Carol Kitman remembers meeting Alexander and Yevgeny Vindman nearly 40 years ago in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The brothers were about 4-1/2 years old and dressed in matching blue sailor outfits with navy caps.
Kitman was instantly taken with the twins and asked to take their photo.
“They were adorable,” she recalled.
Those photos became the first of many she would take of the Vindmans. Now her work has unexpectedly come into the spotlight after Alexander Vindman told Congress last month that he believed President Donald Trump attempted to withhold aid to Ukraine to force the country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
A decorated Iraq War veteran and Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, Vindman, 44, was listening in on the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that launched the impeachment inquiry now underway. His testimony made him a target of attack by the president, who called him a “Never Trumper” and warned that new information about Vindman would be revealed “very soon.”
Kitman, now 89, says she is “not a political wonk,” but described the brothers as “very upstanding people.”
“Alex is exactly who he says he is and it’s really unfortunate that people are trying to defend Trump by attacking him,” she told the JTA by phone from her home in Leonia, New Jersey.
A photographer who specializes in portraiture and new immigrants, Kitman grew close with the Vindmans after that first meeting on the beach in 1980, and she began regularly shooting the twins and their older brother, Leonid. At one point, she was traveling to their home almost every weekend to take their picture.
The Vindmans — the twins, their older brother, their father and grandmother — had left their native Ukraine for the United States just a year before they met Kitman. Their mother had died in Ukraine shortly before. Like many Jews who arrived in New York from the former Soviet Union, they settled in Brighton Beach, nicknamed “Little Odessa.”
“We came from Russia. We came from Kyiv. And then our mother died, so we went to Italy. Then we came here,” the twins say in a 1985 Ken Burns documentary about immigrants. The twins were also models in a book Kitman co-authored called “One Mezuzah: A Jewish Counting Book,” which used Jewish images to help teach counting.
As children, the Vindmans looked identical, and Kitman could only tell them apart by a freckle on Alexander’s nose.
As Kitman photographed the twins, she drew close to the family. The twins once came to her town to go trick or treating on Halloween. Another time they came with her to a Passover dinner hosted by her friend.
“I was at everybody’s wedding, and I was always treated very nicely, like an old relative, because I had in some way introduced them to another aspect of American life outside Brighton Beach,” Kitman said. “We lived in the suburbs in a house, and they were in a little tiny apartment in Brighton Beach.”
Over time, she saw the Vindmans less frequently, but still photographed them at special occasions, including each of the brothers’ weddings. Both twins married women with Native American ancestry.
“When Alex got married, even though his wife is not Jewish, they had a tallis over them,” she said. “And he was able to find an Army rabbi who was willing to marry them.”
Last year, Kitman and her husband attended the Pentagon ceremony where Yevgeny, who also goes by Eugene, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Like his brother, Yevgeny also serves on the National Security Council and reportedly accompanied Alexander as he reported concerns about the phone call with Zelensky to a White House lawyer.
Kitman had been drawn to the Vindmans because of their immigration story. At the time, she had been considering doing a photography book about immigrant children.
“My mother was brought here also at 3 or 4, and her mother had died back in Bialystok, Poland,” Kitman said. “So their having lost their mother really resonated.”
As for their Jewish identity, Kitman said that the twins find their way to connect.
“They are certainly not Orthodox,” she said, “but they do stuff in their own way.”