My blog has taken a back seat in recent weeks over the children's long summer holiday. Catching up on the newspapers once they returned to school this week, I came across this article on Jewish life in Ukraine that recently appeared in the Jerusalem Post. Much of it based on interviews the author conducted recently in Kiev and elsewhere with Jews displaced by the war in the east of the country. I found this piece fascinating and worth reproducing almost in full. As it’s very long, I will post in instalments. Here is the first of three:
Ukraine is a territory saturated in Jewish memory – memory both tragic and sublime. In every field of endeavour – religious thought, Zionist and socialist politics, art, music, military affairs, science – Jews have excelled.
It is the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, who grew up near Kameniec in what is now western Ukraine; Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, who was born in Miedzyboz in central Ukraine; Haim Nachman Bialik, the poet laureate of modern Hebrew literature, who was born in Zhitomir, in north central Ukraine.
Goldie Meyerson, who became prime minister Golda Meir, was born in Kiev. Israeli-born Moshe Dayan, famed fighter and commander, was the son of Shmuel Dayan, who came from Zhashkiv, in the Cherkassy region, central Ukraine. Isaac Babel, one of the foremost Soviet novelists of the mid-20th century, whose “Red Cavalry Tales” remains a classic of 20th-century Russian literature, came from Odessa.
Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, architect of the Russian revolution and founder of the Red Army, came from Yanovka, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist Zionism, came from Odessa. Solomon Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem Aleichem, came from Pereyaslav, in the Kiev governorate. And so on. The area has played host to an astonishing gathering of Jewish creative energies.
It is also prominent among the lands of destruction. Ukraine is the land of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose statue on his horse and brandishing his famous rhino horn mace stands outside St Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kiev; his Cossack rebels butchered 100,000 Jews in a 17th-century uprising. It is the land of Simon Petlyura, whose fighters followed a similar murderous path during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution of 1917. And, of course, it is the land of the “Holocaust of bullets” of the mobile killing squads who followed the German armies as they swept through Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1941, systematically slaughtering Jewish populations in the verdant ravines and forests that characterize the country’s landscape until 1.5 million were dead.
[Photo - Simon Petlyura]
So, Ukraine is filled with Jewish ghosts, its soil with Jewish blood. But there is Jewish life here, too. Estimates of the precise Jewish population vary widely. The European Jewish Congress claims that 360,000- 400,000 Jews live in Ukraine, which would make it the fifth largest Jewish community in the world. Other estimates place the number as low as 60,000. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in renewed strife and conflict.
War returns to Ukraine
In summer, Kiev is a charming city filled with cafes and light. But the peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. History has not departed. Ukraine has been shaken in recent years once again by revolution, and its handmaiden, war.
The Euromaidan Revolution toppled the pro-Russian government of President Victor Yanukovych in March 2014. Yanukovych’s departure was followed by the Russian seizure of Crimea and then the outbreak of a Russian-supported separatist insurgency in the Donbass – the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. The ill-equipped, rusty Ukrainian forces moved to crush the insurgency but were met by the entry of conventional Russian troops in August. The Ukrainians suffered bloody setbacks in the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, before a cease-fire agreement was signed in Minsk on February 11 2015.
The war is not over, and the issues that led to its outbreak have not been resolved. Today, the Ukrainians and their Russian enemies face one another along a static 400km frontline. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the ceasefire. This reporter spent several days in the war zone of eastern Ukraine; shooting across the lines is a nightly occurrence. And not just rifles – RPG, self-propelled grenades and machine guns too. Over the past three years, 10,090 people have died in this largely forgotten conflict. More than 2 million people have been made homeless.
The war has impacted on Ukraine’s Jewish community in two central ways. Firstly, Jews resident in eastern Ukraine have suffered the direct physical effects of the fighting. Most of Donetsk and Luhansk’s Jews fled westward as the frontlines approached their homes in 2014. The provisions offered by the Ukrainian authorities to those made homeless by the war are minimal. Efforts are ongoing by a variety of Jewish organisations to provide for Ukrainian Jews who have become refugees.
The second impact is a little less tangible. The war of 2014 was an important moment in the ongoing development of national identity in independent Ukraine. This is a complex and sometimes fraught business, and Ukraine’s Jews are part of it whether they like it or not.
Ukraine remains divided between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces. Both of these broad camps contain fringe elements that are hostile to Jews. On the pro-Russian side, neo-Nazi groups such as Russian National Unity and a number of Cossack groups maintain an armed presence in separatist controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk. On the Ukrainian side, there are also militia groups active in the combat zone that use far right and neo-Nazi imagery.
But more importantly, the mainstream Ukrainian leadership is keen to make use of a nationalist heritage that celebrates Khmelnytsky and Petlyura, and which includes organisations and figures that collaborated with the Nazi invaders during World War II, and with the persecution and murder of Ukraine’s Jews at that time. The public commemoration of such wartime nationalist leaders as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych remains a starkly divisive issue that is unlikely to lessen in intensity over time.
To read the original article in full, click here http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/In-the-land-of-the-trident-503106
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.