jews departed for the United States that year. Almost 150,000 ventured to Israel, and Mikhail’s father seized the opportunity. He packed his belongings and asked his 29-year-old son to escort him to the airport. Mikhail agreed.
It was hours until the flight departed for Tel Aviv. Recognizing the precarious time, the father did not know whether he would see his son again. As the two approached the airport, Mikhail’s father blurted, “You may have a sister.”
Ostrovskaya, having listened to her father relate the incident, decided to call her grandfather, an octogenarian residing in the northern Israeli city of Karmiel. He confirmed the episode. She then contacted her father, and reached out to Prokopiv.
“You are my aunt,” Ostrovskaya declared.
The realization shot through Prokopiv like a bolt of clarity.
“I felt, my whole life, different,” said Prokopiv.
Her childhood family was heavy set, with dark hair and dark eyes, but Prokopiv was slender and athletically built. Her hair is light and her eyes are blue, and apart from appearance her interests differed.
“When I was young my father told me to go to music school. I didn’t want to. I wanted to do gymnastics,” she said. “My whole life I had questions and all of a sudden I got the answers.”
With her biography rapidly clearing, Prokopiv realized the implications of her newfound presence. She reached out to Ostrovskaya again; perhaps it was best to remain a secret, suggested Prokopiv.
Ostrovskaya rejected the notion, and replied, “We all want to meet you.”
Prokopiv’s appreciation swelled, and by the time Toleroit’s email arrived several days later, the emotional dam had nearly burst.
“Hello, Lena,” began the message. “I feel very uneasy because I am afraid to say something wrong. I apologize in advance.”
The email related how he met Ida Khatsevich, how he offered her the pantyhose, what followed, and how in 1972 he left Kalush because “your mother asked me to.”
Toleroit, who after arriving in Israel adopted the name Akiva, said he was not a “rich man,” but offered to send money to Prokopiv’s children throughout his remaining days.
“I am in Israel since 1991. You can think about me differently,” he wrote. “You can treat me calmly, you can despise me or even hate me, but in any case I am your biological father.”
He closed the letter with a request: “From my side I ask you when you will be in the cemetery please put a flower on the grave of Ida and your father Mykhail who brought you up. I am very grateful to them for your education. … All the best to you. Kiss.”
The email was a gift, explained Prokopiv.
Ida Khatsevich died in 1998. Mykhail Khatsevich died in 2013.
“I thought my parents were dead, and now I have a father again,” she said.
Since that initial email months ago, Prokopiv and Toleroit have spoken daily. In the process, she discovered aspects of her life she never knew, such as how the man who raised her promised his wife that if she took him back, he would be a better father to Prokopiv than he was to his own biological children.
The pledge was wholly fulfilled, said the daughter.
After reconciliation, Khatsevich rearranged the house and built a nursery for the child. From her birth until his death, Khatsevich only referred to her with diminutive words — always making her feel as though she was the favorite. He paid for her education, her wedding, and when her first daughter was born, he raised that baby so Prokopiv could return to work.
Their appearance and interests differed, but Prokopiv and Khatsevich shared a palpable connection.
“My mother was very kind and caring. She cooked, but wasn’t actively involved in parenting. My father did that,” she explained. “He was strict but loving.”
In frequently conversing with her biological father, she also learned of the last time Toleroit saw her. When Khatsevich returned home in 1970 he questioned his wife how she could leave him and take the other two children. Even if she had feelings for someone else, spurning her husband would destroy the family, he explained to her.
Forced to choose between the two men, Ida Khatsevich begged Toleroit to leave Kalush. He agreed, but said he would go only after the baby was born, so shortly after Prokopiv’s birth Khatsevich walked by Toleroit’s home. As his former lover and their child passed, he peered out the window.
“I saw her once when she was a baby. She was in her mother’s arms,” he said.
Toleroit quietly left Kalush. He moved to Ivano-Frankivsk, then Kiev and finally Israel. Decades spanned without connection. Prokopiv grew, pursued mathematics and business, and went on to become a manager of Henkel Ukraine, a subsidiary of the multinational German company.
Toleroit aged and established residence in the Misgav region. One day, he opened his computer, searched on social media and while peering through the screen saw her. He discovered Prokopiv had children, was successful and had created a life for herself. Toleroit attempted no correspondence. Instead of invading their existence, he left again.
“I didn’t want to frighten them,” he said.
Prokopiv’s later desire for connection was surprising. He never imagined she was interested in speaking with him once, let alone daily. He was certain their paths had severed, but Prokopiv defied his expectations. In June, she and her family are going to Israel for 10 days.
Their specific purpose is seeing him, she said.
Little can be said of such a reunion, explained Toleroit. “I am overjoyed to welcome them. They are my relatives.”
Prokopiv is “happy to be Jewish” and enjoys discovering her family history. She learned how Toleroit’s mother, Miriam, lost her husband and child during a pogrom in the Russian civil war, how Miriam later bribed a Russian official with a box of sweets to change her name to Maria, so as not to draw attention as a Jew and how Toleroit’s father, Moishe, a member of the Soviet Army, died in World War II fighting the Germans.
“It’s very interesting how the genes work,” Prokopiv said. “Like my biological father, I am active and ambitious. I study math.”
Prokopiv is enrolled at Community College of Allegheny College. She takes math courses, but already knows the subject, she said. The objective is to master any corresponding English.
Before Prokopiv unearthed her past, her husband completed a similar DNA test. Igor Kurnikov found no surprises, but thought his wife might be interested in seeing what followed. She agreed.
Having now recovered a sizable story from a small sample of saliva, the Greenfield residents mailed one more package. They addressed it to Akiva Toleroit and shipped it to Israel.
“I sent him the test to make sure everyone matches,” said Kurnikov.
They did. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.