There is much that ordinary Ukrainians do not know about Jews and that ordinary Jews do not know about Ukrainians. As a result, those Jews and Ukrainians who may care about their respective ancestral heritages usually view each other through distorted stereotypes, misperceptions, and biases. So says a new book by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, two eminent US Historians, entitled Jews and Ukrainians, a Millennium of Co-Existence.
Despite centuries of mutual hatred and violence, often provoked by occupying powers seeking to divide and rule, the two peoples share a narrative that is often at odds with the stereotype, including during the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and subsequent war in the east of the country. Jews and Ukrainians joined a common struggle for self-determination and defence of their homeland.
In the early 20th century, the towns and villages of western Ukraine were a melting pot of different nationalities and religions. Here’s my grandmother Pearl’s description of Pavolitch, her home town, some 60 odd miles southwest of Kiev:
“I grew up speaking a mixture of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian, as well as Yiddish, my mother tongue, which we spoke at home. In Pavolitch, two square, brick synagogues rose from the grassy mound in the centre – the town’s highest point – and a further three prayer houses were scattered across the Jewish quarter above the stream. Walking from the synagogue to the Jewish quarter we passed the grand Russian Orthodox church with its five silver domes. And high above the lake stood a Roman Catholic church.
“Only the local officials and civil servants in Pavolitch were Russian. Ukrainians made up the majority of the population, easily distinguished by their wide faces, plump cheeks and flaxen hair, as well as their coarse, unkempt clothes. There were few wealthy Ukrainians. They tended to work for people like my grandparents as servants, warehouse managers or coach drivers – or they worked for the Poles.”
Pearl’s grandmother employed two Ukrainian women, Katarina and Pritska, to come to the house once a week to help her wash the linen for her large household.
“They must have both been in their thirties, but their hands were almost as coarse and wrinkled as Baba’s from the rough work they did. First they scrubbed the bed sheets in the washtub and rinsed them in washing soda. Then they bundled all the linens into huge vats of boiling water and stirred them with sticks. Despite the heat and steam, and the heaviness of the wet laundry, Katarina and Pritska sang cheerful Ukrainian songs as they worked and always enjoyed teasing and petting us. And they simply adored Baba even though she could be a hard taskmaster.”
Later, during the Russian Civil War, my grandmother and her family would owe their lives to Katarina and Pritska, who sheltered them time and again from the ‘banda’, the various anti-Semitic factions rampaging across Ukraine. The penalty for those found harbouring Jews was death.
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. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.