I recently received as a gift a stunning book of photographs by the Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac. The photos were taken in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before those communities were wiped out forever.
A Vanished World was published in New York in 1983. It is difficult to get your hands on a copy of it now, but the photographs it contains serve as an important historical document.
Vishniac was born in Russia, but was living in Germany in the 1930s. He took the photographs between 1934 and 1939, when the Nazis had already taken power, and when anyone with a camera was at risk of being branded a spy – and in communities where observant Jews did not want to be photographed for religious reasons.
But he had the foresight to see what few others could possibly imagine, that the Nazis would systematically wipe out the shtetls and Jewish communities that had existed and maintained the same way of life for hundreds of years. He made it his mission to not let their inhabitants, along with their occupations and preoccupations, be forgotten.
“I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight. I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear”, he says in his commentary on the photos.
Vishniac used a hidden camera, at a time when photography was in its infancy and equipment was bulky and unsophisticated. He put himself at great risk, and was thrown into prison for a time, but still he persisted in his mission, constantly running the risk of being stopped by informers or arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to take around 16,000 photographs, although all but 2,000 were confiscated and, presumably, destroyed. He chose to include around 200 in this book, the images that he considered the most representative.
He travelled from country to country, taking in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from province to province, village to village. He captured images of slums and markets, street scenes and school houses, from the wrinkled faces of old men and careworn mothers to pale religious scholars and hungry, wild-eyed children.
The images are far from anonymous. Vishniac got to know the people he photographed, he often availed of their hospitality and spent time working and living among them. He slept in a basement that was home to 26 families, sharing a bed with three other men. “I could barely breathe, Little children cried; I learned about the heroic endurance of my brethren,” he wrote.
He spent a month working as a porter in Warsaw, pulling heavy loads in a handcart, in one of the very few occupations still open to Jews during the Jewish boycott in the late 1930s, which forced tens of thousands of Jewish employees out of their workplaces. It was cheaper to have a Jew pulling a cart than a horse, for the horse had to be fed before it would work, while Jews were forced to carry the goods first and eat later, only once they had been paid.
As one reviewer, the American photographer and museum curator Edward Steichen, wrote, “Vishniac took with him on this self-imposed assignment – besides this or that kind of camera or film – a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place”.
Vishniac emigrated to New York in 1940 and became an acclaimed photographer and professor of biology and the humanities. His only son Wolf died in Antarctica while leading a scientific expedition, and his grandson Obie died at the age of just 10. The book is dedicated to them, as well as to Vishniac’s grandfather. He writes: “Through my personal grief, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of six million of my people, innocents who were brutally murdered by order of a warped human being. The entire world, even the Jews living in the safety of other nations, including the United States, stood by and did nothing to stop the slaughter. The memory of those swept away must serve to protect future generations from genocide. It is a vanished but not vanquished world, captured here in images made with hidden cameras, that I dedicate to my grandfather, my son and my grandson."
I was in Warsaw earlier this month to give a talk at the IAJGS conference on Jewish genealogy, which provided an opportunity to visit this fascinating country. Agonising glimpses of once vibrant Jewish communities abound, but it is the sense of what has been lost that is palpable everywhere.
I cannot remember when I first became aware of the Holocaust. Most likely it was when, at the age of 13 or 14, my mother gave me a second-hand copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. Later, at 19, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel. Strangely I don’t remember being shocked by either of these (although I do recall a feeling of nausea at the piles of shoes at Yad Vashem); perhaps I felt that they confirmed information I had already absorbed.
As an adult, books by Primo Levi and other survivors, including an absolutely chilling account of the workings of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman, broadened my knowledge. Yes, the details are sickening, but familiarity with the events of the Holocaust has become so universal that I’m not sure it is ever possible to really imagine the enormity of what happened in Europe in the early 1940s.`
Visiting Poland certainly brought the horror home to me. One day my husband and children went to the Wieliczka salt mines, while I visited Auschwitz. Beforehand, I tried to explain to my eight-year-old daughter why I was not going with them. I only told her the most basic elements, but her face wrinkled up and she told me to stop. That night, frightened by my stories, she was unable to sleep.
The tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, conducted by a guide whose great-grandfather had survived the camps, was haunting. Appalling, gruesome, sickening….there are no words that can do justice to the horrors perpetrated there. The visit is something everyone should experience. It records events that should never be allowed to happen again. And yet humanity does not seem to learn. Since then, ethnic cleansing has been perpetrated in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur, in Myanmar and elsewhere. And the far right has experienced a resurgence across much of Europe.
Most shocking though, was the sense of absence. In Krakow and in Warsaw, both cities with large pre-war Jewish communities – around 60,000 in Krakow and 400,000 in Warsaw, around a quarter and a third of the population, respectively – the loss is palpable. In Krakow, several vestiges of the old Jewish quarter remain – synagogues turned into museums; a cemetery where one wall has been built using fragments of gravestones shattered by the Nazi occupiers; shop fronts adorned with the names of their Jewish former owners. Indeed there is something of a revival of Jewish culture and heritage, with concerts of klezmer music, a Jewish festival and the Israeli ‘Hummus and Happiness Bar’, as well as a museum of photographs documenting the area’s Jewish life and loss.
In Warsaw it is the dearth of remnants of the Jewish community that is so chilling. The Germans razed the city to the ground as they fled the approaching Soviet troops. This makes the tiny fragments that remain all the more shocking: a single street that survived the demolition of the ghetto, pockmarked with bullet holes; a narrow fragment of ghetto wall; a synagogue that miraculously survived – one of over 400 that used to exist in the city; metal strips traversing the pavement at intervals, marking where the wall stood from 1940 until the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, when its inhabitants were herded onto cattle trucks and sent to the death camp at Treblinka.
And, in the sparkling new Jewish museum, exhibits marking hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland come to an end not during the war, but afterwards, when the remaining few Jewish survivors returned to their villages to be welcomed not with sympathy and understanding, but with rampant anti-Semitism and fresh pogroms. The foundation of the state of Israel provided the escape that the remaining Jews needed, and they fled, en masse, in 1948.
Only in recent years have a few Jews begun returning to Poland, to rebuild their lost culture and commemorate those who have been long forgotten. Of course anti-Semitism is still rife among some sections of society, indeed a recent law making it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi war crimes prompted international condemnation. But there is a sense that many are now celebrating and commemorating Poland’s Jewish past, rather than smothering it.
A few years ago, a hoard of songs written by Jewish men, women and children killed in World War II came to light in Kiev. The songs, in Yiddish, are haunting, raw and emotional testimonies by ordinary people experiencing terrible events. They are grassroots accounts of German atrocities against the Jews, with subjects that include the massacres at Babi Yar and elsewhere, wartime experiences of Red Army soldiers, and those of concentration camp victims and survivors.
One song was written by a 10-year old orphan who lost his family in the Tulchin ghetto in Ukraine, another by a teenage prisoner at the Pechora concentration camp in Russia’s far north. The songs convey a range of emotions, from hope and humour to despair, resistance, and revenge.
The project to collect these songs is as remarkable as the music itself. It began when a group of Soviet scholars from the Kiev cabinet for Jewish culture, led by the ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961), made it their mission to preserve Jewish culture in the 1940s. They recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Jews serving in the Red Army during the war; victims and survivors of Ukrainian ghettoes and death camps; and Jews displaced to Central Asia, the Urals and Siberia.
Beregovsky and his colleagues hoped to publish an anthology of the songs. But after the war, the scholars were arrested during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge and their work confiscated. The story could so easily have ended there; indeed the researchers went to their graves assuming their work had been destroyed.
Miraculously the songs survived and were discovered half a century later. They were discovered in unnamed sealed boxes by librarians at Ukraine’s national library in the 1990s and catalogued. Then in the early 2000s Professor Anna Shternshis of the University of Toronto heard about them on a visit to Kiev and brought them to light. Some were typed, but most handwritten, on paper that was fast deteriorating. Most consisted just of lyrics, although some were accompanied by melodies.
The songs were performed for the first time since the 1940s at a concert in Toronto in January 2016, and are shortly to be released by record label Six Degrees. Artist Psoy Korolenko created or adapted music to fit the lyrics, while producer Dan Rosenberg brought together a group of soloists, including vocalist Sophie Milman and Russia’s best known Roma violinist Sergei Eredenko, to create this miraculous recording.
“Yiddish Glory gives voice to Jewish children, women, refugees whose lives were shattered by the horrific violence of World War II. The songs come to us from people whose perspectives are rarely heard in reconstructing history, none of them professional poets or musicians, but all at the centre of the most important historical event of the 20th century, and making sense of it through music,” Shternshis says.
Yiddish Glory: The lost songs of World War II will be released on 23 February.
For more information see: https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddishglory/
Earlier this year, a trove of Jewish documents that was smuggled into the Vilna ghetto in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, during the Nazi occupation came to light. Containing writings by leading figures in Yiddish culture, the collection has been described as the most important Jewish discovery since that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was one of several Jewish social, religious and cultural organisations in Vilnius prior to World War II. It was founded in 1925 to study Jewish life in Eastern Europe and its library contained memoirs, books and folklore gathered by scholars and volunteers.
Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, the Nazis started looking into Jewish material found in the YIVO library. They wanted to preserve material for a museum in Frankfurt, which would explain how the Nazis addressed ‘the Jewish question’ and their reasoning behind the Final Solution.
Several books and documents from the YIVO headquarters had already been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which was using the building as a barracks. A Reich department charged with collecting and preserving Jewish literature hired a group of 40 Jewish scholars from the ghetto to examine the archive. They were ordered to find the most valuable manuscripts, which would be preserved at the proposed Frankfurt museum. They were only allowed to keep 30% of the material, the remainder would be pulped.
But members of this so-called ‘paper brigade’ smuggled books out under their clothing and hid them either inside the ghetto or amongst gentiles elsewhere in the city and managed to save much of the collection. Some members of the brigade were also involved in armed resistance and used the opportunity to sneak weapons into the ghetto.
After the war, Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, hid much of what remained of the material in the basement of a local church to save it from the Soviet authorities. From 1989-1991, some 250,000 pages were discovered in St George’s church. Some of the documents were moved to Lithuania’s national library, while others ended up in the state archive.
But a separate stash wasn’t uncovered until this year, when all the documents and manuscripts were transferred to the national library. In May, an additional 170,000 pages saved by the paper brigade were made available in the library. These are being examined, catalogued and restored by archivists at the library, in collaboration with YIVO, which now has its headquarters in New York. The find is the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, according to David E Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“It’s miraculous that the materials were found, dusty and dirty, but in good condition. Symbolically, everything is stained with blood, but their existence is a testimony to martyrdom,” he says.
The documents shed light on Jewish life and culture before the war and include writings by famous Yiddish cultural figures, including letters by the author Sholem Aleichem (creator of Fiddler on the Roof), a post card from artist Marc Chagall and poems written by the poet Avrom Sutzkever inside the ghetto. The archive also contains letters, hundreds of photographs and testimonies from those who witnessed the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919, during the Russian Civil War – a particular interest of mine.
The Nazis killed 90-95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population, including 34 of the 40 members of the paper brigade. Sutzkever was one of the six who survived. Below is part of a poem he wrote from the ghetto to his brother Moshe, who had fled to Palestine before the war. Sutzkever’s newborn son and mother had both been executed in a nearby forest when he wrote this poem.
“And do not search for my songs,
Or for the remnants of my limbs.
But wherever you are, one and only brother,
Taste a handful of desert sand.
And every single grain,
Will send you greetings from down under,
Where an unredeemed wonder
Binds the well-spring of my lieder.”
I 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.
The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died at the beginning of this month, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, aged 84. Yevtushenko was among the best known of a group of Soviet poets that flourished during Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ of the 1950s and 60s – a period of relative liberalism sandwiched between the brutality of Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev’s more hard-line rule. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1961 poem Babi Yar, whose title refers to the ravine on the edge of Kiev where nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators in 1941. Check out my blog entry of 27 January for more detail about Babi Yar and the Holocaust in Ukraine.
Yevtushenko’s poem recounts episodes of anti-Semitism through history and denounces Russia for failing to condemn the slaughter at Babi Yar and for other anti-Semitic outrages. It was later picked up by Dmitri Shostakovich, who used it in his 13th symphony.
Despite having been expelled from the Soviet Union’s literary institute and other organisations, Yevtushenko had a vast following and recited the poem at huge public rallies, but he was banned from reading it in Ukraine until the 1980s. His fame helped raise awareness of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. More than 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known, and the Soviet narrative of the war is one of sacrifice and heroism to conquer fascism – the siege of Leningrad and the battle for Stalingrad are understandably the key events. But the plight of the Jews was never part of this story.
Ironically, Kiev is marking a separate Holocaust-related event this week, with the opening of a new play entitled The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret. Signs for the performance were erected while Israel was commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day on 24 April and provoked an outcry from Ukraine’s chief Rabbi, Moshe Azman. “This horror (I cannot find another was to describe it) was hung in the centre of Kiev on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the city where Babi Yar is located, opposite the central synagogue!” the Rabbi wrote on social media. The signs were later removed.
The play was written by Jewish Canadian playwright Jonathan Garfinkel and delves into the life of John Demjanjuk, a former guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland during World War II. Demjanjuk was tried in Israel as the bloodthirsty guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka camp and sentenced to death in 1988, but his conviction was quashed. In 2011 he was convicted in Germany for his role at Sobibor, but died before his appeal could be heard.
Garfinkel insists that the play is a satire and denies that it is anti-Semitic.
By Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
Historians and Ukraine’s Jewish community are protesting at a Ukrainian historian speaking at a conference on the Holocaust to be held in Paris this week.
Volodymyr Vyatrovych, director of Ukrainian National Memory Institute, has praised a Nazi collaborator by the name of Roman Shukhevych whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army troops reportedly killed thousands of Jews and ethnic Poles in the 1940s. Vyatrovych is giving a talk at the 9-11 March conference on the Holocaust in Ukraine, subtitled New Perspectives on the Evils of the 20th Century.
Vyatrovych “is a falsifier and manipulator of historical facts who has not only blamed Jews for the Great Famine, but denies the anti-Semitic ideology and practices” of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says.
The two organisations fought during the first half of the 20th century against Soviet domination and briefly collaborated with Nazi occupation forces before turning against them. Today the group’s leaders, as well as other Holocaust-era nationalists are celebrated as heroes in Ukraine for their opposition to Soviet rule.
The conference coincides with the 100th anniversary of Russia’s February Revolution, which paved the way for the start of Soviet rule later in 1917. For around a week from 8 March (23 February in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), mass demonstrations and armed clashes came to a head, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to resign, and heralding the end of Russia’s monarchy.
Here’s how the February Revolution was viewed by Jews in Ukraine at the time, in the voice of my grandmother, Pearl Unikow Cooper:
“It was as if a black cloud had lifted from above our heads. Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government filled the power void left by Tsar Nicholas and represented everything we had ever hoped for[…]. The Pale of Settlement [where Jews were confined to living] was dissolved at a single blow; censorship was abolished, and my grandfather began devouring newspapers and any other source of information that he could find, hungry for news that had not previously been considered fit for public consumption.
“No more Tsar! No more restrictions on Jewish jobs and residence permits! Now we had the same rights as everybody else in the country. I didn’t understand the politics of it all, but I could feel the difference in my daily life. The mood of oppression that had settled since the beginning of the war was suddenly lifted. People smiled, chatted, laughed; they talked about their hopes and dreams, voiced aspirations that they had never dared to speak about before; some even danced in the street.”
Extract from A Forgotten Land
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.
January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to remember the six million Jews, and others, killed by the Nazis and their collaborators in World War II. The Holocaust was a brutal attempt to destroy Eastern European Jewry – to wipe out a race in its entirety.
The testimonials of those who survived are so harrowing that they make very difficult reading. The most shocking that I have come across is Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka. Rajchman was a young Polish Jew, who was arrested in October 1942 and sent to the Treblinka death camp, a place where three quarters of a million Jews were murdered. His sister, who was arrested with him, was sent immediately to the gas chambers. Rajchman was set to work in the camp, sorting the clothes of the dead, carrying corpses and pulling out their teeth. He and a few other men managed to escape during a camp uprising.
The Nazi invasion of 1941 brought the Holocaust to Ukraine. The mass slaughter at Babi Yar is the most widely known event of the massacre of Jews in Ukraine. In just two days at the end of September 1941, nearly 34,000 Jews were shot at a ravine just outside Kiev. A. Anatoli’s ‘documentary novel’ Babi Yar, which was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1969, offers a vivid account of the massacre. Over the course of the Nazi occupation, up to 150,000 people may have been killed at Babi Yar, including prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists and Roma.
Today Babi Yar is a verdant park easily reached by underground train from the centre of Kiev. The land is undulating, with a couple of steepish slopes, but there is little sign of a ravine. It was peaceful when I visited, in May 2005, with groups of young people sitting on the grass enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. A large, rather ugly post-Soviet statue commemorates those who died (see photo). Further away, towards the woods, is second, much smaller memorial, dedicated to the Jews shot at Babi Yar.
In Pavolitch (Pavoloch in Russian), where my family comes from, Jews were herded in trucks or on foot from the neighbouring villages and settlements to the Jewish cemetery just outside the town, where more than 1,300 were shot in 1941. Later, in November 1943, when no Jews remained, dozens of other enemies of the Third Reich were locked into the basement of one of Pavolitch’s synagogues and it was set alight.
Today, we remember them.
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.