Following on from my previous post, I have been reading lately about Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. One book I have re-read is Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev, a fascinating first-hand account of the events, written by a local writer living close to the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, which is at the heart of the action. From his apartment, Kurkov can smell the burning barricades and hear the sounds of grenades and gunshot.
The diary portrays the horrific violence perpetrated against many innocent victims, the powerful sentiments of injustice felt by the protestors and the fears generated by an ever-changing political climate, interspersed with the mundane day-to-day trials and tribulations of family life.
It also sheds light on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of that year and on the ongoing conflict in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine, the heartland of then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
This week in 2014 marked the climax of events in Kiev. On 18 February, violence broke out during a peaceful march on parliament in which protestors demanded a change to the constitution to limit the powers of the president. “And then, about two o’clock, the situation suddenly worsened. Activists invaded the Party of Regions headquarters and set fire to it. The Berkut [riot police] threw grenades and fired rubber bullets, from the ground and from the rooftops,” Kurkov writes in his diary entry for that day.
Still on 18 February, he mulls: “What will happen next? The dissolution of parliament, the announcement of new elections in six months, the lifting of parliamentary immunity for opposition deputies and their arrests? This country has never had such a stupid president before, capable of radicalising one of the most tolerant populations in the world!”
The following day, 19 February, he writes “In Kiev, they are counting the dead, the wounded and the disappeared…The hospitals are overflowing right now. But many of the wounded are in hiding, from their friends as well as from strangers. They are afraid of going to hospital because the police have often abducted injured protesters from there to take them to the station, without offering them any medical care.”
And here is an insight into the sharp divide between the European-oriented western Ukraine that Kurkov inhabits and the Russian-dominated east of the country exemplified by the industrial city of Donetsk: “Hatred is overflowing. It is born from a simple dislike of a Donetskian government that is both strange and foreign; a dislike that, by perhaps growing too fast, has become hatred, and is currently raging through western Ukraine, in Odessa, Cherkasy and other places. Meanwhile Crimea is once again calling on Russia to take it back.”
The following day, 20 February, Kurkov writes: “Today a lecturer from the Catholic University in Lviv was killed, along with several dozen other people. Snipers are shooting even at young nurses…There are rumours everywhere, each one more disturbing than the last, but the reality in this country is already horrifying: today, in St Michael’s Square, two policemen were killed. Why? Who needs that? It is obviously the hand of Moscow, pushing us into a state of war…”.
And on the 21st: “In Kharkiv, the regional governor is assembling a congress of deputies from the south and east of Ukraine to study the possibility of separating from Kiev. The country is trembling all over – it is close to being torn apart – but Yanukovych doesn’t see this.”
On 22 February Yanukovych fled, having earlier that day signed an agreement with the opposition to make the constitutional changes demanded by the opposition and setting out plans for a presidential election by the end of the year.
The diaries continue through to late April, by which time Russia had annexed Crimea following a hastily arranged referendum in March and the conflict in the east of the country was beginning. Russians were infiltrating eastern Ukraine to organise pro-Russian rallies, their troops and military apparel massing at the border, all of which President Putin denied, and armed separatists were occupying government buildings. “What frightens me is a possible Russian intervention in the east and south of the country. It would be wonderful not to have to think about the possibility of a war, but a day has not passed without that possibility crossing my mind,” Kurkov writes on 24 March.
That war has gone on to take the lives of more than 10,000 people. More than 2 million have been made homeless.
Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev by Andrey Kurkov is published by Harvill Secker, London, 2014.
This month marks the fourth anniversary of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, which led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, and later, the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass.
The seeds of the revolution were sown when the president failed to sign an association agreement with the EU in November 2013, having initially agreed to do so. People took to the streets in protest, setting up a base camp in the Maidan, Kiev’s central Independence Square.
After weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations, a march on parliament on 18 February turned violent. Police fired rubber bullets and used tear gas and grenades. The protestors fought back with makeshift weapons. Two days later, police began firing live ammunition, including automatic weapons and sniper rifles. Some 80 people were killed. Despite concessions from President Yanukovych, the protests continued and the demonstrators took control of much of Kiev. The president fled and new elections were called.
The Euromaidan Revolution is remembered as a conflict between pro-Europeans (mostly in Kiev, the west and centre of the country) and pro-Russians predominantly from Ukraine’s east. I have been reading about the history of Ukraine, which – apart from a brief stint in 1918 during the Russian Civil War – had never existed as an independent country until 1991, to make sense of recent events.
The country’s very name, Ukraina, means border, or edge. This region of flat, fertile steppe land was always on the edge: the edge of Europe, the edge of empires, the edge of Russia. A large swathe of western Ukraine belonged to Poland for much of its history; some formed part of Lithuania, while other areas were in the Hapsburg or Ottoman Empires. Much of the territory became part of the Russian Empire. The western fringes were a true borderland, endlessly invaded and conquered, the frontier between nations ever shifting. Ukraine as we know it today is a very recent concept.
The capital Kiev developed owing to its position on a trade route between the Baltic and the Black Seas along the River Dnieper, and became a sophisticated trading centre in medieval times, with links to Constantinople. It is known to historians as Kievan Rus.
Both Ukrainians and Russians believe their ancestry derives from Kievan Rus, Russians claiming that their descendants moved away from the Dnieper region to found Muscovy, several hundred miles to the northeast, bringing the culture of Kievan Rus with them. This helps to explain why Russians feel such a strong connection to Ukraine, and why any move by Ukraine’s leadership towards rapprochement with Europe at the expense of Russia provokes hostile feelings.
Ukraine’s position as ‘Little Russia’ dates from a deal between Cossack leader Khmelnytsky and the Russian Tsar in 1686. The Little Russia narrative was promoted under Catherine the Great a century later, when Russia experienced waves of expansion and large swathes of present-day Ukraine – including the areas with a large Jewish population that became the Pale of Settlement – joined the Russian Empire as a result of the partitioning of Poland.
Further east and south was a Cossack stronghold, while the east was largely unpopulated steppe until coal-mining began in the late nineteenth century. Russian peasants were attracted to eastern Ukraine during its industrial revolution and again during Stalin’s industrialisation drive, populating the growing towns and cities. Today the majority of population of this region, the Donbass, still aligns itself with its Russian Motherland.
As for Crimea, while the annexation of territory by another country is clearly deplorable, Crimea’s historical links to Ukraine are tenuous. Although parts of Crimea entered into the territory of Kievan Rus, the area was for much of its history a Tatar land ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was won by Catherine the Great in 1783, becoming part of the Russian Empire and later the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was not transferred to the Ukrainian SSR until 1954. Its population at the beginning of the twentieth century was a mixture of Crimean Tatars as well as Russian newcomers, Ukrainians, Germans, Greeks, Jews and others, mainly attracted to the region by its fertile land.
So Ukraine was never a homogenous entity. Its depiction as Little Russia may have accurately characterised parts of the future nation, but this was largely an artificial notion, a process of Russification imposed from above by both the tsars and the Communists that resonates more with Russians than Ukrainians. Likewise the rise of Ukrainian nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is celebrated by a large and vocal right-wing nationalist movement today, also was representative of only a small section of society.
For an excellent insight into the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, I recommend Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov. Anna Reid’s Borderland provides a highly readable and entertaining discourse on Ukraine’s history.
A few years ago, a hoard of songs written by Jewish men, women and children killed in World War II came to light in Kiev. The songs, in Yiddish, are haunting, raw and emotional testimonies by ordinary people experiencing terrible events. They are grassroots accounts of German atrocities against the Jews, with subjects that include the massacres at Babi Yar and elsewhere, wartime experiences of Red Army soldiers, and those of concentration camp victims and survivors.
One song was written by a 10-year old orphan who lost his family in the Tulchin ghetto in Ukraine, another by a teenage prisoner at the Pechora concentration camp in Russia’s far north. The songs convey a range of emotions, from hope and humour to despair, resistance, and revenge.
The project to collect these songs is as remarkable as the music itself. It began when a group of Soviet scholars from the Kiev cabinet for Jewish culture, led by the ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961), made it their mission to preserve Jewish culture in the 1940s. They recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Jews serving in the Red Army during the war; victims and survivors of Ukrainian ghettoes and death camps; and Jews displaced to Central Asia, the Urals and Siberia.
Beregovsky and his colleagues hoped to publish an anthology of the songs. But after the war, the scholars were arrested during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge and their work confiscated. The story could so easily have ended there; indeed the researchers went to their graves assuming their work had been destroyed.
Miraculously the songs survived and were discovered half a century later. They were discovered in unnamed sealed boxes by librarians at Ukraine’s national library in the 1990s and catalogued. Then in the early 2000s Professor Anna Shternshis of the University of Toronto heard about them on a visit to Kiev and brought them to light. Some were typed, but most handwritten, on paper that was fast deteriorating. Most consisted just of lyrics, although some were accompanied by melodies.
The songs were performed for the first time since the 1940s at a concert in Toronto in January 2016, and are shortly to be released by record label Six Degrees. Artist Psoy Korolenko created or adapted music to fit the lyrics, while producer Dan Rosenberg brought together a group of soloists, including vocalist Sophie Milman and Russia’s best known Roma violinist Sergei Eredenko, to create this miraculous recording.
“Yiddish Glory gives voice to Jewish children, women, refugees whose lives were shattered by the horrific violence of World War II. The songs come to us from people whose perspectives are rarely heard in reconstructing history, none of them professional poets or musicians, but all at the centre of the most important historical event of the 20th century, and making sense of it through music,” Shternshis says.
Yiddish Glory: The lost songs of World War II will be released on 23 February.
For more information see: https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddishglory/
My first blog post of the new year is inspired by a passage written by the Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel, which I came across while doing research for a new book that I am starting this year.
Babel was born in Odessa, in present-day Ukraine. He initially embraced the Russian Revolution, welcoming the new freedoms that Jews experienced under the Bolsheviks – the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were confined to living under the Tsars – was dissolved, quotas for schools, universities and professions were abolished and censorship ended.
Like many other artists and writers, Babel became an ardent Bolshevik, but found himself increasingly out of favour during the rule of Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1924. Stalin promoted the bland Socialist Realist artistic style and the exciting, experimental art and literature of the immediate pre- and post-revolutionary years was brutally supressed.
Unwilling to leave Mother Russia and follow his wife and daughter into exile in Paris, Babel was eventually shot in 1940, during Stalin’s purges, following a brief show trial. His name and work were erased in the Soviet Union until 1954, when he was rehabilitated during the so-called ‘thaw’ under Nikita Khrushchev.
The passage below is a wonderful illustration of the contradictions that people – perhaps Jews especially – felt about the revolution. It comes from the short story Gedali, which forms part of Babel’s Red Cavalry collection. The Red Cavalry stories describe snapshots from Babel’s experience as a war correspondent during the 1920 campaign by the newly formed Soviet Red Army to invade Poland and spread socialist revolution to neighbouring countries.
We sit down on some empty beer barrels. Gedali winds and unwinds his narrow beard. His top hat rocks above us like a little black tower. Warm air flows past us. The sky changes colour – tender blood pouring from an overturned bottle – and a gentle aroma of decay envelops me.
“So let’s say we say ‘yes’ to the Revolution. But does that mean that we’re supposed to say ‘no’ to the Sabbath?” Gedali begins, enmeshing me in the silken cords of his smoky eyes. “Yes to the Revolution! Yes! But the Revolution keeps hiding from Gedali and sending gunfire ahead of itself.”
“The sun cannot enter eyes that are squeezed shut,” I say to the old man, “but we shall rip open those closed eyes!”
“The Pole has closed my eyes,” the old man whispers almost inaudibly. “The Pole, that evil dog! He grabs the Jew and rips out his beard, oy, the hound! But now they are beating him, the evil dog! This is marvellous, this is the Revolution! But then the same man who beat the Pole says to me, ‘Gedali, we are requisitioning your gramophone!’ ‘But gentlemen,’ I tell the Revolution, ‘I love music!’ And what does the Revolution answer me? ‘You don’t know what you love, Gedali! I am going to shoot you, and then you’ll know, and I cannot not shoot, because I am the Revolution!’”
“The Revolution cannot not shoot, Gedali,” I tell the old man, “because it is the Revolution.”
“But my dear Pan! The Pole did shoot, because he is the counterrevolution. And you shoot because you are the Revolution. But Revolution is happiness. And happiness does not like orphans in its house. A good man does good deeds. The Revolution is the good deed done by good men. But good men do not kill. Hence the Revolution is done by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. Who is going to tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution? I have studied the Talmud. I love the commentaries of Rashi and the books of Maimonides. And there are also other people in Zhitomir who understand. And so all of us learned men fall to the floor and shout with a single voice, ‘Woes unto us, where is the sweet Revolution?’”
Earlier this year, a trove of Jewish documents that was smuggled into the Vilna ghetto in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, during the Nazi occupation came to light. Containing writings by leading figures in Yiddish culture, the collection has been described as the most important Jewish discovery since that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was one of several Jewish social, religious and cultural organisations in Vilnius prior to World War II. It was founded in 1925 to study Jewish life in Eastern Europe and its library contained memoirs, books and folklore gathered by scholars and volunteers.
Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, the Nazis started looking into Jewish material found in the YIVO library. They wanted to preserve material for a museum in Frankfurt, which would explain how the Nazis addressed ‘the Jewish question’ and their reasoning behind the Final Solution.
Several books and documents from the YIVO headquarters had already been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which was using the building as a barracks. A Reich department charged with collecting and preserving Jewish literature hired a group of 40 Jewish scholars from the ghetto to examine the archive. They were ordered to find the most valuable manuscripts, which would be preserved at the proposed Frankfurt museum. They were only allowed to keep 30% of the material, the remainder would be pulped.
But members of this so-called ‘paper brigade’ smuggled books out under their clothing and hid them either inside the ghetto or amongst gentiles elsewhere in the city and managed to save much of the collection. Some members of the brigade were also involved in armed resistance and used the opportunity to sneak weapons into the ghetto.
After the war, Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, hid much of what remained of the material in the basement of a local church to save it from the Soviet authorities. From 1989-1991, some 250,000 pages were discovered in St George’s church. Some of the documents were moved to Lithuania’s national library, while others ended up in the state archive.
But a separate stash wasn’t uncovered until this year, when all the documents and manuscripts were transferred to the national library. In May, an additional 170,000 pages saved by the paper brigade were made available in the library. These are being examined, catalogued and restored by archivists at the library, in collaboration with YIVO, which now has its headquarters in New York. The find is the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, according to David E Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“It’s miraculous that the materials were found, dusty and dirty, but in good condition. Symbolically, everything is stained with blood, but their existence is a testimony to martyrdom,” he says.
The documents shed light on Jewish life and culture before the war and include writings by famous Yiddish cultural figures, including letters by the author Sholem Aleichem (creator of Fiddler on the Roof), a post card from artist Marc Chagall and poems written by the poet Avrom Sutzkever inside the ghetto. The archive also contains letters, hundreds of photographs and testimonies from those who witnessed the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919, during the Russian Civil War – a particular interest of mine.
The Nazis killed 90-95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population, including 34 of the 40 members of the paper brigade. Sutzkever was one of the six who survived. Below is part of a poem he wrote from the ghetto to his brother Moshe, who had fled to Palestine before the war. Sutzkever’s newborn son and mother had both been executed in a nearby forest when he wrote this poem.
“And do not search for my songs,
Or for the remnants of my limbs.
But wherever you are, one and only brother,
Taste a handful of desert sand.
And every single grain,
Will send you greetings from down under,
Where an unredeemed wonder
Binds the well-spring of my lieder.”
I have been perusing the fascinating work of Project1917, which documents day by day the thoughts and deeds of dozens of individuals who witnessed and participated in the events of the Russian Revolution.
Here are some of the views expressed exactly 100 years ago, at the end of November 1917, about events in St Petersburg and Kiev, three weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Firstly, the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, a life-long opponent of Tsarism, who initially welcomed the Revolution, but later became a critic of Bolshevik power:
“Ukraine has been pronounced a republic. There is no centralised power in Russia. The country is falling apart. Maybe the healing process will begin from the provinces? However, it's not clear if the Rada has any authority.”
Ukraine’s Central Rada had declared a Ukrainian People’s Republic opposed to Communist rule, and gained independence from Russia in 1918. But the healing process Korolenko spoke of took many years. Russia’s Civil War tore through Ukraine and the Russian ‘provinces’; peace was not restored until 1921. Korolenko spent the war years in Poltava, Ukraine, protesting against the atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict.
The writer and philosopher Vasily Rozanov echoed Korolenko’s view: “Russia has disappeared in two days. In three days at most. Even the paper Novoe Vremya couldn’t be closed faster than Russia was closed. It’s astonishing that it fell to pieces all at once. The world has never experienced anything similar. There was no Tsardom left, no Church, no army, no working class. What is left, then? Almost nothing.”
And I love this description of a trip to the theatre by the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, a granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II and cousin of Tsar Nicolas II, which illustrates the immediate changes experienced by Russia’s elite after the Revolution.
“One evening at the very beginning of the Bolshevist rule, my husband and I decided to go to the ballet. I had never before been in the Imperial Theatres otherwise than through a private entrance and in the imperial box, and I found it interesting to view the house from orchestra seats, as a private individual. We bought our tickets and went. At that time no one ever thought of dressing for the theatre so we went as we were.
“We arrived when the spectacle had already begun. During the first interval we went into the foyer. The theatre was crowded by people from all walks of life. I remember that from the beginning I was shocked by the contrast between the well-known music and performance and the unusual, odd appearance of the house.
“On our way back to our seats I looked up—it must have been for the first time—and saw the box on the right side of the stage which from time immemorial had been occupied by the imperial family. Framed by the heavy silk draperies, in the arm-chairs with the gilded backs, there now sat several sailors, their caps on their dishevelled heads and with them their ladies in woollen, coloured kerchiefs.
“All things considered, there was nothing unusual in this sight, but nevertheless it affected me powerfully. My sight grew dim; I felt myself about to fall, and groped for the hand of my husband, who was walking beside me. Beyond that, I remember nothing. I came to myself after a thirty-minute fainting spell, the first and the last in my life, lying upon the hard oilcloth couch of the theatre's infirmary. The strange face of a doctor was bending over me and the room was filled with people who must have come to stare.”
The Grand Duchess escaped from Russia, via Ukraine, in July 1918 and led a peripatetic life, settling in Paris, New York, Argentina and finally Germany. Many close members of her family who remained in Russia were murdered by the Bolsheviks.
Two stories have been in the news this month about famous people whose history lies in Ukraine’s Jewish community either going back to their roots, or their roots coming back to them.
Odessa played host last month to a conference organised by Limmud, the international organisation dedicated to Jewish learning. Ahead of the conference, huge billboards appeared around the city featuring images of Bob Dylan surrounded by slogans proclaiming the American folk hero’s Odessan heritage.
Dylan’s grandparents left Odessa for the US in 1907, their departure prompted by one of the Russian Empire’s worst waves of pogroms, which began in 1905. In that year, more than 300 Jews were killed in anti-Semitic attacks in Odessa alone. The city’s Jewish community at that time was the second largest in Russia at around 140,000, with Jews making up around 40% of the population. The family settled in Minnesota, where Robert Zimmerman, later to become Bob Dylan, was born in 1941.
“We will celebrate the wonderful gift that Odessa gave the world,” proclaimed the founder of Limmud’s branch in the former Soviet Union, Chaim Chesler. “This shows that the Jewish roots that come from Odessa last forever.”
Surprisingly, local reaction to the imported Dylan-mania was underwhelming , his music apparently being not widely recognised in Ukraine. But there was no outright hostility, unlike that met by the actress Mila Kunis, who recently visited her childhood home in Ukraine. The Hollywood star told the media this month that she had travelled to her native town of Chernivtsi in August in the hope of visiting the house that she had left back in 1991, when her family had emigrated to the US.
“We went to our house and I knocked on the door because we really wanted to look inside. And [the owner] was like, ‘No!’ She did not care. I said, ‘I used to live here when I was little, my parents are here.’ …She wouldn’t even open the door. The whole experience was very humbling,” Kunis said in an interview.
These experiences differ hugely from my own encounters when visiting my ancestral home in Ukraine back in 2005. My father and I, along with our cousin Irina who had emigrated from Kiev to Germany ten years earlier, spent several days driving around some of the country’s largely forgotten backwaters southwest of Kiev in search of the villages where our family had lived and worked.
Like Kunis, I found the experience humbling, but for very different reasons. People were overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming, interested and eager to help. We turned up in villages without prior warning and asked the locals whether there were any old people in the vicinity who might have lived there around the time of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.
In one village, Khodarkov, an elderly lady invited us in to meet her 95-year old mother. The daughter shooed out the chickens from the front porch and ushered us into the living room, where the stooped old babushka recounted stories of the pogroms in 1919, during which the Jews were drowned in the lake (see photo).
My grandmother’s great-aunt had survived this pogrom by hiding in the cellar of her husband’s shop, stuffing her children’s mouths with rags to stop them from crying. She and her family had fled to Kiev immediately afterwards, taking with them only the clothes on their backs. They emigrated to Canada in 1929. When we left the house, the daughter tried to give us a precious family photo as a gift and it was all that we could do to press her to keep it and cherish it for her own family.
In the town of Andrushky, we tracked down a sugar factory, still functioning, that had belonged to an influential landowner that my great-great grandfather had worked with. Here we were initially interrogated at length by the factory director before he would respond to any of our questions, fearful perhaps that we were sugar barons ourselves, travelling to Ukraine with the aim of snapping up cheap commercial assets.
Once he was satisfied with our story, he offered us vodka, which we declined. We drank tea instead and he provided us with a written account of the factory’s history, which verified that it was, indeed, the one connected to our family. Then he proceeded for the next three hours to show us around the warren of new administrative buildings that were being constructed.
In all the other towns and villages linked to our family history that we visited – Pavoloch, Makarov, Talne, Berdichev – we were warmly greeted and local people spent many hours with us showing us sites and recounting the area’s history. Like so many Ukrainian Jews, most of our ancestors moved away, unable to endure any more of the suffering they had been forced to tolerate for so long. The ancestors of those we met there had stayed behind in the ‘old country’, and suffered so much more. It was humbling indeed.
Today marks the centenary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. As recent media broadcasts have repeatedly told us, Lenin’s men seized power in the autumn of 1917 and the world’s first communist state was born. But the reality was not so simple. Across parts of the Russian Empire the revolution unleashed a brutal civil war and it was several years before the Bolsheviks consolidated power. One such area was the territory of present-day Ukraine, my ancestral home.
The fall of the Russian Provincial Government in Petrograd on 7 November 1917 (25 October according to the Russian calendar of the time) prompted a power struggle in Kiev that was to last for four years. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 had led to the formation of Ukraine’s Central Rada, or parliament. In November, following the Bolshevik Revolution, it declared a Ukrainian People’s Republic opposed to Communist rule, and gained independence from Russia in 1918. In the years that followed, the government in Kiev changed hands so many times that it became difficult to keep track of who was supposed to be in charge.
My family came from the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles from Kiev. Here the October Revolution gave way to anarchy, as newly formed ‘banda’ – or armed factions – roamed the land. Some fought for Communism, others for Nationalism, Anarchism, Freedom or Holy Russia. The names of their leaders instilled fear: Petlyura, Makhno, Zeleny, Denikin.
Later, in 1919 Pavoloch repeatedly became a sea of carnage as one banda after another passed through, stealing, raping, pillaging and killing. The White Army, under General Denikin, was the most ruthless of all. His professional soldiers were armed by western powers, including Britain, which wanted to see the Communists defeated. The Whites hated the Communists, but more than anything else they hated the Jews. They barged into Jewish homes, drew their swords and cut inhabitants down regardless of age or sex. Anyone who tried to escape was shot in the back as they fled. They threw grenades into cellars, blowing up entire families; poured petrol over synagogues and set them alight; raped thousands of women.
One day five White Army soldiers burst into my family’s home. They searched the house for money, kicking down the door of the warehouse and smashing floorboards. One of the soldiers dealt my great-great grandfather a blow with his rifle butt and watched him crumple to the floor, then kicked him repeatedly in the stomach. They hustled the old man onto the table, pull his scuffed leather belt from around his waist and force his head into the noose they made with it. Then they hanged him from the meat hook on the kitchen ceiling.
After the soldiers left, the frayed old belt snapped in two and my great-great grandfather landed with an almighty thump on the hard stone floor. He had survived!
This is only one of around a dozen terrible incidents that affected my family during the Civil War. Here is Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny’s assessment of the time:
“In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.”
The Bolsheviks finally secured power in the region in 1921 and the following year it became part of Soviet Ukraine.
I, and many others with a similar background, owe a great debt to a young Ukrainian called Vitaliy Buryak, who is single-handedly documenting the shtetls of Ukraine on his website (link below). He has recently put together a page on Makarov, the home of my great-grandfather Meyer Unikow. This week I have been providing him with some information for the site, some of which he will pass on to the museum in Makarov, where the new curator is putting together an exhibition on the town’s Jewish community.
The town is about 40 miles west of Kiev, with a population of around 12,000. In 1897, when my great-grandfather was 25 years old, almost 4,000 Jews lived in Makarov, about three-quarters of the town’s population. Today there are 10, all of them incomers after World War II.
My great-grandfather (on my grandmother’s paternal side) grew up at the court of the Twersky Rabbis of Makarov, a famous Hassidic dynasty that originated in Chernobyl, a town now notorious for an entirely different reason. Rebbe Menachem Nachum Twersky (b.1805, Chernobyl – d. 1852, Makarov), the first son of the second Chernobyl rebbe, founded the Makarov branch of the dynasty. The rabbis that my family would have lived, studied, prayed and eaten with are Rebbe Yaakov Itshak Twersky (1828-1892, Makarov), Rebbe Moshe Mordechai Twersky (b. 1843, Makarov – d.1920 Berdichev) and Rebbe Yeshaya Twersky (b. 1861, Makarov – d.1919, Kiev).
Rebbe Yaakov Itshak was a very influential rabbi, respected by the community. My great-great grandfather (on my grandmother’s maternal side) Berl Shnier was a devoted follower of his, despite living a day’s journey away in the town of Pavoloch. He would consult the Makarover rabbi on all important family matters, and usually spent Shabbat at the Twersky court. This is how he came to arrange the marriage of his daughter to the son of one of the Rabbi’s right-hand men and tutor to his sons – my great-great grandfather Velvl Unikow.
Rebbe Moshe Mordechai Twersky was apparently famous for the power of his prayers, making them unforgettable for those who heard them. His son, Rebbe Tsvi Arye, who was known as a healer and miracle-worker, moved the court to the larger town of Berdichev – considered the capital of the Jewish Pale – after his father’s death.
Makarov’s Jewish population was decimated during the Civil War of 1917-21, in particular in the summer of 1919 when pogroms by a faction led by the Cossack leader Sokolovsky and another led by Matviyenko slaughtered 20 Jews and prompted the majority of the Jewish population to flee. Of those who remained, around half were killed by a further pogrom carried out by the White Army under General Denikin. Most of those who fled never returned to Makarov and by 1926 the town’s Jewish population had been slashed to under 600. Vitaliy’s website recounts events described in some of the memoirs written about the pogroms by those who witnessed them. The details are truly horrific.
During World War II, Makarov was occupied by the Nazis from July 1941-November 1943. In the autumn of 1941, up to 100 Jews were shot, amid several other mass shootings of between 7 and 30 members of the Jewish community at a time. Their belongings were sold to the local population.
I visited Makarov with my father in 2005. The Twersky court was destroyed by the Nazis and nobody in the town knows exactly where it stood. The place where the main synagogue was located is now a rubble-strewn patch of wasteland close to the large, Soviet-style town square. The old Jewish cemetery has been destroyed. The graves of the Twersky rabbis Moshe Mordechai and Tsvi Arye were safeguarded and their remains reside in the vast Jewish cemetery in Berdichev. Thanks to money sent from abroad, their graves are topped with newly hewn gravestones of slate and marble and housed in a small, painted mausoleum.
More information is available at http://jewua.org/makarov/
It’s amazing what Facebook can throw up. The other day this photo appeared in my news feed, showing the grave of Vevrik Rabinovich (1864-1939), the brother of the great Jewish storyteller and creator of Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem. In the background is the burial chamber of Shlomo BenZion Twersky (1870-1939) of the Chernobyl Rabbinical dynasty. The picture was taken in the Kurenevka Jewish cemetery in Kiev.
I have a connection to both of these men. I have been led to believe that Sholem Aleichem and his brother were the nephews of my great-great-great grandfather, Menachem Mendl Rabinovich – his sister’s children. Her name was Chaya Esther Rabinovich. It confuses me that these siblings have the same surname even after Chaya Esther’s marriage, to Menachem Nukhem Rabinovich. Perhaps Chaya Esther married a member of her own family, or perhaps my information is incorrect.
Sholem Aleichem was most famous for his short stories featuring Tevye the dairyman, which became the basis for the musical and subsequent film of Fiddler. Aleichem’s first story was published in 1883, when he was 23 years old, and he went on to write over 40 volumes, novels, stories and plays. He also performed his stories at packed public buildings across the Jewish lands of present-day Ukraine.
Sholem Aleichem often spent his holidays at a dacha in the countryside about an hour from Kiev. One summer’s day, he was lounging with a book when a woman of almost exactly the same age as him passed carrying bowls of soup. “That smells good!” he called out. Later, she returned and offered him some of her soup. That lady was Pessy Shnier, nee Rabinovich, my great-great grandmother. The two of them chatted for hours and worked out how they were related.
If any of Sholem Aleichem’s descendants come across this article, I’d be delighted if they could get in touch, and perhaps we can try to clear up any confusion about how we may be related!
The other grave in the photo is that of Rabbi Shlomo BenZion Twersky. The Twerksys were a Hassidic Rabbinical dynasty founded by Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky (1730-1787), a disciple of the founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov. My family has a strong connection to another of the Twersky Grand Rabbis – Rabbi David, or Reb Dovidl, Twersky of Talne (1808-1882). Another of my great-great-great grandfathers, this time on my grandmother’s paternal side, was Velvl Shapira – known as Velvele Tallner – Reb Dovidl’s chief advisor. Reb Dovidl took Velvele Tallner with him when he left his home town of Vasilkov in 1854 to become the great Rabbi of Talne.
Reb Dovidl was also the subject of a popular Jewish folk song: Reb Dovidl Reb Dovidl der Vasilkover, voynt shoyn yetst in Talne, which my father was taught to sing as a child. It’s still popular today as a YouTube search will testify. Here’s just one of the many performances available.
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is delving into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.