There is much that ordinary Ukrainians do not know about Jews and that ordinary Jews do not know about Ukrainians. As a result, those Jews and Ukrainians who may care about their respective ancestral heritages usually view each other through distorted stereotypes, misperceptions, and biases. So says a new book by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, two eminent US Historians, entitled Jews and Ukrainians, a Millennium of Co-Existence.
Despite centuries of mutual hatred and violence, often provoked by occupying powers seeking to divide and rule, the two peoples share a narrative that is often at odds with the stereotype, including during the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and subsequent war in the east of the country. Jews and Ukrainians joined a common struggle for self-determination and defence of their homeland.
In the early 20th century, the towns and villages of western Ukraine were a melting pot of different nationalities and religions. Here’s my grandmother Pearl’s description of Pavolitch, her home town, some 60 odd miles southwest of Kiev:
“I grew up speaking a mixture of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian, as well as Yiddish, my mother tongue, which we spoke at home. In Pavolitch, two square, brick synagogues rose from the grassy mound in the centre – the town’s highest point – and a further three prayer houses were scattered across the Jewish quarter above the stream. Walking from the synagogue to the Jewish quarter we passed the grand Russian Orthodox church with its five silver domes. And high above the lake stood a Roman Catholic church.
“Only the local officials and civil servants in Pavolitch were Russian. Ukrainians made up the majority of the population, easily distinguished by their wide faces, plump cheeks and flaxen hair, as well as their coarse, unkempt clothes. There were few wealthy Ukrainians. They tended to work for people like my grandparents as servants, warehouse managers or coach drivers – or they worked for the Poles.”
Pearl’s grandmother employed two Ukrainian women, Katarina and Pritska, to come to the house once a week to help her wash the linen for her large household.
“They must have both been in their thirties, but their hands were almost as coarse and wrinkled as Baba’s from the rough work they did. First they scrubbed the bed sheets in the washtub and rinsed them in washing soda. Then they bundled all the linens into huge vats of boiling water and stirred them with sticks. Despite the heat and steam, and the heaviness of the wet laundry, Katarina and Pritska sang cheerful Ukrainian songs as they worked and always enjoyed teasing and petting us. And they simply adored Baba even though she could be a hard taskmaster.”
Later, during the Russian Civil War, my grandmother and her family would owe their lives to Katarina and Pritska, who sheltered them time and again from the ‘banda’, the various anti-Semitic factions rampaging across Ukraine. The penalty for those found harbouring Jews was death.
The Times of Israel this week published a moving account by Robert R Singer, chief executive of the World Jewish Congress, about his own family history. He recounts:
“I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped the Nazi genocide of European Jewry by fleeing Bessarabia in 1941 and taking refuge in the village of Sretenka, in relatively tolerant Soviet Kyrgyzstan. But her parents, siblings, and countless relatives who remained behind were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine wiped out by the Nazis pushing east with the murderous Holocaust in their wake.
“My mother was born, raised, and started her own family in Alexandreni, a small village with a Jewish population of more than 60 percent, near the Moldovan city of Bălți (Beltzy in Russian). In the summer of 1941, the Nazi-allied Fascist Romanian regime seized control of Bessarabia and began forcing Jews into ghettos. As the fascist troops took over, my grandparents packed their seven daughters and two grandchildren onto a drawn cart, and started making their way east toward Soviet-occupied territory. When the cart reached the Dniester River, my grandmother saw that their horse was not strong enough to continue to pull all of them. She knew there was no choice but to divide the family. She handed the reins to my mother and three of her sisters, along with my half-sister and cousin, and told them to continue without them. My grandmother, grandfather, and three other aunts promised to follow somehow.
“This was the last time my mother saw her parents and sisters. On the onerous journey through southeastern Russia toward Kyrgyzstan, my half-sister and one of my aunts perished. My mother and her surviving relatives spent the remainder of the war in Sretenka, living in relative peace and harmony with their Kyrgyz neighbors.”
Every Russian Jewish family that survived the Holocaust has its own story. My grandmother, and her immediate family, had already left the Soviet Union for Canada in the 1920s. But our family, like every other, was divided. My grandmother’s cousin Baya, who she had lived with under the same roof throughout her childhood, never joined the family in Canada. She remained in Kiev when war broke out and she and her husband were among a group of Jews herded to the banks of the river Dniepr, which divides the city, and forced aboard a ship. It was set alight. There were no survivors.
My grandmother’s home town of Pavolitch, some 60 miles southwest of Kiev, became a killing field. In 1941 more than 1,300 Jews were shot beside a mass grave dug in the Jewish cemetery. The bodies were jumbled one on top of another. The victims came from many outlying villages as well as Pavolitch, herded to a single spot for ease of slaughter. The gentile population fared badly too. In November 1943 dozens were rounded up and locked in the basement of one of the old synagogues, where they were burnt alive. Today a memorial marks the spot.
My grandmother’s beloved aunt and uncle, who had played with her when she was a girl and let her ride around on their backs, escaped to Central Asia during the war years before returning to Kiev once the Nazi occupation was over. It was only that prescience enabled them to survive.
How ironic that US President Donald Trump should choose Holocaust Memorial Day to unleash his latest executive order, banning refugees, and in particular Muslims, from seven countries - Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the US for 90 days. This was a first step towards a broader ban, a spokesman said.
It has been widely reported that no act of terrorism has been committed on US territory by people from these seven countries.
I heard the news on the car radio the following morning and felt so angry I could barely speak, angry and scared. This is how it begins – isolating and discriminating against a group of people solely on the basis of their religion. Public attitudes towards that group of people harden, attacks take place, the screw tightens further. The cycle has begun. Look where it ended up in Europe in the last century.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nearly three million Jews left the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the majority of them heading for America, and many of them refugees – victims of pogroms, anti-Semitism, and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, government discrimination. In 1924, the US closed the gates, with the intention of halting the flow of refugees from Eastern Europe. Even in 1939 when European Jews were being herded into ghettos, the US turned away the MS St Louis carrying 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
In the 1930s and 1940s, people did not speak out, certainly not in sufficient number. History obliges all of us, and Jews in particular, to speak out against Trump’s Muslim Ban. Martin Niemoller’s poem, which has numerous versions, is as important today as it was when it was written in the 1940s.
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
but I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.