As another lockdown Passover begins, I’ve been reflecting on this Passover story that dates back nearly a century, to the late 1920s. My great-grandmother’s cousin Babtsy arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband Moishe and four children at the end of their long journey from Kiev, which at that time had recently become part of Soviet Ukraine.
Babtsy and Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodorkov in 1919. The town’s Jews had been rounded up and herded to a sugar beet factory beside a lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained for several years, living with Moishe’s parents.
Owing to a mixture of errors, misunderstandings and delays, it took three and a half years from the time they first lodged their application to emigrate to Canada to their eventual arrival in Winnipeg. Remarkably, our family has around 50 pages of documentation relating to this process, consisting of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division in Winnipeg, its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization in Ottawa. I have written about this in a previous article, which you can read here.
Once Babtsy, Moishe and their children finally arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Winnipeg, they asked the station master to call the phone number of Babtsy’s cousin Faiga. Faiga had been the first member of our family to leave the Russian Empire for Winnipeg back in 1907 with her husband, Dudi Rusen, and one of her brothers. Dudi was an ambitious young man. Once in Winnipeg he bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. He worked hard and after a while had raised enough money to buy a truck, then within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company. Faiga and Babtsy had not seen one another for more than 20 years.
Faiga and Dudi, with their children and grandchildren, were in the middle of a Passover Seder when the station master rang on that spring evening. Dudi answered the phone and told him to put the newly arrived family in a taxi and send them straight to his home at 107 Hallett Street. To great excitement, everyone budged up around the table to make space for the relatives from the Old Country so they could join the Seder, and celebrate this latest escape of Jews, to a new Promised Land, alongside the ancient exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
This Passover story is narrated in the following clip by Monty Hall, the host of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal. Monty was Faiga and Dudi Rusen’s grandson and was at their house that evening during Passover. In the video, Monty describes his tremendous excitement at reading my book, A Forgotten Land, and discovering that it was about his own family. Monty contacted me after he read the book and we had a long telephone conversation, during which he recounted this Passover story to me.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September 2017 at the age of 96.
Antony Blinken is on the cusp of being appointed Secretary of State in the new administration of President Joe Biden. One thing many people may not know about Blinken is that his great-grandfather was a Yiddish writer of some repute.
Meir Blinken was born in 1879 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine – coincidentally the same shtetl as Yiddish literature’s most famous name, Sholem Aleichem. Blinken gained a Jewish education at a Talmud Torah, before attending the secular Kiev commercial college, part of a joint educational project founded by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. He worked as an apprentice cabinet-maker and carpenter, before switching to become a massage therapist. Indeed, he is listed in the Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature with the trade of masseur. His son Moritz, Tony Blinken’s grandfather, who became an American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kiev.
Blinken Senior emigrated to the US in 1904. His first story, written under the pen-name B Mayer, was published a year earlier, in 1903. Once in America, his sketches and stories appeared in a range of literary, progressive socialist and labour Zionist publications, including the satirical magazine Der Kibetzer (Collection) and Idishe Arbeter Velt (Jewish Workers’ World) in Chicago. In all, he published around 50 works of fiction and non-fiction.
Blinken’s books include Weiber (Women), described in the lexicon as a prose poem, Der Sod (The Secret) and Kortnshpil (Card Game). A collection of his short stories published in 1984 and translated by Max Rosenfeld, is still available. His writing dealt with thorny topics including the effects of poverty, poor living conditions, religious strictures, inadequate education and the lack of understanding that immigrants feel about their new country.
Most controversially, he was one of the few male Yiddish writers to address the subject of women’s sexuality, writing about marital infidelity and sexual desire and hinting at the sense of boredom felt by housewives. Another subject he tackled remains controversial to this day: showing empathy towards abortion.
Writing in a review of Blinken’s work in the 1980s, the journalist and author Richard Elman pointed out that among Yiddish authors writing for the largely female audience of Yiddish fiction, Blinken “was one of the few who chose to show with empathy the woman’s point of view in the act of love or sin”. Elman and others believed that the greatest legacy of the author’s work was that it vividly evoked the atmosphere and characters of the very early Jewish diaspora in New York.
According to a 1965 article by the journalist David Shub in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex. In the same article, he wrote that Blinken was also an editor’s nightmare!
By the time of his death in 1915 at the age of just 37, Blinken had opened an independent massage office on East Broadway, in the heart of what was at that time the city’s Yiddish arts and letters district. While his writing was very popular among Yiddish-speaking Americans of his own generation, Blinken’s star quickly waned after his death.
Photo credit: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter
One of the most original and unusual books I’ve read in a long time is The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits, a recent release, translated from the Hebrew, from the always impressive MacLehose Press – a UK publisher that specialises in works in translation. Set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the end of the 1800s, it tells the story of Fanny Keismann, the eponymous daughter of a kosher butcher, who goes in search of her brother-in-law, Zvi-Meir, after he abandons her sister and their two children.
Fanny’s journey to Minsk – now the capital of Belarus and recently in the news for mass protests against its tinpot dictator Alexander Lukashenko who refuses to give up power – is fraught with danger. Fanny’s talent with a butcher’s knife stands her in good stead to quell her foes, but it also sets in train a fantastical series of events that spiral out of control and, unsurprisingly, get her into trouble with the law.
Like the stories of Sholem Aleichem, this book and its cast of motley characters evokes a nostalgia for the shtetls of Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere in the region before the Russian Revolution, and a way of life that was already beginning to unravel when this novel was set. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had begun to emigrate to the west (mostly the United States) in search of an escape from discrimination, anti-Semitic violence and economic hardship from the 1880s onwards. Later, of course, during the Nazi occupation of 1941-44, the shtetls were destroyed altogether, their inhabitants murdered or, in the case of a lucky few, forced to flee eastwards in a bid for survival.
It is impossible not to feel a deep regret for the disappearance of these vibrant communities where our ancestors lived for generations, settlements that were extinguished so brutally. I for one am fascinated by stories and images of the lost Jewish world of Eastern Europe. But the shtetls were home to a way of life that was tough and unenviable, as this novel demonstrates. They were generally poor, miserable places, where, “The Jews have huddled so close to each other that they have not left themselves any space to breathe”. And where Jew and Goy often distrust one another absolutely.
For most of us with origins in the kinds of places that Iczkovits writes about, when we think of this period of history what we remember are the pogroms – the brutal anti-Semitic violence that broke out periodically in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This book, filled with black humour and deep affection, but also gritty realism, provides a wonderful illustration that there was much more to this time and place.
The author describes a way of life where, outdoors, “The market is a-bustle with the clamour of man and beast, wooden houses quaking on either side of the parched street. The cattle are on edge and the geese stretch their necks, ready to snap at anyone who might come near them. An east wind regurgitates a stench of foul breath. The townsfolk add weight to their words with gestures and gesticulations. Deals are struck: one earns, another pays, while envy and resentment thrive on the seething tension. Such is the way of the world.” Meanwhile, indoors, mothers share a bed with their multiple children and face continual curses and criticism from their in-laws in the next room, who treat them like servants.
Yaniv Iczkovits is an Israeli born of Holocaust survivors. “What I wanted to do was to bring these forgotten memories of this lost world into 21st century Israel, and to present the richness of a culture that is now gone, but is still a major part of who we were and what we are,” he says.
My second and final post based on the publication A Journey through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter looks at issues of assimilation and emigration. The Journey is a fascinating document published last year by a private multinational initiative called Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter aimed at strengthening mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews.
Jewish assimilation in the Russian Empire wasn’t necessarily a question of choice. The government of Tsar Nicholas I enacted measures to refashion and forcibly assimilate the Jewish population. In 1827, it ordered a quota system of compulsory conscription of Jewish males aged 12 to 25 (for Christians it was 18 to 35) to the Tsarist army and made the leadership of each Jewish community responsible for providing recruits.
The selection process was often arbitrary and influenced by bribery, turning Jews against their communal leaders. By 1852–55, so-called happers were tasked with kidnapping Jewish boys, sometimes as young as eight, in order to meet the government’s quotas. As described in my book, A Forgotten Land, the happers spread fear across the Pale of Settlement. Once conscripted, the young Jewish recruits were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, with the result that around one-third were baptised. The drafting of children lasted until 1856.
Other assimilationist measures included the establishment of state-sponsored secular Russian-language schools for Jewish children and rabbinic seminaries to train ‘Crown Rabbis’ who were expected to modernise the Jews. An 1836 decree closed all but two Hebrew presses and enacted strict censorship of Hebrew printing. In 1844 the kahal system of Jewish autonomous administration was abolished. Decrees were also passed on how Jews should dress and the economic activities in which they were allowed to engage.
The Jewish Enlightenment – an intellectual movement across central and eastern Europe promoting the integration of Jews into surrounding societies – helped to further the aims of the tsarist government. Activists known as maskilim were enlisted to censor Jewish religious books, as these were considered to promote fanaticism and be an obstacle to Russification.
A series of laws and decrees improved the situation of the Jews under Tsar Alexander II (1855-81). Conscription requirements became less severe, while some Jews were allowed to reside outside the Pale and to vote. Political and social reforms enabled the first generation of Jewish journalists, doctors, and lawyers to obtain degrees at the state-sanctioned rabbinic seminaries and universities, going on to form the core of a modernised Jewish intelligentsia. Journalists and writers, often from the ranks of the maskilim, began to publish Russia’s first Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian-language Jewish newspapers. Modernist synagogues were established.
But state-sponsored discrimination against Jews continued, as did anti-Semitic articles in the Russian press and the expulsion of Jews deemed to be residing in Kiev illegally. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 triggered a new round of repression, with Jews banned from certain professions and geographical areas, and political and educational rights restricted. Only Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity were exempt from the measures.
By the late 1800s, a small group of prosperous Jewish traders had emerged, but the vast majority of Jews lived a modest existence that often bordered on poverty. According to the Jewish Colonization Society, in 1898 the poor comprised 17-20% of the Jewish population in several provinces of present-day Ukraine.
But worse than the grinding poverty and discrimination were the pogroms. Derived from the Russian verb громить (gromit’), meaning to destroy, pogroms were waves of violent attacks on Jews that took place across the Pale primarily in 1881-82, 1903-06, and 1918-21.
Alexander II’s assassination triggered mobs of peasants and first-generation urban dwellers to attack Jewish residences and stores. Of 259 recorded pogroms, 219 took place in villages, four in Jewish agricultural colonies, and 36 in cities and small towns. Altogether 35 Jews were killed in 1881–82, with another 10 in Nizhny Novgorod in 1884. Many more were injured and there was considerable material damage.
A second wave of pogroms began in 1903 with an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in Kishinev, in which the authorities failed to intervene until the third day. Further pogroms followed Tsar Nicholas II’s manifesto of 1905 that pledged political freedoms and elections to the Duma. The mass violence was orchestrated with support from the police and the army and carried out by the ‘Black Hundreds’ – monarchist, Russian Orthodox, nationalist, anti-revolutionary militants. Around 650 pogroms took place in 28 provinces, killing more than 3,100 Jews including around 800 in Odessa alone.
Jews attempted to resist pogroms in many areas by organising self-defence groups. Many were community-organised, but the Jewish Labour party or Bund also began mobilising self-defence units in the early 20th century.
The 1881–82 pogroms set in motion new political and ideological movements, and led to large-scale emigration. For many Jewish intellectuals, the goal of integration and transformation of communities through education and Russification was now discredited. Some perceived socialism, with its promise of equality, as the solution; others promoted emigration to America or Palestine. By the end of the nineteenth century, both Jews and Ukrainians began to emigrate in large numbers, mostly to North America.
In 1882 Leon Pinsker, a physician from Odessa who had earlier promoted the integration of Jews into broader Russian society, published an influential pamphlet titled Autoemancipation, in which he advocated that Jews establish a state of their own. He proceeded to found the Hibbat Zion movement, which paved the way for the Zionism. In 1882–84 some 60 Jews from Kharkov moved to Palestine, the first mass resettlement of Jews in Israel. From 1897 Zionist circles were established in several Ukrainian cities, making the region a centre of organised Zionism. The Tsarist government was initially indifferent towards the Zionists, but eventually banned them.
According to the 1897 census, 2.6 million Jews lived on the territory of present-day Ukraine. Kiev and some other provinces had a Jewish population of around 12-13%, while in Odessa, Jews made up almost 30% of the population. Of the Jewish population, more than 40% were engaged in trade, 20% were artisans and 5% civil servants and members of ‘free professions’, such as doctors and lawyers. Just 3-4% were engaged in agriculture, in contrast to the vast majority of the Ukrainian population.
Given these figures, the scale of emigration was immense. More than two million Jews migrated to North America from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, mainly from lands that make up present-day Ukraine. Of these, about 1.6 million came from the Russian Empire (including Poland), and 380,000 from provinces of western Ukraine that were at the time part of Austria-Hungary (mainly Galicia). Another 400,000 Eastern European Jews migrated to other destinations, including Western Europe, Palestine, Latin America, and southern Africa. Jews comprised an estimated 50 to 70 percent of all immigrants to the United States from the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1910.
About 10,000 Jews had arrived in Canada by the turn of the century, rising to almost 100,000 between 1900 and 1914, settling mostly in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, the hub of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where my own family settled.
Click here to see the document on which this article is based https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/media/UJE_book_Single_08_2019_Eng.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2D2QAuBtjsIqF1kHi4eRUlxBZT-UFPR3usj0741Cp3nnnouJT1icJGphM
I’m very excited to finally be visiting Winnipeg this month, my father’s home town and the place where my family settled when they left Russia for the West. Once my grandmother resolved to leave her shtetl, Pavoloch, in 1924, it took around six months for her great-uncle Menachem Mendl Shnier, who was already in Winnipeg, to prepare the documentation she needed and bring her to Canada. But the process wasn’t always so straightforward.
The following year, her Uncle Mendl began the process of getting our remaining family members out – his step-mother Leah (left) and step-sister Babtsy (right, standing) and her family. It was another three and a half years before they finally arrived in Winnipeg. Remarkably our family has the documentation relating to this process, which amounts to some 50 pages and shows a to-ing and fro-ing of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division, which is in Winnipeg, and its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization, in Ottawa.
The application, dated 6 October 1925, was filled in by Menachem Mendl Shnier of 125 Euclid Avenue, Winnipeg, and is supported by letters from his grandson ID Rusen, a young lawyer in Winnipeg. The documents give a fascinating insight into the immigration process and officialdom of the time. Part of the reason this application took so long was that Leah’s surname was listed incorrectly – making it appear that she was the mother of Babtsy’s husband, which would have made her ineligible to come to Canada as she was not a direct relative.
A letter from the immigration department dated 19 February 1926 says:
“I beg to advise that it is evident that Leah Margolis is the mother of Moses Margolis and not the mother of Chaya Margolis, nor would she appear to be in any way related to the applicant or his wife. She therefore does not come within the classes specified in the quota agreement and I regret that no action can be taken by the Department to facilitate her entry into Canada.”
The remainder of the family was permitted to immigrate, according to a separate later letter the same month. Their permit was valid for five months, but this period expired while the family tried to correct the mistake and re-add Leah to the application. During this time, the Winnipeg office of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society asks for a ‘donation’ of $30 “as we have had considerable expense in connection with this permit”. This money wasn’t paid – again presumably because the family didn’t want Leah left behind in what was now the Soviet Union, and a further demand for money was made, which also went unpaid.
Eventually, in November 1926, 14 months after the initial application was made, there is a letter from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society in Winnipeg admitting that it was responsible for the error regarding Leah’s surname.
I love the way this letter continues ironically … “Will you kindly endeavour to obtain the necessary permission for the above [meaning Menachem Mendl Shnier] as he is calling at this office every time he goes to "Shul", and being a religious man he goes to Shul four times a day.”
Now the immigration department in Ottawa wants to see evidence that Leah is who they say she is, so the family sends a signed affidavit, which the department deems unsatisfactory. They need to provide Ottawa with “documentary evidence from the Russian authorities”. At this point, ID Rusen, the young lawyer, steps in saying that seeing as this was the Jewish Aid Society’s fault, the Society should be responsible for fixing it. But this idea is firmly rejected.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a copy of whatever evidence of Leah’s identity is submitted, but finally in March 1928 – two and a half years after the initial application – the family has permission for everyone to immigrate, with Leah now listed correctly as Menachem Mendl’s step-mother.
The final letter, written in September 1928, states that by now Leah is almost blind “her left eye having been removed after an operation for cataract, and her right eye being only one percent normal. If this elderly lady's optical disability is as outlined above, her movement to Canada cannot be authorized. However, if satisfactory settlement arrangements are made for her in Russia, there would appear to be no reason why Moses Margolis and family cannot come.”
So after all this, three years later, Leah has to be left behind in Russia after all, and the rest of the family finally arrive in Winnipeg at Passover 1929, nearly three and a half years after their application was originally filed. Leah died in Kiev two years later.
All the documents are available to view on the Shnier family website www.shniers.com
Monty Hall, who died a few days ago, was a distant cousin of mine. Monty was born Monte Halparin in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1921. He rose to fame as host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal and even put his name to the Monty Hall problem, a probability puzzle based on the show. I never met Monty, but apparently my grandmother used to babysit him when he was a baby.
My great-grandmother, Ettie Leah, and Monty’s grandmother Faiga were first cousins. They lived next door to one another in a large double-fronted house built by their grandfather in the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles from Kiev. On the advice of a Rabbi, the house had been divided up by drawing lots, and my side of the family was awarded the larger part of the property.
This division of the house caused a great rift between my great-great grandmother Pessy, and Monty’s great-grandmother Bluma. Although their husbands were brothers and remained close throughout their lives, their wives were always at loggerheads and even in old age, a simmering resentment and jealousy continued between them.
Faiga and her husband, Dudi Rusen, were the first of our family to emigrate from Russia to Canada in the early 1900s. Dudi was clever and ambitious, and had long dreamed of moving to the West. They settled in Winnipeg. Dudi bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. Soon he had enough money to buy a truck and within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company and had bought a handsome house in the best part of town.
When my grandmother needed to escape terrible hardship in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, it was Dudi who lent the money for her journey. My grandmother found a job in a factory to pay him back and try to raise the funds to bring the rest of her family over to Canada, again with Dudi’s help.
I’m grateful to another cousin of mine for posting the following clip on Facebook, in which Monty recalls a telephone conversation I had with him a couple of years or so ago. Monty called me after my book, A Forgotten Land, was published. He was tremendously excited by the book and recounted this Passover story to me over the phone. The story relates to Babtsy, my grandmother’s great-aunt, and her arrival in Winnipeg from Russia.
Babtsy and her husband Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodarkov in 1919. The Jews were rounded up and herded to the sugar beet factory beside the lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained with Moishe’s family before managing to emigrate some years later.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September at the age of 96. May he rest in peace
I recently came across a fascinating new book about the French writer Irene Nemirovsky. The Nemirovsky Question by the Harvard academic Susan Rubin Suleiman traces the fascinating and complex story of the author’s life, against a backdrop of French literary culture, emigre culture and secular Jewish culture.
Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. Her father’s family came from the Ukrainian city of Nemirov, an important centre of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century, where they had become successful grain traders.
In 1918 the Nemirovskys fled revolutionary Russia for France, where they assimilated into French high society and Irene became a successful novelist. Prevented from publishing when the Germans occupied France in 1940, she moved with her husband and two small daughters from Paris to the relative safety of the village of Issy-l’Eveque. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.
Nemirovsky’s background closely mirrors my own. My grandmother was born near Kiev in 1902, also to a family of grain traders. And like the Nemirovskys, my family was closely linked to Hassidism – my great-great-great grandfather was a special advisor to one of the sect’s most famous Rabbis, Reb Dovidl Twersky.
Perhaps it was fate that took the Nemirovskys to France after the Revolution. They had initially fled to Finland, then Sweden. And maybe it was just luck that my family came to Canada. A cousin had ended up in Winnipeg before the revolution and much of the rest of the family followed over the next 20 years. And so my grandmother’s fate and that of Irene Nemirovsky were, mercifully, different.
Nemirovsky started writing Suite Francaise, her most famous work to contemporary readers, in 1941, based on the events taking place around her. In her writing, she denounced fear, cowardice, acceptance of humiliation, of persecution and massacre. She had no illusions about the attitude of the inert French masses, nor about her own fate. She realised that her situation was without hope.
When Nemirovsky was arrested and deported, her husband, Michel Epstein, did not understand that this would mean almost certain death. He expected her to return, and petitioned the authorities for her release on the grounds of poor health. He too was arrested and died in Auschwitz. Miraculously, their daughters survived, having fled with their governess and lived in hiding for the remainder of the war, taking their mother’s manuscript with them from one hiding place to another.
In 2006 I happened to meet a charming middle-aged French couple while on holiday in France. When talking to them about my book, A Forgotten Land, the story of my grandmother’s early life in Russia in the early 19th century, they began to tell me about close friend of theirs called Denise, the daughter of a Jewish woman who had died during the holocaust. Denise had kept her mother’s wartime diary as a memento, but had found it too painful to read until decades after the war, when she discovered it was not merely a diary, but a powerful literary masterpiece.
“Is this the daughter of Irene Nemirovsky?” I asked. They were surprised that I knew of her; the book had been published in French two years earlier, and in English only that very year. For my part, I felt privileged to have met friends of Nemirovsky’s daughter, and so soon after reading Suite Francaise, when its horrors and brilliance were still so fresh in my mind.
I was interested to read this week that the Israeli government is planning to discuss once again the fate of the so-called Subbotniks living in Russia and Ukraine, descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism over 200 years ago.
The Subbotniks have been oppressed on two fronts – persecuted at home for being Jews, but recently considered insufficiently Jewish to be allowed to immigrate to Israel. Israel’s committee on immigration and absorption is due to debate the issue of the Subbotniks soon, and many members of the community are hoping for a ruling in their favour that will enable them to join family members already in Israel.
The origins of the Subbotniks are hazy. They date back to the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great, when a group of peasants in southern Russia distanced themselves from the Russian Orthodox Church and began observing the Jewish Sabbath – hence their name, derived from the Russian Subbota (Суббота), meaning Saturday, or Sabbath.
Their descendants celebrate Jewish holidays, attend synagogue and observe the Sabbath. But it is not clear whether their forefathers officially converted to Judaism, and once in Israel, Subbotniks are still considered non-Jews until they undergo conversion. Many do not recognise the term Subbotnik – they consider their families to have been Jewish for many generations, and have been persecuted for their faith – and cannot understand Israel’s position.
In the early 19th century, Tsar Alexander I (see photo) deported the Subbotniks to various parts of the Russian empire, leaving small communities scattered across a wide area. For this reason, Subbotniks today can be found as far apart as Ukraine, southern Russia, the Caucasus and Siberia.
A first wave of Subbotnik emigration took place in the 1880s, when many fled persecution to settle in what was then part of Ottoman Syria, now Israel. Anti-Semitic pogroms broke out in Russia in the early 20th century, prompting another wave to emigrate. Many more Subbotniks left the Soviet Union and its successor states after the fall of the Berlin Wall, part of the more than million-strong flood of Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel at that time. Some prominent Israelis are descended from Subbotnik settlers – among them former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
But Israel’s Chief Rabbinate later claimed that the Subbotniks’ Jewish origins were not sufficiently clear, and that they would have to undergo conversion to Orthodox Judaism, thereby making them ineligible for aliyah to Israel – the automatic right to residency and Israeli citizenship that is available to all Jews.
Some Subbotniks were granted the right to immigrate in 2014, but around 15,000 are estimated to still live in the former Soviet Union, most of whom desire to immigrate to Israel. The biggest Subbotnik community today is still in the area around Voronezh, where the movement began. It’s a city I know well, having spent a year as a student there in the 1990s.
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
The Jerusalem Post yesterday published an amazing story about the small town of Bershad, dubbed ‘Ukraine’s last shtetl’. Described as a “drab town 160 miles south of Kiev”, Bershad is located due south of Pavolitch (Pavoloch in Russian), where my family originates, close to the present-day border with Moldova. Its population numbers some 13,000, around 50 of whom are Jewish.
The town initially appears no different from hundreds of other grim Ukrainian towns where a handful of ageing Jews try to keep their traditions alive. My father and I experienced several similar settlements when we were in Ukraine in 2005 to visit our ancestral home and carry out research for A Forgotten Land. We were shocked, in particular, to find that the tiny Jewish community in Makarov – home to a famed dynasty of Twerksy Rabbis, and also to my great-grandfather Meyer – had no idea where the renowned Rabbi’s Court had stood. All were incomers who had not known Makarov before the Second World War.
But Bershad is clearly different, “a living testament to the Jewish community’s incredible survival story – one that has endured despite decades of communist repression, the Holocaust and the exodus of Russian-speaking Jews”.
In marked contrast to the region’s other Jewish communities – in fact to religious communities of any faith, which were harshly persecuted in the Soviet era – the authorities returned the town’s synagogue to the Jewish population in 1946, after the Nazi’s were defeated. While most shtetls were wiped out by the Nazi invasion (the Jews of Pavolitch were rounded up and shot in 1941), Bershad survived owing to its westerly location, which put it under the occupation of Romanian, rather than German, troops during the war. The Romanians were less systematic in their slaughter of Jews. They liquidated neighbouring shtetls, but Bershad (with a pre-war Jewish population of 5,000) became a Jewish ghetto with a population of 25,000. The majority perished, but after the war, some 3,500 remained.
In the post-war era, the community attributes the shtetl’s survival to centuries of coexistence with the gentile population. Bershad’s Jews were workers – metal workers, shoemakers, carpenters and fishermen – whose families had worked alongside non-Jews for generations. Unlike in larger towns, they were not regarded as class enemies, such as intellectuals or merchants.
Bershad’s elderly Jewish population recalls following the traditional rituals and festivals, with the smell of baking wafting from the makeshift matza bakery before Passover and families gathering outside the synagogue to hear the shofar on Yom Kippur.
Most of Bershad’s Jews have emigrated to the US or Israel since the Soviet Union collapsed and exit visas became freely available. The matza bakery has closed; the synagogue is more of a community centre and rarely achieves a minyan; and what remains of the Jewish quarter is disintegrating following a quarter of a century of emigration. The last remaining native Yiddish speaker is considering leaving for Israel. But the fact that Bershad’s Jewish community survived as long as it did is a miracle in itself.
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.