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One man's journey to view his family's complicated history with Ukraine differently

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is distorting history when he says he's sending his military to, quote, "denazify Ukraine." Ukraine's president, after all, is Jewish. So why would Putin tell this story, and who would it resonate with? Julia Longoria, host of the podcast "The Experiment," talked with one man about his family's complicated history with Ukraine and how he came to view things differently.

FRANKLIN FOER: My grandmother viewed the Ukrainians that she knew as Nazi collaborators, and so that was the story that I grew up with.

JULIA LONGORIA, BYLINE: When I first met Franklin Foer, he told me his grandmother's pain had once led him to believe the narrative that Putin is spreading right now, until, eventually, that changed.

FOER: I came to view my own myth, the story that I grew up, with as just simply wrong and the Putin version of events simply to be grotesque.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #1: The purpose of this interview is to add to the oral history of the Nazi Holocaust so that future generations will know what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #2: Could you please tell me your name?

ETHEL KAPLAN: Ethel Kaplan. I was born in 1920, June 15. I had two sisters.

FOER: My grandmother's existence before World War II was fairly idyllic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAPLAN: My mother raised the three of us, and we were very, very close, you know?

FOER: She lived in this small town. She liked to talk about how she would go out and sit by the river with the boys who liked her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAPLAN: I had a lot of friends. I had a lot of friends.

FOER: But then one day she saw paratroopers fall from the sky.

LONGORIA: Ethel had just turned 21 years old. This was 1941. The Nazis began their surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June of that year. One of the first places they attacked was what is now known as the country of Ukraine. And what was then known as The Ukraine, or the Borderlands - the edge of the Soviet empire. This was Ethel's homeland.

FOER: And she makes a snap decision to run for her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAPLAN: You know, just something triggered. It was intuition. And it was luck.

LONGORIA: Violence against Jews in Ukraine predates the Nazis. As early as the 1800s, before the Soviets took over, there were riots against Jews in this area known as pogroms, where non-Jews would commit violence against Jewish people, sometimes egged on by Russian police. But Ethel had never witnessed any of this firsthand. So when she saw paratroopers arrive, she was scared. She felt she had to leave.

I just can't imagine being 21 years old and being on foot. I mean, did she even have a destination in mind?

FOER: She had no destination in mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAPLAN: We just had to survive.

LONGORIA: Ethel survived on a collective farm in Kazakhstan. She spent about three years there until she learned that the Soviets had conquered back the part of Ukraine where her village was, so she took the same journey back home.

FOER: She hadn't heard from her family during the war. And when she got to the town, she was pulled aside by somebody - a Ukrainian who she knew - who told her that her grandfather had gone to pray in the synagogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAPLAN: They burned him in the synagogue. And my older sister, they didn't even want to tell me what happened to her.

FOER: The Nazis had marched her sister and her mother to the forest and forced them to dig a grave and then lined the Jews up and shot them so that they fell back into this grave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAPLAN: This is what they told me. Everybody got killed. Every one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOER: And so that was the story that I grew up with.

LONGORIA: It was a story that Franklin and his two brothers knew very well. But there were other parts of their family history that were fuzzier to the brothers. For instance, what had happened to their grandfather? They knew that their grandparents had met after both of them had fled Nazis in Ukraine, but that was about it.

FOER: And there's one other mystery that I think I need to introduce right now. When my mom was 40 years old, she had a conversation with my grandmother, and my grandmother told her, your father had another daughter, and she was killed in the war.

LONGORIA: Oh, my gosh.

FOER: And for my mother, this was, like, this earth-shattering moment.

LONGORIA: Who was this half-sister of hers? How did her dad escape the Holocaust? She had held onto one shred of evidence of her dad from many years earlier.

FOER: There was a photograph of him sitting with three Ukrainians. One of the Ukrainians was an older man, and we knew that my grandfather had probably been saved during the war by him, but we didn't know much else.

LONGORIA: In 2009, Frank and his mom got on a plane to Ukraine to search for the Ukrainian family who maybe saved his grandfather's life.

FOER: We drove into this very small, remote Ukrainian village where my grandfather had lived. At the entrance to the village there are three Ukrainians lined up to greet us, and then they take us into their house. It feels like it could have come from 1915, and there's a photo - an old photo that's propped up. She compares it to the photo that we have, and it's pretty clear that the guy who is sitting next to my grandfather is in this photo that she has.

So my mother and I are starting to get very excited that we may have found the family that saved my grandfather. And the granddaughter starts to tell us a story. And she says, you know, I never really heard very much about my grandfather during the war, but when my uncle would get drunk, he would tell this story. When he was a kid, the family had hid a guy named Leibel (ph), which was my grandfather's Yiddish name, and that the Nazis had once come to our house, and Leibel was hiding behind a door. And if the Nazis had discovered him, we would have all been killed. At that moment, the grandson disappears. He comes back with an old peasant woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOER: She comes into the room, and she runs her thumb over my forehead, and she says, you have your grandfather's brow. I ask her, so you knew my grandfather? She says, yes, I knew your grandfather. I knew his wife, Zipporah. And I said, did you know my mother's sister? And she pointed to the window and she said, yeah, I used to play with her in those fields outside. We would play with a ball. I said, did you know her name? And she said, yes, her name was Asya.

That's the moment where my view of Ukraine was completely turned on its head. I realized that these people who threatened to kill my grandmother were also the people who saved my grandfather and that they'd made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of a neighbor.

CHANG: To hear more of Franklin Foer's story, visit "The Experiment," a podcast from WNYC Studios and The Atlantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.