Ukrainian director Oles Yanchuk’s latest film, Secret Diary of Symon Petliura, was released earlier this year. I believe it released only in Ukrainian, but am hoping a version with English subtitles will become available.
Yanchuk is known for making films that are both historical and political. His other works treat subjects such as the 1930s famine in Ukraine – widely regarded as a preventable disaster forced on the region by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – in his 1991 film Famine 33; while his 1995 work Assassination deals with the killing of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in 1959.
All his films address subjects that were off limits during the Soviet era and have often spawned controversy. The latest is no different. Posters for the film displayed outside a cinema in Zaporizhia were splattered with red paint in September, and leaflets distributed with the words “Petliura – Persecutor of Jewish People”.
Petliura led the Ukrainian National Republic during Ukraine's short-lived sovereignty in 1918–1921, and was commander of the Ukrainian Army, leading the struggle for independence following the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.
Secret Diary of Symon Petliura is based on entries in a fictional diary featuring key events leading up to Petliura’s exile in France from 1924. It also features a number of clips in black and white that were filmed in Ukraine in 1919. The main event of the film is the trial of Sholem Schwartzbard, a Jewish watchmaker who assassinated Petliura in Paris in 1926 because of his involvement in anti-Semitic pogroms at the time of the Russian Civil War in 1918-21. The accused was pronounced not guilty on the basis of Petliura’s role in respect of the attacks on Jews.
Much later, in the 1950s, a KGB agent who had defected to the US claimed that Schwartzbard had been an agent of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD – a precursor to the KGB.
Petliura is still a controversial figure. For Ukrainians he is a national martyr who fought against Poles, Bolsheviks, Russia’s White Army and Anarchists during the mayhem that constituted the Civil War in Ukraine.
For Jews, he was the Ukrainian leader, whose army committed terrible anti-Semitic violence. It is widely understood that Petliura himself was not an anti-Semite. Indeed he signed an order dated August 1919 that “All those who will be inciting you to carry out pogroms be expelled from our army and tried as traitors of the Motherland”.
But he manifestly failed to prevent his troops from carrying out pogroms and appeared to have pulled back from his threats to punish officers and soldiers engaged in crimes against the Jews for fear of losing their support.
This account of Petliura, published in the Yiddish language Der Morgen Zshurnal in 1926, gives a glimpse of the commonly held view.
“In the primitive Jewish folk consciousness a very definite idea of the just recently assassinated Petliura has formed. Under this name the people imagine a terrible, wild rider on a white horse, with blood-filled eyes, a thick Cossack moustache and an unhuman cruel face, who rides into a Jewish village at the head of bloodied pogromchiks and slaughters every Jew that comes in his way with animal delight”.
And here’s how I described Petliura’s army in my book A Forgotten Land:
“A rogue by the name of Petliura had been released from prison and was regrouping the Ukrainian nationalists. One of his first actions was to order railway stations to be attacked so that he could grab the weapons of the evacuating German soldiers, which were more sophisticated and in better condition that then guns and grenades that his own men had stowed away in chicken sheds and stables across the land. He and his banda didn’t only steal weaponry, they took clothes, money, munitions, trucks, carts and horses, anything that would help them seize Kiev and the government of the land for themselves.
“Thieving was a way of life to them and in the towns and villages Petliura’s men passed through they stole first and foremost from the Jews. All across the land, the experience was the same. They didn’t knock at the door, but hammered and kicked, giving an indication of what to expect. Once I was alone in my father’s cottage when the Petliurists came. I hid in the wardrobe upstairs rather than answer the door, my heart pounding. First they tried kicking it down, then they shot bullets at the hinges so that the door collapsed. They walked in and dropped cigarettes on the floor, grinding the stubs with the heel of their boots, crushing shreds of paper and tobacco into the earth floor that I spent hours sweeping and watering so that it looked like polished tiles. Seeing that there was nothing for them, they soon walked out, and I could hear them hammering on the neighbours’ doors, shooting other people’s door hinges and shouting ‘You filthy yids!’ as they pushed occupants aside and took all they could find: food, clothing, silver and especially money.”
My blog has taken a back seat in recent weeks over the children's long summer holiday. Catching up on the newspapers once they returned to school this week, I came across this article on Jewish life in Ukraine that recently appeared in the Jerusalem Post. Much of it based on interviews the author conducted recently in Kiev and elsewhere with Jews displaced by the war in the east of the country. I found this piece fascinating and worth reproducing almost in full. As it’s very long, I will post in instalments. Here is the first of three:
Ukraine is a territory saturated in Jewish memory – memory both tragic and sublime. In every field of endeavour – religious thought, Zionist and socialist politics, art, music, military affairs, science – Jews have excelled.
It is the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, who grew up near Kameniec in what is now western Ukraine; Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, who was born in Miedzyboz in central Ukraine; Haim Nachman Bialik, the poet laureate of modern Hebrew literature, who was born in Zhitomir, in north central Ukraine.
Goldie Meyerson, who became prime minister Golda Meir, was born in Kiev. Israeli-born Moshe Dayan, famed fighter and commander, was the son of Shmuel Dayan, who came from Zhashkiv, in the Cherkassy region, central Ukraine. Isaac Babel, one of the foremost Soviet novelists of the mid-20th century, whose “Red Cavalry Tales” remains a classic of 20th-century Russian literature, came from Odessa.
Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, architect of the Russian revolution and founder of the Red Army, came from Yanovka, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist Zionism, came from Odessa. Solomon Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem Aleichem, came from Pereyaslav, in the Kiev governorate. And so on. The area has played host to an astonishing gathering of Jewish creative energies.
It is also prominent among the lands of destruction. Ukraine is the land of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose statue on his horse and brandishing his famous rhino horn mace stands outside St Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kiev; his Cossack rebels butchered 100,000 Jews in a 17th-century uprising. It is the land of Simon Petlyura, whose fighters followed a similar murderous path during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution of 1917. And, of course, it is the land of the “Holocaust of bullets” of the mobile killing squads who followed the German armies as they swept through Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1941, systematically slaughtering Jewish populations in the verdant ravines and forests that characterize the country’s landscape until 1.5 million were dead.
[Photo - Simon Petlyura]
So, Ukraine is filled with Jewish ghosts, its soil with Jewish blood. But there is Jewish life here, too. Estimates of the precise Jewish population vary widely. The European Jewish Congress claims that 360,000- 400,000 Jews live in Ukraine, which would make it the fifth largest Jewish community in the world. Other estimates place the number as low as 60,000. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in renewed strife and conflict.
War returns to Ukraine
In summer, Kiev is a charming city filled with cafes and light. But the peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. History has not departed. Ukraine has been shaken in recent years once again by revolution, and its handmaiden, war.
The Euromaidan Revolution toppled the pro-Russian government of President Victor Yanukovych in March 2014. Yanukovych’s departure was followed by the Russian seizure of Crimea and then the outbreak of a Russian-supported separatist insurgency in the Donbass – the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The ill-equipped, rusty Ukrainian forces moved to crush the insurgency but were met by the entry of conventional Russian troops in August. The Ukrainians suffered bloody setbacks in the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, before a cease-fire agreement was signed in Minsk on February 11 2015.
The war is not over, and the issues that led to its outbreak have not been resolved. Today, the Ukrainians and their Russian enemies face one another along a static 400km frontline. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the ceasefire. This reporter spent several days in the war zone of eastern Ukraine; shooting across the lines is a nightly occurrence. And not just rifles – RPG, self-propelled grenades and machine guns too. Over the past three years, 10,090 people have died in this largely forgotten conflict. More than 2 million people have been made homeless.
The war has impacted on Ukraine’s Jewish community in two central ways. Firstly, Jews resident in eastern Ukraine have suffered the direct physical effects of the fighting. Most of Donetsk and Luhansk’s Jews fled westward as the frontlines approached their homes in 2014. The provisions offered by the Ukrainian authorities to those made homeless by the war are minimal. Efforts are ongoing by a variety of Jewish organisations to provide for Ukrainian Jews who have become refugees.
The second impact is a little less tangible. The war of 2014 was an important moment in the ongoing development of national identity in independent Ukraine. This is a complex and sometimes fraught business, and Ukraine’s Jews are part of it whether they like it or not.
Ukraine remains divided between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces. Both of these broad camps contain fringe elements that are hostile to Jews. On the pro-Russian side, neo-Nazi groups such as Russian National Unity and a number of Cossack groups maintain an armed presence in separatist controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk. On the Ukrainian side, there are also militia groups active in the combat zone that use far right and neo-Nazi imagery.
But more importantly, the mainstream Ukrainian leadership is keen to make use of a nationalist heritage that celebrates Khmelnytsky and Petlyura, and which includes organisations and figures that collaborated with the Nazi invaders during World War II, and with the persecution and murder of Ukraine’s Jews at that time. The public commemoration of such wartime nationalist leaders as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych remains a starkly divisive issue that is unlikely to lessen in intensity over time.
To read the original article in full, click here http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/In-the-land-of-the-trident-503106
The death of Rabbi Mendel Deitsch last week resonated through the Jewish community and throws up parallels with the past. The Rabbi was beaten up in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir at in October last year, at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He was robbed of his money and mobile phone at the city’s train station, suffering multiple head injuries and brain trauma. He was not discovered until hours later and was airlifted to hospital in Israel, where he remained unconscious until his death on 14 April.
Ukraine continues to suffer high levels of anti-Semitic crime, despite the appointment of a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, last year. Incidents include the desecration of Holocaust memorials and Jewish cemeteries with Swastikas and Nazi slogans, and an attack on a former synagogue in Uzhgorod, western Ukraine, which was daubed with red paint and anti-Semitic pamphlets. Most shockingly, the grave of one of Judaism’s most revered figures, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in Uman was vandalised on the eve of Hannukah and adorned with a pig’s head. In Zhitomir, the scene of Rabbi Deitsch’s attack, the mass graves of holocaust victims were dug up earlier this year by thieves looking for gold teeth.
In early 1919, Zhitomir was the scene of one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks of Russia’s Civil War. Just like the assault on Rabbi Deitsch almost 100 years later, the initial attacks took place at the city’s train station, where followers of Symon Petlyura, one of the leaders of Ukraine’s fight for independence and a vicious anti-Semite, carried out a massacre, killing 17 Jews, many of them old men on their way home from synagogue.
But it didn’t stop there. Local peasants started a rumour that spread around the whole of Zhitomir in a matter of hours. They said that during the recent brief period that the Red Army had occupied the city, the Jews who had taken charge of the civil authorities had put to death nearly two thousand Christians. Who were these condemned men? Why and where were they killed? Nobody knew the answer to these questions – because there had been no mass execution. The rumours were pure fantasy, aimed at inciting hatred against the Jews. Thankfully the stories of Christian carnage provided a warning and when the pogrom began, all those who were able had already scattered to the wind or sought refuge with Ukrainian friends or neighbours. The only Jews left were the elderly or infirm, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
But the slaughter went ahead regardless. An old man on his way to synagogue with his prayer shawl over his arm was the first to die. He was propped against a tree and shot. But the bullet didn’t kill him. The old man dragged himself towards the synagogue on his hands and knees, but collapsed and died in the street just yards from the door, while Petlyura’s men stood and watched.
Witnesses spoke of seeing people having their eyes gouged out, their clothes torn off and the skin of their shoulders engraved by knife-blade with the badge of rank of their killer. The pogrom lasted for five days. Over three hundred Jews were killed.
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.