My Family Ties to Ukrainet

My Family Ties to Ukraine

© David Burton 2022


     Here in 2022 Ukraine is once again is being attacked by the forces of Russia – this time not Czarist Russia but by the forces of 21st century imperialist Russia led by that would-be czar, Vladimir Putin.

     “Analysts have long noted that Putin’s obsession over Ukraine stems from his desire to influence and control former Soviet satellite states like Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.”
      - - -
     “Ukraine’s appetite for independence from Russia has been seen in several popular uprisings against the government in the last two decades, beginning with the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004 that saw mass protests in the country after a contested presidential election, and which culminated in pro-Western politicians coming to power that year.
     “More recently, there was the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, a more violent uprising that came with a wave of pro-European protests and civil unrest which led to the ousting of the then pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin called this revolution a ‘coup d’etat’ in his speech on Thursday last week.” (Ref. 1)

     The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put it in the news spotlight and led me to look up my family’s ties to that country. Here is what I have found out, or what I remember from talking with my father and the members of his family nearly a half century ago. My father died in 1956 and I am now 85 years of age, which, unfortunately, makes my memory somewhat suspect.

     My father, Eliyahu, (Throughout this article, I will be using only Yiddish names) was born in 1896 in the town of Zaslav, in the Ukraine region of Czarist Russia. At the time, about 6,000 Jews lived in Zaslav, which constituted about half of its total population.[2] Today Zaslav has been renamed Izyaslav. It is located about 185 miles west of Kviv, the capital of modern Ukraine. Numbered among the Jews of Zaslav were the parents of Leonard Nimoy, TV’s Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame. Nimoy’s parents emigrated from Zaslav to Boston in the 1920’s, about two decades after my father came to the United States.

     It is interesting to note that the story of my father coming to America in many ways parallels the story of Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, coming to this country. In her case, her father, Moshe Mabovitch, was a carpenter who lived in the Ukraine region of Czarist Russia, mainly in the city of Kiev – now called Kviv. In 1686 the Treaty of Eternal Peace between Poland and Russia confirmed Russian control of Kiev.[3]

     Golda Meir’s father was a Jewish carpenter like my father’s father, Bezalel. She was born in the Ukrainian city of Kiev in 1898, two years after my father was born in the nearby Ukrainian city of Zaslav. Golda Meir’s father and his family left the Ukraine for America in 1906, settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My grandfather, Bezalel, and his family also left the Ukraine for America around 1906, but settled in Boston, Massachusetts.[4] Today, many of my father’s family is buried in the Jewish Knights of Zaslav cemetery just outside Boston.

     “The Knights of Zaslav Cemetery was founded on January 4, 1935 by families of immigrants from Izyaslav, Ukraine that immigrated to the Boston area, to provide a burial site for deceased family. The cemetery is located in Everett, Massachusetts, close to Boston. . . ” (Ref. 5)

     My great uncle Shear, the brother of my grandfather Bezalel had an interesting story associated with his leaving “Mother Russia” and coming to America.

     I only saw my great uncle Shear on the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His seat in the synagogue that he, my grandfather (Bezalel), an uncle (Shmuel), my father (Eliyahu) and I (Baruch) attended was in front of the bench on which my father, my uncle and I sat. My grandfather’s bench was a bench at the front of the synagogue, in front of the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls and there were no seats available near him. Hence, my father and I were seated near my great uncle.

     The story of Uncle Shear coming to America had to do with the military conscription policies of Russia when “more than two million Jews {were} streaming out of the Russian Empire at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries toward the promised land of milk and honey far across the seas.” (Ref. 4)

     “When Catherine the Great of Russia annexed large parts of Poland and Lithuania into the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century, hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in those territories came under Russian domination. Catherine confined members of the Jewish population of the expanded empire to the areas they had been in at time of the annexation – the Pale of Jewish Settlement, it was called – and forbade them by law to settle elsewhere.” (Ref. 4)

     Golda Meir’s grandfather, Meir Zelig Mabovitch, had served in the army of Czar Nicholas I, a badge of honor that gave soldiers’ spouses and descendants the right to dwell outside the Pale. That privilege allowed Golda Meir’s parents to live in the city of Kiev.
     The mass exodus of Russian Jews around 1900 might have stemmed in part from people fleeing military service which extended for six years or more. “Czar Nicholas had established quotas for conscripts from individual Jewish communities, forcing community leaders to choose between drafting adult men or young boys to fill their quotas.” So it was that Golda Meir’s grandfather, Meir Zelig was pressed into military service when he was only thirteen years old. He didn’t return home for some thirteen years or until he was twenty-six years of age.[4]

     In the case of my great uncle Shear, he was “drafted” into the Czar’s army. He was sent to a training camp, under guard to make sure that he didn’t run off to escape his military service. On the train taking him to the training camp, Uncle Shear knocked out his guard, jumped off the train and managed to find his way to America. When I knew my great uncle, he was well into seventies, but I remember that he still was a powerful man who would crush an apple in his fist to impress me. It was therefore quite easy to believe the story about his coming to America. It also contributed to another link between the story of Golda Meir’s family and Ukraine and my family and Ukraine – that link being the forced conscription of young Jewish men into the Russian czar’s military.


  1. Putin’s obsession with Ukraine has made analysts question his rationality, Holly Ellyatt,,
    2 March 2022.
  2. Izyaslav, History of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, 8 August 2014.
  3. Kyiv: national capital, Ukraine, Phil Helsel,, Last Updated: 1 March 2022.
  4. Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel, Francine Klagsbrunstrong, Schocken Books, Copyright 2017.
  5. Knights of Zaslav Cemetery, Barry Sieger,, 24 April 2013.


  17 March 2022 {Article 519; Undecided_66}    
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