Until age 19, Damid Kostenko lived as a Christian boy in Ukraine. One day, his parents revealed: “You are Jewish”. He decided to move to Israel and enlist
“I wasn’t upset. I knew that what my parents did was out of love”, says Captain Damid Kostenko as he remembers the day he first discovered he was Jewish. For 19 years, he lived as a full-fledged Christian. He had already completed his schooling, and a moment before beginning his adult life, his parents told him: “It’s time for you to know-we’re Jewish”.
Damid was definitely not expecting this news. “In Ukraine, religion is determined by the father, and when I discovered that my mother is Christian and my father Jewish, I decided that something is off”, he says. “How was I going to churches, thinking I’m Christian, and suddenly I’m told that I’m Christian? My parents hid this information from me to protect me from the anti-Semitism in Ukraine, but I felt that I should act like a Jew and decided to move to Israel”.
Within two short months, Damid realized his decision. He studied Hebrew at an Ulpan, and was accepted to Engineering, Administration and Management studies at Ben Gurion University, as a part of an IDF program. “I remember the student dorms like it was yesterday, we studied like crazy”, he smiles, “There were days that I was up almost all night to study the language along with the theoretical material. It was difficult, but I loved the country very much, I believed in its society and wanted to finish what I’d started”.
“One Big Family”
After four years of schooling, during which he connected to the Israeli students and assimilated to the different mentality, Damid completed his degree. Then came the enlistment in the IDF. “It was very important to me to become an officer in the army. My great-grandfather was an officer in the Red Army and died in the fight against the Germans”, tells Damid. “The transition from the academic world to the military was totally shocking, it took me a long time to get used to it”.
As a soldier-student, Damid was given the opportunity to choose his preferences, and he asked to serve in the IAF. “I feel very connected to planes”, he explains with a smile, “I knew that it’s an intelligent force that complemented the field I chose. Later I learned that it is one big family”.
Damid also joined the Nativ course in order to convert to Judaism. “I wanted to belong fully, to connect and get to know the history and be a part of the chain. I was missing all that after all the years I grew up without knowing that I’m Jewish”. He told stories of Israel and his experiences to his family in long phone calls, which affected the family deeply. “The minute they understood that I’m going with Judaism all the way, Mom, Dad and my brother decided to move here as well. It was great fun, it gives a lot of strength when the family feels the need to break away from home and the country that they’d lived in for years, and come after you to Israel”.
Damid experienced a deeper connection to his roots in Poland, as a part of a military delegation. “In the preparations leading up to the flight, the instructor told us to ask questions at home, because it is possible to have holocaust survivors in the family who have never spoken up. I asked my father, who said: ‘You should speak with Grandma’. Only then did she tell me that she was in Auschwitz and survived. It hurt me a lot to hear that”, he said. “When I was in Poland, I felt like I had gotten closure. I thought about what was hidden from me and what was revealed to me, while I listened to what people had gone through there. I understood why Judaism was hidden from me, but I’m happy that we chose to go back to our roots. To not live a lie”.
“I feel like I’m defending my country”
Today, Damid tries to pass along the strong connection he feels with the country. “I highly recommend moving to Israel, and that’s what I’m doing as a volunteer at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption”, says Damid. “For five years already I’ve been happily helping people who are considering moving to Israel, and don’t know what kind of future awaits them. I believe in the journey I went through and I think many others can experience it. It’s an honor to start a Jewish home here”.
“I’m excited to let it all out”, he admits. “I’ve never told anyone my story. I don’t look back, but forward. When I come across difficulties, I remember the journey I’ve gone through and tell myself that there’s no chance I will not conquer the next goal. If I went through all that, there’s nothing that can stop me”.