Two stories have been in the news this month about famous people whose history lies in Ukraine’s Jewish community either going back to their roots, or their roots coming back to them.
Odessa played host last month to a conference organised by Limmud, the international organisation dedicated to Jewish learning. Ahead of the conference, huge billboards appeared around the city featuring images of Bob Dylan surrounded by slogans proclaiming the American folk hero’s Odessan heritage.
Dylan’s grandparents left Odessa for the US in 1907, their departure prompted by one of the Russian Empire’s worst waves of pogroms, which began in 1905. In that year, more than 300 Jews were killed in anti-Semitic attacks in Odessa alone. The city’s Jewish community at that time was the second largest in Russia at around 140,000, with Jews making up around 40% of the population. The family settled in Minnesota, where Robert Zimmerman, later to become Bob Dylan, was born in 1941.
“We will celebrate the wonderful gift that Odessa gave the world,” proclaimed the founder of Limmud’s branch in the former Soviet Union, Chaim Chesler. “This shows that the Jewish roots that come from Odessa last forever.”
Surprisingly, local reaction to the imported Dylan-mania was underwhelming , his music apparently being not widely recognised in Ukraine. But there was no outright hostility, unlike that met by the actress Mila Kunis, who recently visited her childhood home in Ukraine. The Hollywood star told the media this month that she had travelled to her native town of Chernivtsi in August in the hope of visiting the house that she had left back in 1991, when her family had emigrated to the US.
“We went to our house and I knocked on the door because we really wanted to look inside. And [the owner] was like, ‘No!’ She did not care. I said, ‘I used to live here when I was little, my parents are here.’ …She wouldn’t even open the door. The whole experience was very humbling,” Kunis said in an interview.
These experiences differ hugely from my own encounters when visiting my ancestral home in Ukraine back in 2005. My father and I, along with our cousin Irina who had emigrated from Kiev to Germany ten years earlier, spent several days driving around some of the country’s largely forgotten backwaters southwest of Kiev in search of the villages where our family had lived and worked.
Like Kunis, I found the experience humbling, but for very different reasons. People were overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming, interested and eager to help. We turned up in villages without prior warning and asked the locals whether there were any old people in the vicinity who might have lived there around the time of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.
In one village, Khodarkov, an elderly lady invited us in to meet her 95-year old mother. The daughter shooed out the chickens from the front porch and ushered us into the living room, where the stooped old babushka recounted stories of the pogroms in 1919, during which the Jews were drowned in the lake (see photo).
My grandmother’s great-aunt had survived this pogrom by hiding in the cellar of her husband’s shop, stuffing her children’s mouths with rags to stop them from crying. She and her family had fled to Kiev immediately afterwards, taking with them only the clothes on their backs. They emigrated to Canada in 1929. When we left the house, the daughter tried to give us a precious family photo as a gift and it was all that we could do to press her to keep it and cherish it for her own family.
In the town of Andrushky, we tracked down a sugar factory, still functioning, that had belonged to an influential landowner that my great-great grandfather had worked with. Here we were initially interrogated at length by the factory director before he would respond to any of our questions, fearful perhaps that we were sugar barons ourselves, travelling to Ukraine with the aim of snapping up cheap commercial assets.
Once he was satisfied with our story, he offered us vodka, which we declined. We drank tea instead and he provided us with a written account of the factory’s history, which verified that it was, indeed, the one connected to our family. Then he proceeded for the next three hours to show us around the warren of new administrative buildings that were being constructed.
In all the other towns and villages linked to our family history that we visited – Pavoloch, Makarov, Talne, Berdichev – we were warmly greeted and local people spent many hours with us showing us sites and recounting the area’s history. Like so many Ukrainian Jews, most of our ancestors moved away, unable to endure any more of the suffering they had been forced to tolerate for so long. The ancestors of those we met there had stayed behind in the ‘old country’, and suffered so much more. It was humbling indeed.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.