Linking the Past and the Present at the Red Cross

MS St. Louis surrounded by boats at Havana port. Aboard were 937 mostly German Jewish refugees seeking safety from war-torn Europe. The ship was turned away from Cuba, United States and Canada and had to return to Europe.

MS St. Louis surrounded by boats at Havana port. Aboard were 937 mostly German Jewish refugees seeking safety from war-torn Europe. The ship was turned away from Cuba, United States and Canada and had to return to Europe.

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, National Headquarters, Caseworker for the Americas and Outreach Coordinator

As a Red Crosser working for the Restoring Family Links program, I have thought quite a bit about what brought me to the work that I do today. Before my work here, I was in Houston at an organization that provided services for survivors of sexual and/or domestic violence.  While there, I came across an essay called “The Personal is Political.” What it meant to me at the time and what it still means to me, is that what impacts women personally is a place of action and informs us, compels us to act.  In the end, dismissing the personal minimizes the value of experience and the action that follows.  And that brings me back to that original question of what brought me to do the work that I do today.

Having been raised by my mother after the age of nine, I knew very little about my father’s side of the family. It was only when I graduated high school that I learned about my grandfather’s history.  It was a quiet type of history, one that comes with the fear of having fled a country.  You see, fearing persecution as a Jewish Ukrainian, my grandfather had fled from his home.  He attempted entry into other countries, but in the end, landed in northern Mexico.  He shed his language, his faith, and anything that might bring attention to him.  I later found out that his experience was similar to many others.  It is estimated that Latin American governments accepted 84,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945.  In fact, Latin America became a place of refuge for many Jewish displaced persons.

As a child, I grew up alongside my best friend, she was Jewish. Her grandmother, whom we lovingly referred to her as Ema, was a Holocaust survivor. I remember learning about the Holocaust because I asked why she had a number tattooed on her skin.  I was seven years old.  Ema told us stories, made us laugh and knitted us everything under the sun (skirts, included).

In contrast, I never met my grandfather, and what I knew about him was pieced together like one of Ema’s quilts. I thought surely he left behind family, or maybe that his family did not survive, like some of Ema’s family.  It was then that I thought about the word survivor.  What that means and the way people live after they have survived.  For my grandfather, it meant leaving everything behind, even the words to share his story.

Fast forward to the work I engage in currently. Today, I work for the Restoring Family Links program of the American Red Cross. This invaluable service connects families who have been separated by crisis, conflict or migration.  To be even more specific, my casework is in the Americas.  Through this work, I feel more connected.  I feel more connected to both the human experience of joy when connecting loved ones, but also to the sorrow that comes with great loss.  I think that this is what my grandfather experienced.  And while I did not know him, I feel that I know his story a little more each day.

On January 27th we honored Holocaust Remembrance Day, but every day the American Red Cross, the International Committee for the Red Cross and the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement work to honor people’s lives and their personal stories. For me, the personal is very much a call to action and why I am compelled to do the work I do today. I stand in awe of the survivors that have come to us seeking connection to the loved ones and lives they left behind or lost.  To me, this is what came to mind on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the days that have passed since then.

To learn more about Latin America and the plight of Jewish refugees click here