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As Putin invaded Ukraine last month, the Atlantic writer Franklin Foer found the Russian leader’s justification for violence uncanny. Putin referred to the “Nazification” of Ukraine—a distortion of history at best. But Franklin was told a similar story his whole life from his grandmother. This week, The Experiment tells the story of the Holocaust survivor Ethel Kaplan, and traces Franklin Foer’s own journey—how he once came to believe Putin’s myth, and his journey to Ukraine to debunk it.

Further reading: “It’s Not ‘The’ Ukraine,” I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, please get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255. And if you’re outside the U.S., you can visit to find resources for your country.

Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at [email protected].

This episode was produced by Salman Ahad Khan and Julia Longoria, with editing by Emily Botein. Reporting by Franklin Foer and Esther Foer. Fact-check by Sam Fentress. Sound design by Joe Plourde. Transcription by Caleb Codding. Special thanks to Andy Lanset and Roberto De La Noval.

A transcript of this episode is presented below:

Julia Longoria: Just a heads-up: This is a story about the realities of war and genocide. Wanted to let you know that upfront.

(Over long, low, ominous strings, a montage begins.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin: (Speaks in Russian.)

Translator: (Translating Putin’s speech.) Dear comrades: Your fathers, your grandfathers fought against the Nazis, not so that Nazis could now take over power in Ukraine.

(Chanting, heavy voices repeat a refrain that cannot be made out.)

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: It’s a repeated refrain from Vladimir Putin and his acolytes. Putin has said he wants to, quote—

NBC’s Matt Bodner: (Picking up where Blitzer left off.) —“de-Nazi-fy” the Ukrainian government, that they are, uh, a liberating force from, essentially, an oppressive Nazi government.

(The chanting becomes clearer: words in a Slavic language from a great crowd. Then, with a blip and a click, the music and sounds fade to nothing.)

Longoria: I’m curious; like, when you heard Putin say that he was going to “de-Nazi-ify” Ukraine, and that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazis, what went through your mind?

Franklin Foer: When I heard Putin say that, I thought about my own journey [Chuckles once.] with Ukraine, because there was a point not so long ago when I would have agreed with him.

Longoria: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Foer: Or, you know, thought that there was some truth to what he was saying, because I grew up with my grandmother’s stories.

Longoria: Franklin’s grandma and Vladimir Putin happen to have a similar story that they’ve told themselves about Ukraine. As you might imagine, they don’t have a whole lot else in common.

Martha Stewart: Now, we have Grandma Ethel here. I’m so pleased to have her here. (The audience applauds.)

Foer: My grandmother’s name was Ethel.

Longoria: Before she passed away, in December 2018, Ethel was a guest on the Martha Stewart Show.

(Light, soft talk- show -acoustic guitar plays.)

Stewart: So, one cup of matzo meal—but, now, what kind of matzo meal? What kind?

Ethel Kaplan: Straight.

Stewart: Straight. Okay.

Kaplan: So Manischewitz, whatever.

Stewart: Okay. Okay, okay. (The audience laughs.)

Foer: She was very warm. She loved to talk to people on the telephone. Always in a very loud voice [Longoria exhales a laugh.] because she wasn’t totally convinced of the technology. [Longoria laughs.] She had a real bounce in her step, despite having survived so many terrible things.

Kaplan: I came from Europe. And I’ve been through the war. I was very lucky. I escaped Hitler.

Stewart: Yeah. Lucky, lucky.

Kaplan: Luck and intuition. (Audience applause.)

(As the applause fades, so does the soft guitar.)

Longoria: You are a second-generation immigrant to the U.S. Is that right?

Foer: That’s right. My mother came to this country as a little girl.

Longoria: Where was home for them?

Foer: So home—home had been Ukraine, but they didn’t see themselves as Ukrainian. They saw themselves as Jewish.

(A piano plays a sparse melody over a muddied drum track, solemn and wistful.)

Foer: My grandmother viewed the Ukrainians that she knew as Nazi collaborators. And so that was the story that I grew up with.

Longoria: The story that Putin is telling his country and the whole world about why he’s invading what he calls a “Nazi” Ukraine is a distortion of history. Ukraine’s president, after all, is a Jewish man.

So why would Putin tell this story? Who would it resonate with?

This week, Atlantic writer Franklin Foer explores the history that Putin is distorting. He tells the story of his grandmother and her pain that once led Franklin to believe the narrative that Putin is spreading right now.

Foer: But over the course of the years, as I ended up going back and back and back to Ukraine, 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.

Longoria: This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.

(With an ebullient lift at the end, the music floats away, quieter each moment, into the distance.)

Pretaped announcement: The purpose of this interview is to add to the oral history of the Nazi Holocaust so that future generations will know what happened. With this knowledge, hopefully, we can prevent any such occurrence in the future.

Interviewer: Could you please tell me your name?

Kaplan: Ethel Kaplan. [A beat.] I was born in 1920, June 15. I had two sisters.

Foer: My grandmother’s existence before World War II was fairly idyllic.

Kaplan: My mother raised the three of us. And we were very, very close, you know?

Foer: She lived in this small town. The part of Ukraine she lived in had been previously Polish, but then became part of the—the Soviet Union. [Laughingly.] She’d been a communist, actually, as a—as a little girl.

(Old-timey music plays through a tinny gramophone film.)

Foer: She liked to talk about how she would go down to wash the family’s plates before Passover, to make them kosher for the holidays. And that she would go out and sit by the river with the boys who liked her.

Kaplan: I had a lot of friends—a lot of friends.

(The music turns dark, strained, as the string line moves slowly toward anxiety.)

Foer: But then, she describes, one day she saw paratroopers fall from the sky.

Kaplan: A lot of people started running, and the soldiers, and they could see parachutes and airplanes.

Foer: And there was a collective state of panic in her town.

(A beat of music.)

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.

Kaplan: You know, I just—something triggered. It was intuition; it was luck.

Interviewer: What did your mother say to you when you said you were leaving?

Kaplan: She was speechless. She didn’t say anything.

Interviewer: Did she try to change your mind?

Kaplan: No.

Longoria: Why—why didn’t her mom go with her?

Foer: Her mother couldn’t imagine the worst. If you lived in this part of Ukraine, you were used to pogroms; you were used to invading armies. You’d survived terrible things before. And she couldn’t imagine why it would be different this time.

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.

(A quick beat.)

Longoria: 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.

Kaplan: ​​We didn’t realize what we are doing. We just were running. We just had to survive.

Foer: She was just running in the other direction of the troops.

And as a kid, I remember looking at her legs, which just had … welts, and were very veiny, and—and always swollen. And they were swollen because she spent so much time on her feet, walking.

Longoria: And where did she end up?

Foer: So she—she’s going east. She ends up in Kyiv.

(The old-timey music returns, this time with less urgency. The strings play slow and somber, the indicator of a long and tired journey.)

Foer: The whole city is in a state of wartime panic. And she gets to the train station, and there are trains that are just headed in the other direction. And she got on one. And she’s just going east and east and east and ends up in Kazakhstan, where she gets assigned to work on a collective farm.

(A brief radio transmission plays through static and wind.)

Foer: There’s a radio in the farm. And so she’s able to track the progression of the war that way. She gets a sense that the Soviets are pushing back against the Nazis and conquered the swath of Ukraine where her village is.

(Another radio transmission, broken and in a Slavic language.)

Foer: And so she writes a letter to Joseph Stalin asking for permission to be able to visit her town and—although she never heard back from Stalin himself—but she got some sort of response.

Kaplan: They sent me that all my family died.

(The music evaporates.)

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 she knew—who told her that her grandfather had gone to pray in the synagogue.

Kaplan: The older Jews, they were praying. So they put a fire and they burned them. They burned them in the synagogue.

Foer: And the Nazis locked the doors and burnt down the place with him in it.

Kaplan: My younger sister was born in 1924 and, uh, she perished—you know, they killed her in the middle of the street. And my older sister, they didn’t even want to tell me what happened to her, because it was so terrible.

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

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

(Two horns play, clear and resounding, in a void.)

Foer: It’s a lot to absorb [Exhales sharply.], for any person to hear all of this in one moment. But on top of that, there was another Ukrainian who told her and said, “You know what? I’m—I’m telling you something that’s going to save your life now. You need to leave, because the Nazis may be gone, but their Ukrainian collaborators are still here, and they’ll kill you if you spend more than one night in this town.”

(Over the horns, a drone enters the music.)

Longoria: The last night that Ethel ever spent in her hometown defined how she would tell the story of Ukraine for generations.

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

Longoria: It was a story that Franklin and his two brothers knew very well—the kind of story that gets repeated over and over. An exorcism for refugee families who’ve seen trauma. 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 had fled Nazis in Ukraine. But that was about it.

Foer: My grandfather … His name was Louis. He died long before I was born—before my brothers were born. He died in 1954, and we didn’t really know anything about his life.

And my grandfather—who was not around—had his experience with Ukrainians during the war, but because my grandmother was alive, like, it was hers that prevailed.

Longoria: Hmm.

Foer: But, kind of—There was this other one that was lurking there, that we knew existed.

You just have a sense as a kid to suppress your curiosity about certain things that, like, it was just—like, it was clearly a no-go zone.

Longoria: Hmm.

Foer: Nobody ever articulated that; nobody ever got mad, uh, at the mention of his name, but my grandmother kind of always kept it hushed-hushed, which should’ve had a big question mark set next to it.

Longoria: Slowly, over time, and in a very circuitous way, the brothers began to acknowledge the question mark and to begin to try to find answers. Frank’s brother Jonathan wrote a novel about it.

Foer: He wrote this magical-realist history called Everything Is Illuminated, which was a novel that tried to imagine my grandfather’s existence.

Longoria: Hmm.

Foer: Um, and so that happens, and actually gets turned into a movie.

Longoria: For the brothers, the book and the movie just reinforced the questions that they’d been suppressing. Like, how did their grandfather die so young?

Foer: My youngest brother, Josh, went and did a search of death certificates and went looking for whatever Washington Post obituary had been published about him. And he discovered that my grandfather had died in 1954, and that he had hung himself in the back of the store that he owned on Euclid Street in Washington, D.C.

(A beat in the quiet.)

Foer: So we knew, but we never had the conversation with my mother about this. Like, ’cause this is what happens in the shadow of trauma. It’s like, you don’t really start to have the hard conversations, because you’re scared of the emotions that they might dredge up.

Longoria: But Frank’s mother, Esther Foer, had been asking her own questions. She wanted to know more about her father. She was only about 7 years old when he died.

Foer: And there’s one other mystery that I think I need to introduce right now, which is that, when my mom was 40 years old—just after her 40th birthday—she had a conversation with my grandmother. And my grandmother told her, “You know, your father had another daughter, and she was killed in the war.”

Longoria: Oh my gosh.

Foer: And it was a very offhanded revelation. [Stuttering slightly.] “You know, you have a sister who was killed in the Holocaust.” And her sister was 7 years old when she was murdered, and my mom was 7 years old when my grandfather killed himself. And for my mother, this was like this earth-shattering moment. Like, she was just so gobsmacked by this revelation. And she had no idea how to respond.

(Soft, cloudy synthesizers puff out a gentle soundscape.)

Longoria: Frank’s mom, Esther, started to look for answers herself. Who was this half sister of hers? How did her dad escape the Holocaust? She had held on to one shred of evidence of her dad from many years earlier.

Foer: A photograph. There was a photograph of him sitting with three Ukrainians.

Longoria: Hmm.

Foer: 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: If anyone knew the story of what had happened to Grandpa Louis, it would be these Ukrainians in the photo. So Frank and his mom started to consider, What if we try and go find these people?

Foer: My grandmother was pretty horrified by the idea. She was—she was frankly terrified by the prospect of our going there. I think that she really—based on her own experience—feared for our safety. She said, “I really don’t want you to go. This is a terrible place.”

Longoria: Hmm.

Foer: “Don’t go.”

(The music plays up in the clear for a moment.)

Longoria: But in 2009, Frank and his mom got on a plane to Ukraine anyway to search for the Ukrainian family who maybe saved his grandfather’s life.

Foer: To see if we could fill in the gaps, if there was something more there for us to grasp on to.

Longoria: That’s after the break.

Foer: And the last thing that she told us on our way out the door was “Don’t eat their food!” Which I found to be such a strange [Longoria laughs.] warning. [Foer laughs.] Like, what else are we gonna do? [Longoria laughs.] Are we just gonna eat—?

Longoria: Just gonna take some granola bars?

Foer: —protein bars the entire time? Um, yeah.

(The music disappears, giving way to the break.)

(With a rapid cascade of strings through the static of nostalgia, we reenter the story.)

Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. We’re back with the story of Ukraine as told by Franklin Foer’s family.

For years, Frank’s grandmother Ethel had told him a story of Ukraine as a country of Nazi sympathizers. But in 2009, Frank and his mom were on their way to that same Ukraine in search of a different story: his grandfather’s.

Foer: So we drove into this very small, remote Ukrainian village where, uh, my grandfather had lived. And it’s one road, maybe 10 houses on each side of the road. And in back of the houses, there’s just, like, fields, leading into the forest.

And at the entrance to the village, there are three Ukrainians lined up to greet us.

And, uh, this—really awkward. Like, we’re meeting these people for the first time. We think they may be our saviors, but they may not be our saviors. And so we—do we hug them? Uh … [Longoria laughs lightly.] Do we shake their hands?

They’re very, very warm to us, though. And so they take us into the backyard of this house and they show us a pear tree.

(Puffs of air, gentle and full, billow into the background of the conversation—they sound the way a cotton-candy sunset might.)

Foer: The village had—had changed, but, like, this pear tree was the same pear tree that their grandfather had eaten from. And then they take us into their house—it feels like it could have come from 1915—and there’s a ledge. And on this ledge, there’s a photo—an old photo that’s propped up—and she takes it down, and 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.

This guy had a button on his shirt that was in both photographs. It just looked like it couldn’t have been a coincidence. And so my mother and I are starting to get very excited that we may have found the family that saved my grandfather, and we sit down 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 about how, when he was a kid, the family had hid a guy named Leibel”—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.”

And, at that moment, the grandson disappears, and he comes back with an old peasant woman. She doesn’t have very many teeth. She’s wearing a scarf wrapped around her head. Her fingers are very thick. She has a cane. And she comes into the room and she runs her thumb over my forehead.

And she says, “You have your grandfather’s brow.”

And I ask her the question. I was like, “So you knew my grandfather?”

She says, “Yes, I knew your grandfather. I knew his wife, Tzipora.”

And I asked, “Where did they live?”

And she said, “Well, you know, things have moved around a lot. But I think that you’d probably be sitting right about where his living room was right now.”

And then I asked her about my mother’s sister and I said, “Did you—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.”

(The music grows and swells and intensifies and then slowly dissipates into an ethereal drone.)

Foer: And I said, “Did you know her name?”

And she said, “Yes, her name was Asya.”

It was like, this girl who had been completely lost to history—there was no trace of her in any of the databases of Holocaust victims; we didn’t know her name; we didn’t think we would ever know her name—it was like we’d—we’d rescued her memory.

(A soft bell chime signals the end of the drone.)

Foer: To me, in a way, that’s Ukraine. It’s like Ukraine is this place where history continues to exist.

Like, these things that you think are so distant in the past are actually still touchable. That’s the moment where my view of Ukraine was completely turned on its head. I realized that these people who’d threatened to kill my grandmother were also the people who’d saved my grandfather, and that they’d made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of a neighbor.

I mean, I found myself kind of crying [Laughs.] into the arms of—uh, of these—this Ukrainian family who I’d only just met, but, um—but knowing that I owed them the greatest debt.

(A heavier electric drone plays. Slowly, synthesized arpeggios play, a time machine out of the emotion of that moment and into the fast pace of current-events news.)

Foer: Having met this family, my sense of Ukraine had shifted entirely. I felt a real deep connection to the Ukrainian people afterwards.

And in 2014, I was editor of the New Republic magazine and I watched the events of that year.

(Chanting from protests in Kyiv in early 2014 plays—the same chanting that opened this episode.)

Foer: I watched how the people of Kyiv had risen up against the corrupt pro-Soviet government that existed, and installed a democracy in the country.

(More audio from the protests.)

Foer: And I watched as Vladimir Putin reacted in horror to what he was witnessing and invaded Crimea, and then invaded Eastern Ukraine.

(Bombs explode.)

Foer: And there was this real struggle for the soul of the country. And, The New Republic organized a conference in Kyiv in the spring of 2014.

Longoria: The conference took place in May of 2014, just two months after Russia had invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine—a precursor to the violence we’re seeing now.

(The arpeggios fade out.)

Foer: And the city still felt like it was in the middle of a revolution. If you walked into the streets, there were still barricades with tires piled up. You could see buildings that had been burnt down. You could see bullet holes, people who were veterans of the battle still camped out in the central square.

Longoria: The central square—or Maidan—is where Ukrainians had protested and fought for democracy in their country.

Foer: And at that conference, I’d invited Lesya, who was the great-granddaughter of the guy who’d saved my grandfather during the war.

She was a student in Kyiv, and she had been in the Maidan as a protester. But she really didn’t know much about the Holocaust. It just hadn’t been part of her education.

And so I went with her to Babi Yar, which is a ravine where the Jews of the city were marched and killed in one of the biggest mass graves in history. Over the course of several days, 30,000 Jews were killed in this ravine.

I mean, in a way, I was learning about it [Chuckles.] as we were walking through. I mean, I knew the basic outlines of it all from before, but she was really learning about it for the first time. And it was incredible to watch her face as she started to comprehend what had happened at this place.

(Lush music plays, distant and nostalgic, for just a few beats of the next narration.)

Foer: (From the conference.) Thank you very much for joining us on this—on this beautiful Monday morning when there is so much else to do. (The audio continues under present-day Franklin’s narration.)

Foer: The next day at the conference, I was on a panel about Ukraine—history, memory, and the future of the country. So I started to tell the story about the guy who’d saved my grandfather during the war.

Foer: (From the conference.) He would not have survived the war if it were not for his Ukrainian neighbor, Devid, who was one of the, uh—the truly righteous Gentiles, and he hid him in his house for a year.

Despite, uh, some very, very close calls when it could have all gone horribly wrong, not just for my grandfather, but for his, uh—his savior too.

And I mention this story, um, in part because the great-granddaughter of the man who saved my grandfather, Lesya, uh, is—is here in the audience. And she was—she was on the Maidan.

Foer: She was a student, she participated in the protests, and I—I found myself just really overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.

Foer: (From the conference.) This has been, um, a very meaningful [Choking up.]—sorry, unexpected—um, a very meaningful experience for her. And it’s kind of the beauty of what’s happened … [The audience breaks into applause.] Lesya! Oh, Lesya—Lesya’s here.

Foer: And I pointed to her, and the room just kind of broke out in a sustained applause for her, and the organizer of the trip kind of brought her up on stage.

Foer: (From the conference.) I hope I didn’t embarrass you with that!

Foer: And it was just—it was such a moving moment for me, because I felt like I was able to publicly acknowledge the debt that I had to her family.

Foer: (From the conference, still over the sustained applause for Lesya.) This guy needs a hug. Okay!

(The conference audio fades out.)

Foer: I felt a real sense of just the most profound solidarity with the people of the country at that moment. That, um, I’m—I’m an idealist and maybe it kind of grows out of my grandmother—

Longoria: Hmm.

Foer: —being able to just maintain her sense of optimism after so many horrible things had befallen her and to just watch people seize control of their future and to try to steer their country in this direction where they were reaching out towards Europe and they were trying to reject corruption and they were trying to achieve a more genuine democracy was just—was such a beautiful thing to me.

And, uh … And I felt connected to kind of this—this broader story.

(A long beat of quiet. Only the music plays, and then even it goes silent.)

Longoria: I don’t know. It strikes me, you know [Sighs.] that this one moment—admittedly, an extremely dramatic moment in your grandmother’s life—dictated the story she told about Ukraine for generations, and passed on for generations!

It’s interesting, just the way that these sorts of stories that we tell about countries— right?—and what countries are, and what, you know, people are,  are so … We—we tell those stories so quickly.

And then, [Chuckles.] I don’t know, I’m just thinking about Putin telling a story to himself about Ukraine. Sometimes, these stories can be turned into propaganda, and then these stories start wars.

Foer: Well, we all … We all have history. An event like World War II, which is now so far in the past, can continue to echo through the generations and can continue to define the present for us.

(A clicking percussion lays the groundwork for another lush keyboard line, a whole atmosphere of softness, of comfort, of quiet reflection.)

Foer: When Lesya—who’s the great-granddaughter of the guy who saved my grandfather—came to Washington to stay with my mother, uh, my mother took her to visit my grandmother, and I think it was actually a touching experience for my grandmother, because after all this time of kind of harboring these kind of terrible memories of—of Ukrainians, she was able to admit to herself, “Well, there actually are—there actually were some good Ukrainians.” [Longoria lets out a quiet, sighing laugh.] Um, and I think it was—it was kind of a—it was probably a touching, redemptive moment for her.

Longoria: So where is Lesya now?

Foer: Uh, she is in Kyiv. Do you want to get in touch with her?

Longoria: Yeah.

Foer: You know, she may be in her village now. [Sighs.] I—I have to ask my mom.

(The music fades out as the phone rings.)

Esther Foer: Hello?

Longoria: Hi, Esther. It’s Julia. I just wanted to call you, um, because it’s been [Laughs.] such a pleasure talking to your son, Frank—or …

Esther: Oh, thank you!

Longoria: … Franklin, does he go by Frank?

Esther: Yep! You know, he used to go by Frankie, uh, but now he goes by Frank. (Both laugh.) Um, and you know, Lesya—I don’t know if you were able to talk to her.

Longoria: Yeah, we—we’ve been trying to reach Lesya. I think she’s actually in a small village now.

Esther: Yes, yes.

Longoria: And there’s no strong internet to make a phone call. So, have—have you been in touch?

Esther: Yes! Every day. I got—I got something from her today.

Longoria: What did she say?

Esther: Well, let me take a look. This one … Oh, this is February 12. It was way back.

Longoria: Hmm.

Esther: “There’s tension in Kyiv; we work with foreigners and a lot of them are leaving, however Ukrainians believe that everything will be fine. Thank you for your email. I couldn’t answer earlier, because it was a bit crazy.”

There’s another one on the 24th. “We’re fine so far, hope everything will be fine.”

The 25th—the next day—“Please ask your country to help us. The situation’s getting worse and worse.”

The next one, “We’re still in Kyiv, couldn’t leave.”

Next, “Parents are safe. Kyiv’s not in good condition right now.”

The 26th, she writes, “We will stay.”

Then the next day she says, “We left Kyiv last night by train; now we’re going to our parents’ village. We’re a bit afraid—it’s on the border with Belarus. Thank you for keeping in touch with us. It means a lot right now.”

And what’s really sweet is when she writes “With best wishes from Lesya and your Ukrainian family.” They describe themselves as our Ukrainian family.

Longoria: Hmm.

Esther: And we write back as “Your American family.” [Longoria inhales.]

Um … We offered to take them in. I told Lesya, you know, if they want to come here, we will sponsor them—in a heartbeat, you know, without a moment’s hesitation. I feel it’s my obligation.

Longoria: Yeah. [Chuckles lightly, seriously.] And do you have any sense from talking to Lesya what her plans are or what’s next for her family?

Esther: I can’t imagine that she knows what’s next for her family. This is a huge crisis. And I think you take it day by day and, uh … [Phone sounds as Esther shifts around.] you do what you can to be a survivor.

Longoria: Yeah.

Esther: Which is what I learned from my mother—

Longoria: Hmm.

Esther: —who was kinda the ultimate survivor.

Longoria: Well, Esther, thank you so much.

Esther: Okay! I hope you can connect with Lesya.

Longoria: Yeah. I hope so too. I mean, I think we’ll keep trying.

Esther: Yeah. All right.

(Strings play, dramatic, as the phone clicks and the call ends.)

Salman Ahad Khan: This episode of The Experiment was produced by me, Salman Ahad Khan, and Julia Longoria. Editing by Emily Botein. Reporting by Franklin Foer and Esther Foer.

You can read Franklin Foer’s full article “It’s Not ‘The’ Ukraine” on our website, And read more about the Foer family in Esther’s book, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, please get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255. Again, that’s 800-273-8255. We’ll post national and international resources in our show notes as well.

Fact-check by Sam Fentress. Sound design by Joe Plourde. And special thanks to Andy Lanset.

Music by Tasty Morsels and Maria Cherwick.

Our team also includes Gabrielle Berbey, Jenny Lawton, Tracie Hunte, Peter Bresnan, Sarah Qari, Alyssa Edes, and Natalia Ramirez.

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The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thank you for listening.

(The strings play up for a long minute before a rallentando leads into a conclusion, a lift into the air.)

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