I recently came across some information about the town of Skvira, close to my grandmother’s ancestral home in Pavolitch, on a Ukrainian website that is documenting the region’s old shtetls. Skvira is around 20 miles from Pavolitch, and when my father and I visited the area in 2005, we were given a tour of the shiny new synagogue there, built the previous year.
The ancient town of Skvira was destroyed at the end of the 16th century, but was gradually rebuilt and by the mid-18th century, it was documented as a village, leased to a Jewish tenant. According to a census of 1765, there were 124 houses in Skvira, 51 of which belonged to Jews. By 1897, just before my grandmother was born, almost 9,000 Jews lived in the town – half the population. By this time, Skvira had seven synagogues, seven Jewish prayer houses, a parish school and a hospital.
Skvira was home to the court of a branch of the famous Twersky Hassidic dynasty, founded by Rabbi Yitzchak of Skvira (1812-1885). The Twersky court gathered thousands of Hassidim for high holidays and its dynasty still exists today, most notably in New Square (Novy Skvir), in Rockland County, New York. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many of its followers returned to Skvira to rebuild the synagogue and the Tzaddik’s court.
The court housed a yeshiva, or Rabbinical school, where my great-uncle Naftula was a student. My family were followers of another branch of the Twersky dynasty, in Makarov. My great-grandfather grew up at the Rabbinical court there, his own grandfather having been an advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna.
Skvira suffered a wave of pogroms during the civil war (1917-20), during which more than 600 Jews were killed and a further 400 injured. The pogroms were led by different ‘banda’ (as my grandmother called the groups of armed thugs roaming the area, each with allegiance to a different leader). Three of the pogroms, in February 1919 and two in September the same year, were organised by Ukrainian independence fighters under Symon Petlyura. Others were led by the Red Army, the White Army under General Denikin, and Ukrainian People’s Army troops. Hundreds of women were raped, houses burnt to the ground, Jewish property seized and destroyed or sold. The town was left in ruins. The pogroms were followed by a typhus epidemic, which killed up to 30 people a day. Naftula had been in Skvira at the time of some of the worst pogroms, but thankfully was unharmed.
The town’s Jewish population numbered some 15,000 before the pogroms, and just 10,000 afterwards. Many then fled to Kiev, Odessa or nearby Belaya Tserkov, or emigrated. By the start of World War II, the Jewish population had been whittled down to 2,243, although this still made it one of the biggest Jewish communities in Ukraine at the time.
Like everywhere else in the region, Skvira suffered terrible atrocities during World War II. In September 1941, around 850 Jews were gathered and shot in three pits in the Jewish cemetery. Two further mass killings (or ‘actions’) took place, in October and November of the same year. The total number of Jewish deaths in the town during the Nazi occupation was 1,230. Skvira was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in December 1943. The post-war Jewish population numbered about 1,000, many of whom had escaped to the Urals or Central Asia during the war years. In 2009, shortly after my visit, only around 120 Jews remained.
See http://jewua.org/skvira/ for more information
Ukraine’s prime minister Volodymyr Groysman was in Israel this week, holding meetings with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. The two are the world’s only Jewish prime ministers.
“This is a moment of great friendship because there is a common history that binds Ukraine and Israel. Some of it is laced with tragedy, but it is also laced with hope and sympathy,” Netanyahu said.
Around 500,000 of Israel’s 8.5 million inhabitants have roots in Ukraine. Many arrived during the early decades of the Jewish state, but the number of Ukrainian immigrants to Israel has surged since the war in the east of the country began. Since 2014, some 19,000 Ukrainians have made Aliyah, or moved to Israel. Every month or so, a chartered plane arrives carrying a few hundred more new immigrants.
The story of 26-year old Alena Sapiro from Donetsk echoes that of many others. “In Ukraine, I had a flat, a job, a boyfriend, and a cat. I had everything. I finished university with two degrees. I started to study for a doctorate and wanted to be a teacher at the university. But then my university was bombed. My best friend was killed in the war, and my stepfather was also killed. My mother told me, ‘Go away from here,’” she told Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner.
Valery Nevler, aged 24, says he left Ukraine just in time. “There was fighting in the streets. I got one of the last trains to Lviv [in western Ukraine] and a few days later the train station in Donetsk was hit by a missile attack.” He does not regret his move. In Ukraine, he says, “People’s salaries are not enough even to buy food, not to mention paying taxes and rent. So many people who are stuck in Donetsk would love to go to a peaceful place, but they don’t have money, so they stay.”*
Netanyahu was not always so enthusiastic about Ukraine. Last year Ukraine supported a UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and Netanyahu cancelled Groysman’s planned visit in December 2016, straining relations between the countries.
Groysman came to power last year, becoming Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister. He was born in 1978, so avoided the toughest constraints inflicted on Jews by the Soviet regime. Despite the growing nationalism in Ukraine that has prompted a rise in anti-Jewish attacks, Groysman dismisses assertions of widespread anti-Semitism. “Ukrainian citizens have a good will and are nice people. Ukraine is my country. It’s a great honour to be a citizen and born in Ukraine,” he said during his visit to Israel. Of his Jewish background, Groysman says, “I believe it would be humiliating to hide someone’s roots, to hide someone’s family or last name.”
He stressed the close relations between Kiev and Israel and emphasised that the world should stand on the side of democratic Ukraine against Russian aggression.
*Interviews published by the Atlantic Council
I was surprised to learn this week that there are still up to two million Yiddish speakers in the world. The language of the Ashkenazi Jews, Yiddish was dealt an almighty blow during the Holocaust, as the communities, both secular and religious, that used the language were destroyed. Around 12 million people are estimated to have spoken Yiddish before World War II. Some five million of this total were killed by the Nazis, accounting for around 85 percent of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Assimilation reduced the number of Yiddish speakers further after the war.
The Yiddish language traces its origins back to the ninth century and is based on Germanic vernacular vocabulary combined with elements of Hebrew and Aramaic. It is written in Hebrew script. Jews referred to Yiddish as ‘mame-loshn’, or mother tongue, as opposed to ‘loshn-koydesh’, or holy tongue, meaning Hebrew.
“This language developed as truly a ‘folk’ language and was for many years disparaged as ‘jargon’, with no codified rules of grammar or spelling and little or no written literature. Yet it emerged as a vessel holding the cultural outpourings of the Jews of primarily Poland and the Russian empire, as a manifestation of their national and cultural identity in the latter half of the nineteenth century”.
So wrote Miriam Hartman Flacks in her introduction to Children of a Vanished World, a book that brings together photographs of Jewish children in Eastern Europe taken between 1935 and 1938 by her father, Roman Vishniac, and combines them with a collection of Yiddish nursery rhymes that these children would have sung.
A body of Yiddish literature did emerge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which includes the work of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and of the creator of Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem – himself a distant relative of mine.
Yiddish was the ‘mame-loshn’ of my grandmother, Pearl, and all her family, living in Pavolitch, near Kiev, in the early twentieth century. This area of present-day Ukraine was then part of the Russian empire.
“When I was growing up, it was as if the country were split in two: the Pale [the area in which Jews were forced to live], where everything was familiar, people spoke Yiddish and we could travel freely to visit our numerous relatives who were scattered across different towns and villages; and the rest of Russia, which was an unknown world of cities we knew only by name, written in an alphabet that few of us could read, and where we knew nobody.” [from A Forgotten Land]
Even after she had lived in America for 30 years, my grandmother still had not mastered the Latin alphabet, and birthday cards would sometimes take months to arrive because she had written the address incorrectly. The cards themselves were written in what, to me, looked like mysterious squiggles that my Dad had to translate.
In another worrying indication of Ukraine’s unsteady lurch towards right-wing nationalism since the revolution of 2014, the country last month launched a murder enquiry into the killing of a Nazi collaborator that took place 65 years ago.
Neil Hasievich (Нил Хасевич), a Ukrainian citizen, was a fascist propagandist and a district judge during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, responsible for sentencing Ukrainians who resisted the occupation, some of them to execution. An artist by trade, Hasievich designed patriotic images and printed anti-Soviet literature for a group known as the UIA, which comprised nationalist fighters who collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the mass slaughter of Jews and Poles.
Hasievich was killed during a standoff in the district of Rivne in western Ukraine in 1952. The operation in which he died was directed by a then senior officer in the KGB, Boris Steckler, who was charged with tracking down former Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the region.
Steckler, who is Jewish, accepts that he directed the mission against Hasievich, but gave an interview in 2013 in which he claimed Hasievich shot himself during the encounter, having been offered a chance to surrender. The action also claimed the lives of two other nationalist fighters. If charged, Steckler could face a prison sentence.
Steckler received numerous medals for bravery for his efforts during the war. Now aged 94 and regarded locally as a war hero, he frequently participates in parades and other victory celebrations marking the defeat of Nazi forces.
The investigation into Steckler’s actions was launched on 18 April, but was only made public last week. It is the first prosecution of its kind in Ukraine and is being seen as a sign of Ukraine’s growing nationalism and anti-Semitism. It falls within the country’s campaign for ‘decommunisation’, which celebrates nationalist groups that fought the Soviets. Wartime insurgents such as Hasievich are increasingly being feted as heroes in Ukraine. Nationalists have been trying to prosecute Steckler for years.
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.