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/
Like most people, until recently I had never heard of Rhea Clyman. But now that I have, I stand and applaud her. Her story deserves to be more widely known.
Clyman was a young Canadian journalist who broke through so many boundaries of her age. Born in 1904 in Poland to a poor Jewish family, she and her family emigrated to Toronto two years later. Here she lost part of her leg in a road accident as a young child. Forced to leave school after her father’s early death to help support her family, she worked as a child labourer in a factory, but refused to let poverty and disability stand in her way. She augmented her meagre schooling by teaching herself in the hope of one day becoming a journalist – in itself an unusual career for a girl at that time, let alone one of her background.
In the 1920s she moved from Canada to New York and then to London, Paris and Berlin, where she witnessed and reported on the rise of Hitler. In 1928, aged just 24, she headed east again, to Moscow, where she learnt Russian and began working as a freelance reporter for the Daily Express in London and the Toronto Evening Telegram. She lived with a Russian family and travelled unaccompanied, experiencing the hazards of daily life under Stalin. Her travels took her north to see first hand the labour camps of Karelia. Her Russian boyfriend had been arrested and sent to Siberia for dealing in foreign currency.
On a three-week road trip through Ukraine in 1932, Clyman witnessed and exposed one of the most shameful events of the 20th century, the deliberate mass starvation of millions of Soviet citizens in Ukraine, an event now commemorated as the Holodomor. While other foreign journalists reported on the famine, few saw what Clyman had seen, for most were only able to visit the areas affected by the famine as part of an organised group whose experiences were limited to what the regime allowed them to see.
Clyman wrote of seeing starving peasants on the streets of Kharkiv, where children were eating grass to stay alive and thousands were executed as punishment for the theft of a few ears of corn. On the same trip, she drove through the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where today the war between Ukrainian troops and Russian separatists lingers on, reporting on the tough conditions suffered by miners and their families.
Eventually she reached Tbilisi, Georgia, where the secret police were waiting for her. Clyman was arrested by the OGPU – a precursor to the KGB – accused of spreading disinformation (what today we would label Fake News) and forced to leave the Soviet Union. News of her expulsion was carried by hundreds of newspapers around the world.
The Soviet authorities denied the existence of the famine, and it is thanks to foreign journalists like Clyman that the Holodomor became public. It is impossible to accurately gauge how many people died of starvation in central and eastern Ukraine in 1932-33, but historians estimate the figure was between 3 and 10 million, and the Holodomor is widely recognised as genocide and a crime against humanity.
From London, Clyman continued to publish articles about her trip through what she described as the “Famine lands of Russia” and the atrocities of Stalin’s dictatorship until departing once again for Germany to report on the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II. As a Jew writing about Nazi anti-Semitism, it was too dangerous for Clyman to remain in Germany. She escaped to Amsterdam by plane with a group of refugees, surviving a deadly air crash in the process. The rest of her career was spent in Montreal and New York, where she died in 1981.
Rhea Clyman is now the subject of a film, Hunger for Truth. Watch a trailer here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hungerfortruth
And her story will soon feature in a book by Jars Balan, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.
I have just watched a fascinating little documentary about Fania Brantovskaya, now in her 90s, who conducts walking tours of old Jewish Vilnius (Vilna) in Yiddish.
Listening to her speak I was vividly reminded of my own grandmother, Pearl, and the recordings my father made of her talking about her life back in Russia. Fania’s intonation, the cadence of her language, mirror almost exactly my grandmother’s speech.
Fania was born in 1922. She had just started university in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Vilna. She tells how two Lithuanian policemen knocked on her door at 6am on 6 September and told her family they had to move into the ghetto, giving them just half an hour to pack.
Fania lived with her parents and sister in a crowded apartment shared with four other families. She points out their three windows, on the middle floor of a large three-storey building. Fania guides us past the hospital, school, theatre and library that continued to function within the ghetto walls. Indeed, the Vilna ghetto was known as the Jerusalem of the ghettos for its intellectual and cultural richness. But death was never far away, with regular deportations from the ghetto to Ponary, now Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.
Fania’s father changed her birth date to make her appear four years younger than she actually was, enabling her to avoid the call up to work in the Nazis’ forced labour camps. Instead she joined the United Partisan Organisation that was formed in the ghetto in January 1942 by the poet Abba Kovner, among others, as a means of Jewish self-defence and to sabotage German industrial and military activity.
The partisans smuggled arms, food and medicine, and found ever more ingenious ways of doing so. Chimney sweeps carried guns in false-bottomed cases, while wounded men and women hid supplies in their bandages. Fania worked as a messenger, using the slogan “Lisa is calling,” in honour of a partisan who had died early during the resistance.
After more than two years in the ghetto’s stifling narrow streets, in September 1943 Fania managed to escape to join other partisans living in the forest a two-day march away. She couldn’t have known at the time, but her escape was to precede the liquidation of the ghetto by just a few hours. Fania never saw her family again. They were divided up and taken to different concentration camps across the area, where they perished.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, Fania lived in the forest, where she and her fellow partisans continued their struggle against the Nazis and their local collaborators. They lived in tents and underground shelters dug from the earth, with walls of wooden planks and foliage pulled over for cover, sleeping on pieces of wood covered with spruce branches. They had very little to eat, surviving mostly on grain flour donated by local people and hot water. Some locals would willingly give them food, she says, but others would not. Nevertheless, after two years in the ghetto, Fania says, the forest made her feel like a human being again.
Today Fania works as a librarian at the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, where she created a collection of Yiddish books. She leads walking tours of the city of her youth, keeping alive the language and memory of her family and the tens of thousands of other Vilna Jews murdered at Ponary and elsewhere.
Fania is one of just two or three thousand Jews living in Vilnius today, a city that had been a major Jewish population centre for over four hundred years. Around 70,000 Jews were resident there by 1941, close to half the city’s population. Through much of its history, Vilna was a hub of Jewish culture and learning. The definitive edition of the Talmud was printed on the Vilna presses, the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—known as the Vilna Gaon—was one of the most authoritative Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages. And YIVO, an organisation dedicated to the study of Yiddish life and language, was founded in Vilna.
After the war, Vilnius became part of the USSR, as capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I visited in 1989, shortly before Lithuania finally gained lasting independence. Even in Soviet times, the city had a lively and attractive air, but it has changed a lot since then--the historic centre has been restored and a buzzing arts and entertainment culture has taken root. It must be time for a return visit, before Fania and her walking tours are no more.
The documentary, by Edita Mildazyte, can be viewed here:
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 have spent several days over the summer sitting in at art exhibitions where my paintings are on display. An article about two Soviet cartoonists recently caught my eye, reminding me that many artists over the years have not had it so easy.
Boris Efimov was born in 1899 to a family of Jewish petty traders from Kiev. This makes him just a couple of years older than my grandmother, and from the same neck of the woods. In 1922 Efimov was persuaded by his brother Mikhail, a publisher and journalist later known under his pen-name Koltsov, to move to Moscow and earn a living from his art. He became the most lauded Soviet graphic artist of his time, and swung with the tide of official Soviet opinion, meaning that he was well treated by a succession of governments, from Lenin all the way to Putin.
Efimov work consisted mostly of flattering caricatures of Soviet celebrities and contrastingly harsh images ridiculing the regime’s enemies. Thanks in part to his brother, he became acquainted with many important personalities including politicians, publishers and critics. In 1924 he was described by Leon Trotsky (before the latter’s political downfall and exile) as ‘the most political of our graphic artists’. Trotsky wrote the preface to Efimov’s first album of drawings published in 1924 and the artist repaid him with subtle compliments (see illustration, left: ‘British Military Expert Repington is Trying to Define the Exact Size of the Red Army’, 1924. Every soldier is shown with the face of Leon Trotsky, alluding to the fact that he was a founder of Red Army. David King Collection, Tate Archive).
In 1926, after the British and Polish governments approved the shooting of four communists in Lithuania, Efimov published a cartoon showing Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign minister, and Polish premier Jozef Pilsudski applauding the execution. The British Foreign office issued a diplomatic memorandum to the Soviet Union, which was seen as something of a coup for Efimov. Pilsudski did not react.
Victims of political persecution became key targets for Efimov’s cartoons, even though many were former contacts and patrons of his. He attended the show trials of 1937 and 1938, which destroyed Stalin’s political opponents, sketching defendants that often he knew personally. These included the Soviet diplomat Christian Rakovsky, the Troskyite and journalist Karl Radek, and Nikolai Bukharin, one of Stalin’s leading rivals. His cartoons sometimes appeared on the same day as their subjects’ executions.
Efimov’s brother Koltsov was arrested in 1938 and executed two years later, leaving Efimov fearful for his own arrest. Luckily for him, his reputation within the regime was strong enough to save him. Stalin considered him useful and personally forbade anyone from harming him. Naturally, in return, Efimov was unable to refuse to undertake work in support of the regime.
Throughout the war years he specialised in drawings of Hitler and other Nazis, images that proved popular among the Soviet forces. Efimov was awarded the most prestigious state honours, including several Stalin prizes and an Order of Lenin. He became the most celebrated cartoonist in the Soviet Union and, probably, the country’s richest artist. Albums of his caricatures were printed in their millions in the USSR and abroad.
Efimov died in 2008, at the age of 108. During his long life he created more than 700,000 pictures, and until his final years he continued to attack enemies of the state. When asked how he managed to live for so long, he replied, “I don't know. Maybe I have lived two lives, one of them for my brother”.
Efimov’s life contrasts sharply with that of fellow Soviet cartoonist Konstantin Rotov (1902–1959), who was loved by the people, but was sentenced by Stalin to fourteen years of prison and exile.
Rotov had been extremely popular in the interwar years, indeed he was better known in his time than the now famous artists of the era Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Marc Chagall. His mildly humorous cartoons appeared on an almost daily basis. In 1939 one of his drawings provided the image for a large mural in the Soviet pavilion in the World Exhibition in New York. He also produced the occasional political caricature, ridiculing so-called enemies of the people, but only did so reluctantly.
In 1940 Rotov was arrested for a cartoon titled ‘Closed for Lunch’ depicting a horse and sparrows, that he had drawn in 1934 but was never published. The sparrows are shown patiently waiting for their lunch (horse’s dung) while the horse is eating from the nosebag. The hint at the hunger in the USSR was obvious to his contemporaries. A fellow artist saw the picture and reported Rotov to the secret police. He was charged with ‘defamation of the Soviet trade and cooperation’, tortured and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp.
When his term came to an end, Rotov was sentenced again, this time to exile in Siberia. He was able to return to Moscow only in 1954, after Stalin’s death. He immediately resumed drawing, producing illustrations for fairy tales and fantastical stories, such as Adventures of Captain Vrungel and Old Khottabych. These became (and still are) very popular, although few remembered his name and past fame. He died in 1959, his health damaged during his years of imprisonment.
This blog post is taken from an article by the historian and Tate Library Cataloguer Andrey Lazarev. View the full article here: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/features/two-soviet-cartoonists
Konstantin Rotov, ‘Traffic in Two Years According to the Promises of Moscow Authorities: So Many Buses and Taxis that a Simple Horse can Startle’, 1927.
David King Collection, Tate Archive
The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv recently played host to an art exhibition based on a novella by the Yiddish writer Kalman Zingman (1889-1929). Published in 1918, In Edenia, a City of the Future, imagines a utopian vision of Kharkov projected 25 years into the future – to 1943. Edenia is a city where Jews, Ukrainians and other communities live side by side in peace and harmony, free to establish their own laws. Material needs are provided for with no need for money. The city is serviced by ‘airbuses’ and has fountains that keep the temperature at an ambient level year round. Children celebrate Jewish holidays in lush public gardens.
The theme of utopia was a common one among Russian writers and artists of the early 20th century, in a Futurist movement drawn towards the dynamism of modern technology and urbanisation. But it is an unusual topic for Yiddish literature, which more commonly focuses on the past or present.
Photo: Kharkiv, circa 1900.
Zingman’s projection of a utopian vision to the 1940s conflicts terribly with the reality of that time – the Nazi invasion and the murder of an estimated one million Jews in Ukraine. The book was written during Ukraine’s brief flirtation with independence following the Russian Revolution. The Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917-1921 was the first modern state to have a Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and Yiddish became a state language.
But despite this, the era, and particularly the year 1919 – the year after Zingman’s work was published – was marked by the most devastating pogroms, in which tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered across Ukraine. Some put the number of deaths as high as 100,000.
And today the Jewish population of the region has been torn apart by the horrific war in eastern Ukraine, with a new diaspora fleeing the region for other parts of the country or abroad, many departing for Israel.
Nearly 100 years on from the publication of Zingman’s novella, an international group of contemporary artists came together to create works of art for a museum in his imaginary city. The exhibition presents the artists’ work as an invitation to view our dreams from various angles. In the story, the protagonist Zalman Kindishman returns to his native city from Palestine and visits the art gallery. “He…looked at the figure sculptures of Kritsenshteyn, Lisitski and Roza Fayngold, then he went to the top level. The door closed behind him, and he looked for a very long time, thought for a long time, and got lost in his ruminations.”
At a time when Ukrainians are divided in their views of their Soviet past, of nationalist ‘heroes’, and of their country’s present and future allegiance with Europe or with Russia, the exhibition’s curators see it as an invitation to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams or nightmares in the light of today’s political challenges.
With thanks to the Calvert Journal for some of the content of this article www.calvertjournal.com
I was interested to read this week that the Israeli government is planning to discuss once again the fate of the so-called Subbotniks living in Russia and Ukraine, descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism over 200 years ago.
The Subbotniks have been oppressed on two fronts – persecuted at home for being Jews, but recently considered insufficiently Jewish to be allowed to immigrate to Israel. Israel’s committee on immigration and absorption is due to debate the issue of the Subbotniks soon, and many members of the community are hoping for a ruling in their favour that will enable them to join family members already in Israel.
The origins of the Subbotniks are hazy. They date back to the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great, when a group of peasants in southern Russia distanced themselves from the Russian Orthodox Church and began observing the Jewish Sabbath – hence their name, derived from the Russian Subbota (Суббота), meaning Saturday, or Sabbath.
Their descendants celebrate Jewish holidays, attend synagogue and observe the Sabbath. But it is not clear whether their forefathers officially converted to Judaism, and once in Israel, Subbotniks are still considered non-Jews until they undergo conversion. Many do not recognise the term Subbotnik – they consider their families to have been Jewish for many generations, and have been persecuted for their faith – and cannot understand Israel’s position.
In the early 19th century, Tsar Alexander I (see photo) deported the Subbotniks to various parts of the Russian empire, leaving small communities scattered across a wide area. For this reason, Subbotniks today can be found as far apart as Ukraine, southern Russia, the Caucasus and Siberia.
A first wave of Subbotnik emigration took place in the 1880s, when many fled persecution to settle in what was then part of Ottoman Syria, now Israel. Anti-Semitic pogroms broke out in Russia in the early 20th century, prompting another wave to emigrate. Many more Subbotniks left the Soviet Union and its successor states after the fall of the Berlin Wall, part of the more than million-strong flood of Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel at that time. Some prominent Israelis are descended from Subbotnik settlers – among them former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
But Israel’s Chief Rabbinate later claimed that the Subbotniks’ Jewish origins were not sufficiently clear, and that they would have to undergo conversion to Orthodox Judaism, thereby making them ineligible for aliyah to Israel – the automatic right to residency and Israeli citizenship that is available to all Jews.
Some Subbotniks were granted the right to immigrate in 2014, but around 15,000 are estimated to still live in the former Soviet Union, most of whom desire to immigrate to Israel. The biggest Subbotnik community today is still in the area around Voronezh, where the movement began. It’s a city I know well, having spent a year as a student there in the 1990s.
In another worrying indication of Ukraine’s unsteady lurch towards right-wing nationalism since the revolution of 2014, the country last month launched a murder enquiry into the killing of a Nazi collaborator that took place 65 years ago.
Neil Hasievich (Нил Хасевич), a Ukrainian citizen, was a fascist propagandist and a district judge during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, responsible for sentencing Ukrainians who resisted the occupation, some of them to execution. An artist by trade, Hasievich designed patriotic images and printed anti-Soviet literature for a group known as the UIA, which comprised nationalist fighters who collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the mass slaughter of Jews and Poles.
Hasievich was killed during a standoff in the district of Rivne in western Ukraine in 1952. The operation in which he died was directed by a then senior officer in the KGB, Boris Steckler, who was charged with tracking down former Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the region.
Steckler, who is Jewish, accepts that he directed the mission against Hasievich, but gave an interview in 2013 in which he claimed Hasievich shot himself during the encounter, having been offered a chance to surrender. The action also claimed the lives of two other nationalist fighters. If charged, Steckler could face a prison sentence.
Steckler received numerous medals for bravery for his efforts during the war. Now aged 94 and regarded locally as a war hero, he frequently participates in parades and other victory celebrations marking the defeat of Nazi forces.
The investigation into Steckler’s actions was launched on 18 April, but was only made public last week. It is the first prosecution of its kind in Ukraine and is being seen as a sign of Ukraine’s growing nationalism and anti-Semitism. It falls within the country’s campaign for ‘decommunisation’, which celebrates nationalist groups that fought the Soviets. Wartime insurgents such as Hasievich are increasingly being feted as heroes in Ukraine. Nationalists have been trying to prosecute Steckler for years.
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!
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.