Dear Jonathan

NOTE: The first part of this narrative is a letter to Jonathan from his grandfather. He imagines that somehow, his future children survive the Holocaust and his grandson Jonathan (whom he hopes will be named after him) will be born years later. The letter is meant to provide Jonathan with an account of the Holocaust and the joint invasion of Poland, and the lives his grandparents lead.

The second part of this narrative is a letter Jonathan writes, wishing that his grandfather could have to read it. It is an account of current developments in Ukraine, including the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

The characters, and the fact that the grandmother Zosha is pregnant are the only elements taken from the book Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. I have written in parts of German/Polish/Ukrainian history and cultural references that I think are relevant to my narrative, and that are not taken from the book. All the descriptions and character development are fictional elements I developed.

Just for your reference, Trochenbrod was in Poland but became part of Ukraine after the invasion. The characters in the book are of Ukrainian descent.

DISCLAIMER: I am not promoting or condoning any political viewpoints, this is meant to be a creative piece that reflects the culture and history of two characters in the book Everything is Illuminated. I used this piece as an outlet for my writing, reflection on world events, and simple frustration at senseless conflict, whether during WWII or today.


I dedicate this piece to all the students, children, Red Cross members, doctors, teachers, civilians, and soldiers, Ukrainian and Russian, who lost their lives during the Annexation of Crimea in 2014. May we think of them every night that we are able to sleep in the knowledge that we will wake up the next morning.

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September 1st 1939


Dear Jonathan,

The paper is getting darkened by soot and dust as I move my grandfather’s vintage Crescent Filler pen across crumbling yellow. I have tried to write this letter many times, I have started it many times, but I always ended up leaving it under the white tablecloth that your grandmother Zosha always asks me to clean but I never do. She is a good woman, your grandmother, but she always puts too much salt in the varenyky [1]and sings too loudly on Saturdays. I knew these things before we were married, but I can live with them because I had never met a woman who could fill the room with happiness by smiling with her eyes.


I don’t know if we’ll see the Ivanenko twins playing on the street corner today. I don’t know if the milkman will deliver our milk tomorrow, and if we will have our customary conversation about whether or not he’ll find a wife before winter comes. I don’t know if this letter will reach you or not, but I know I must write it. At this time , Zosha is still pregnant with the baby, but I know that baby will grow up, in another place, in another time, and have you, my dear grandson Jonathan. I know they will name you after me because the bombs that fall from the skies as dark as the bottom of the ocean will explode into a thousand shiny pieces and make their way into my heart. I know that the soldiers with shiny boots and metal belt buckles inscribed with ‘Gott mit uns’[2] (God with us) will pierce the night with their screams once again, and they will haunt the dreams of my brothers and sisters after they find our punctured bodies being eaten by the crimson earth.


We got a telegram from my cousin Perchov this morning. He says they are marching through Poznan, on the western border with Germany, they who have Panzer III tanks[3] and their dive bombing Luftwaffe[4] planes like fireflies above us. Time is slipping between my fingers so I must  write faster. The house has shaken many times and it will shake again but I do not know when.


If you find a way to watch a film called Triumph des Willens[5] (Triumph of the Will), I hope you do. I hope your generation and the ones after you find a way to preserve and record films. Triumph des Willens is a movie, moving pictures of black and white madness, of hate and lies and toe cringing frustration. There is a very famous woman in Germany, Leni Riefenstahl, with short hair and expensive jackets. Her eyes look like burnt glass, and she makes movies for the Führer, one of which is Triumph des Willens.


“A people that does not protect its racial purity will perish!”, say the colourless people in the movie.

“In the past, our enemies persecuted us and have removed the undesirable elements from our Party for us. Today, we ourselves must remove undesirable elements which have proven to be bad. What is bad, has no place among us!”, say the moving shadows on the screen.


I don’t want you to believe it. I don’t want anyone to believe it. I don’t want anyone to say it ever again. Not the baby, not you, not anyone who survives this sinking crater that is falling deeper into the ground every day and is getting smaller and smaller by the minute. Trochenbrod is no more a town than it is a crater, a black mark on the map that they will erase with one of their fancy Pelikan erasers. Trochenbrod will be gone, because we do not have a place among them.


I write this letter to you because you must know. You must know why I am probably not going to be there when you wake from your sleep, wrapped in blue and white embroidered cloth that your mother wove, and cry into the night. Why I will probably not be there to give you sweets under the table when your father isn’t looking. Why I won’t be there to teach you how to say Happy Birthday in Ukrainian, because you may be learning another language – maybe Russian, or German, or French, or even English. If you have not been taught, we say Многая літа, like this, mno-ha-ya, li-ta. It means ‘many years’, and that is how we say Happy Birthday to one another. Mnohaya Lita, Jonathan. Remember why I am not here. But remember why you are. Despite burning roofs, and the sound of bones, and the sound of peaceful sleep driven into oblivion by those black and green tanks, you will have journeyed a long way to survive. You are a speck of life that does not yet exist, but I know you will and I love you even before I can say your name out loud.


I write this letter to you to tell you that I am very, very sorry I cannot be with you.

And I write to you to tell you why.



I leave these folded pages under the white tablecloth that your grandmother Zosha will ask me to clean once again, but I will not do it so the cloth does not get the letter wet and wash away the ink. I will leave it here, and I do not know how, but I hope that this letter crosses many hands and many years to reach you.


Your grandfather,

Jonathan Safran.


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February 23rd 2014

Simferopol, Ukraine

Dear grandfather,

There is bad news, but there is also some good news.

I made it. I am here. My parents survived, and I was born in America. I live there, I grew up there, and there is one picture of you and grandmother Zosha standing in a field. I don’t know what colour the grass was because it is a black and white picture – if only you knew the kinds of N60 cameras and Blue Ray discs that we have now. There is a copy of Triumph des Willens in the local library, and on the internet. I will explain what the internet is in another letter, I am writing so many of those because there are pages full of memories and questions floating around in my head that I wish I could talk to you about, and even though you can never answer them, I write anyway. Maybe it is more for me than it is for you, but I write to you because it is important.


I watched Triumph des Willens, and I watch the streets of Simferopol from my window now. They are not very different, and that is where the bad news starts.


I have travelled to Ukraine to look for any last remnants of Trochenbrod. I know that they probably do not exist, but I have come to look anyway. As I sit in my hotel and eat my second plate of potatoes, I can hear things that you would have wished never existed.


Ukraine is being torn apart and sliced like the pieces of a very large, very expensive piece of chocolate cake. It is big, and looks good, so everyone wants a piece, but it is also expensive which means that nobody wants to share, even if someone promises not to take a big bite.


There is still an invasion, but not by Germany. There is still pain, and lost children, and suffering bearing down upon people so much that they feel they are breathing with iron lungs. It doesn’t matter which leader of which country has given up this country, if you really want to know it is the USSR, which is now called Russia. It doesn’t matter which human being, with the law in his hand, blind to the world and deaf to his people, and with a bleeding hole in his chest for a heart tore down the significance of what it means to be human. There are green and black tanks again, but with a different language written on them. There are no soldiers with black spiders on fields of red on their arms, but there are soldiers with blue and white uniforms who use bullets as equalizers. Rich, poor, men, women, children, dogs and cats, girls and boys, farmers and street performers, students and teachers, people who hold hands, and people who laugh at each other’s misery, they are all the same in the face of death. The land you walked on and the air you breathe is being polluted by blood once more, and a large piece of my heart is glad that you are not here to see it.


I did miss you, grandfather, on many occasions. When it was my twelfth birthday and everyone said Mnohaya Lita to me. When the big kid with shiny blue shoes and teeth that looked very sharp was punching me repeatedly behind the bleachers in the basketball courts, every single day. When I ate so many sweets that one of my teeth fell out, and my mother made me eat broccoli and carrots for an entire month. When my father would make varenyky with cherries because I do not eat meat, and they would be just a little too salty.

When I look at that picture of you and see my smile reflected in yours.


I am writing to tell you that I am also very, very sorry. I am sorry for you, I am sorry for grandmother Zosha, for everyone who didn’t see the end of the war or the light of day after October 1939, for the entire town of Trochenbrod, for this place that seems to have no rest.


I am sorry that things have not really changed.


There are doctors outside my hotel room, and they are talking amongst themselves very loudly. I hear them saying that there is only one bag of O- blood that has to run through the veins of five teenagers. They are saying that the soldiers outside are refusing to let medicine and aid be passed through the windows. They are saying that one of the doctors, a woman with glasses that had only one lens intact, was shot outside the hotel because she was bandaging a ten-year old’s head. He didn’t make it either. They say his friends called him Taly.


I am so sorry grandfather, that everyone dies for everyone and everyone dies for nothing.


I think about going back to America and writing more letters to you, and perhaps a book. I think about staying here and trying to reason with men who seem beyond reason, I think about staying here in the country you called home and smelling the flowers that perhaps you did too. I think about staying here, with that photograph of you and grandmother Zosha, and going to bed, the sounds of gunfire and planes and thundering feet lulling me into an endless sleep.


I do not know what I will do. I do not know what will happen to this place and to everyone who calls it home. I do not know what will happen to your home.


But I am sorry, that things have not changed.



With wonderful memories of a past you gave me, and foolish hopes for a future I am not sure I can give to the children whom I could raise in another life, in another time,


Your grandson,


[1] Traditional Ukrainian dumplings, made of dough and stuffed with a range of things including meat, onions, potatoes, pickled cabbage or even cherries.

[2] Translation from German: God with us. The SS and Nazi soldiers had this inscribed on their belt buckles, as Hitler was a rather ardent Roman Catholic.

[3] Panzer III were part of a series of German tanks used in WWII.

[4] Luftwaffe  was the German Air Force during WWII, and was dissolved in 1945.

[5] A seminal movie commissioned by Hitler and directed by the award winning Leni Riefenstahl, this is considered one of the key texts of German war propaganda. Released in 1935, it contains excerpts of speeches given by the Nazi Party. Hitler was also the executive producer.


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