I had two grandmothers with floral names: Rosa and Margarita. They were too old to enjoy their retirement, and they were alone. What I didn’t have were grandfathers. One had died on my second birthday and I don’t remember him. The other, Vasily, suddenly appeared when I was about 10, out of nowhere, with the words: “I am back.”
Until that point, I hadn’t known about his existence, so I was astonished, amused and happy to get a grandfather.
I spent my childhood in the ancient city of Kiev, the biggest city in the Soviet Union after Moscow and Leningrad. We lived in a 14-storey apartment block on the left bank of the majestic Dnieper river. Our entire neighbourhood district was built after the second world war and seemed to have no past, only a shiny Soviet future. We always said “the war”, as if it were the only one, and everything around us was about this war. No family was spared. The perished were our common heritage, almost the only property we had, and each family story seemed to reflect a tiny part of a big history.
My family was small. I had almost no relatives because of the war. Whole family branches had perished. But there were many who had fewer relatives than I did. I had no reason to suffer. However, I always dreamed of a big family at a long table.
A few months before Vasily returned home to his wife and younger daughter after a 40-year absence, I remember hearing a confused old woman ask loudly on a tram, “Has the war already ended?” as if she was talking about the next stop. She was not that wrong. My grandfather “came back” from the second world war in 1981.
The explanation I was given at the time was that he had disappeared at the beginning of the war, during the encirclement of Kiev in August 1941. He was captured by the Germans and spent years in their camps as a Soviet prisoner of war. The family knew that he had survived but, for some reason, he just didn’t come home. But now here he was, back finally.