The Past is With Us, Always
This story begins on a first date, in a restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois. Phil is a lawyer, divorced, with two young sons. He arrives first and slides into the Thai restaurant’s booth. Anita is a law professor and mother to a little girl. Her husband passed away when their daughter was only four weeks old. As Anita sits across from Phil, he is struck by her soulful eyes, and the way she moves into the seat in front of him. Anita appreciates Phil’s curiosity about the world, his intellect, his kindness. In 2015 they marry on the rooftop of a Chicago restaurant. The ceremony includes a Christian prayer, Jewish traditions, and a Hindu ritual, each honoring the cultures they came from. Together with their children—Quin, Xavier, and Amelia—Phil and Anita have forged a modern, blended family. But their lives together were also made possible by the great journeys, and risks, taken by family members who lived before them.
In 1981, Phil and his parents arrived in Chicago as refugees from the Soviet Union. His father, Michael, was a concert violinist. His mother, Elena, worked tirelessly to become a doctor in the USSR despite the barriers that Anti-Semitism placed in her path. Her own parents—Tunya and Ilya—grew up the Ukrainian shtetl of Romanov. Tunya, the smartest student in her school, was a gifted linguist and went to university in a nearby city. Ilya enlisted in a Soviet military academy. Both were away from Romanov when Hitler’s troops entered Ukraine in 1941, occupying towns and calling for the extermination of Jewish residents. In Romanov in 1928 there were 4078 residents, 3390 of which were Jewish. After Hitler’s blitzkrieg, nearly all of Romanov’s Jewish residents were killed. In Tunya and Ilya’s families alone, fifty-seven were executed. Her family annihilated, Tunya became a nurse on a military train. She met Ilya again, and they remembered each other from their childhood together in Romanov. After a weeklong courtship, they married. Their daughter Elena was born on a remote island near Japan, where Ilya was stationed during the war.
Anita’s father, Manuel, grew up in Gijón, Spain during the Spanish Civil War. His parents sent him to a Jesuit boarding school, where he studied to become a priest. After attending the University of Salamanca and, later, Loyola in Chicago, Manuel decided to leave the Jesuit order but to continue his studies in Chicago. At a university holiday party he met Charlotte, a young Italian-American woman. They dated for a year before marrying in a Catholic church on Chicago’s south side. Both sides of Charlotte’s family came from Sicily in the early 1900’s in the hopes of finding food and work in America. Just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Charlotte’s father, Louis, enlisted in the US army. He met her mother, Leonora, at an army dance at Fort Knox. They dated for nine months before he was shipped overseas to fight in Tunisia. There, Louis was captured by the infamous Desert Fox, General Rommel, and placed in a German prison camp until war’s end. Released, Louis returned to the USA, married Leonora, and had three daughters.
This is the story of two families, both indelibly altered by war and loss, but brought together by love. Below, Anita, Phil, Elena, and Charlotte tell their stories in their own words.