Between pogroms, my grandfather, David Zaslowsky, and two of his brothers immigrated to New York City from their village south of Kiev called “Bohuslav” in Ukrainian, “Boguslav” in Russian and “Boslov” in Yiddish, which was the language the Zaslowskys spoke. Zaslowsky, also spelled in several different ways, was a common surname of the people in this shtetl, as it is referred to in Yiddish. Most of the Zaslowskys were related. My great-grandfather, Joseph Zaslowsky, aka Yossel HaRav, was the beloved chief rabbi of Bohuslav — named in the language chosen in deference to Ukraine’s brave defenders.
About half the inhabitants of Bohuslav were Jewish. Despite having lived there for at least 200 years, the Zaslowsky lineage claimed a Jewish heritage, never a Ukrainian or Russian one. Relations between the Jewish population and their Ukrainian neighbors were so strained that the stump of my family which regenerated in the United States said almost nothing of what their life had been like there.
I was told that Great-grandfather Yossel HaRav was a good friend of the chief rabbi in Chernobyl, who emigrated to New York City and was present to officiate at the marriage of David Zaslowsky and his bride Shprintze Koenigsberg, my future grandmother, in 1923. As a wedding gift the Chernobyl rabbi gave my grandmother a pair of costly silver Shabbat candlesticks, engraved with her initials. I inherited them from her and light them on Friday nights. None of the Zaslowskys that Grandfather David said goodbye to in Bohuslav attended his wedding in New York. He never saw his parents and six sisters and brothers again.
I also inherited some photos. Brown with time, they are pictures of Bohuslav’s destruction in its August 1919 pogrom. During the Russian Revolution, more than 100,000 Jews in and around Kiev were murdered in pogroms. Massacres of the Jewish residents punctuated the sequential territorial grabs by Ukrainian nationalists, the Bolshevik Army and the Czarist White Army, under whose direction this Bohuslav pogrom was conducted by a Cossack militia.
Although Bohuslav changed hands five times, it was in good enough condition to serve as the displaced person center for Jews who survived other killing sprees. A photo from the Bohuslav pogrom is published in “My People: The Story of the Jews” by Abba Eban. It shows bloody corpses lining the road from Bohuslav to the neighboring town of Tarasche, wrapped in Jewish prayer shawls, with Ataman Zeliyoni’s Cossacks posing with them. For many years, I assumed Bohuslav was finally vaporized in World War II, along with most of the Zaslowskys.
Many years later, I learned through a weird connection that Bohuslav had survived. In 1995, my husband at the time, our two kids and I visited the wilds of Costa Rica. At the end of the trip, we were waiting on a dirt runway in the tropical forest for the small airplane to pick us up and fly us back to San Jose. When the plane landed a woman layered in gold chains, wearing tight pants and a leopard-patterned shirt got off. Her apparel must have been uncomfortable in the sticky Costa Rican heat. Huge Gucci sunglasses covered most of her face. She spoke English with a thick Russian accent.
I had studied Russian in college, and spoke a little. While the woman and I waited for the plane to refuel and for her Jeep to come, I introduced myself. At the time, my last name was Zaslowsky.
“That is my mother’s maiden name,” she said, startled. “Where was your family from?”
“Boguslav,” I answered in Russian.
“My mother is a Zaslowsky from Boguslav,” she said.
We were stunned. To get a better look at her, I asked if she would take her sunglasses off. When she did, I instantly saw a family facial resemblance. Her coffee-dark eyes could have been my father’s, who had died many years before.
The woman and I hugged. “You should visit Boguslav,” she said, as she got into the waiting Jeep. We boarded our plane. In our surprise we forgot to exchange contact information.
The current invasion of Ukraine has me looking at maps of Russia’s advance, and listening for mention of the town of Bohuslav, if the Russian army pushes past Kiev, perhaps on the road to Tarasche. The fate of Ukraine, the country being brutally invaded by Putin’s army, has suddenly become very important to the world, even for those whose families spent 200 years there, marginalized, murdered, despised and dispersed.
Photo of Boguslav. Printed with permission of Dyana Z. Furmansky