My final article of this year is also the last in a series I have written in recent months to honour the memories of those murdered at the ravine of Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine, 80 years ago. This time, I will end on a forward-looking note, discussing a new, thought-provoking piece of music theatre designed to move, challenge and inspire.
In September 1941, the occupying Nazi forces and their Ukrainian collaborators murdered more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar over just two days, beginning on the eve of Yom Kippur. In the following two years of Nazi occupation, Babi Yar became the scene of over 100,000 deaths.
This year a group of three Ukrainian musicians journeyed deep into their shared history, drawing on survivors' testimonies, traditional Yiddish and Ukrainian folk songs, poetry and storytelling to produce a new music theatre performance – Songs for Babyn Yar (to use the Ukrainian name for the killing site). The production weaves languages, harmonies and cultures to reveal the forgotten stories and silenced songs from one of the most devastating periods in Ukraine’s past and questions how we can move forward.
Songs for Babyn Yar features haunting music from Svetlana Kundish, Yuriy Gurzhy and Mariana Sadovska, all originally from Ukraine but now based in Germany. They are ethnically Jewish and Russian Orthodox and between them perform in Ukrainian, Russian, English, German, Yiddish and Hebrew. Artistic director Josephine Burton, from the British cultural charity Dash Arts, has helped, in her words, “to tease out a narrative that will encompass this shared joy in each other, whilst not shrinking away from the darkness and the horrific tragedy at its heart”.
In an interview with the London-based Jewish Chronicle in November, Kundish described the deeply personal link she feels to Babi Yar thanks to a 94-year-old survivor among the congregants of the synagogue in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony - where she serves as the first female cantor - and the close friendship they formed.
When the Nazis occupied Soviet Ukraine in the summer of 1941, 13-year-old Rachil Blankman’s parents sent her away from Kiev to Siberia with a sick aunt, while they stayed behind to wait for Rachil’s missing brother to come home. The family that she left behind in Kiev were murdered at Babi Yar.
The orphaned teenager eventually returned to Kiev and struggled through many years of hunger and of poverty, but eventually gained a university degree and became an engineer. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rachil moved to Germany. “Her whole life story is a statement that despite everything, she found a way not only to survive, but also to live a happy life,” Kundish says.
Rachil represents the “main voice” of Songs for Babyn Yar. “We have excerpts from the story of her life incorporated into the body of the show, so her voice comes in and out at certain moments, and the music is in a dialogue with her memories,” Kundish says.
The willingness in Ukraine today to recognise the atrocities committed at Babi Yar, with major research projects and a new memorial centre underway (which I have written about here) contrasts sharply with the Soviet era, when Jewish memory and culture were all but erased.
The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was banned from reading his 1961 poem Babi Yar (which was later used by the composer Dmitry Shostakovich in his 13th symphony) in Ukraine until the 1980s. And Lithuanian soprano Nechama Lifshitz was barred from performing in Kiev after she sang Shike Driz’ Yiddish Lullaby to Babi Yar at a concert in the city in 1959.
Kundish hopes that Songs for Babyn Yar will reach out to as wide an audience as possible and will be part of an ongoing conversation. “I want [people] to tell their children or grandchildren about it. I want them to keep the memory alive because this is a hard chapter of history and it should not be forgotten. And people who live in Ukraine, especially the young generation, they should know about it…I want it to be broadcast on Ukrainian television. I want people to accidentally push the button and end up on this channel and just listen. That’s what I want.”
Songs for Babyn Yar debuted at JW3 in London on 21 November 2021 and will be performed at Theatre on Podol in Kiev on 7 December. A short extract is available on YouTube.
Until I was asked, a few weeks ago, to lay a wreath of white poppies at this year’s ceremony of remembrance in our local village, I hadn’t been aware of the symbolism of the white poppy. Unlike the red poppy, it commemorates all victims of war, civilian as well as military, in conflicts past and present, anywhere in the world. White poppies also symbolise a commitment to peace and challenge efforts to glamorise or celebrate war.
Victims of war of course include not just those killed during conflict. They include all those who are wounded, bereaved or lose their homes and livelihoods, or live with the daily fear of stray bullets or explosions. They include refugees forced to flee their homes, those who undertake terrible journeys to try to reach a safe haven, who may find themselves held in camps in terrible conditions, locked up in detention centres abroad, or are made to feel unwelcome in the communities where they seek to make a new life. Today’s victims of war include girls in Afghanistan who have been forced to give up their education, all those suffering in war zones in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and many others.
My children laid our homemade wreath of white poppies to honour the memories of two members of our own family in particular. The first is my grandmother’s cousin Moishe (pictured left). He was 16 in the summer of 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union where he lived. With his mother and younger sister, he fled his home town of Kiev just ahead of the advancing German army, heading east and finding refuge in the city of Kokand in Uzbekistan. On arrival, they found the city already overcrowded with evacuees and they lived in dreadful conditions, amid starvation levels of hunger and epidemics of typhus and other diseases.
In 1943 Moishe was called up to a Soviet military academy in Turkmenistan. Then in 1944, he was transferred to the front – to Poland. He died on 16 October 1944, ahead of the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive to liberate Warsaw. He was 18 years old.
But fleeing to Uzbekistan enabled Moishe’s mother and sister to escape almost certain death. Six million Jews like them were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. In much of Soviet Ukraine, the Nazis didn’t force Jews into ghettos and transport them to concentration camps, to the gas chambers, as they did in other parts of Europe. Instead, they rounded up the Jews and forced them to pits on the outskirts of towns and villages. In these pits, hundreds of thousands were shot by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators, in what is now referred to as the Holocaust by Bullets.
But this wasn’t the only means of mass murder that the Nazis used in Ukraine. Our white poppy wreath also honours the memory of another of my grandmother’s cousins, Baya (pictured right). Baya and my Grandma grew up together. They were both orphans and were brought up by their grandparents in a village about 60 miles from Kiev.
When my Grandma and most of her family managed to escape to the West in the 1920s – to Canada – Baya was the only member of the household who chose to stay behind. She was engaged to be married and was studying at university in Kiev. In 1941, when the Nazis invaded, Baya and her husband didn’t flee to the east. They stayed in Kiev, where they were among a group of Jews forced aboard a boat on the Dnieper, the river that cuts through the centre of the city. The boat was set alight. There were no survivors.
I and others in the media have written much in recent weeks about the atrocities committed at Babi Yar, the ravine on the edge of Kiev where Nazis murdered nearly 34,000 Jews in late September 1941. The 80th anniversary of the massacre, and controversy over a new memorial museum to commemorate those who perished, have focused attention on Nazi crimes in Ukraine like never before.
The participation of the local Ukrainian police in mass shootings, including those at Babi Yar, is well known and well documented. The usual perception is that a vast majority of Ukrainians were anti-Semitic and supported the German occupiers in their endeavours.
I recently came across a fascinating paper by Crispin Brooks, curator of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, based on his presentation at a conference for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2013. The Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation was founded by film director Steven Spielberg to preserve on videotape (and later digitise) the first-hand accounts of surviving Holocaust victims – Jews, Roma, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and survivors of Nazi eugenics policies – as well as those of other witnesses, including rescuers, liberators and participants in war crimes trials.
In Ukraine alone, the Shoah Foundation conducted more than 3,400 interviews from 1995 to 1999, while around twice that number took place in the US, Israel and elsewhere with interviewees born in Ukraine.
The overall portrayal of the local Ukrainian police in testimonies is overwhelmingly negative and backs up our knowledge of collaboration by Ukrainians. For example, the following account from Simon Feldman in Boremel, western Rivne region.
On Friday afternoon, that particular day, which was two or three weeks after the invasion, they took my father out and nine other men to the Polish church, kościół …, and they shot all ten of them. And the ones that did the shooting, and the ones that did the arresting, and the ones that carried out these atrocities were not Germans. This was the local Ukrainian police. I’m sure that it was under German orders or with the German sanction.
But testimonies also show that Ukrainian police officers could be lax when guarding Jewish ghettos, and were often bribed. And there are occasional accounts of a member of the local police assisting Jews, including a Ukrainian policeman who was a friend of the interviewee’s father transporting the family on his cart to safety in return for their remaining possessions.
Iulii Rafilovich, a survivor from Bar in Vinnytsia region talked about the role of Ukrainians in the local administration established under German occupation.
The Ukrainians mostly had a narrow outlook. They didn’t get involved—“none of our business.” Many were sympathetic. But there were many beasts―the police in particular—and all these beasts rose to the surface. This was especially true of the intelligentsia. I went to the second school, a Ukrainian school. My class teacher Kulevepryk … became the head of the uprava. The history teacher became the editor of the fascist newspaper, Bars’ki visti. Zinaida Ivanovna, the Ukrainian language teacher, became some big shot. And, of course, they treated the Jews terribly.
Another testimony describes how after the Jews were massacred in Tomashpil, Vinnytsia region, the head of the Ukrainian community ordered Jewish houses to be demolished for firewood. And yet he hired a surviving Jewish woman to cook for him, thus protecting her.
She was just one of many Jews to find protection among Ukrainians. Perhaps surprisingly, given our common knowledge of anti-Semitism in Ukraine both historically and in the present day, the Shoah Foundation conducted 413 interviews with rescuers in Ukraine, more than in any other country. Many survivors talked about being hidden by Ukrainians, and in some instances a single person may have been helped by several different individuals or families on differing occasions. Motivations for offering help were many and varied. For some, it was simply an opportunity for financial gain, while others acted out of humanity or, most commonly, religious conviction.
Lidiia Pavlovskaia, a Baptist, recalled her family and neighbours hiding Jews in Boiarka, Rivne region.
My father had always taught us and himself believed that Jews were God’s people. And we as evangelical Christians were God’s people, too. So the people who came were like brothers to us. Thus, we had to hide our brothers. We were all in danger of capital punishment, because they would kill all of us [had they found the Jews]. My father, though, believed God would protect us.
Perhaps the best known protector of Jews in Ukraine was Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytskiy, Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, the only church leader in Nazi-occupied Europe to speak openly in defence of persecuted Jews. Sheptytskiy instructed his clergy to help the Jews by hiding them on church property, offering them food, and smuggling them out of the country. He succeeded in harbouring more than 100 Jews and, unsurprisingly, features in several of the testimonies.
Kurt Lewin’s father was Lviv’s chief rabbi and knew Sheptytskiy before the war, which helped him find shelter in various monasteries. Lewin recalled:
- Some [monks] were [antisemitic] … They didn’t like Jews.
- Did they know you were Jewish?
- Were you ever betrayed, or did you think you would ever be betrayed?
- No … no. You see, the fact they liked or disliked Jews had nothing to do [with it]. They resented the fact Jews were being killed. They resented the bestiality, and they tried to help. Because they felt, within their limited circumstances, they couldn’t in their conscience sit quiet on the sidelines. Some objected to having Jews in the monastery, quite openly … They said so. They said the community was being endangered. But they never betrayed a Jew, you see, never interfered with it.
A full copy of the paper can be found here: https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20130500-holocaust-in-ukraine.pdf
I wrote last month about Babi Yar, the biggest mass shooting perpetrated by the Nazis in the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the massacre on 29-30 September. Last week a ceremony led by presidents Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Isaac Herzog of Israel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany marked the event. On the same day, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center revealed for the first time the names of dozens of the perpetrators of the crimes committed there and some of their testimonies.
On 29-30 September 1941, Nazis and their collaborators murdered tens of thousands of Jews at the Babi Yar ravine on the edge of Kiev. Although this was one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust, it went largely ignored for decades – covered up by the Soviet authorities and overshadowed by the atrocities in the concentration camps, which were often better documented. Throughout the remaining years of World War II, up to 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar.
The Memorial Center is working on a project to name all the victims of the atrocity, and has so far managed to recover and verify 20,000 previously unknown names. Alongside this project is another objective, to identify all those who participated in the massacre. Hundreds of German soldiers, policemen and SS personnel were complicit in the massacre, it says.
The Center on 8 October released names of 159 Nazis who participated in the killings, many of whom had testified at trial but were found not guilty. The majority returned to lead normal lives after the war.
“Some were shooters, others extracted the Jews from their homes, others took their belongings, or served sandwiches and tea to the shooters. All of them are guilty,” war crimes investigator and head of the Center’s academic council Father Patrick Desbois says.
Very few of the names were already widely known. Among those who were is August Häfner, a 29-year-old Sonderkommando SS storm trooper who commanded the two first days of mass executions. Let’s just reflect on him for a moment. A man of just 29 gave the orders and watched as nearly 34,000 people – mostly Jews, but also including Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war – were shot with their bodies stacked in a gigantic pit.
Häfner described his unit’s participation in the executions at a 1967 court hearing. “The SS troops had a section of approximately 30 meters in length. [Senior SS commander Bernhard] Grafhorst told me that the Jews should lie down close to each other. About 4-6 Jews lay down next to each other. So, they lay down until the entire bottom was filled. Then the same thing started again. Others had to lie on top of the already dead Jews. Within two days, 6-7 layers could have formed,” he testified.
Viktor Trill (pictured) was born in Czechoslovakia and began working for the Gestapo shortly after his hometown was occupied by the Nazis. He took part in the second day of the massacre and was acquitted in 1967 over lack of “base motive” for his participation, according to the Memorial Center.
“It is possible that on this day I shot between around 150 and 250 Jews. The whole shooting went off without incident. The Jews were resigned to their fate like lambs,” he told the court hearing. “After we got out, first we were issued with alcohol. It was grog or rum. I then saw a gigantic ditch [ravine] that looked like a dried-out river bed. In it were lying several layers of corpses. The execution began first by a few members of our Kommando going down into the ravine. At the same time about 20 Jews were brought along from a connecting path. The Jews had to lay down on the corpses and were then shot in the back of the neck. More Jews were continually brought to be shot,” his testimony continued.
Other names released to the public for the first time include those of Anton Hübner, 33, born in Reichenberg, Hans Hüttl, 36, from Königsberg, and another shooter Kurt Knigge, 43, born in Braunschweig.
The last living veteran of Einsatzgruppe C, the SS death squad in charge of the Babi Yar massacre, is Herbert Wahler. He lives in an unassuming home on a residential street in the picturesque German town of Melsungen. Now aged 99, Wahler has admitted to being present at the massacre but denies taking part in the killings, saying he was serving as a medic. He has never faced trial for his involvement in the Holocaust.
In 2014, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center sent the German government documents that listed Herbert Wahler as a member of Einsatzgruppe C. The public prosecution office in the German city of Kassel opened an investigation into Wahler in 2017 but closed it in April 2020, claiming there was not enough evidence to bring charges against him. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre branded the failure to put him on a trial a “disgrace”.
You can read my previous article about Babi Yar here
This month marks the 80th anniversary of the worst of the Nazis’ multitude of atrocities on Ukrainian soil, the massacre at Babi Yar on 29-30 September 1941, which began on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The Babi Yar tragedy was largest open-air massacre during the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, when 33,771 people – according to meticulous record-keeping by the SS – mostly women, children and the elderly, were shot. In the months that followed, tens of thousands more people were murdered at Babi Yar, the overwhelming majority Jews, but also Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war.
The killing came to a halt in 1943, with the Germans in retreat from the Soviet territory they had occupied. Berlin ordered that mass execution sites be excavated so the corpses could be burned, fearing that the Soviet Union would use them as evidence for propaganda purposes.
Until its collapse in the 1990s, the Soviet Union suppressed memory of the Jewish genocide that had taken place on its soil. National policy was to erase differences among the victims of Nazism. This included ‘erasing’ the ravine itself by filling it with industrial waste and making way for what exists at the site today – a wide street lined on one side with apartment blocks, and a grassy park on the other, where children play and lovers meet.
“Babi Yar is a symbol of the Soviet Union’s efforts to physically erase memory. They took the most tragic part of our history and tried to make it disappear. Thanks to an independent Ukraine, the policy was fully changed towards the memory of the Holocaust,” human rights activist and chairman of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Natan Sharansky, said last year at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the massacre.
The Memorial Center, established in 2016 to build a major new Holocaust museum in Kiev, is due to open its doors in 2026 but has already been the subject of considerable controversy. The disagreements stem largely from the appointment of the contentious Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director and his plans for a virtual reality installation, deemed inappropriate by many and dubbed a “Holocaust Disneyland” by one former curator when he quit the project. Objections have also been raised about the role of some of the Center’s Russian Jewish billionaire funders and its location in the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery.
But a number of research projects developed by the Center have yielded fascinating results. Last year a 3D model of the massacre site was created, led by former Scotland Yard investigator Martin Dean, who specialises in Nazi war crimes. By combining ground and aerial photography, maps, historical reports and witness testimonies, Dean was able to build an overall picture of a mass grave about 150 metres long, in which corpses were stacked in layers like sardines, and to pinpoint for the first time in three-quarters of a century exactly where it was located.
Another recent research initiative is the Names Project, which has uncovered the identities of more than 900 of the victims of Babi Yar, whose fates had previously been unknown. Estimates of the total death toll at Babi Yar in 1941-43 range from 70,000 to 100,000. Apart from details of the September massacre, records of those killed were sporadic. The Names Project is attempting to collect data on all those murdered at Babi Yar and the researchers hope eventually to have a web page for each identified victim, complete with details of their life story and a picture.
In partnership with the Memorial Center, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa released a film this year to coincide with the 80th anniversary. Babi Yar.Context – a series of short documentaries – premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July. Loznitsa was born close to Babi Yar but grew up in ignorance of what had happened there.
His film is based on archival material using footage from the period, including newsreels, court trials and amateur films by German soldiers. It begins with Germany’s invasion of Ukraine in 1941 and concludes in March 1961 with the little-known Kurenivka mudslide – a disaster that resulted from the Soviet authorities’ attempts to erase memory of Babi Yar by filling the ravine with industrial waste. A decade later, heavy rain caused a dam securing a brick pulp dump to collapse, triggering a mudslide that released up to four metres of mud, water and human remains onto the streets. A recent report estimates that 1,500 people may have died as a result.
The Soviet Union was not an easy place to live after World War II, and especially for Jews. Those who managed to survive the war by fleeing to Central Asia or the Urals and returned after the German retreat found their homes destroyed, their towns devastated, and their Jewish neighbours slaughtered.
In Kiev, then in Soviet Ukraine, where several members of my family lived, nearly 34,000 Jews had been shot at the ravine known as Babi Yar on the edge of the city on 29-30 September 1941. But this was far from the only anti-Semitic atrocity committed by the Nazis in the city. My grandmother’s first cousin Baya was among a group of Jews herded to the banks of the river Dnieper and forced aboard a ship that was set alight. There were no survivors.
And few rural Jews from the villages formerly known as shtetls survived the war either. In Pavoloch, my grandmother’s home town, on 5 September 1941 up to 1,500 Jews were shot beside a mass grave dug in the Jewish cemetery. The victims came from many outlying villages as well as Pavoloch, herded to the town for slaughter. The terrible event has become known as the Pavoloch Massacre and even featured in last year’s Amazon Prime series Hunters, which I found myself unable to watch.
Several hundred thousand Jews fled to the eastern republics of the Soviet Union in 1941 as the Nazis approached. You can read some of their stories here. Many never went back to the towns they had left, unable to contemplate returning to places where such terrible devastation had taken place. Most, inevitably, would have lost family members or friends to the Nazis. It is hardly a surprise that a great number emigrated to Israel or the United States as soon as the possibility arose, while some remained in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, or elsewhere.
But thousands of Jews did return to their homes in towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. In my last article I wrote about my grandmother’s aunt Miriam (Mira) and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka), who made it back from Central Asia to Kiev in December 1943. Mira’s son Moishe (Musenka) had been called up earlier the same year to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and did not come home with them.
To continue their story, in 1944, Musenka was transferred to the front – to Poland. In preparation for his departure, he was moved to an army camp on the outskirts of Kiev, where his mother and sister were able to visit him. Later, from Poland, Musenka wrote that his regiment was preparing for a major offensive in Warsaw. He died on 16 October 1944, ahead of the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive to liberate the Polish capital. He was 18 years old.
It was his sister Sulochka, rather than his mother Mira, who received the death notice sent by the Soviet military authorities. Sulochka was 13 and had become something of a tearaway – a fiercely independent girl who skipped lessons and swiped pastries from vendors at the old Jewish market. She hid the letter from her mother, knowing how deeply it would upset her.
But Musenka had been a loyal son and always kept in touch regularly with his family. Mira descended into a panic after his letters stopped. She contacted the military authorities searching for information, but when a second copy of the death notice arrived, once again it was Sulochka who intercepted it.
Mira wanted to die. She felt she couldn’t live without her precious only son and couldn’t bear not knowing what had happened to him. She returned to the ruins of her pre-war home in the hope that bricks from the half-demolished building would fall and kill her. She more or less ignored her living daughter, Sulochka, amid the pain she felt over her missing son. Her husband Yehuda – exiled to a labour camp near Krasnoyarsk – even wrote a letter to the war commissar Klim Voroshilov with a plea for help in finding any trace of Musenka.
Many families waited years, decades even, for their menfolk to return from the war. Some were lucky; many were not. As time passed, the small glimmer of hope that her son was still alive and would one day come home gave Mira the strength to go on living. It was not until 1964, twenty years after Musenka’s death, and after Yehuda – finally liberated from the gulag – had also passed away, that Sulochka confessed to her mother that she had hidden the letters from the military authorities informing them that her brother had died in action.
In the end, knowing the truth at last helped ease Mira’s distress. For all those years she had tormented herself with the thought that Musenka might have fallen into the hands of the Banderovtsy – the anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who allied with the Nazis and collaborated in the near-total destruction of Jewish life in Ukraine. The torture they inflicted on captured Red Army soldiers was notorious, and all the more so for those of Jewish descent.
Mira spent her post-war years enveloped in grief over the loss of her beautiful boy – and yes, photographs testify that he was indeed beautiful. Her love for her daughter remained in the background; it clearly existed, but was rarely overtly demonstrated. Mira could be a stubborn and awkward character and she and Sulochka were often at loggerheads. But Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was 14 when Mira died in 1966, remembers her with warmth and affection.
This story will be continued in my next article.
Soviet Jews that survived World War II by fleeing eastwards found a tough life waiting for them on their return home to towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. I wrote recently about the experiences of several Jewish families as refugees in Central Asia during the war, including my great-grandfather’s sister, Miriam (Mira) – you can read that article here. Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was born in Kiev after the war and lived there until the 1990s, has shared with me her family stories of life back in that city after the return from Central Asia.
The family had lived before the war in the centre of Kiev, at 37 Pushkinskaya Street in a communal apartment – one room for each family, with shared cooking and washing facilities, as was typical of Soviet life during the era of Stalin and Khrushchev. Sometimes a family occupied just a section of a room, partitioned off with a curtain.
On their return from Central Asia after the Nazi retreat in late 1943, Mira and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka) – Ira’s grandmother and mother – made their way from the station on foot – no public transport was running – through the ruins of the devastated city, to find out what had become of their home. They found the four walls still standing, but nothing more.
The building was restored after the war and exists to this day. “Whenever I go back to Kiev, I always wander around the courtyard and look up at the balcony, as if I’m looking for my mother as a little girl,” Ira says. A quick Google search shows an attractive four-story building on a tree-lined street, next door to a “hip Israeli eatery” called Pita Kyiv and just down the road from the Estonian embassy.
As Ira’s mother and grandmother stood weeping before their ruined home, a figure approached them – a woman they had been acquainted with before the war. Knowing what had happened to the Jews of Kiev at the end of September 1941, when 34,000 were shot at the ravine of Babi Yar on the edge of the city, the woman took pity on Mira and Sulochka. She led them back to her basement flat on Saksaganskaya Street, a mile or so away, and invited them to stay. There Mira recognised many of her own possessions and those of her neighbours, stolen when they had departed in haste during the evacuation of the city. Mira said nothing. She was grateful simply to have a roof over her head.
Every day Mira returned to her building on Pushkinskaya in the hope of meeting the postman, desperate for news from her son Moishe (Musenka) in the army, and her husband Yehuda in the gulag. And she petitioned the authorities for a place to live for herself and her daughter. For once she was lucky, and was assigned a room in a communal apartment, but at the expense of another family, who were forced onto the street.
The dispossessed family rushed at Mira and beat her in anger and despair at losing their home. With so much of the city destroyed and more evacuees returning by the day, the authorities would juggle the accommodation that was still standing, taking shelter from one family to give to another; a lottery of relief or desolation.
The room was ten metres square, with no running water or sewerage. Later it became smaller still, with three meters reapportioned to create a corridor where a cooker was installed. But it was a roof over their heads and it was precious. In this room, nearly a decade later, Ira was born.
How Mira found the means to live during this period, Ira doesn’t know. But she suspects it was Mira’s brother, Uncle Avrom, who came to their rescue, as he had during the evacuation of Kiev, finding transport for them and a place to live. Sulochka also told Ira about her cousin Beba. Ira says Beba’s real name was Volf. According to the family tree my grandmother and father drew up he was called Velvl, while his grandson – who now lives in Germany – refers to him as Vladimir. Such are the complications of Jewish genealogy!
Cousin Beba was the only relative that did not turn against Mira when she became the wife of an Enemy of the People, after her husband was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulag. One day Beba visited and saw that Sulochka had grown out of all her warm clothes, and in the dead of winter. He went to the crowded flea market where people bought and sold new and second-hand goods and found her a pair of warm boots.
Mira continued to go back to the family’s old home on Pushkinskaya in the hope of seeing the postman and finding a letter from her son or husband. In 1944, Musenka wrote that he was being transferred to the front – to Poland – and that before his departure he would be based at a large camp on the outskirts of Kiev, by the Darnitsia train station across the river Dnieper. Mira and Sulochka were able to visit him there. Musenka was 18 years old and this was the last time his mother and sister ever set eyes on him.
This story will be continued in my next article.
The terrible numbers are known to us all: six million Jews died during World War II. Pitifully few of those living in Nazi-occupied Europe survived. But there was one large group of European Jews that did live to see the end of the war.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, around a million Soviet Jews – including up to 400,000 from the territories of Eastern Poland recently annexed by the Soviet Union – were either evacuated by the Soviet authorities or managed to escape on their own to the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, enabling them to escape almost certain death. Those who made the journey constituted the largest group of European Jews to survive World War II, and many later emigrated to Israel or elsewhere.
Conditions during evacuation were harsh, with cramped, overcrowded living quarters and terrible poverty, while disease was rife. Many succumbed to epidemics including typhus, dysentery and cholera, others to crime and despair. Some were arrested and thousands were deported to remote internal frontiers as “class aliens”. According to some estimates, as many as 300,000 of these deportees perished as a result of disease or starvation.
The majority of the of evacuees arrived in 1941-1942 in Central Asia – the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – and the region of the Urals mountains. The Uzbek capital Tashkent was one of the main refugee centres, and many passed through the city before moving on to other towns and villages, while some wound up working on collective farms.
Published first-hand accounts of the experiences of evacuees are rare. Until recently, I knew that members of my own family had escaped from Kiev to Central Asia during the war years but had never heard stories of their experience there. My cousin Irina, who was born in Kiev in 1952 and lived there until the 1990s, has filled me in on some of her mother’s and grandmother’s recollections of their wartime experiences in Kokand, Uzbekistan.
The authorities organised mass evacuations of Soviet citizens, particularly the cultural, technocratic, and educational elite, as well as entire industrial plants, away from the advancing front. The Soviet government and leading institutes were transferred to Kuibyshev, now Samara, some thousand miles southwest of Moscow.
But Irina’s grandfather had been arrested in 1938 as an ‘enemy of the people’ and sent to the gulag. The Soviet authorities had no interest in helping his wife Mira (known to me as Miriam) and two children, Musenka (Moishe) and Sulamia (Sveta), escape to safety, so they had to make their own way. They owe their survival to Mira’s brother Avram – a respected doctor and the youngest sibling of my great-grandfather Meyer.
Avram secured places for them on a cart with his wife’s brother, travelling east from Kiev to the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine, and from there they were able to board a train bound for Kokand. They were robbed during the journey, and all their warm clothes stolen.
Once settled in Kokand, Avram managed to find a job in the hospital for his sister. Sulamia went to school and 16-year-old Musenka to a further education college. They lived on a thin gruel of flour and water that Mira was able to bring home from work, and Musenka received a white bread roll at college each day, which he gave to Sulamia, who was suffering from typhus. One day during Sulamia’s illness, when she was alone in the family’s lodgings, a burglar broke in. He left again empty handed: the family was so poor that they had nothing to steal. In 1943, Musenka was called up, first to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and then to fight. He was later killed in action in Poland.
Mira and Sulamia returned to Ukraine after the liberation, together with Avram, first to Kharkov and finally back to Kiev, in defiance of the authorities, which had refused them permission to return to the city.
However grim Mira and her family’s experience, they were some of the lucky ones. Avram’s assistance in finding transport and work for Mira saved them a worse fate. Accounts of the lives of Jewish evacuees in Central Asia are few and far between, so it is impossible to generalise about their experience. But it is known that many congregated for days or weeks in and around train stations, sometimes forced to keep moving when they could find no place to shelter, with the area already overwhelmed by the mass evacuations. Some were able to find work, but many did not. Jobs were often temporary and a large proportion of mostly men worked in the black market.
The largely Muslim Central Asian population was undergoing its own difficult and ambivalent process of Sovietisation, and was understandably bewildered by, and often resentful and suspicious of, the sudden influx of “western” evacuees. In spite of this, the local population could also be astonishingly generous given their own poverty and deprivation, sharing their food and inviting the newcomers to join their wedding celebrations.
Retired journalist and genealogist Bert Shanas, who has kindly shared his research with me, has unearthed several stories of members of his family evacuated to Central Asia from Ukraine during the war years.
Rochel Chasina and her mother fled Zhitomir for Kazakhstan. Before they had even got as far as Kiev, their train was requisitioned by the Soviet army, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Finally, they reached Kharkov, where they spent a month in a refugee camp, before fleeing again when the Germans drew nearer, this time to a small village near Stalingrad. “The trains were crowded; everybody was trying to flee the approaching Germans, and in those days when you got on a refugee train, you never knew for sure what your destination was. You only knew that the general direction was east,” Rochel recalled.
As the front drew closer, she and her mother spent more than two weeks sleeping on a bench at the station. "You had to be at the station all the time because you never knew when a train that could mean your escape would arrive.” A freight train took them to Uralsk, in western Kazakhstan, where they shared a room with two other families. “We had been wearing our shoes for protection for the entire month of the train trip. So when we took them off in the room, patches of our skin and flesh came off with the shoes because everything had been frozen together,” she remembered.
Rochel looked for a job, but owning only summer shoes, she was unable to work in winter when the ground was covered in snow. She and her mother both overcame serious illness and finally, a cousin found her a job at a military hospital in Novosibirsk, Siberia, about 1,200 miles to the northeast. There they were able to join other family members, living eight to a room. In 1946, they began a perilous three-year journey that would take them from Russia through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and France, and finally to Israel.
Another of Bert Shanas’ relatives, Rosa Zaydenberg, fled from Kiev to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, a journey that took around four months under constant attack from German bombers. Once she finally arrived, Rosa had no warm clothes and no place to stay. She tried to sleep on a bench at the train station, but was chased away and ended up sleeping in a public phone box. She soon found work in a factory and in 1942 was able to bring other family members who were surviving in dreadful conditions in Fergana, Uzbekistan, to join her in Alma-Ata. She rented “one corner of one room” for the three of them, paying rent in the form of food for the landlord’s dog, which she scrounged from the factory where she worked. The family returned to Kiev in the summer of 1945.
Another Shanas relative, Faina Sheynise, went on hunger strike to persuade her stubborn father to leave Kiev when the occupation began. He had refused to depart, insisting that praying daily at the synagogue would keep him safe. At last, he agreed to flee and the family reached the chaos of Kiev’s train station shortly before the Germans arrived. They boarded a train heading to Kubah, in the Caucasus mountains, and as the invading army continued to approach, moved on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and finally to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, close to the Chinese border. There Faina worked as a seamstress and took a job in a food store. Much of her family got separated during the war, with one sibling in Moscow and two others in Siberia. Faina had no desire to return to Kiev after the war. “Not after Babi Yar, where they killed so many thousands of Jews,” she said. “I just couldn’t go back there,” she recalled. She remained in Osh until 1991, when she emigrated to the US.
Faina’s niece, Ida Rosentsvaig, was a baby when the war broke out. She and her family managed to get on an already packed train heading to Siberia, where they spent most of the war in the town of Anzhero-Sudzhensk. Later, they were able to join Faina in Osh. “I remember how warm Osh felt after Siberia and all that snow, and suddenly we had enough food!” she recalled. But Ida’s mother became sick and spent two years in hospital from 1946-1948. Ida was left to fend for herself, while her brother – treated as an orphan – was adopted for a time by a local childless family. Eventually the children’s mother recovered and the family settled in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
The story of the Jewish shtetl is well known. These once vibrant communities that were so widespread across Eastern Europe until the 20th century were destroyed, first by pogroms and resulting waves of emigration, and later by the anti-religion policies of the Soviet Union, with their final remnants wiped off the face of the earth by the Holocaust.
But not so, it seems. A new documentary from the Russian filmmaker Katya Ustinova explores the existence of shtetls in Ukraine and Moldova right up until the 1970s and even beyond. Shtetlers premiered last year and was available to view during Russian Film Week USA in January. Unfortunately, is not yet available in Europe, so I am still awaiting an opportunity to watch it.
As the film’s website says, “In those small and remote towns of the Soviet interior, hidden from the world outside of the Iron Curtain, the traditional Jewish life continued for decades after it disappeared everywhere else. The tight-knit communities supported themselves by providing goods and services to their non-Jewish neighbours. The ancient religion, Yiddish language and folklore, ritualised cooking and elaborate craftsmanship were practised, treasured and passed through the generations until very recently.”
Ustinova is a Russian-born documentary maker living in New York who previously worked as a producer, host and reporter for a Russian broadcasting company in Moscow. Shtetlers is her first feature-length film. Ustinova’s grandfather was a Jewish playwright, but her family did not identify as Jewish until her father, a businessman and art collector, founded the Moscow-based Museum of Jewish History in Russia in 2012.
On discovering modern artifacts from shtetls in the former Soviet Union, Ustinova and her father came to realise that some Jewish communities had continued to exist for far longer than they had thought.
Shtetlers tells the stories of Jews in these forgotten shtetls by means of nine first-hand accounts of people who lived in them. In 2015, Ustinova visited several former shtetl residents, who have since scattered around the world.
Many of the stories in Shtetlers help break down the myth that only enmity existed between Ukrainians and Jews. Without distracting from the fact that many Ukrainians committed atrocities against the Jewish population before and after – as well as during – the war, the film reminds us of those gentiles who loved and cared for their Jewish friends and neighbours.
Meet Vladimir. He was not born Jewish, but converted after his mother – who is honoured at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre – sheltered dozens of Jews during the war. Growing up among Jewish neighbours, their culture imbued itself into gentile homes, and he remembers his mother baking challah during his childhood. Vladimir emigrated to Israel and now lives in the West Bank as part of an Orthodox Jewish family.
And Volodya and Nadya, Ukrainian farm workers still resident in a former shtetl in Ukraine, who remembered their Jewish neighbours so fondly that they decided to adopt Jewish customs, like making matzo brei and kissing the mezuzah attached to the doorway of their house – which once belonged to Jews – when they enter.
Emily, a Jewish shtetler who survived the war, escaped from a concentration camp and was saved by a gentile friend – the sister of a Ukrainian police chief – who brought her family food while they were in hiding. And then there’s the queue of Russian Orthodox Christians coming to Rabbi Noah Kafmansky to solve their problems and obtain his blessing, because “the Jewish God helps better”.
In the five years since Ustinova filmed Shtetlers, many of the people she met have passed away. “Their memories are a farewell to the vanished world of the shtetl, a melting pot of cultures that many nations once called their home,” the website says.
The trailer is available on the Shtetlers website: shtetlers.com/
And numerous extracts from the film, as well as some gorgeous animated clips, can be found on the Shtetlers Instagram page: www.instagram.com/shtetlers/
When I first began writing my grandmother’s story and turning her recollections into what would eventually become a book, the title I originally had in mind was The Breadbasket. To me, this encompassed much what the people and places in the book were about. Ukraine was known as the Breadbasket of Europe because of its huge grain production.
My great-great-grandfather Berl was a grain trader. And bread, or lack of it, played a big role in the family story, from the mill my family owned in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th, to the prosperity Berl built through his thriving business, to his wife Pessy’s ability to make a ball of dough dance as she kneaded and shaped it in mid-air, and the challah on the Sabbath table.
And later, there were the Bolshevik grain requisitions, the great hunger that followed the revolution when there was no bread to be had and my grandmother travelled the land with a basket on her back, bartering food to keep her family alive.
But a literary editor who guided my early manuscript advised me to ditch the title. You need something more evocative and compelling, he said. Several weeks later, I finally settled on A Forgotten Land. This was a success and I was pleased with the change. The new title evoked the terrible loss suffered by towns and villages across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, along with the people who lived there and their way of life.
In the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, pogroms, war, famine, disease and emigration had torn Jewish families apart from the 1880s onward and seared the heart out of Jewish communities. The Nazis, of course, would do the rest, not just there but across Europe. The Pale did indeed become a forgotten land, a network of once vibrant communities whose people had all emigrated or died.
Three-quarters of a century on from the Holocaust, many people are working hard to bring to light the remnants of the deserted shtetls, to remind us of these communities that have been forgotten for so long. I will highlight just two projects, but please feel free to add others to the comments at the end of this article.
The first is a blog called Vanished World, which documents Cologne-based photographer and writer Christian Herrmann’s travels around Eastern Europe and elsewhere in search of visual traces of the Jews who once lived there - destroyed or misappropriated synagogues, overgrown cemeteries, tombstones in the street paving, traces of home blessings on door jambs.
“Neglected Jewish cemeteries, ruins of synagogues and other remains of Jewish institutions [are like] stranded ships at the shores of time. The traces of Jewish life are still there, but they vanish day by day. It’s only a matter of time until they are gone forever,” he says. His articles and photographs are both a commemoration and an act of justice towards the men, women and children who died as innocent victims in the Holocaust, and an act of justice to those who survived as well.
Christian’s photographs are beautiful and his commentaries on his travels tell a repeated and all-too- depressing tale of crumbling synagogues that were later used as museums, offices or factories during the Soviet era, fragments of tombstones incorporated into buildings or unearthed during construction works, and long-forgotten Jewish cemeteries that are now parks or wastelands.
Another project is taking place in Ukraine, where Vitali Buryak, a software engineer from Kiev, has taken on the immense task of attempting to catalogue hundreds of shtetls. He began by creating lists of every settlement with a historical Jewish population of more than 1,000 for each gubernia (province) in central and eastern Ukraine. “My plan is very simple – to write at least a small article for each place on my list,” he says. His articles include old photographs and maps, archival documents, historical references and information about local families as well as numerous photographs of his own.
Vitali only recently learnt of his own Jewish roots, and decided to offer his services as a tour guide for Jewish visitors from abroad. One of his early tours brought him to the town of Priluki. “Priluki is the place where I was born, and my grandma is still living there. I contacted the head of the local Jewish community and he showed me places that I didn’t know about before! In my city, where I was born! My grandma didn’t show me the synagogues, she didn’t show me Jewish cemetery, she didn’t show me the Holocaust killing sites, or the sites of the ghetto. I’ve walked on this street, I’ve seen this building before. But I didn’t know it was a synagogue. And it was a shock for me,” he recounts.
“I decided to make this website in dedication to the Jews of Ukraine. The purpose of it is the gathering of information and resources from the remaining Jewish communities in Ukraine, as well as the ones that have been destroyed” Vitali says.
Vitali’s website can be found here http://jewua.org/
And the Vanished World blog can be found here https://vanishedworld.blog/
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. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.