Since President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this week of a partial military mobilisation, Russian men have been fleeing the country in droves to avoid being called up to fight in Ukraine. Many flights to destinations that Russians can travel to without a visa – such as Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan – sold out within hours, with any remaining seats going for thousands of dollars.
Photographs from Moscow’s international airport, Sheremetyevo, show terminals filled with men of fighting age, who reportedly face lengthy questioning before being allowed to leave. At border crossings to Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the lines of cars stretch for several miles. Some have reached the border on bicycles to dodge the queues.
Until now, Russia has relied on professional soldiers to fight in Ukraine, as well as paying generous sums to volunteers, and even convicted criminals, to join its forces. But Ukraine’s recent successes on the battlefield, winning back around 8,000 square kilometres of territory this month – mostly in the northeastern Kharkiv region – have prompted Putin to up the stakes.
His escalation, announced on 21 September, involves the mobilisation of up to 300,000 reservists, threats to draw on Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and phoney referendums for parts of Ukraine under Russian occupation. These measures have triggered a watershed moment for a population that has been too scared to show dissent since the early days of the war.
Thousands of Russians have joined street protests for the first time since March, when draconian laws were swiftly put in place introducing prison sentences of up to fifteen years for spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
The Russian anti-war group Vesna called for street demonstrations in all cities across Russia, with the slogan “No to mogilisation”, a morbid play on words, for mogila in Russian means grave. We could translate it as “mo-kill-isation”.
“Thousands of Russian men – our fathers, brothers and husbands – will be thrown into the meat grinder of war. What will they die for? What will mothers and children shed tears for?” Vesna said in a statement. The latest protests are thought to have led to more than 1,300 arrests.
Until now, the Russian population has been too cowed by fear to oppose the war – or deceived by state propaganda into supporting it. But this is beginning to change. The young men fleeing the country in droves know that there is a high risk that if they are sent to Ukraine, they will return in body bags. They know about the atrocious war crimes committed by Russian troops and want no part of it.
Some are searching for medical exemptions rather than fleeing the country, citing mental health problems or treatment for drug addiction. The BBC quotes one young man in Moscow saying: “If you are stoned and get arrested while driving, hopefully you will get your licence taken away and will have to undergo treatment. You can't be certain but hopefully this will be enough to avoid being taken [into the army].” And another, in Kaliningrad: “I will break my arm, my leg, I will go to prison, anything to avoid this whole thing.”
Dodging the draft is a criminal offence in Russia, and has been for a very long time. A century ago, my great uncle, Naftula Unikow, hid in a pile of grain in his grandfather’s warehouse when the Red Army came knocking at his door. He was trying to evade conscription for a Soviet counteroffensive against Poland in 1920, a conflict immortalised in Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry short stories.
Just like the young men fleeing Russia today, Naftula knew he would not be safe as long as he remained in the country. Together with a cousin who was in the same predicament, Naftula left his home near Kyiv at dawn in a rickety horse-drawn carriage which contained a hollow piece of metal with money hidden inside. To begin with, he sent regular telegrams home informing his family of his progress, but after a few days, the telegrams stopped.
Weeks later, Naftula was finally able to send news again – he had only got as far as Kishinev (now Chisinau, capital of Moldova) where he was robbed by his own cousin, who stole not only the money hidden inside the metal bar, but also his ship pass and even his shoes. Naftula spent many months wandering from village to village, offering lessons in reading and writing in return for food, until finally he reached the port of Trieste in northern Italy. There he worked as a stevedore to raise enough funds to pay for his passage to Canada, where his grandfather’s brother was waiting for him. In all, it took him three years from leaving home to finally arriving in Winnipeg to join his relatives.
Hopefully today’s fugitives will have a more straightforward journey.
Gorbachev and me
The late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at the end of August, changed the course of my life. Back in the late 1980s, I had a university place lined up to study French and History. A couple of years earlier, Gorbachev had taken the helm of a superpower that was falling apart at the seams after years of stagnation and a decade of leadership by a succession of decrepit old men.
Leonid Brezhnev, who died in 1982, had long been ridiculed for his senility and inability to walk unaided. He was succeeded by former KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who managed little more than a year in office, failing to appear in public at all for the last six months of his leadership. Next up was Konstantin Chernenko, who ruled for an even briefer period than his predecessor, before he fell into a coma and died in 1985. Just like the aging apparatchiks, the enormous country they ruled was in terminal decline.
By comparison, the sprightly, 54-year-old Gorbachev was a breath of fresh air. As my own teenage interest in politics grew, so did the impact of the Soviet leader’s policies. I’d been fascinated by the Russian history topics I’d learned about at school: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Russian Revolution. Now another revolution was beginning to take place before my very eyes.
By the time I left school, glasnost and perestroika were starting to upend what the Soviet people thought they knew about themselves and their past, dismantling the dominance of the Communist Party and its grip on the nation. I was enthralled. I turned down my university offer and reapplied to different universities – ones with Russian departments – and signed up for a degree in Russian, to include a year studying in the USSR. At that point, the fact that my grandparents had emigrated from that very same country barely even crossed my mind.
As I began my degree course, the Eastern Bloc was beginning to disintegrate. One month in, the Berlin Wall fell, and by the end of my first term the Cold War was officially over. In my second year, I studied a module titled Contemporary Soviet Society. A year later, Soviet society was no more, as the USSR fragmented into a myriad of constituent parts, many of them torn apart by war and civil unrest amid competing ethnic factions in a series of conflicts, some of which remain unresolved to this day.
At the beginning of September 1991, I set off for the Soviet Union. Just two weeks earlier, Communist hardliners had attempted a coup against Gorbachev, imprisoning him at his dacha in Crimea and cutting off communications. Back home in the UK, I was glued to the news coverage.
On arrival in Moscow, I travelled by bus from the airport to the station to catch the overnight train to Voronezh, the southern Russian city where I was to spend the next ten months. The bus passed the notorious KGB headquarters at Lubyanka, where a statue commemorating the founder of the secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, had acted as a centre point for mass protests against the coup leaders. Days earlier, the statue had been toppled and the pedestal was still daubed with graffiti.
At the student hostel in Voronezh, people were talking of little else but the ‘putsch’, the Moscow protests, and the new president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, who had rallied the crowd outside the Russian government buildings standing on the roof of a tank.
Less than four months later, in late December, the Soviet Union fell apart. There were no mass street demonstrations this time, just a signing of official documents and some drab reports on the TV news. With hindsight, I feel that I experienced this pivotal moment of twentieth century history with my eyes shut, as day-to-day concerns took precedence over world affairs. Was there any hot water in the showers? When would the rubbish spilling from the bins in the kitchen finally be collected? Were paper cartons of milk really available at the kiosk downstairs and how long was the queue?
Those turbulent years of empty shelves and endless queues ground down even the resilient Soviet people, many of them practically destitute as hyperinflation left their salaries and pensions worthless, or worse, unpaid. It is little surprise that Gorbachev was never as popular in the Soviet Union and its successor states as he was in the West, where he was lauded for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion.
At home, Gorbachev’s dismantling of the command economy and the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded over a decade of chaos and economic turmoil, and turned a nuclear-armed superpower into a laughing stock. For this, Vladimir Putin and millions of other Russians will never forgive him.
Photo: By RIA Novosti archive, image #29280/Yuriy Somov
The anniversary of Barbarossa
Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – was launched on 22 June 1941. Although the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia, began 81 years ago, and few people who remember it are still alive, the war continues to loom large in the collective consciousness of the former Soviet nations, including both Russia and Ukraine. The fight against fascism was the seminal experience of the Soviet Union’s very existence, and the victory over Nazi Germany, on 9 May 1945, is celebrated as a national holiday with enormous pomp and ceremony – particularly this year, in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s extravagant Victory Day parade.
World War Two claimed the lives of up to 27 million Soviet citizens, a death toll that dwarfs that of any other country. The USSR suffered between 9 and 11.5 million military casualties, with possibly another 10 million civilian deaths caused by military activity, and famine or disease claiming a further 8 or 9 million lives. Another 14 million Soviet soldiers were wounded during the war.
Among the Soviet Union’s 15 republics, Russia suffered the highest number of casualties, with nearly 7 million military and a similar number of civilian deaths. Ukraine’s death toll was the second highest at more than 1.5 million military deaths and over 5 million from the civilian population.
When Germany invaded the USSR, it did so without making any declaration of war, and with a pre-dawn offensive starting at 4am. The parallels with 24 February 2022 are self-evident. In today’s war, both sides accuse each other of being modern-day Nazis. Russia is drawing heavily on its past wartime messages. Once again, its leadership talks of the fight against fascism, about completing the job it started in the 1940s and freeing Ukraine from neo-Nazis. For their part, Ukrainians are making similar analogies. They refer to Putin as ‘Putler’ – an amalgam of Putin and Hitler, calling Russian invaders ‘Russists’ – a combination of Russians and fascists.
Making the parallels starker still, the excellent BBC podcast Ukrainecast reported last week that a popular Russian Twitter account that traces events from 81 years ago had been attacked by bots and trolls reacting to words like ‘dictator’ and ‘unprovoked attack’. For Hitler and the USSR, read Putin and Ukraine.
The Nazi offensive back in 1941 was a three-pronged attack along a 1,800-mile front. In the north, the German army struck from East Prussia into the Baltic states towards Leningrad. In the centre came an attack pushing northeast to Smolensk and Moscow. And to the south, German troops invaded from southern Poland into Ukraine, heading for Kyiv and from there towards the coast of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
I have written in my blog before about my own family’s experience in Ukraine during the Second World War – my grandmother’s cousin Moishe from Kyiv, a young Red Army conscript who died on 16 October 1944 near Warsaw, at the tender age of just 18. And another of my grandmother’s cousins, Baya, who was in Kyiv when the Nazis invaded. She and her husband were among a group of Jews forced to board a crowded boat on the River Dnieper, which runs through the centre of the city. The boat was then set alight and everyone on board perished.
Other members of my family who lived in the Soviet Union at the time of the German invasion fled to the east, to Uzbekistan. Here the famine and disease that killed so many Soviet citizens during the war were in stark evidence. In the city of Kokand, they survived starvation levels of hunger and epidemics of typhus and other diseases in a city packed to the rafters with evacuees.
And now, once again, millions are at risk of famine as a result of war in Europe, as the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has trapped more than 20 million tonnes of grain that would normally be exported. The tragedy of the war is already impacting millions of people far beyond the borders of Ukraine, making all our futures more uncertain than ever.
It was revealed this month that Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, is working in exile after coming under pressure from the Russian authorities to support the war in Ukraine. His stance marks a sharp contrast with that of most other religious leaders in Russia.
His daughter-in-law, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, tweeted on 7 June that the rabbi and his wife left Russia in March, weeks after the war began, spending time in Hungary and elsewhere in eastern Europe helping fundraising efforts for Ukrainian refugees.
His support for victims of the war raised fears for his safety were he to return to Moscow, according to members of the Russian Jewish community quoted in the Israeli media, and friends have advised him against returning to Russia for now. He is currently in Israel, where he is continuing his official duties in exile.
As head of the Conference of European Rabbis, Goldschmidt delivered a speech in Munich earlier this month attacking the war. “We have to pray for peace and for the end of this terrible war,” he said. “We have to pray that this war will end soon and not escalate into a nuclear conflict that can destroy humanity.” He was accompanied at the conference by several German bodyguards.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been “a catastrophe” for Jews, Goldschmidt told delegates. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews – out of a pre-war population of up to 400,000 – have fled the country. “Our colleagues who built up Jewish communities in Ukraine for the last 30 years gave their lives [to that purpose] and they left very comfortable places like the United States and Israel,” he said. And thousands of Jews have also left Russia since the war began, with another “significant part thinking of leaving,” according to Goldschmidt.
Born in Switzerland, Goldschmidt had served in Moscow since 1989. He was elected chief rabbi of Moscow, which has a Jewish community of around 100,000, in 1993. He was re-elected to the post after his departure from Russia earlier this year.
Other leading rabbis in Russia, in particular the country’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, have stayed in the country even after criticising the war. On 2 March, Lazar called for combatants to “silence the guns and to stop the bombs”, and wrote in a statement, “Stop the madness so that no more people die”. Lazar later criticised Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov for his assertion that Adolf Hitler was of Jewish descent – a claim intended to draw an analogy with Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But he stopped short of condemning President Vladimir Putin, with whom he is believed to have strong ties.
Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia has set itself apart from other religious groups in its open opposition to the war, in particular the Russian Orthodox Church. Its head bishop, Patriarch Kirill, is one of Putin’s most fervent supporters, and has described the Russian dictator’s rule as “a miracle of God”. In early May, Kirill stated that “Russia has never attacked anyone,” and that “we don't want to go to war”. His backing of the invasion has even extended to blessing Russian weapons used in the conflict. In March, hundreds of Russian Orthodox clerics signed a letter protesting at Patriarch Kirill’s backing of the war – at considerable risk to themselves.
The EU attempted to add Kirill to its list of sanctioned individuals over his support for the invasion of Ukraine and for acting as a propagandist for Putin’s regime. However objections from Hungary – an EU member state that has good relations with Russia and is heavily reliant on Russian energy imports – resulted in his removal from the list.
Several heads of Russian Muslim groups, representing millions of congregants, have also endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The most vocal among them is the Chechen Muslim leader, Salakh Mezhiyev. Others who have voiced support include Talgat Tadzhuddin, former head of the Central Muslim Spiritual Board of Russia, Ismail Berdiyev, the Muslim leader of the North Caucasus, and Albir Krganov, leader of Russia's Spiritual Board of Muslims.
Photo courtesy of kremlin.ru archive (2012)
Ever more shocking documentary evidence continues to emerge of Russian atrocities in Bucha, 30 kilometres northwest of Kyiv. The horrors started to come to light in early April after the town’s liberation by Ukrainian forces. According to the latest reports by the BBC, around a thousand bodies have been recovered from Bucha, following nearly a month of occupation by Russian troops, including 31 children. Of these, more than 650 had been shot.
The New York Times last week revealed video footage taken on 4 March, showing a group of nine Ukrainian captives being led at gunpoint by Russian troops. They walked in single file, their backs hunched, each holding onto the clothing of the man in front. At the front and back of the line of captives was a Russian soldier with a gun. They led the men behind an office building. Witnesses heard the gunshots, and drone footage shows dead bodies beside the building, with Russian soldiers standing over them.
And the BBC reported the chilling signs of a massacre in a children’s holiday camp on the edge of woodland in Bucha. Promenystyi, or Camp Radiant, is decorated with mosaics showing happy children against a background of rays of bright sunshine. A basement at the camp was transformed into a torture chamber, where five men were found crouching on their knees, heads down and hands bound behind their backs. They had been tortured and shot. More than a dozen bullet holes were visible in the walls, surrounded by patches of dried blood.
This wasn’t the first time that the basement of a holiday camp had been used as a torture chamber. In nearby Zabuchchya, Ukrainian forces in early April discovered eighteen burnt and mutilated bodies of men, women and children, some with ears cut off, others with teeth pulled out, and many with their hands tied behind their backs. Girls as young as fourteen had been raped by Russian soldiers.
The Russian authorities have repeatedly denied responsibility for the massacre of civilians in Bucha and elsewhere. They have claimed that the reports were staged or faked, as a provocation by Ukraine.
That these horrors are taking place in Europe, in 2022, is hard to fathom. These very same towns and villages were the scene of some of the most terrible atrocities of World War II, events that brought the international community together to declare “Never Again” - an avowal that has been breached all too many times.
I have just finished reading a book of witness accounts of the mass killings of Jews in Ukraine in 1941-44. Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest, spent several years in the early 2000s travelling around the small towns and villages of rural Ukraine seeking out and interviewing hundreds of elderly people who, as children sixty years earlier, had seen, heard or even participated in, the Holocaust by Bullets, in which 1.5 million people were executed.
These were the earliest mass victims of the Holocaust. They were not transported in cattle trucks to concentration camps, but taken on foot, on peasant carts, or in German military trucks, to sites often in or near woodland, just outside the towns and villages where they lived. Here they were shot in large pits or ditches, that they were often forced to dig themselves. They were shot at close range, sometimes face-to-face, but more often in the back. They were murdered in the presence of local residents. Their non-Jewish neighbours, even friends, or school classmates.
Together with an international group of researchers, interpreters, photographers and even a ballistics expert, Father Desbois used forensic evidence, eyewitness accounts and archival material to uncover the burial sites and the brutal stories behind them. His book provides a definitive and harrowing account of a rarely explored chapter in the story of the Holocaust.
I have read and written so much about the Holocaust and the earlier pogroms against the Jews in Ukraine, that I am not easily shocked by accounts of extreme violence. But both the reports of atrocities in Bucha, and the witness interviews conducted by Father Desbois, are agonising to read and have shaken me to the core. That such horrific crimes as those perpetrated in Ukraine again and again in 1941-44 could be repeated now, in 2022, is utterly beyond belief.
Victory Day, on 9 May, is the most solemn and serious of national celebrations in Russia. On this date thirty years ago, I was in the southern Russian city of Voronezh. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the warmest of the year so far after a long, bleak winter. The main street was closed to traffic and it seemed the whole population of the city was outdoors. But the glorious holiday weather didn’t prompt people to shed layers of clothing and relax with picnics and drinks in the city’s parks as they might have elsewhere.
Instead, families walked, silent and sombre, towards the war memorial to lay flowers, three or four generations together. The older men wore rows of medals with multi-coloured ribbons attached to their jackets. Many were dressed in military uniform. The women were togged up in their Sunday best. Children were primped and preened with oversize bows for the girls and buckles and braces for the boys.
Although the holiday celebrated the victory of Soviet forces in the Great Patriotic War – as World War II is known – there was no sense of jubilation. The Soviet Union paid a heavy price for the victory and the war took a terrible toll. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died during the war. Every family lost a son, a brother, a father, an uncle or a cousin.
The pomp and ceremony of today’s Victory Day parade in Moscow add some glitz and glamour that didn’t exist in the immediate post-Soviet era. And of course, the war in Ukraine adds poignance to the occasion. It was no surprise that Vladimir Putin in his Victory Day speech linked the current conflict with the triumph over Nazi Germany. Time and again, he has drawn parallels between the two wars, starting with his bizarre notion of the need for Russia to rid Ukraine of Nazis.
Given the Jewish origins of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who himself lost family members in the Holocaust, the Nazi tag has struggled to stick. But Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent comparison of Zelensky with Adolf Hitler, in an attempt to legitimise Russia’s goal of ‘denazifying’ Ukraine, took the analogy up a notch. Lavrov claimed that Jews had been partly responsible for their own murder by the Nazis because, “some of the worst anti-Semites are Jews,” and Hitler himself had Jewish blood – statements that typify the distortion of history that underpin Russia’s war with Ukraine.
The question of Hitler’s Jewish identity is nothing new – and remains unproven. The issue centres on Hitler’s father, born in Graz, Austria, in 1837 to an unmarried mother. Speculation over who the child’s father was has continued for decades, fuelled by the fact that following the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Hitler ordered the records of his grandmother’s community to be destroyed. A memoir by Hans Frank, head of Poland’s Nazi government during the war, claimed that the son of Hitler’s half-brother tried to blackmail the Nazi dictator, threatening to expose his Jewish roots.
Following worldwide outrage over Lavrov’s comments, and in particular heated condemnation from Israel, the Russian president was forced to issue a rare apology to his Israeli counterpart, Naftali Bennett, rather than risk alienating a country that has been more supportive than most. Israel has been an ally of Russia since the end of the Soviet Union – based in part on both countries’ military interests in Syria and the substantial Russian-Jewish population in Israel – and has faced criticism for failing to join Western sanctions.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid said Lavrov’s comments “crossed a line” and condemned his claims as inexcusable and historically erroneous, while Dani Dayan, head of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Centre Yad Vashem, denounced them as “absurd, delusional, dangerous and deserving of condemnation”. Russia’s foreign ministry hit back, accusing the Israeli government of supporting a neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv. Only time will tell if the war of words leads to firmer Israeli support for Ukraine.
Russian TV host Vladimir Solovyov last week pushed the Nazi narrative further, clarifying a new definition of Nazism to explain the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. “Nazism doesn’t necessarily mean anti-Semitism, as the Americans keep concocting. It can be anti-Slavic, anti-Russian,” he said. To keep its phoney narrative alive, Russia will keep churning out the rhetoric on Nazism in the hope that if it repeats it often enough and loudly enough, more people will believe it. But the longer Putin’s Russia continues murdering Ukrainian citizens and bombarding Ukrainian cities, the more it resembles Hitler’s Nazi regime.
This year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day falls today, 28 April. Yom HaShoah is a national holiday in Israel held on or just before the 27the day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. The date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, when Jewish resistance fighters attempted to halt the Nazis’ final effort to transport the city’s remaining Jews to the death camps at Treblinka and Majdanek, the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.
Further east, in Soviet Ukraine, the Holocaust took a different form. Rather than ghettos and concentration camps, the Nazis used bullets and executions in mass graves on the outskirts of towns and villages.
Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova lived in Zhdanov, a city in eastern Ukraine named after the Soviet politician Andrei Zhdanov. Ten-year-old Vanda hid in a basement when the SS came to take away her mother after the Germans invaded in October 1941. On 20 October 1941, the Nazis executed up to 16,000 Jews in pits dug on the outskirts of the city, including Vanda’s mother and all her mother’s family.
The SS later found Vanda and detained her, but family friends were able to convince them that the little girl was Greek, rather than Jewish. Her father, a non-Jew, managed to get her admitted to a hospital, where she remained until the liberation of Zhdanov in 1943.
Today Zhdanov is known as Mariupol. In a haunting echo of her escape from the Nazis more than 80 years ago, 91-year-old Vanda was forced once again to hide in a basement when the Russian army began bombing the city in early March. She died there on 4 April.
“There was no water, no electricity, no heat — and it was unbearably cold,” her daughter Larissa told Dovid Margolin in an interview with Chabad.org. Although Larissa tried to care for her mother, “there was nothing we could do for her. We were living like animals,” she said. It was too dangerous even to go out to find water as two snipers had set up positions near the closest water supply.
“Every time a bomb fell, the entire building shook,” Larissa said. “My mother kept saying she didn’t remember anything like this during World War II… Mama didn’t deserve such a death”. In her final two weeks, Vanda was no longer able to stand. She lay freezing and pleading for water, asking, “Why is this happening?”. Larissa and her husband dodged the shelling to bury her in a public park near the Sea of Azov. “Mama loved Mariupol; she never wanted to leave,” she said.
Vanda gave an interview to the USC Shoah Foundation in 1998, documenting her life story and Holocaust experience. “We had a VHS tape of her interview at home,” Larissa said, “but that’s all burned, together with our home.”
In 2014, when fighting broke out in Mariupol as Russian separatists threatened to take the city, Larissa and her family – along with many of the city’s Jews – were evacuated to Zhitomir, in the west of the country, with the help of Rabbi Mendel Cohen, the city’s only rabbi and director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Mariupol. The family returned after Ukrainian troops secured the city, but Larissa said there’s no going back this time. She and her family were evacuated by Rabbi Cohen for a second time after her mother’s death.
“I’m so sorry for the people of Mariupol. There’s no city, no work, no home — nothing. What is there to return to? For what? It’s all gone. Our parents wanted us to live better than they did, but here we are repeating their lives again,” she said.
Vanda is the second Holocaust survivor known to have died in the war in Ukraine, after 96-year-old Boris Romanchenko, who was killed during a Russian attack on Kharkiv. He survived the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen.
The full interview is available here
Photo of Vanda and her parents published with permission of Chabad.org
Lightning strikes twice
Ukraine has been in this horrifying situation before. Last time, in 1941, it was the Nazis who invaded, and this time it is the Russians – fellow countrymen back in the days of the Soviet Union – on a bizarre pretext of denazification. To add to the irony, many Jewish Ukrainians who survived the Holocaust of the early 1940s have found refuge from the latest war in – of all places – Germany.
The horrors of World War II will soon drop out of living memory, but they have not done so yet, and for elderly Ukrainians who remember the German occupation, lightning is striking twice. In an interview with The Associated Press, Tatyana Zhuravliova, an 83-year-old Ukrainian Jew, recalled the moment when, as a little girl, she hid under a table to save herself from the Nazi bombing of Odesa, her childhood home. She fled to Kazakhstan to escape the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Odesa and later settled in Kyiv. The same panic gripped her when the Russian air strikes on Kyiv began in February.
Now Zhuravliova has found safety in Germany, the old enemy. She was part of a first group of Holocaust survivors evacuated to Frankfurt by the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The group, also referred to as the Claims Conference, represents Jews in negotiating for compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution, and provides welfare for Holocaust survivors worldwide.
Transporting the elderly, many of whom are very frail, out of a warzone is fraught with difficulties, not least constant shelling and artillery fire. It involves finding medical staff and ambulances in numerous battle grounds, crossing international borders and even convincing survivors, who are ill and unable to leave their homes without help, to flee into uncertainty again, this time without the vigour of youth.
But the risks of staying behind are also high, as the death of 96-year-old Boris Romanchenko shows. Having survived the Nazi concentration camps, he was killed during an attack on Kharkiv.
Once in Germany, the elderly refugees are being settled into nursing homes and the government has offered them – along with several thousand other Ukrainian Jews who have fled the war – a path to permanent residence as part of Germany’s efforts to compensate Jews since the Holocaust.
Another Holocaust survivor recently arrived in Frankfurt, 83-year-old retired engineer Larisa Dzuenko, recalled, “When I was a little girl, I had to flee from the Germans with my mom to Uzbekistan, where we had nothing to eat and I was so scared of all those big rats there. All my life I thought the Germans were evil, but now they were the first ones to reach out to us and rescue us.”
Yuri Parfenov is another survivor of the 1941 massacre of Odesa’s Jewish population. He hid with his brother in a toilet pit when the soldiers came for them, but his mother and 13 other members of his family were among the tens of thousands of Odessan Jews murdered by Romanian soldiers allied with Nazi Germany, he tells The Independent.
Parfenov, who is half-Russian, went on to serve as a tank captain in the Soviet army. Today he is under threat from a Russian invasion aimed at saving Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population from a supposed genocide. “Tell Putin: who are you liberating us from?” he says in Russian – his native language, comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.
Parfenov is one of dozens of Holocaust survivors still living in Odesa, which is home to a large Russian-speaking community. In the 1930s around 200,000 Jews lived in the city, making up a third of the population. Around half managed to escape to the east before Hitler’s Romanian allies occupied the city, murdering more than 25,000 Jews and deporting another 60,000, most of whom perished in camps and ghettos.
“We are a generation of people who lost their childhood. I do not worry about myself, I worry about the next generation,” says 88-year old Holocaust survivor Roman Shvarcman in the same article in The Independent. “When the air raid sirens scream, I try to make it to the basement of my 10-storey building, and I sit in the cold and pray that my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, will have a bright and happy youth…I can’t hold a rifle, I am not a fighter and I am too old, but my weapon is my words against this Russian fascism. It is my weapon to fight,” he says.
His stories of World War II feel horribly familiar in the current conflict. Shvarcman’s family, originally from Vinnytsia, 250 miles north of Odesa, fled in a convoy of civilians under repeated heavy bombing before eventually being stopped by German soldiers and forced to turn around. His family was starved, his sister raped by Romanian soldiers, and his older brother shot. Soldiers ripped him from his mother’s arms, and shot her when she tried to take her child back.
Recent years have seen a flourishing of Jewish life and culture in Odesa, which before the latest invasion had a Jewish population of 35,000. A memorial event in 2018 attended by the German and Romanian ambassadors helped lay to rest the legacy of the massacres in 1941-42. “I wish every rabbi in the world would have the same freedom which I enjoy here. We have 11 buildings in this city, anything we need, the city provides,” Odesa’s chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff tells The Independent.
“It is very painful what is going on for the Jewish community here. For the last few years, we have collected 35,000 people – 35,000 pieces of the puzzle – into one big picture. We built institutions, from kindergartens to nursing homes, from orphanages to a Jewish university. We made this picture, and then we framed it and we put it on the wall. But now it is falling down. Thirty-five thousand pieces of a puzzle scattered across Ukraine, Moldova, Germany and Israel. It is broken.”
The many horrors of Makariv
The Ukrainian town of Makariv, 30 miles west of Kyiv, hit the headlines last week as the first settlement retaken from the Russian army by Ukrainian fighters. The blue and yellow flag flies once again in my great-grandfather’s home town, giving this unremarkable Soviet-style city a symbolic importance that it hasn’t had for many decades.
Makariv, like so many places in Ukraine, has suffered dreadful horrors in the last month. Photos show buildings turned to rubble, burnt-out cars, shops on fire. “Welcome to hell,” the Independent quotes a soldier at the checkpoint saying. Most of the population has fled. Electricity and water supplies have been cut off and little food is available. Municipal offices, a market, school, church and internet tower have all been bombed. The few, mostly elderly, people who remain are scared to leave their homes. A video shows a Russian armoured carrier blowing up a car with an elderly couple inside.
Makariv is known for its bread – a soft, white loaf made from the local wheat. At least 13 workers died when the bakery was shelled earlier this month, around ten more were freed from the rubble.
My great-grandfather, whose name was Meyer Unikow, died just over a century ago, one of three brothers from Makariv who perished within a fortnight of each other during the typhus epidemic of 1919. He is sitting second from the right in the banner photo – taken in Makariv – on the blog page of my website. On the far left is his brother Berl, another of the three who died of typhus.
When Meyer lived there, Makariv was symbolically important for a very different reason. It was the home of an important branch of the Hasidic Twersky rabbinical dynasty. The Makarov (to use the Russian spelling) dynasty was founded by Rebbe Menachem Nachum Twersky in 1837. Meyer was brought up at the Twersky court, where his father and uncle worked, and was educated with the rabbi’s sons.
When Meyer was born in 1873, there was just one synagogue in Makariv. By the end of the century there were six. By this time, almost three-quarters of the town’s population were Jewish. A Jewish savings co-operative was founded in 1912 and in 1913 a Jewish hospital. In 1914, all three of the town’s drugstores, 85 shops, a tavern, two honey factories and two timber yards were owned by Jews.
Five years later, the Jewish population was decimated. In 1919, during the Russian civil war, Makariv witnessed some of the most brutal antisemitic pogroms. Gangs – or banda as my grandmother called them – murdered 20 Jews on 6 July and 15 August that year, prompting most of the Jewish population to flee. The Volunteer Army of General Anton Denikin arrived on 18 August and killed half of those who remained, including 17 members of a Jewish delegation sent to greet them. A further pogrom took place on 6 September.
The website jewua.org quotes Chaim Frimgod, who witnessed Denikin’s pogrom: “On Monday August 18, the Volunteer Army entered Makarov. Jews with bread and salt went to meet them, but this present was rejected. Immediately they began to beat the Jews, they took their boots and dresses off and gave them to local peasants. Jews were caught in the streets and shot. About 50 elderly men were shot during the pogrom. They killed five to six Jews a day. It was impossible to escape from the shtetl. It was impossible to escape from the shtetl as there was risk of being killed on the road out. Bodies of dead Jews lay in the streets, dogs and pigs were nibbling their heads. Afterwards peasants threw the bodies into mass graves in groups of 20-25. About 80 Torah scrolls were destroyed.”
Very few members of the Jewish community ever returned to Makariv. By 1926 the Jewish population had dropped to below 600, from around 4,000 at the turn of the century. Many of them worked on a collective farm that was established in Makariv in the 1920s. During the Holodomor – the great famine that killed millions in Ukraine in 1932-1933 – the collective farm provided food for local children, helping to save their lives. The farm became the scene of mass shootings in September 1941, when Nazi forces occupied the town. More than 100 Jews were murdered in Makariv in July-November of that year.
Just a handful of Jews lived in Makariv when I visited the town in 2005, all of them incomers. No descendants of the families who had been there before the war still lived in the area.
History repeats itself
This evening I was supposed to be attending a candlelit vigil for the people of Ukraine and giving a brief personal testimony. Unfortunately Covid had other ideas, so my words will now be spoken by someone else. It won’t be so personal, but the sentiment is the same. Here is what I planned to say:
My grandmother came from the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles southwest of Kyiv. The area has witnessed untold suffering over the last century, and is suffering once again today. The nearest town to Pavoloch is Bila Tserkva, which has been hit repeatedly by Russian missiles fired towards Kyiv from the Black Sea. Photographs show buildings flattened, the ground strewn with burning rubble. You may have watched the video of a Ukrainian musician playing her piano one last time in a bombed-out apartment before fleeing. That was in Bila Tserkva.
A hundred years ago, this area was a battleground of a different kind, as the Russian Civil War raged across Ukraine. Numerous armies – ‘banda’ as Grandma called them – criss-crossed the land – Communists, Nationalists, Anarchists, anti-Bolsheviks, peasant militias. My family was Jewish and all of these banda were anti-Semitic to a greater or lesser degree. Around 100,000 Jews are estimated to have been murdered during the pogroms that accompanied the civil war, on top of the thousands killed or injured during previous waves of pogroms in the same part of the world.
As well as violence during the civil war, there was hunger. Food had become scarce during the long years of World War l, and inflation soared, making what little there was unaffordable. On top of this, the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain – including from my great-great grandfather, a grain trader – to feed the workers in the towns. Not only did they requisition grain, but also seed, leaving the peasants with nothing to sow crops for the following year. The countryside was left to starve.
Grandma was about 17 years old at the start of the civil war, and an orphan. But she was part of a large household, living with her grandparents, siblings and cousins. Grandma took it upon herself to become the family breadwinner, undertaking terrifying, illegal journeys by train to markets across the region to buy, sell and barter what she could to keep her family alive. Eventually she became a black-market gold dealer, taking gold hundreds of miles across the country to Kharkiv and bringing back hard currency in return. If caught, she would have been shot.
Grandma was a tiny, delicate woman, about five feet tall. She spent three years jumping on and off trains with her contraband goods, often staying away from home overnight. She hated every moment of it. Eventually, in 1924, she could take it no more and made up her mind to leave. She fled to Canada, travelling alone, and with nothing. There she found a job and scrimped, saved, and borrowed to raise enough money to bring the rest of her family over to join her the following year.
One member of her household – her cousin Baya – chose to stay behind. She was a student in Kyiv and engaged to be married. Then, in the summer of 1941, by which time Baya was working as an engineer, the Germans invaded Soviet Ukraine. Baya was one of a group of Jews herded aboard a boat on the River Dnieper, which cuts through the centre of Kyiv. The boat was set alight. There were no survivors. In Pavoloch itself, more than 1,300 Jews were shot in September 1941. Later, in November 1943, when no Jews remained, dozens of men and women – enemies of the Third Reich – were locked inside the synagogue and it was set alight.
One of the biggest massacres of the Holocaust took place on the outskirts of Kyiv in September 1941, when Nazi death squads and their Ukrainian collaborators shot more than 33,000 Jews in two days at the ravine of Babyn Yar. On 1 March 2022, a Russian missile aiming for a nearby TV tower hit the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial site, a strike that killed five people.
For the elderly people of Ukraine who remember the events of 1941, history is repeating itself. To live through such a brutal invasion not once but twice is a tragedy beyond belief.
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.