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 Gulag was the largest network of forced labour camps ever created, spanning thousands of miles across the Soviet Union. Around 18 million prisoners, possibly more, were sent to the Gulag from 1930 to 1953 during the rule of Joseph Stalin, of whom up to three million died in the camps or as a result of their incarceration. As well as criminals, the Gulag became home to huge numbers of political prisoners.
One of these was Yehuda Solomonovich Kaufman, the husband of my great-grandfather’s sister Miriam (Mira) – whose story I have been telling in my blog over the last few weeks – and grandfather to my cousin Irina (Ira), who has shared her family stories with me.
Yehuda, originally from the town of Bobruisk in today’s Belarus, was arrested no less than three times before finally being sent to the Gulag in 1938. The first was in the 1920s when he was arrested as a Jewish nationalist because he gave private Hebrew lessons, in addition to his professional work as a surgeon. His next arrest came in 1931, this time because he corresponded with several members of his family (brothers, a nephew) who lived abroad. He was sent to prison, missing the birth of his daughter Sulamia as a result.
In 1936-37 Yehuda’s nephew came to Kiev from overseas to visit, and after this he was arrested for a third time and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp in Krasnoyarsk region as an ‘enemy of the people’. Although conditions were harsh and his sentence was long, he was lucky in being able to work as a doctor, and like many inmates, he even had a ‘prison wife’.
In 1949 Yehuda was finally permitted to return to Kiev. He left his prison wife to return to Mira, but no sooner had he set foot in his apartment for the first time in more than a decade than a group of state security agents arrived to arrest him once again. Rather than sending him back to the Gulag or to Siberia, he was exiled to the town of Zvenygorodka in Cherkasy province, central Ukraine, where he remained until his eventual release in 1956.
Ira, who was born in 1952, recalls that as a little girl, her family told her that Grandpa was “in Paris”. But later she remembers visiting him in Zvenygorodka, in a room with a round table and a bed with springs, which she would use as a trampoline.
Stalin died in 1953, and the Soviet reign of terror came to an end. But the truth of the labour camps, the mass deportations, executions and purges did not become public until Nikita Khrushchev cemented his place at the head of the Communist Party in the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death. Khrushchev’s so-called ‘secret speech’ to party officials in February 1956 denounced Stalin’s excesses and heralded a period of liberalisation, during which thousands of prisoners - including Yehuda – were set free and rehabilitated.
Once he was finally back in Kiev after 18 years of separation from his family, Yehuda managed to return to his work as a surgeon and to put the experiences of the previous two decades behind him. He was a cheerful man, loved by friends, family and colleagues alike, who rejoiced in his family and in life in general. He built up a strong relationship with his daughter in spite of their long years apart, and doted on his grandchildren, giving them little presents every day. He even wrote stories about his childhood that he illustrated himself. He died in 1964.
Although life improved for the people of the Soviet Union under the so-called ‘Khrushchev thaw’, the discrimination and anti-Semitism that hounded Jews first under the Tsars and then under the Communists did not go away. Religion had been abolished after the October Revolution of 1917, so Judaism was no longer considered a religion but a nationality, marked in Soviet passports on the personal details page under the notorious point number five: Национальность – Eврей (Nationality – Jewish).
This opened Jews up to any and every form of discrimination and anti-Semitism, from being humiliated in the street and called a Yid, to being marked down in exams, denied a place at university, overlooked for a promotion. So Jews kept quiet about their ‘nationality’. Parents were afraid to teach their children Yiddish, to follow the traditions that their people had lived by for thousands of years, to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and so the Yiddish language and Jewish customs died out, although small pockets remained in smaller towns and rural communities.
“We were a typical Soviet family,” my cousin Ira says. “Nothing remained of our Jewishness except our surname and an entry in our passport.” As a child, she and her sister Mila wanted to blend in, to be like everyone else. Their parents didn’t talk to them about their ‘nationality’, nor later did they ever discuss it with their children.
It wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that Jews were permitted to emigrate, in a bid for freedom from discrimination. Hundreds of thousands left, mostly for Israel, but also for the United States and Germany, where Ira and her family now live.
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.
Most Jews in North America and much of Europe can trace their roots back to the Russian Empire, once home to the world’s largest Jewish population. But how many of us actually understand how our families ended up there in the first place?
The basics are fairly well known. After the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD, Jews scattered across the Roman Empire, which covered most of southern and western Europe and north Africa. By the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Jewish diaspora had spread right across Europe. The split into two distinct communities: the Sephardi on the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazi along the Rhine in Germany occurred around the 10th century.
During the Crusades in the 13th-15th centuries, Jews were expelled from much of western Europe, including from England in 1291, France in 1343 and much of western Germany in the early 15th century. Many fled east, to the one country that offered a safe haven for Jews – Poland. Here King Casimir the Great (reigned 1333-1370) welcomed Jews for their trades and skills and protected them as “People of the King”.
But by the 18th century, Poland was a weak and failing state, preyed on by its more powerful neighbours: Prussia, Austria and Russia. These three great European powers divided the country up between them in the three Partitions of Poland of 1772, 1793 and 1795. The area to the southwest of Kiev where my family came from became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the second partition of 1793. Since 1991 it has been in independent Ukraine.
Bert Shanas, a retired journalist turned genealogist from New York, has traced his family history to shtetls southwest of Kiev from at least the mid-1600s, and it is from his research that I have borrowed the contents and title of this article. The typical Ashkenazi Jew from this region, Shanas says, has an ancestral line that began in Africa, migrated to the Middle East, and from there into Europe, through France, to present-day Germany and into Poland, to an area that went on to become Russia then Ukraine over the course of some 200,000 years.
Using a combination of DNA testing, recent scientific studies, archaeological discoveries, and biblical and historical scholarship, Shanas has traced the likely route his ancestors would have taken. His male family line would have had its origins in east Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago – around present-day Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. Major climatic changes would probably have forced his ancestor to journey to the northeast in search of an adequate food supply, most likely travelling in a group of around 200 people. They would have crossed the Red Sea – then a smaller, shallower channel – into present-day Saudi Arabia and continued eastwards along the coast of the Arabian Sea until they reached the Indus Valley, the area that is today Pakistan.
Thousands of years later, it is likely his ancestors would have broken off from the group and headed north through Iran to settle in what is now Turkey, around 40,000 years ago. About 10,000-15,000 years ago, they would have moved on to the Middle East, where Jewish history began – with Abraham, who came from the city of Ur in Babylonia, now southern Iraq - around 3,200 years ago.
Shanas believes that following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, his ancestors would probably have travelled from the Middle East through Turkey, Greece and Italy, then north through France around the year 1400 and from there to Germany. Around 1500, they would have moved east again, into Poland and by 1600-1700 were settled in the area near Kiev.
DNA analysis indicates that Shanas’ female family line probably ended up in Poland by a different route, trekking north from the area around present-day Kenya or Ethiopia around 60,000 years ago, through Sudan and Egypt into the Middle East. They would have survived the last Ice Age somewhere around Mediterranean Europe and once the glaciers retreated, spread throughout Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.
His ancestral line would probably have migrated to the Caucasus mountains then arced over the Black Sea into the Balkans. From there the DNA trail branches in two directions, the first heading north into Finland, passing through Poland on the way, and the second going west along the Mediterranean through France and Spain, into Portugal. DNA analysis shows that his genetic female ancestors were not grouped in great numbers in any one spot, but were scattered across eastern and western Europe, and their exact route to Ukraine is unclear.
A study of the origins of Ashkenazi women by Professor Martin Richards at the University of Huddersfield in the UK and cited by Shanas in his research, found that in at least 80% of the cases studied, the DNA of Jewish women traced back to Europe – unlike that of men, which traced back to the Middle East. Richards concluded that the vast majority of Jewish men who fled the Middle East for Europe after the Roman conquest did not take women with them. Instead, they married local European women, who then converted to Judaism.
With grateful thanks to Bert Shanas for allowing me to use his research for this article.
As another lockdown Passover begins, I’ve been reflecting on this Passover story that dates back nearly a century, to the late 1920s. My great-grandmother’s cousin Babtsy arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband Moishe and four children at the end of their long journey from Kiev, which at that time had recently become part of Soviet Ukraine.
Babtsy and Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodorkov in 1919. The town’s Jews had been rounded up and herded to a sugar beet factory beside a lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained for several years, living with Moishe’s parents.
Owing to a mixture of errors, misunderstandings and delays, it took three and a half years from the time they first lodged their application to emigrate to Canada to their eventual arrival in Winnipeg. Remarkably, our family has around 50 pages of documentation relating to this process, consisting of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division in Winnipeg, its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization in Ottawa. I have written about this in a previous article, which you can read here.
Once Babtsy, Moishe and their children finally arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Winnipeg, they asked the station master to call the phone number of Babtsy’s cousin Faiga. Faiga had been the first member of our family to leave the Russian Empire for Winnipeg back in 1907 with her husband, Dudi Rusen, and one of her brothers. Dudi was an ambitious young man. Once in Winnipeg he bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. He worked hard and after a while had raised enough money to buy a truck, then within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company. Faiga and Babtsy had not seen one another for more than 20 years.
Faiga and Dudi, with their children and grandchildren, were in the middle of a Passover Seder when the station master rang on that spring evening. Dudi answered the phone and told him to put the newly arrived family in a taxi and send them straight to his home at 107 Hallett Street. To great excitement, everyone budged up around the table to make space for the relatives from the Old Country so they could join the Seder, and celebrate this latest escape of Jews, to a new Promised Land, alongside the ancient exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
This Passover story is narrated in the following clip by Monty Hall, the host of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal. Monty was Faiga and Dudi Rusen’s grandson and was at their house that evening during Passover. In the video, Monty describes his tremendous excitement at reading my book, A Forgotten Land, and discovering that it was about his own family. Monty contacted me after he read the book and we had a long telephone conversation, during which he recounted this Passover story to me.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September 2017 at the age of 96.
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/
Antony Blinken is on the cusp of being appointed Secretary of State in the new administration of President Joe Biden. One thing many people may not know about Blinken is that his great-grandfather was a Yiddish writer of some repute.
Meir Blinken was born in 1879 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine – coincidentally the same shtetl as Yiddish literature’s most famous name, Sholem Aleichem. Blinken gained a Jewish education at a Talmud Torah, before attending the secular Kiev commercial college, part of a joint educational project founded by Ukrainian and Jewish businessmen. He worked as an apprentice cabinet-maker and carpenter, before switching to become a massage therapist. Indeed, he is listed in the Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature with the trade of masseur. His son Moritz, Tony Blinken’s grandfather, who became an American lawyer and businessman, was born in Kiev.
Blinken Senior emigrated to the US in 1904. His first story, written under the pen-name B Mayer, was published a year earlier, in 1903. Once in America, his sketches and stories appeared in a range of literary, progressive socialist and labour Zionist publications, including the satirical magazine Der Kibetzer (Collection) and Idishe Arbeter Velt (Jewish Workers’ World) in Chicago. In all, he published around 50 works of fiction and non-fiction.
Blinken’s books include Weiber (Women), described in the lexicon as a prose poem, Der Sod (The Secret) and Kortnshpil (Card Game). A collection of his short stories published in 1984 and translated by Max Rosenfeld, is still available. His writing dealt with thorny topics including the effects of poverty, poor living conditions, religious strictures, inadequate education and the lack of understanding that immigrants feel about their new country.
Most controversially, he was one of the few male Yiddish writers to address the subject of women’s sexuality, writing about marital infidelity and sexual desire and hinting at the sense of boredom felt by housewives. Another subject he tackled remains controversial to this day: showing empathy towards abortion.
Writing in a review of Blinken’s work in the 1980s, the journalist and author Richard Elman pointed out that among Yiddish authors writing for the largely female audience of Yiddish fiction, Blinken “was one of the few who chose to show with empathy the woman’s point of view in the act of love or sin”. Elman and others believed that the greatest legacy of the author’s work was that it vividly evoked the atmosphere and characters of the very early Jewish diaspora in New York.
According to a 1965 article by the journalist David Shub in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex. In the same article, he wrote that Blinken was also an editor’s nightmare!
By the time of his death in 1915 at the age of just 37, Blinken had opened an independent massage office on East Broadway, in the heart of what was at that time the city’s Yiddish arts and letters district. While his writing was very popular among Yiddish-speaking Americans of his own generation, Blinken’s star quickly waned after his death.
Photo credit: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter
I wish I could begin my first article of 2021 with a Happy New Year, but unfortunately everything feels very bleak out there. The UK has headed deeper into lockdown and the US is reeling from an unprecedented attack on its democracy. So perhaps we could all do with a little humour. The articles in my blog often tell terrible tales of suffering and loss, so by way of contrast, here’s something funny and uplifting to help take our minds off all the doom and gloom in these cold, dark days.
Talking to God is a 2019 film written and directed by Maya Batash, who also stars in the lead role as Rebecca, an insomniac New Yorker who will try anything to find happiness – and to help her get to sleep. Nothing works until she joins a bunch of equally desperate women on a trip to Uman, the town in Ukraine where the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) has become a pilgrimage site for religious Jews. The picture was partly filmed on location in Uman.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a moralistic tale to convert the viewer to Orthodox Judaism. Surrounded by praying pilgrims at the Rabbi’s tomb, Rebecca remains utterly unmoved. But after a while she realises she’s sleeping better, in spite of the stiflingly hot dorm room she’s sharing with a dozen other women, one of whom crunches crisps (potato chips) noisily in the middle of the night.
In search of the answer to the universal question, “What makes us happy?” she discovers The Fixer, a cheery fiddle player who lives in a tiny shack in the forest and looks like he belongs in a Sholem Aleichem adaptation. The Fixer’s narrative is a modern a take on a short story written by Rabbi Nachman himself, A Tale of Faith. In the original, a king goes on a quest to find out if his subjects are truly happy and discovers that the happiest man in his kingdom is completely destitute.
“I wanted to connect the two stories,” Batash told the Jewish Press in December 2020. “I tried to modernise Rabbi Nachman’s story and connect it to this modern-day one-woman journey. Since we don’t live in an age with little villages with a king, I turned the character into the king of Hollywood. The basic story premise and message is still there.”
The movie mogul is a thoroughly nasty – and unhappy – character, while the Fixer, played by Australian Zebedee Row, is imbued with such an innate joyousness that you just want to bottle it up and take a drop when you need something to cheer you up. “I think people in the world need to laugh more. The world can be a serious place,” Batash says.
The moral of the story is that “A person must enlist all his strength to be joyful at all times. It is human nature to be drawn to depression and sadness because of life’s daily events.” And I’m sure that’s good advice to all of us struggling through these dark, depressing times.
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/
In recent webinar presentations I’ve given, one topic that tends to generate a lot of interest and provokes many questions and discussions is that of Jewish conscription to the Russian army in Tsarist times. One particularly brutal and terrifying experience for our forefathers was the arrival of happers to take the family's sons away.
In 1827, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, the government ordered a quota system of compulsory conscription of Jewish males aged 12 to 25 to the army (for Christians it was 18 to 35). The quota was higher for Jews – part of the Tsar’s effort to refashion and forcibly assimilate the Jewish population.
The kahal, or local administration, run by leading members of the Jewish and Rabbinical community in each locality, was responsible for selecting the recruits. The selection process was often arbitrary and influenced by bribery, turning Jews against their communal leaders. By the 1850s, the happers had taken to kidnapping Jewish boys, sometimes as young as eight if they couldn’t lay their hands on enough older boys, in order to meet the government’s quotas. The drafting of children lasted until 1856.
Once conscripted, the young Jewish recruits were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, with the result that around one-third were baptised. Their military service lasted 25 years. As described in my book, A Forgotten Land, the happers spread fear across the Pale of Settlement, and with very good reason:
“It took only days for the Jewishness to be squeezed out of the recruits like water from a sponge. They were barred from following the kosher laws or keeping the Sabbath, or even from speaking Yiddish. Anyone who insisted on holding fast to the dietary laws – refusing to eat pork or soup made with lard – was beaten with a rod or forbidden from drinking. But however firm their Jewish resolve, there was no way the boys could avoid marching or performing drills on the Sabbath. At the end of a ten-hour march, having eaten nothing but dry bread, the young recruits would arrive exhausted at their destination and be forced to kneel until they agreed to convert to Christianity. If they continued to refuse, they had to kneel all night.”
My great-great-great grandfather had all his teeth pulled out to avoid being taken by the happers during the Crimean War of 1853-56, as the army would not accept recruits who had any kind of deformity. He never had a pair of false teeth, so the extractions altered his appearance for life. Other young men turned to self-mutilation to avoid conscription, cutting off fingers or toes, or even blinding themselves or wielding a red-hot poker to the face.
I have just watched a beautiful and fascinating short film (just 18 minutes long) directed by Jacob Stillman depicting the role of the happers and the terror they spread among Jewish communities at this time. The film, released in 2013, is called simply The Pale of Settlement. It is set in 1853 in the Carpathian Mountains on the western reaches of the Russian Empire. The opening scene shows a young boy cutting wood in the snow near the forest hut where his family lives. He watches as happers approach on horseback, rounding up recruits for the Crimean War.
Ten-year old Moishe hides in the trees as the men, accompanied by a Cossack horseman, knock at the door of the family home. Moishe’s father tells them, “Let me talk to the kahal. They know me, they would never choose my son.” One of the men replies, “The kahal sent us.”
Moishe overhears the conversation, screams and runs deeper into the forest to hide, pursued by the happers. His initial effort at taking refuge with a neighbour has the most horrific consequences. I won’t give away any more plot spoilers, I simply urge you to watch the film for yourself. It gave me a much better sense of who the happers were and just how frightening their arrival would have been. This moving film is dedicated to the memory of all the child victims of the happers.
The Pale of Settlement is available to watch free on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/70219384
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.