WHITEFISH BAY – Everyone has family stories. Bella Chernyavskya-Blank has a story that she keeps alive in her heart, a story that never takes a backseat.
The Whitefish Bay resident, an immigrant from Ukraine, is named for her grandmother, Bella Chernyavskya. That grandmother, and grandfather Moshko-Mordkovich Chernyavsky, were lost to the horrors of World War II.
She learned about what happened to her grandparents when she was in first grade, in 1957. She was with a couple of cousins when one said, “Do you know why your parents gave you the name Bella?”
“I don’t know,” she answered.
“They told me, you’re named after grandma. You need to know that you need to be … the best person in the world, because you have first name and last name of grandma who was killed in Babi Yar.”
Later her father told her, “When you are married you can’t change your last name.”
Bella Chernyavsky-Blank’s parents and grandparents lived in Kiev when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. About 160,000 Jews lived in Kiev, comprising about 20 percent of the city’s population, according to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
About 100,000 Jews fled Kiev before the German occupation. Bella Chernyavskya-Blank’s parents fled, but her grandparents couldn’t see starting their lives over and they felt safe living in an upscale non-Jewish neighborhood. They were not.
The grandparents were never heard from again and are presumed to have been killed at Babi Yar.
History tells us that Sept. 29-30, 1941, SS and German police units and their auxiliaries killed the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. It was one of the largest mass murders at an individual location during World War II, according to the Holocaust Museum.
As the victims moved into the ravine, they were shot in small groups. According to reports to headquarters, 33,771 Jews were massacred in two days. In the months following the massacre, German authorities stationed at Kiev killed thousands more at Babi Yar.
The grandparents, Bella Chernyavskya and Moshko-Mordkovich Chernyavsky, were 43 and 46, respectively.