I wrote last month about Babi Yar, the biggest mass shooting perpetrated by the Nazis in the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the massacre on 29-30 September. Last week a ceremony led by presidents Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Isaac Herzog of Israel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany marked the event. On the same day, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center revealed for the first time the names of dozens of the perpetrators of the crimes committed there and some of their testimonies.
On 29-30 September 1941, Nazis and their collaborators murdered tens of thousands of Jews at the Babi Yar ravine on the edge of Kiev. Although this was one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust, it went largely ignored for decades – covered up by the Soviet authorities and overshadowed by the atrocities in the concentration camps, which were often better documented. Throughout the remaining years of World War II, up to 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar.
The Memorial Center is working on a project to name all the victims of the atrocity, and has so far managed to recover and verify 20,000 previously unknown names. Alongside this project is another objective, to identify all those who participated in the massacre. Hundreds of German soldiers, policemen and SS personnel were complicit in the massacre, it says.
The Center on 8 October released names of 159 Nazis who participated in the killings, many of whom had testified at trial but were found not guilty. The majority returned to lead normal lives after the war.
“Some were shooters, others extracted the Jews from their homes, others took their belongings, or served sandwiches and tea to the shooters. All of them are guilty,” war crimes investigator and head of the Center’s academic council Father Patrick Desbois says.
Very few of the names were already widely known. Among those who were is August Häfner, a 29-year-old Sonderkommando SS storm trooper who commanded the two first days of mass executions. Let’s just reflect on him for a moment. A man of just 29 gave the orders and watched as nearly 34,000 people – mostly Jews, but also including Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war – were shot with their bodies stacked in a gigantic pit.
Häfner described his unit’s participation in the executions at a 1967 court hearing. “The SS troops had a section of approximately 30 meters in length. [Senior SS commander Bernhard] Grafhorst told me that the Jews should lie down close to each other. About 4-6 Jews lay down next to each other. So, they lay down until the entire bottom was filled. Then the same thing started again. Others had to lie on top of the already dead Jews. Within two days, 6-7 layers could have formed,” he testified.
Viktor Trill (pictured) was born in Czechoslovakia and began working for the Gestapo shortly after his hometown was occupied by the Nazis. He took part in the second day of the massacre and was acquitted in 1967 over lack of “base motive” for his participation, according to the Memorial Center.
“It is possible that on this day I shot between around 150 and 250 Jews. The whole shooting went off without incident. The Jews were resigned to their fate like lambs,” he told the court hearing. “After we got out, first we were issued with alcohol. It was grog or rum. I then saw a gigantic ditch [ravine] that looked like a dried-out river bed. In it were lying several layers of corpses. The execution began first by a few members of our Kommando going down into the ravine. At the same time about 20 Jews were brought along from a connecting path. The Jews had to lay down on the corpses and were then shot in the back of the neck. More Jews were continually brought to be shot,” his testimony continued.
Other names released to the public for the first time include those of Anton Hübner, 33, born in Reichenberg, Hans Hüttl, 36, from Königsberg, and another shooter Kurt Knigge, 43, born in Braunschweig.
The last living veteran of Einsatzgruppe C, the SS death squad in charge of the Babi Yar massacre, is Herbert Wahler. He lives in an unassuming home on a residential street in the picturesque German town of Melsungen. Now aged 99, Wahler has admitted to being present at the massacre but denies taking part in the killings, saying he was serving as a medic. He has never faced trial for his involvement in the Holocaust.
In 2014, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center sent the German government documents that listed Herbert Wahler as a member of Einsatzgruppe C. The public prosecution office in the German city of Kassel opened an investigation into Wahler in 2017 but closed it in April 2020, claiming there was not enough evidence to bring charges against him. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre branded the failure to put him on a trial a “disgrace”.
You can read my previous article about Babi Yar here
I was invited to give a presentation at a Christian-Jewish church service with a theme of persecution and immigration, as part of this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival. The recent horror of refugees trying to flee Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban victory, and the plight of migrants making perilous sea crossings in an attempt to reach Europe or the UK, have once again brought these issues to the fore.
My own family lived through the pogroms, a series of anti-Semitic riots that took place in the Russian Empire, which in many ways served as a precursor to the Holocaust. Today, we would probably call the pogroms a form of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ against Jews – supported and incited by the government, if not actually perpetrated by it. They began in 1881, when Jews took the blame for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and continued in waves for the next 40 years, peaking in 1905 before coming to a head during the Russian Civil War – a chaotic and intensely violent period that lasted for about four years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
During the civil war, the area where my family lived – near Kiev, in present day Ukraine – became a battleground with numerous armies criss-crossing the land – Communists, Nationalists, Anarchists, anti-Bolsheviks, peasant militias – all of them anti-Semitic to a greater or lesser degree. The White Army in particular, which was loyal to the Tsar – and backed by the West – introduced methods of mass murder of Jews that were later taken and pushed to their limit by the Nazis twenty or so years later. Many White Army soldiers later went on to join the Ukrainian militias that collaborated with the Nazis to destroy all Jewish life in Ukraine in the early 1940s.
As well as the violence during the civil war, there was hunger. Food had become scarce during World War l, inflation soared making what little there was unaffordable, and the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain from the countryside (including from my great-great grandfather, who was a grain trader), to feed the workers in the towns. Not only did they take the grain, but also the seed, leaving the peasants with nothing to grow crops with the following year. The population was left to starve.
My grandmother Pearl was around 17 years old at the start of the civil war, and an orphan. She lived with her grandparents, siblings and cousins and took it upon herself to become the family breadwinner, undertaking terrifying and dangerous journeys by train to markets across the region to buy, sell and barter what she could to keep her family alive.
Eventually she even became a black-market gold dealer – taking any gold items belonging members of her local community on a murderous journey half way across Ukraine to exchange them for hard currency, which she brought back to the villagers so they could use it to buy food. Had she been caught, either with the gold or hard currency, she would have been shot.
After more than three years of this perilous life that she hated with a passion, and following a particularly arduous trading trip when she was caught in a snowstorm and almost froze to death, she could take it no more. She decided she must try to get herself and her family out of the country.
Six months later, in 1924, Pearl managed to emigrate to Winnipeg, Canada to join some other members of her extended family who had already made it out of Russia. She travelled alone, and with nothing. Once in Canada she did what so many immigrants do. She found a job and worked hard, scrimping, saving, and borrowing to raise enough money to bring the rest of her family over to join her the following year. Today my family is spread across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto, and in America from California to New York, as well as in Germany, Israel and the UK, where they became, among other things, teachers and lawyers, journalists and doctors, Rabbis and social workers, all adding in their own unique ways to the prosperity and cultural life, as well as the wonderful diversity, of the places they now call home.
Photo: Pearl (left) with her sisters Sarah (centre) and Rachel, circa 1920
This month marks the 80th anniversary of the worst of the Nazis’ multitude of atrocities on Ukrainian soil, the massacre at Babi Yar on 29-30 September 1941, which began on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The Babi Yar tragedy was largest open-air massacre during the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, when 33,771 people – according to meticulous record-keeping by the SS – mostly women, children and the elderly, were shot. In the months that followed, tens of thousands more people were murdered at Babi Yar, the overwhelming majority Jews, but also Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war.
The killing came to a halt in 1943, with the Germans in retreat from the Soviet territory they had occupied. Berlin ordered that mass execution sites be excavated so the corpses could be burned, fearing that the Soviet Union would use them as evidence for propaganda purposes.
Until its collapse in the 1990s, the Soviet Union suppressed memory of the Jewish genocide that had taken place on its soil. National policy was to erase differences among the victims of Nazism. This included ‘erasing’ the ravine itself by filling it with industrial waste and making way for what exists at the site today – a wide street lined on one side with apartment blocks, and a grassy park on the other, where children play and lovers meet.
“Babi Yar is a symbol of the Soviet Union’s efforts to physically erase memory. They took the most tragic part of our history and tried to make it disappear. Thanks to an independent Ukraine, the policy was fully changed towards the memory of the Holocaust,” human rights activist and chairman of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Natan Sharansky, said last year at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the massacre.
The Memorial Center, established in 2016 to build a major new Holocaust museum in Kiev, is due to open its doors in 2026 but has already been the subject of considerable controversy. The disagreements stem largely from the appointment of the contentious Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director and his plans for a virtual reality installation, deemed inappropriate by many and dubbed a “Holocaust Disneyland” by one former curator when he quit the project. Objections have also been raised about the role of some of the Center’s Russian Jewish billionaire funders and its location in the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery.
But a number of research projects developed by the Center have yielded fascinating results. Last year a 3D model of the massacre site was created, led by former Scotland Yard investigator Martin Dean, who specialises in Nazi war crimes. By combining ground and aerial photography, maps, historical reports and witness testimonies, Dean was able to build an overall picture of a mass grave about 150 metres long, in which corpses were stacked in layers like sardines, and to pinpoint for the first time in three-quarters of a century exactly where it was located.
Another recent research initiative is the Names Project, which has uncovered the identities of more than 900 of the victims of Babi Yar, whose fates had previously been unknown. Estimates of the total death toll at Babi Yar in 1941-43 range from 70,000 to 100,000. Apart from details of the September massacre, records of those killed were sporadic. The Names Project is attempting to collect data on all those murdered at Babi Yar and the researchers hope eventually to have a web page for each identified victim, complete with details of their life story and a picture.
In partnership with the Memorial Center, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa released a film this year to coincide with the 80th anniversary. Babi Yar.Context – a series of short documentaries – premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July. Loznitsa was born close to Babi Yar but grew up in ignorance of what had happened there.
His film is based on archival material using footage from the period, including newsreels, court trials and amateur films by German soldiers. It begins with Germany’s invasion of Ukraine in 1941 and concludes in March 1961 with the little-known Kurenivka mudslide – a disaster that resulted from the Soviet authorities’ attempts to erase memory of Babi Yar by filling the ravine with industrial waste. A decade later, heavy rain caused a dam securing a brick pulp dump to collapse, triggering a mudslide that released up to four metres of mud, water and human remains onto the streets. A recent report estimates that 1,500 people may have died as a result.
The Gulag was the largest network of forced labour camps ever created, spanning thousands of miles across the Soviet Union. Around 18 million prisoners, possibly more, were sent to the Gulag from 1930 to 1953 during the rule of Joseph Stalin, of whom up to three million died in the camps or as a result of their incarceration. As well as criminals, the Gulag became home to huge numbers of political prisoners.
One of these was Yehuda Solomonovich Kaufman, the husband of my great-grandfather’s sister Miriam (Mira) – whose story I have been telling in my blog over the last few weeks – and grandfather to my cousin Irina (Ira), who has shared her family stories with me.
Yehuda, originally from the town of Bobruisk in today’s Belarus, was arrested no less than three times before finally being sent to the Gulag in 1938. The first was in the 1920s when he was arrested as a Jewish nationalist because he gave private Hebrew lessons, in addition to his professional work as a surgeon. His next arrest came in 1931, this time because he corresponded with several members of his family (brothers, a nephew) who lived abroad. He was sent to prison, missing the birth of his daughter Sulamia as a result.
In 1936-37 Yehuda’s nephew came to Kiev from overseas to visit, and after this he was arrested for a third time and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp in Krasnoyarsk region as an ‘enemy of the people’. Although conditions were harsh and his sentence was long, he was lucky in being able to work as a doctor, and like many inmates, he even had a ‘prison wife’.
In 1949 Yehuda was finally permitted to return to Kiev. He left his prison wife to return to Mira, but no sooner had he set foot in his apartment for the first time in more than a decade than a group of state security agents arrived to arrest him once again. Rather than sending him back to the Gulag or to Siberia, he was exiled to the town of Zvenygorodka in Cherkasy province, central Ukraine, where he remained until his eventual release in 1956.
Ira, who was born in 1952, recalls that as a little girl, her family told her that Grandpa was “in Paris”. But later she remembers visiting him in Zvenygorodka, in a room with a round table and a bed with springs, which she would use as a trampoline.
Stalin died in 1953, and the Soviet reign of terror came to an end. But the truth of the labour camps, the mass deportations, executions and purges did not become public until Nikita Khrushchev cemented his place at the head of the Communist Party in the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death. Khrushchev’s so-called ‘secret speech’ to party officials in February 1956 denounced Stalin’s excesses and heralded a period of liberalisation, during which thousands of prisoners - including Yehuda – were set free and rehabilitated.
Once he was finally back in Kiev after 18 years of separation from his family, Yehuda managed to return to his work as a surgeon and to put the experiences of the previous two decades behind him. He was a cheerful man, loved by friends, family and colleagues alike, who rejoiced in his family and in life in general. He built up a strong relationship with his daughter in spite of their long years apart, and doted on his grandchildren, giving them little presents every day. He even wrote stories about his childhood that he illustrated himself. He died in 1964.
Although life improved for the people of the Soviet Union under the so-called ‘Khrushchev thaw’, the discrimination and anti-Semitism that hounded Jews first under the Tsars and then under the Communists did not go away. Religion had been abolished after the October Revolution of 1917, so Judaism was no longer considered a religion but a nationality, marked in Soviet passports on the personal details page under the notorious point number five: Национальность – Eврей (Nationality – Jewish).
This opened Jews up to any and every form of discrimination and anti-Semitism, from being humiliated in the street and called a Yid, to being marked down in exams, denied a place at university, overlooked for a promotion. So Jews kept quiet about their ‘nationality’. Parents were afraid to teach their children Yiddish, to follow the traditions that their people had lived by for thousands of years, to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and so the Yiddish language and Jewish customs died out, although small pockets remained in smaller towns and rural communities.
“We were a typical Soviet family,” my cousin Ira says. “Nothing remained of our Jewishness except our surname and an entry in our passport.” As a child, she and her sister Mila wanted to blend in, to be like everyone else. Their parents didn’t talk to them about their ‘nationality’, nor later did they ever discuss it with their children.
It wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that Jews were permitted to emigrate, in a bid for freedom from discrimination. Hundreds of thousands left, mostly for Israel, but also for the United States and Germany, where Ira and her family now live.
The Soviet Union was not an easy place to live after World War II, and especially for Jews. Those who managed to survive the war by fleeing to Central Asia or the Urals and returned after the German retreat found their homes destroyed, their towns devastated, and their Jewish neighbours slaughtered.
In Kiev, then in Soviet Ukraine, where several members of my family lived, nearly 34,000 Jews had been shot at the ravine known as Babi Yar on the edge of the city on 29-30 September 1941. But this was far from the only anti-Semitic atrocity committed by the Nazis in the city. My grandmother’s first cousin Baya was among a group of Jews herded to the banks of the river Dnieper and forced aboard a ship that was set alight. There were no survivors.
And few rural Jews from the villages formerly known as shtetls survived the war either. In Pavoloch, my grandmother’s home town, on 5 September 1941 up to 1,500 Jews were shot beside a mass grave dug in the Jewish cemetery. The victims came from many outlying villages as well as Pavoloch, herded to the town for slaughter. The terrible event has become known as the Pavoloch Massacre and even featured in last year’s Amazon Prime series Hunters, which I found myself unable to watch.
Several hundred thousand Jews fled to the eastern republics of the Soviet Union in 1941 as the Nazis approached. You can read some of their stories here. Many never went back to the towns they had left, unable to contemplate returning to places where such terrible devastation had taken place. Most, inevitably, would have lost family members or friends to the Nazis. It is hardly a surprise that a great number emigrated to Israel or the United States as soon as the possibility arose, while some remained in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, or elsewhere.
But thousands of Jews did return to their homes in towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. In my last article I wrote about my grandmother’s aunt Miriam (Mira) and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka), who made it back from Central Asia to Kiev in December 1943. Mira’s son Moishe (Musenka) had been called up earlier the same year to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and did not come home with them.
To continue their story, in 1944, Musenka was transferred to the front – to Poland. In preparation for his departure, he was moved to an army camp on the outskirts of Kiev, where his mother and sister were able to visit him. Later, from Poland, Musenka wrote that his regiment was preparing for a major offensive in Warsaw. He died on 16 October 1944, ahead of the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive to liberate the Polish capital. He was 18 years old.
It was his sister Sulochka, rather than his mother Mira, who received the death notice sent by the Soviet military authorities. Sulochka was 13 and had become something of a tearaway – a fiercely independent girl who skipped lessons and swiped pastries from vendors at the old Jewish market. She hid the letter from her mother, knowing how deeply it would upset her.
But Musenka had been a loyal son and always kept in touch regularly with his family. Mira descended into a panic after his letters stopped. She contacted the military authorities searching for information, but when a second copy of the death notice arrived, once again it was Sulochka who intercepted it.
Mira wanted to die. She felt she couldn’t live without her precious only son and couldn’t bear not knowing what had happened to him. She returned to the ruins of her pre-war home in the hope that bricks from the half-demolished building would fall and kill her. She more or less ignored her living daughter, Sulochka, amid the pain she felt over her missing son. Her husband Yehuda – exiled to a labour camp near Krasnoyarsk – even wrote a letter to the war commissar Klim Voroshilov with a plea for help in finding any trace of Musenka.
Many families waited years, decades even, for their menfolk to return from the war. Some were lucky; many were not. As time passed, the small glimmer of hope that her son was still alive and would one day come home gave Mira the strength to go on living. It was not until 1964, twenty years after Musenka’s death, and after Yehuda – finally liberated from the gulag – had also passed away, that Sulochka confessed to her mother that she had hidden the letters from the military authorities informing them that her brother had died in action.
In the end, knowing the truth at last helped ease Mira’s distress. For all those years she had tormented herself with the thought that Musenka might have fallen into the hands of the Banderovtsy – the anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who allied with the Nazis and collaborated in the near-total destruction of Jewish life in Ukraine. The torture they inflicted on captured Red Army soldiers was notorious, and all the more so for those of Jewish descent.
Mira spent her post-war years enveloped in grief over the loss of her beautiful boy – and yes, photographs testify that he was indeed beautiful. Her love for her daughter remained in the background; it clearly existed, but was rarely overtly demonstrated. Mira could be a stubborn and awkward character and she and Sulochka were often at loggerheads. But Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was 14 when Mira died in 1966, remembers her with warmth and affection.
This story will be continued in my next article.
Soviet Jews that survived World War II by fleeing eastwards found a tough life waiting for them on their return home to towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. I wrote recently about the experiences of several Jewish families as refugees in Central Asia during the war, including my great-grandfather’s sister, Miriam (Mira) – you can read that article here. Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was born in Kiev after the war and lived there until the 1990s, has shared with me her family stories of life back in that city after the return from Central Asia.
The family had lived before the war in the centre of Kiev, at 37 Pushkinskaya Street in a communal apartment – one room for each family, with shared cooking and washing facilities, as was typical of Soviet life during the era of Stalin and Khrushchev. Sometimes a family occupied just a section of a room, partitioned off with a curtain.
On their return from Central Asia after the Nazi retreat in late 1943, Mira and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka) – Ira’s grandmother and mother – made their way from the station on foot – no public transport was running – through the ruins of the devastated city, to find out what had become of their home. They found the four walls still standing, but nothing more.
The building was restored after the war and exists to this day. “Whenever I go back to Kiev, I always wander around the courtyard and look up at the balcony, as if I’m looking for my mother as a little girl,” Ira says. A quick Google search shows an attractive four-story building on a tree-lined street, next door to a “hip Israeli eatery” called Pita Kyiv and just down the road from the Estonian embassy.
As Ira’s mother and grandmother stood weeping before their ruined home, a figure approached them – a woman they had been acquainted with before the war. Knowing what had happened to the Jews of Kiev at the end of September 1941, when 34,000 were shot at the ravine of Babi Yar on the edge of the city, the woman took pity on Mira and Sulochka. She led them back to her basement flat on Saksaganskaya Street, a mile or so away, and invited them to stay. There Mira recognised many of her own possessions and those of her neighbours, stolen when they had departed in haste during the evacuation of the city. Mira said nothing. She was grateful simply to have a roof over her head.
Every day Mira returned to her building on Pushkinskaya in the hope of meeting the postman, desperate for news from her son Moishe (Musenka) in the army, and her husband Yehuda in the gulag. And she petitioned the authorities for a place to live for herself and her daughter. For once she was lucky, and was assigned a room in a communal apartment, but at the expense of another family, who were forced onto the street.
The dispossessed family rushed at Mira and beat her in anger and despair at losing their home. With so much of the city destroyed and more evacuees returning by the day, the authorities would juggle the accommodation that was still standing, taking shelter from one family to give to another; a lottery of relief or desolation.
The room was ten metres square, with no running water or sewerage. Later it became smaller still, with three meters reapportioned to create a corridor where a cooker was installed. But it was a roof over their heads and it was precious. In this room, nearly a decade later, Ira was born.
How Mira found the means to live during this period, Ira doesn’t know. But she suspects it was Mira’s brother, Uncle Avrom, who came to their rescue, as he had during the evacuation of Kiev, finding transport for them and a place to live. Sulochka also told Ira about her cousin Beba. Ira says Beba’s real name was Volf. According to the family tree my grandmother and father drew up he was called Velvl, while his grandson – who now lives in Germany – refers to him as Vladimir. Such are the complications of Jewish genealogy!
Cousin Beba was the only relative that did not turn against Mira when she became the wife of an Enemy of the People, after her husband was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulag. One day Beba visited and saw that Sulochka had grown out of all her warm clothes, and in the dead of winter. He went to the crowded flea market where people bought and sold new and second-hand goods and found her a pair of warm boots.
Mira continued to go back to the family’s old home on Pushkinskaya in the hope of seeing the postman and finding a letter from her son or husband. In 1944, Musenka wrote that he was being transferred to the front – to Poland – and that before his departure he would be based at a large camp on the outskirts of Kiev, by the Darnitsia train station across the river Dnieper. Mira and Sulochka were able to visit him there. Musenka was 18 years old and this was the last time his mother and sister ever set eyes on him.
This story will be continued in my next article.
I have always been fascinated by Soviet history. I grew up at a time when the Iron Curtain was firmly drawn and what lay on the other side was beyond the bounds of my imagination. I have a dim recollection of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the tiny glimpses of the Soviet capital that the TV coverage allowed. But I was just a child then and my interest in the country’s history and politics were yet to emerge.
I first travelled to the Soviet Union in 1989 on an organised tour shortly before embarking on my Russian degree at university. Flying low over the countryside on the approach to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, I remember seeing mile after mile of forest. “Oh, so they have trees in the Soviet Union,” I naively thought to myself. (Duh! Of course there are trees, Russia’s covered in trees!).
Until that moment, anything beyond the images I had seen of Red Square or the Olympic stadium felt utterly unknown. The whole country seemed such a closed world that I had no way of picturing it at all. I still feel the same way about North Korea today – it is sealed off so completely that I cannot imagine what it looks like.
Back in 1989 I knew nothing of my family still living in Soviet Ukraine. I did not even know that I had cousins there, descendants of my great-grandfather’s siblings, who remained in Kiev after most of my grandmother’s family emigrated to the west in the early 20th century.
Two years later I returned to the Soviet Union as a student, for a year-long immersion into Russian language and culture in the city of Voronezh. I arrived, part of a group of 30 students from British universities, just days after the failed Communist coup of August 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform agenda of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. Less than four months into my stay, the Soviet Union was dissolved, leaving its previously united republics in a state of chaos and disintegration.
Some time after my arrival in Voronezh, a large envelope arrived in the post from my father. It contained a series of family trees, an envelope with an address in Kiev, and an old photograph of a mother with her two daughters. These are your cousins, the accompanying letter said, you can look on the family tree to see how you are related. You could try to get in touch.
Dad had received the address and photo from my grandmother’s cousin Claire in Philadelphia. Claire had visited the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and made contact with another cousin, Sulamia, in Kiev – the photo now in my possession was taken during that visit, of Sulamia (Claire knew her as Sveta, her Soviet name) with her children Irina (Ira) and Miloslava (Mila). For some years after her visit, Claire had sent parcels of clothes and food to the family in Kiev, but eventually lost contact.
I wrote a letter and introduced myself. Some weeks later I bought a train ticket to Kiev – well, not literally. It was impossible to buy a ticket from Voronezh to Kiev. First, I bought a ticket for the overnight train to Moscow, 500km to the north, which deposited me at the capital’s Paveletsky station at 6am the next day. From there I headed across town to Kievsky station and queued for a ticket to travel 900km southwest to Kiev, leaving that evening and arriving the following morning. It was a long and convoluted route to travel 600km due west. I don’t recall what I did all day in Moscow between the two train journeys.
Once in Kiev I made a phone call to the number Claire had sent to my Dad, and asked for Sveta. My cousin Ira remembers that my call took her aback. She recalls a foreign voice on a crackly line asking to speak to her mother, who had died two years previously. It was upsetting for her to have to explain that Sveta had passed away. My phone call came out of the blue, she says, she hadn’t received my letter – perhaps I didn’t send one after all; perhaps it got lost in the post, a common occurrence at the time.
It took a while to find the address. It was January 1992, just a couple of weeks after the Soviet Union had been disbanded, and already street names in Kiev were changing from Russian to Ukrainian. The map I bought had the new Ukrainian names, while the road signs still had the Russian versions. It was all very confusing. But at last, I found the right building and knocked on the door, my heart pounding with nerves.
There I met Ira, then in her late 30s, her husband Sergei, father Mark and two children, Alyosha and Masha – it was usual for three generations to live together in small Soviet apartments. Ira called her sister Mila to come over, and the two women disappeared to the kitchen, conferring in whispers. When they emerged, they told me they were both in agreement. They knew as soon as they set eyes on me that I was family. “You look just like our cousin who lives in Odessa,” they said. Ira wrote to me later in a letter, “You have Unikow eyes” – Unikow being the family name that unites us. Old family photographs confirm that this is undeniably true.
I made a second visit to Kiev in early summer that year. Once again, the letter I sent from Voronezh failed to arrive and Ira was out of town. Mila took me back to her little apartment on the left bank of the River Dnieper, shared with her husband Grisha, daughter Yulia and Grisha’s parents.
Over the days that followed, they showed me some of the sights of Kiev then took me to their dacha in the country – a rustic wooden house with a garden where they grew vegetables. We travelled there in a tiny car that was so ancient and dilapidated that it felt like it was held together with bits of string. But they were some of the lucky ones. Not many people in Kiev were fortunate enough to own a car.
I remember Yulia, aged 8 or 9, skipping around the garden wearing a brightly patterned dress. It was one that Claire had sent from America for Mila when she was a little girl. A gift from the West, it was precious, something to treasure and keep for the next generation.
It was discovering my cousins in Kiev that first nurtured my interest in family history, and in the Jewish history of Ukraine more generally. I owe a lot to Ira and Mila and their children, both for this reason and also for the friendships we have developed over the last three decades. They now live in Germany and we keep in touch, mainly on Facebook. Recently Ira, now the family matriarch, has been sharing with me some of her childhood memories and family stories from the post-war years, and these will be the subject of my next article.
The terrible numbers are known to us all: six million Jews died during World War II. Pitifully few of those living in Nazi-occupied Europe survived. But there was one large group of European Jews that did live to see the end of the war.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, around a million Soviet Jews – including up to 400,000 from the territories of Eastern Poland recently annexed by the Soviet Union – were either evacuated by the Soviet authorities or managed to escape on their own to the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, enabling them to escape almost certain death. Those who made the journey constituted the largest group of European Jews to survive World War II, and many later emigrated to Israel or elsewhere.
Conditions during evacuation were harsh, with cramped, overcrowded living quarters and terrible poverty, while disease was rife. Many succumbed to epidemics including typhus, dysentery and cholera, others to crime and despair. Some were arrested and thousands were deported to remote internal frontiers as “class aliens”. According to some estimates, as many as 300,000 of these deportees perished as a result of disease or starvation.
The majority of the of evacuees arrived in 1941-1942 in Central Asia – the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – and the region of the Urals mountains. The Uzbek capital Tashkent was one of the main refugee centres, and many passed through the city before moving on to other towns and villages, while some wound up working on collective farms.
Published first-hand accounts of the experiences of evacuees are rare. Until recently, I knew that members of my own family had escaped from Kiev to Central Asia during the war years but had never heard stories of their experience there. My cousin Irina, who was born in Kiev in 1952 and lived there until the 1990s, has filled me in on some of her mother’s and grandmother’s recollections of their wartime experiences in Kokand, Uzbekistan.
The authorities organised mass evacuations of Soviet citizens, particularly the cultural, technocratic, and educational elite, as well as entire industrial plants, away from the advancing front. The Soviet government and leading institutes were transferred to Kuibyshev, now Samara, some thousand miles southwest of Moscow.
But Irina’s grandfather had been arrested in 1938 as an ‘enemy of the people’ and sent to the gulag. The Soviet authorities had no interest in helping his wife Mira (known to me as Miriam) and two children, Musenka (Moishe) and Sulamia (Sveta), escape to safety, so they had to make their own way. They owe their survival to Mira’s brother Avram – a respected doctor and the youngest sibling of my great-grandfather Meyer.
Avram secured places for them on a cart with his wife’s brother, travelling east from Kiev to the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine, and from there they were able to board a train bound for Kokand. They were robbed during the journey, and all their warm clothes stolen.
Once settled in Kokand, Avram managed to find a job in the hospital for his sister. Sulamia went to school and 16-year-old Musenka to a further education college. They lived on a thin gruel of flour and water that Mira was able to bring home from work, and Musenka received a white bread roll at college each day, which he gave to Sulamia, who was suffering from typhus. One day during Sulamia’s illness, when she was alone in the family’s lodgings, a burglar broke in. He left again empty handed: the family was so poor that they had nothing to steal. In 1943, Musenka was called up, first to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and then to fight. He was later killed in action in Poland.
Mira and Sulamia returned to Ukraine after the liberation, together with Avram, first to Kharkov and finally back to Kiev, in defiance of the authorities, which had refused them permission to return to the city.
However grim Mira and her family’s experience, they were some of the lucky ones. Avram’s assistance in finding transport and work for Mira saved them a worse fate. Accounts of the lives of Jewish evacuees in Central Asia are few and far between, so it is impossible to generalise about their experience. But it is known that many congregated for days or weeks in and around train stations, sometimes forced to keep moving when they could find no place to shelter, with the area already overwhelmed by the mass evacuations. Some were able to find work, but many did not. Jobs were often temporary and a large proportion of mostly men worked in the black market.
The largely Muslim Central Asian population was undergoing its own difficult and ambivalent process of Sovietisation, and was understandably bewildered by, and often resentful and suspicious of, the sudden influx of “western” evacuees. In spite of this, the local population could also be astonishingly generous given their own poverty and deprivation, sharing their food and inviting the newcomers to join their wedding celebrations.
Retired journalist and genealogist Bert Shanas, who has kindly shared his research with me, has unearthed several stories of members of his family evacuated to Central Asia from Ukraine during the war years.
Rochel Chasina and her mother fled Zhitomir for Kazakhstan. Before they had even got as far as Kiev, their train was requisitioned by the Soviet army, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Finally, they reached Kharkov, where they spent a month in a refugee camp, before fleeing again when the Germans drew nearer, this time to a small village near Stalingrad. “The trains were crowded; everybody was trying to flee the approaching Germans, and in those days when you got on a refugee train, you never knew for sure what your destination was. You only knew that the general direction was east,” Rochel recalled.
As the front drew closer, she and her mother spent more than two weeks sleeping on a bench at the station. "You had to be at the station all the time because you never knew when a train that could mean your escape would arrive.” A freight train took them to Uralsk, in western Kazakhstan, where they shared a room with two other families. “We had been wearing our shoes for protection for the entire month of the train trip. So when we took them off in the room, patches of our skin and flesh came off with the shoes because everything had been frozen together,” she remembered.
Rochel looked for a job, but owning only summer shoes, she was unable to work in winter when the ground was covered in snow. She and her mother both overcame serious illness and finally, a cousin found her a job at a military hospital in Novosibirsk, Siberia, about 1,200 miles to the northeast. There they were able to join other family members, living eight to a room. In 1946, they began a perilous three-year journey that would take them from Russia through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and France, and finally to Israel.
Another of Bert Shanas’ relatives, Rosa Zaydenberg, fled from Kiev to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, a journey that took around four months under constant attack from German bombers. Once she finally arrived, Rosa had no warm clothes and no place to stay. She tried to sleep on a bench at the train station, but was chased away and ended up sleeping in a public phone box. She soon found work in a factory and in 1942 was able to bring other family members who were surviving in dreadful conditions in Fergana, Uzbekistan, to join her in Alma-Ata. She rented “one corner of one room” for the three of them, paying rent in the form of food for the landlord’s dog, which she scrounged from the factory where she worked. The family returned to Kiev in the summer of 1945.
Another Shanas relative, Faina Sheynise, went on hunger strike to persuade her stubborn father to leave Kiev when the occupation began. He had refused to depart, insisting that praying daily at the synagogue would keep him safe. At last, he agreed to flee and the family reached the chaos of Kiev’s train station shortly before the Germans arrived. They boarded a train heading to Kubah, in the Caucasus mountains, and as the invading army continued to approach, moved on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and finally to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, close to the Chinese border. There Faina worked as a seamstress and took a job in a food store. Much of her family got separated during the war, with one sibling in Moscow and two others in Siberia. Faina had no desire to return to Kiev after the war. “Not after Babi Yar, where they killed so many thousands of Jews,” she said. “I just couldn’t go back there,” she recalled. She remained in Osh until 1991, when she emigrated to the US.
Faina’s niece, Ida Rosentsvaig, was a baby when the war broke out. She and her family managed to get on an already packed train heading to Siberia, where they spent most of the war in the town of Anzhero-Sudzhensk. Later, they were able to join Faina in Osh. “I remember how warm Osh felt after Siberia and all that snow, and suddenly we had enough food!” she recalled. But Ida’s mother became sick and spent two years in hospital from 1946-1948. Ida was left to fend for herself, while her brother – treated as an orphan – was adopted for a time by a local childless family. Eventually the children’s mother recovered and the family settled in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
Most Jews in North America and much of Europe can trace their roots back to the Russian Empire, once home to the world’s largest Jewish population. But how many of us actually understand how our families ended up there in the first place?
The basics are fairly well known. After the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD, Jews scattered across the Roman Empire, which covered most of southern and western Europe and north Africa. By the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Jewish diaspora had spread right across Europe. The split into two distinct communities: the Sephardi on the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazi along the Rhine in Germany occurred around the 10th century.
During the Crusades in the 13th-15th centuries, Jews were expelled from much of western Europe, including from England in 1291, France in 1343 and much of western Germany in the early 15th century. Many fled east, to the one country that offered a safe haven for Jews – Poland. Here King Casimir the Great (reigned 1333-1370) welcomed Jews for their trades and skills and protected them as “People of the King”.
But by the 18th century, Poland was a weak and failing state, preyed on by its more powerful neighbours: Prussia, Austria and Russia. These three great European powers divided the country up between them in the three Partitions of Poland of 1772, 1793 and 1795. The area to the southwest of Kiev where my family came from became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the second partition of 1793. Since 1991 it has been in independent Ukraine.
Bert Shanas, a retired journalist turned genealogist from New York, has traced his family history to shtetls southwest of Kiev from at least the mid-1600s, and it is from his research that I have borrowed the contents and title of this article. The typical Ashkenazi Jew from this region, Shanas says, has an ancestral line that began in Africa, migrated to the Middle East, and from there into Europe, through France, to present-day Germany and into Poland, to an area that went on to become Russia then Ukraine over the course of some 200,000 years.
Using a combination of DNA testing, recent scientific studies, archaeological discoveries, and biblical and historical scholarship, Shanas has traced the likely route his ancestors would have taken. His male family line would have had its origins in east Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago – around present-day Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. Major climatic changes would probably have forced his ancestor to journey to the northeast in search of an adequate food supply, most likely travelling in a group of around 200 people. They would have crossed the Red Sea – then a smaller, shallower channel – into present-day Saudi Arabia and continued eastwards along the coast of the Arabian Sea until they reached the Indus Valley, the area that is today Pakistan.
Thousands of years later, it is likely his ancestors would have broken off from the group and headed north through Iran to settle in what is now Turkey, around 40,000 years ago. About 10,000-15,000 years ago, they would have moved on to the Middle East, where Jewish history began – with Abraham, who came from the city of Ur in Babylonia, now southern Iraq - around 3,200 years ago.
Shanas believes that following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, his ancestors would probably have travelled from the Middle East through Turkey, Greece and Italy, then north through France around the year 1400 and from there to Germany. Around 1500, they would have moved east again, into Poland and by 1600-1700 were settled in the area near Kiev.
DNA analysis indicates that Shanas’ female family line probably ended up in Poland by a different route, trekking north from the area around present-day Kenya or Ethiopia around 60,000 years ago, through Sudan and Egypt into the Middle East. They would have survived the last Ice Age somewhere around Mediterranean Europe and once the glaciers retreated, spread throughout Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.
His ancestral line would probably have migrated to the Caucasus mountains then arced over the Black Sea into the Balkans. From there the DNA trail branches in two directions, the first heading north into Finland, passing through Poland on the way, and the second going west along the Mediterranean through France and Spain, into Portugal. DNA analysis shows that his genetic female ancestors were not grouped in great numbers in any one spot, but were scattered across eastern and western Europe, and their exact route to Ukraine is unclear.
A study of the origins of Ashkenazi women by Professor Martin Richards at the University of Huddersfield in the UK and cited by Shanas in his research, found that in at least 80% of the cases studied, the DNA of Jewish women traced back to Europe – unlike that of men, which traced back to the Middle East. Richards concluded that the vast majority of Jewish men who fled the Middle East for Europe after the Roman conquest did not take women with them. Instead, they married local European women, who then converted to Judaism.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
Old movies can tread a fine line between feeling dated and irrelevant, and providing a fascinating insight into a time and place that is long gone. Ost und West (East and West) is the earliest surviving example of Yiddish cinema, shot almost a century ago, in Vienna in 1923, and most definitely falls into the latter category.
The film deals with the thorny issue of assimilation that has troubled Jewish communities for hundreds of years, as a wealthy New Yorker and his boxing-enthusiast daughter return to the old country for his niece’s wedding in a traditional, observant household. The most fascinating aspect of the film for me was to see scenes of how our ancestors would have lived: how they dressed, what their houses looked like, the food they ate, their Sabbath table. The household is a relatively affluent one in cosmopolitan Galicia, but the images still resonate strongly for those of us with family ties further east.
As well as being intriguing from a historical point of view, the film is, in parts, laugh-out-loud funny, even for a modern, sophisticated audience. It throws up some hilarious faux-pas by the worldly Americans as they encounter traditional shtetl life. Even the suitably obese father – who one assumes grew up in the Orthodox community – cannot find the right page or passage in his prayer book, while his daughter Mollie takes a novel to the Temple to stick inside hers, while the rest of the family prays fervently on Yom Kippur.
Unable to cope with hunger during the long day of fasting, Mollie sneaks out of the synagogue to raid the fridge, stuffing her face with the meal intended for the family to break the fast, then hiding the leftovers under the table, to be discovered by the pet dog and cat! But Mollie’s playful disruptiveness ends up getting her into more trouble than she could have imagined as a mock wedding game becomes real and she finds herself accidentally married to a young, pale-faced yeshiva student.
This scene has great resonance for me as my great-grandmother found herself in a somewhat similar situation. The educated and impeccably dressed daughter of an affluent grain merchant, she spent more of her time reading modern novels than the Torah, but was forced into an arranged marriage with a Talmudic scholar who had been brought up in a Rabbinical court. Her initial horror at the match eventually turned to affection, and my great-grandparents’ marriage worked out in the end, as did that of the fictional Mollie and Ruben in East and West.
East and West is one of a great number of Yiddish films of the 1920s and 30s that entertained audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, although those made earlier than 1923 have not survived. New York was the main centre of the Yiddish film industry, enjoying a ‘golden age’ in 1936-39, when more than two dozen films opened, only for this to be curtailed abruptly by the onset of World War II. The films capture the language and lifestyle, as well as the values, dreams, and myths of the world of American Yiddish culture. Yiddish films were also made in Poland, Austria and Russia.
Filmmaking was a direct offshoot of Yiddish theatre, which had played a significant role in the life and culture of Jewish immigrant communities for many decades, and many popular stage actors were later immortalised in film. Molly Picon, the female star of East and West, began her career in Yiddish theatre in Philadelphia at the age of six and was one of few stars of Yiddish stage and screen to cross over into the mainstream American film industry, notably playing Yente the matchmaker in the 1971 production of Fiddler on the Roof.
East and West “breathes true Jewish character”, even though “it does not satisfy – one might say, thank God – high literary expectations,” wrote the Viennese journalist E G Fried at the time of its release.
Fried also cited the authenticity of the musical accompaniment, which drew on Jewish folk motifs. How much of that music remains in the version of the film we can view today is not clear. It is a silent movie set to a musical score produced by Henry Sapoznik and performed by Peter Sokolow during the process of restoration. Like many works of Yiddish cinema, the film only survived in fragmentary versions, and was reconstructed by the Filmarchiv Austria, funded in part by the American Film Institute Film Preservation Program and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The film is available to watch from Rarefilmm, the "Cave of Forgotten Films". You can find it on their Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1177986749024623 by typing "East and West" into the Search box.
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 broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.