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.
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.