Editorial: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Ukrainian roots show need to educate West
The United States has lost a legend and a champion for women’s rights and gender equality. On Sept. 18, the U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87 from pancreatic cancer.
Ginsburg was many things to many people: a towering American jurist, a woman who broke glass ceilings, an advocate for progressive causes and much more.
She was also an American who could trace her family roots to Ukraine. Ginsburg’s father was born in what is today the city of Khmelnytsky and likely lived in Odesa before his family departed for the United States in the beginning of the 20th century. Ginsburg’s mother was the first American-born child of immigrants from the city of Burshtyn in today’s Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.
But you won’t hear much of that in Ginsburg’s obituaries. American newspapers have identified her parents as Russian, Polish or Austrian Jews. Few even mention Ukraine.
This is not a new occurrence. So many prominent Americans (and people from other countries) can trace their roots to Ukraine, yet Ukraine is perpetually overlooked. Why is that?
There are multiple reasons. At the time when Ginsburg’s ancestors left Ukraine, it was not an independent country. Instead, it was divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Often, immigrants from Ukraine — particularly Jewish ones — fled anti-Semitism, poverty and conscription in the tsar’s army. Unsurprisingly, many brought negative attitudes toward their ancestral land to the U.S.
Additionally, several generations later, their descendants often lack an understanding of Eastern Europe’s history and geography. So they too perceive their ancestors as Russian, Polish or Austrian.
In an ideal world, Americans would learn about Ukraine and how many people trace their ancestry to this country. Newspapers would print correct information about figures like Ginsburg. But that is unlikely to happen on its own.
Instead, Ukraine should reclaim people whose ancestors emigrated from its modern territory and assert its place in American history. This will give Ukraine back its history. It will also help people to recognize that Ukraine is not a country that appeared in 1991. Rather, it has existed for hundreds of years and is an inalienable part of Europe and world history.
But this isn’t just about Ukraine’s international reputation. It’s also about making right on the wrongs of history. People like Ginsburg’s ancestors left Ukraine to seek a better life elsewhere — one free from persecution, fear and poverty. Sometimes Ukrainians were the agents of their oppression.
Ukraine cannot change the past. But it can recognize these people as a part of its history.
In the 21st century, descendants of immigrants from Europe are curious to see where their ancestors came from. And Ukraine should welcome them to visit, recognizing them as part of a greater, global Ukraine.
Ukraine deserves greater recognition internationally than it currently receives. It should not be so constantly left out of history. But that won’t stop until it starts to discover and recognize figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the descendants of people born and raised on Ukrainian soil — as a part of its history, too.