Continuing my series of articles based on books I have read during the lockdown, The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov is a story that attracted my attention as it unites several of my areas of interest. It begins in depression-era Winnipeg – depicting the time and place that my father was born – with the story of Annette Gershon whose father owns a delicatessen on Main Street, close to Selkirk Avenue. This is the area where my father grew up, on Flora Avenue just two blocks from Selkirk, in the old Jewish North End.
And like Annette’s family, my Dad’s parents too had immigrated to Winnipeg from Russia. The North End was where the Eastern European Jews settled, where they recreated the shtetl they had left behind in the Old Country, opening up Jewish bakers, kosher butchers and grocery stores selling all their traditional foods. In the book, the Gershons eat the same dishes that my Dad remembered from childhood – chicken soup, potato knishes, dill pickles.
Annette’s parents had come to Canada before the Russian Revolution, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, who had encouraged anti-Semitic mobs known as the Black Hundreds to rage pogroms against the Jews. They arrived in 1914, the same year that my great-great uncle Menachem Mendl came to Winnipeg with his family, in a race against time for his two sons to avoid conscription to the Russian Army when the First World War broke out.
But here the similarities between my family and the fictional Gershons end. Unlike my family, the Gershons have given up their Jewish customs and traditions, becoming true believers in Soviet-style socialism. In contrast, Menachem Mendl almost didn’t make it out of Russia in time because he had dithered so long, wanting his sons to avoid going into the army, but at the same time unwilling to commit himself to what he called ‘das treyfe land’ – the unkosher country. He was a deeply religious man and feared for the future of Jewish customs in the West.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the Gershons saw it as devastation wreaked by the ills of the capitalist system. Mass unemployment and plunging incomes devasted families, children went hungry and the rate of suicide increased. They longed for the Worker’s Paradise of the Soviet Union where unemployment didn’t exist and the planned economy replaced the cycle of boom and bust.
The book opens with nine-year old Annette trying to stop a train to prevent her father from travelling to the Soviet Union. He plans to go first and bring his family to join him later. This dramatic farewell takes place at a railway station that was central to my grandparents’ lives. My grandfather worked on the railways and he and my grandmother later owned a small restaurant next door called Cooper’s Lunch Bar.
Once, in the Soviet Union the Gershons settled in Odessa and tried to make the best of their new life. Annette was a teenager in 1941 when the Germans invaded. All the Jews who could prepared to leave Odessa ahead of the Nazi occupation, heading for the Urals or Central Asia. All except for Annette’s extended family, who refused to part from their beloved city. Only Annette and her brother departed for Moscow, while her parents remained on the platform at another train station and were still in Odessa when the Nazis invaded.
The tragedy of Ukraine’s Holocaust by Bullets, the shooting of naked men, women and children beside mass graves that they were often forced to dig themselves is too abominable and too well known for me to need to elaborate on it here. But it wasn’t the only form the Holocaust took in Ukraine. There were also random shootings in the streets, groups gathered together then set on fire to burn to death, and some were deported to death camps elsewhere.
The war and the Holocaust decimated Annette’s extended family, leaving her more alone and rootless than ever. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the Jews had enjoyed an unprecedented level of equality and freedom after centuries of repression. But by 1950 the age-old prejudices had crept back and the anti-Semitism of Stalin’s final years left no Jew safe. Model employees with an unblemished record suddenly lost their jobs, accused of imagined crimes or being enemies of the people. Annette’s fate lay in the hands of a merciless State.
During lockdown, I have found my reading dominated by the Second World War, and have been struck by some parallels between that era and this strange period that we are living through now. The second of the wartime books to feature in my blog is The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather, which has the subtitle “The true story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz”. I read it straight after finishing Bart van Es’ fascinating tale The Cut Out Girl about a young Dutch girl whose parents sent her away shortly before being deported to Auschwitz. The Volunteer picks up on their experience.
The book charts the true story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance who agrees to get himself sent to Auschwitz in September 1940 in order to build a rebel army within the concentration camp and lead an uprising against its Nazi oppressors.
Witold succeeds in developing an extensive network of resistance in Auschwitz, but he knows that ultimately a camp rebellion will be impossible without external support. His intention – through numerous oral, written and transmitted reports that he miraculously manages to smuggle out of the camp from October 1940 onwards at tremendous risk to all involved – is to get news of the camp to the Allied leadership. Each report makes the same request: that the Allies make bombing raids over Poland to sever the train lines bringing new transits of prisoners, and to destroy Auschwitz and thereby assist the prisoners with an uprising from within. Witold argued that although the bombing would kill hundreds, it would save the lives of many thousands more over the course of the war.
While the author describes some of the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz, it feels sometimes that these no longer have the power to shock, so familiar are we today with the narrative of the Holocaust. Yet Witold’s reports smuggled out of the camp exposed to the outside world the events that are now so familiar. Just imagine being confronted with the atrocities of Auschwitz for the first time. Gas chambers. Daily transports of Jews being divided between those to be murdered immediately, and those to die a longer, slower death by starvation, hard labour and disease. Emaciated bodies. Random shootings and other acts of extreme violence. Obscene medical experiments.
It is hardly surprising that some dismissed reports of the mass killings as fiction, they must have read like the script of a horror movie. But the Polish resistance in Warsaw took Witold’s reports seriously and used a network of underground couriers to bring news of atrocities committed at Auschwitz to the notice of the Polish government in exile in London and its leader Wladyslaw Sikorski.
The experience of the couriers who carry his reports – transmitted verbally to Warsaw, then written up, microfilmed and sent to London – is an adventure story in its own right, fraught with danger at every turn. One courier, a Polish underground agent by the name of Napoleon Segieda, carried a microfilm with news of the first mass gassings of Jews in May 1942 in a false-bottomed suitcase from Poland via Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Gibraltar and Scotland finally reached London six months later. He called the delay “heartbreaking”. The Nazis had killed nearly a quarter of a million Jews in Auschwitz in that time.
Sikorski repeatedly attempted to engage the British government to pay attention to the horrors committed in Nazi concentration camps in Poland and, from 1942, the mass murder of European Jews. I was deeply shocked to learn how much the Allied leaders knew of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe that they kept from the media and from the public, and refused to act on. Churchill and Roosevelt were both briefed repeatedly about the events taking place in Poland, but failed to comprehend the true nature of Auschwitz and its central role in Hitler’s plans. And from late 1942 reports emerged from other sources that backed up the smuggled information from inside Auschwitz.
The Allied leadership knew what was happening, and yet they did nothing. Churchill over and again dismissed out of hand the idea of bombing the camp and its train lines, finding numerous excuses for inaction – he didn’t want to upset the local population with too many grim images, feared stirring up violent anti-Semitism at home, and was wary of reprisals against captured British airmen. Most damningly, he and Roosevelt believed bombing Auschwitz would a distraction from the overall war effort.
Indeed, in early 1943, the US State Department even instructed its legation in neutral Switzerland to stop sending information from Jewish groups about the situation in Europe as they might inflame the public.
Witold and his comrades continued to conduct their activities in Auschwitz – at huge personal risk and contending with sickness, hunger and deprivation – always with the expectation of support from the Allies that never materialised. Witold could not understand the lack of action, and wondered whether his reports were being intercepted and failing to get through to the Allies. He knew that a major uprising within the camp was destined to failure without help from outside, and several unsuccessful attempts to start a camp rebellion confirmed this belief.
During Witold’s time in Auschwitz, many of his co-conspirators were discovered and killed. Having finally learnt that his reports from the camp had indeed reached the Polish resistance in Warsaw and travelled from there to London, but that international focus was elsewhere and few paid much attention to Auschwitz, Witold lost heart and began to plot his own departure from the camp.
Miraculously, he and a colleague managed to escape in April 1943, but his work was not done. Witold continued his attempts to rally support among the Polish resistance for an attack on Auschwitz. But to his bafflement, his entreaties continued to fall on deaf ears. Few people in Poland were talking about the camp’s role in the murder of Jews, and meanwhile gangs of blackmailers roamed the streets in search of any Jews still in hiding.
From outside the camp, Witold continued to write reports and to work for the Polish underground in spite of his increasing frustration. He survived the war and worked on his memoirs, but his story of futile heroism was forgotten. He was arrested by the Soviet authorities in May 1947 and sentenced to death at a show trial a year later. Had the outside world heeded Witold’s calls, millions of lives could have been saved.
Churchill’s unwillingness to step in to help the Jews, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, communists – all those deemed inferior by the Nazi ideology – brings me back to the current move to reassess many historical figures that have long been celebrated as national heroes. The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the toppling of statues of those who benefitted from the slave trade and colonialism.
The statue of Churchill in London’s Parliament Square was vandalised then boarded up to prevent further damage by anti-racism protestors. Posterity has for too long airbrushed out the uncomfortable bits of history – the racism and bigotry that most of us today can no longer accept. That the tragic death of George Floyd spawned a worldwide movement to highlight inequality and bring institutional racism to the very top of national agendas is testament to how far we have come in 75 years. But it also highlights just how far we still have to go before all lives are considered equal irrespective of colour, creed, nationality or sexual orientation.
Coronavirus has caused the greatest economic disruption globally since the Second World War and, for those of us who did not live through it, this would be our World War moment – a time of sacrifice, when we make huge changes to our own lives to help save those of others. So we were told repeatedly as governments around the world shut down shops, businesses and schools and imposed previously unimaginable restrictions on the lives of their citizens.
The comparison always seemed a glib one. Nothing will ever compare with the untold suffering forced upon hundreds of millions of people in World War Two. Perhaps for those on the front line of this pandemic – our healthcare workers and those looking after the elderly – the comparison may ring true, but for most of us, lockdown has been unusually peaceful. For me personally, the hecticness of everyday life has been stripped away, to be replaced largely with home-schooling and gardening – busyness of a different kind that has forced my blog to take a back seat for the last three months.
But the wartime analogies seeped into me and for this reason most of my reading in recent weeks has centred around experiences of World War Two. Now my children are finally back at school for a couple of days a week, I intend to spend some of my new-found time writing up my thoughts about the books I have read and how I feel they chime with current events.
One book I found deeply absorbing is The Cut-Out Girl by Bart van Es, the tale of a young Jewish girl in the Netherlands who is sent away by her parents in 1942 in the hope of saving her life. Their dream is realised, as the mother and father are deported to Auschwitz just weeks after giving up their adored only child.
Meanwhile young Lientje passes from one Christian family to another, from one town to another, gradually changing from a friendly and vivacious eight-year old to a solitary and withdrawn 11-year old. With her first foster parents she is welcomed as one of the family and able to play outside freely with the other children. Later she is forced into hiding and by 1945 she is kept as a house servant, made to feel unwelcome and suffering abuse.
Lientje’s experience is far from unique in the Netherlands. Unlike other occupied countries, Holland’s socialist and resistance organisations developed networks to rescue Jewish children following the Nazi occupation and place them in hiding. Anne Frank was just one of many Dutch children tucked away in hidden rooms, attics and cellars across the country. Many thousands of hidden war children – Jews who, unlike Anne, were given up by their parents in the hope of saving them – survived, but at great emotional cost.
For me the most shocking aspect of this book is the level of complicity among the local population and the lack of resistance to the Nazi occupiers – in a country that has a longstanding reputation for tolerance. Four-fifths of Holland’s Jews were murdered during the war, more than double the proportion in any other western European country.
Van Es offers several reasons for what he terms “the exceptionally low chance of survival”. The country’s population was largely urban, persecution began early, escape across borders was almost impossible, and registration, aided by the Jewish Council, was efficient. Another factor was help from the local population, thanks to a bounty of 7.5 guilders offered for every Jew caught, which made people all too willing to inform on their Jewish neighbours and helped the local police to exceed the quotas for Jew-hunting set by their German masters.
Added to this, in July 1942 the Dutch Reformed Church refused to make a statement of disapproval about the mass deportation of Jews. It wasn’t until late 1943 that the Church decided to reverse its position and backed active resistance, telling its members to protect their fellow citizens even at cost to themselves. This enabled Jews like Lientje to go into hiding with families in rural areas, which were inherently safer.
The author intersperses Lientje’s wartime experience with the story of his own present-day research, including interviews with Lien, as she is now known, in her 80s. Comparisons between the Dutch countryside of today, connected by wide, well lit motorways dotted with bright car showrooms, contrast with the bleak, flat, empty lands of three-quarters of a century ago. A park close to Lien’s apartment in Amsterdam, where she and the author go for a stroll, was a German military camp during the war, surrounded by barbed wire and embedded with deep concrete bunkers.
Other comparisons between the two eras also resonate. The long period of economic hardship and austerity in Germany that followed the First World War; and now the global financial crisis of 2008, both pushed voters further to the right in the years that followed. This loss of faith in the political centre ground has enabled the election of an American president who is unfit to govern, while emboldening powerful leaders in countries without democratic elections. The blind belief in government propaganda of the last century has transmuted into an unquestioning faith in ‘fake news’ on social media at the expense of expertise and journalistic rigour.
The other obvious parallel is the alarming rise in racism and anti-immigrant discourse and attacks in recent years, including many perpetrated against Jews. But perhaps the demonisation of the Muslim community following terror attacks by Islamic extremists – culminating in President Trump’s attempts to impose a ‘Muslim ban’ – comes closest to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era.
Yet the newly resurgent Black Lives Matter movement brings hope of a rising opposition to anti-immigrant sentiment, and a hope that society will not return to the division of the 1930s and 1940s. Thousands of people around the world, most of them young and many of them white, are risking their own health to attend marches and stand up to racism. The rise in people power has even prompted corporations to make statements and put their money where their mouth is, withdrawing advertising from platforms that are not doing enough to root out racism.
I cannot help but think back to the past, when there were no marches, no boycotts. Anti-Semitism was rife in society and whipped up by propaganda, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, as well as in Germany. The number of citizens standing up to racism was tiny, hardly surprising given that they did so at great risk to their own lives. In the words of the famous 1946 poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
My second and final post based on the publication A Journey through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter looks at issues of assimilation and emigration. The Journey is a fascinating document published last year by a private multinational initiative called Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter aimed at strengthening mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews.
Jewish assimilation in the Russian Empire wasn’t necessarily a question of choice. The government of Tsar Nicholas I enacted measures to refashion and forcibly assimilate the Jewish population. In 1827, it ordered a quota system of compulsory conscription of Jewish males aged 12 to 25 (for Christians it was 18 to 35) to the Tsarist army and made the leadership of each Jewish community responsible for providing recruits.
The selection process was often arbitrary and influenced by bribery, turning Jews against their communal leaders. By 1852–55, so-called happers were tasked with kidnapping Jewish boys, sometimes as young as eight, in order to meet the government’s quotas. As described in my book, A Forgotten Land, the happers spread fear across the Pale of Settlement. Once conscripted, the young Jewish recruits were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, with the result that around one-third were baptised. The drafting of children lasted until 1856.
Other assimilationist measures included the establishment of state-sponsored secular Russian-language schools for Jewish children and rabbinic seminaries to train ‘Crown Rabbis’ who were expected to modernise the Jews. An 1836 decree closed all but two Hebrew presses and enacted strict censorship of Hebrew printing. In 1844 the kahal system of Jewish autonomous administration was abolished. Decrees were also passed on how Jews should dress and the economic activities in which they were allowed to engage.
The Jewish Enlightenment – an intellectual movement across central and eastern Europe promoting the integration of Jews into surrounding societies – helped to further the aims of the tsarist government. Activists known as maskilim were enlisted to censor Jewish religious books, as these were considered to promote fanaticism and be an obstacle to Russification.
A series of laws and decrees improved the situation of the Jews under Tsar Alexander II (1855-81). Conscription requirements became less severe, while some Jews were allowed to reside outside the Pale and to vote. Political and social reforms enabled the first generation of Jewish journalists, doctors, and lawyers to obtain degrees at the state-sanctioned rabbinic seminaries and universities, going on to form the core of a modernised Jewish intelligentsia. Journalists and writers, often from the ranks of the maskilim, began to publish Russia’s first Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian-language Jewish newspapers. Modernist synagogues were established.
But state-sponsored discrimination against Jews continued, as did anti-Semitic articles in the Russian press and the expulsion of Jews deemed to be residing in Kiev illegally. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 triggered a new round of repression, with Jews banned from certain professions and geographical areas, and political and educational rights restricted. Only Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity were exempt from the measures.
By the late 1800s, a small group of prosperous Jewish traders had emerged, but the vast majority of Jews lived a modest existence that often bordered on poverty. According to the Jewish Colonization Society, in 1898 the poor comprised 17-20% of the Jewish population in several provinces of present-day Ukraine.
But worse than the grinding poverty and discrimination were the pogroms. Derived from the Russian verb громить (gromit’), meaning to destroy, pogroms were waves of violent attacks on Jews that took place across the Pale primarily in 1881-82, 1903-06, and 1918-21.
Alexander II’s assassination triggered mobs of peasants and first-generation urban dwellers to attack Jewish residences and stores. Of 259 recorded pogroms, 219 took place in villages, four in Jewish agricultural colonies, and 36 in cities and small towns. Altogether 35 Jews were killed in 1881–82, with another 10 in Nizhny Novgorod in 1884. Many more were injured and there was considerable material damage.
A second wave of pogroms began in 1903 with an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in Kishinev, in which the authorities failed to intervene until the third day. Further pogroms followed Tsar Nicholas II’s manifesto of 1905 that pledged political freedoms and elections to the Duma. The mass violence was orchestrated with support from the police and the army and carried out by the ‘Black Hundreds’ – monarchist, Russian Orthodox, nationalist, anti-revolutionary militants. Around 650 pogroms took place in 28 provinces, killing more than 3,100 Jews including around 800 in Odessa alone.
Jews attempted to resist pogroms in many areas by organising self-defence groups. Many were community-organised, but the Jewish Labour party or Bund also began mobilising self-defence units in the early 20th century.
The 1881–82 pogroms set in motion new political and ideological movements, and led to large-scale emigration. For many Jewish intellectuals, the goal of integration and transformation of communities through education and Russification was now discredited. Some perceived socialism, with its promise of equality, as the solution; others promoted emigration to America or Palestine. By the end of the nineteenth century, both Jews and Ukrainians began to emigrate in large numbers, mostly to North America.
In 1882 Leon Pinsker, a physician from Odessa who had earlier promoted the integration of Jews into broader Russian society, published an influential pamphlet titled Autoemancipation, in which he advocated that Jews establish a state of their own. He proceeded to found the Hibbat Zion movement, which paved the way for the Zionism. In 1882–84 some 60 Jews from Kharkov moved to Palestine, the first mass resettlement of Jews in Israel. From 1897 Zionist circles were established in several Ukrainian cities, making the region a centre of organised Zionism. The Tsarist government was initially indifferent towards the Zionists, but eventually banned them.
According to the 1897 census, 2.6 million Jews lived on the territory of present-day Ukraine. Kiev and some other provinces had a Jewish population of around 12-13%, while in Odessa, Jews made up almost 30% of the population. Of the Jewish population, more than 40% were engaged in trade, 20% were artisans and 5% civil servants and members of ‘free professions’, such as doctors and lawyers. Just 3-4% were engaged in agriculture, in contrast to the vast majority of the Ukrainian population.
Given these figures, the scale of emigration was immense. More than two million Jews migrated to North America from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, mainly from lands that make up present-day Ukraine. Of these, about 1.6 million came from the Russian Empire (including Poland), and 380,000 from provinces of western Ukraine that were at the time part of Austria-Hungary (mainly Galicia). Another 400,000 Eastern European Jews migrated to other destinations, including Western Europe, Palestine, Latin America, and southern Africa. Jews comprised an estimated 50 to 70 percent of all immigrants to the United States from the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1910.
About 10,000 Jews had arrived in Canada by the turn of the century, rising to almost 100,000 between 1900 and 1914, settling mostly in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, the hub of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where my own family settled.
Click here to see the document on which this article is based https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/media/UJE_book_Single_08_2019_Eng.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2D2QAuBtjsIqF1kHi4eRUlxBZT-UFPR3usj0741Cp3nnnouJT1icJGphM
I have just come across a fascinating document published last year by Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter – a private multinational initiative aimed at strengthening mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews – tracing the origins of Jews in Ukraine from antiquity to the 20th century. A Journey through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter is based on an exhibition that toured Canada in 2015 and documents how the stories of these two often antagonistic peoples are intertwined and incomplete without one other.
Ukraine itself is a thoroughly modern concept. Prior to independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country had only experienced two very brief and chaotic wartime glimpses of independence – first in 1918 and again in 1941. The territory of modern-day Ukraine has for many centuries been the home of diverse peoples, including one of the oldest and most populous Jewish communities in the world.
This blog post is a brief and very distilled version of the first part of the Journey and I will continue the story in my next post. I thoroughly recommend following the link at the bottom of this page to read the full document. As well as fascinating historical information, it contains some wonderful photographs and illustrations.
The Jewish presence on Ukrainian lands dates all the way back to antiquity. Jews first came to the area as merchants more than 2,000 years ago and began to settle in the coastal towns of Crimea. These Jews became known as Krymchaks. They were later joined by a Jewish sect known as the Karaites that preserved its ancient Biblical faith while rejecting the Talmud and embracing the practices and the Turkic language of the local population.
Some centuries later, during the early medieval period, travelling Jewish traders and merchants settled in the territory that became Transcarpathia (later in Hungary before becoming part of Ukraine). And around the 9th century Jews fleeing persecution in the Byzantine Empire found safe haven in the Khazar Khaganate, which encompassed Kiev and much of the area to the south and east, where they were accepted as citizens.
The Khazar Khaganate came to an end in the 960s with the creation of Kyivan Rus' (960–1240), a conglomerate of principalities in central Ukraine that united several Slavic and other groups. In 988 Prince Volodymyr adopted the Byzantine Greek form of Christianity as the official religion of Kyivan Rus', and Eastern Orthodoxy has remained the dominant religion in Ukrainian lands ever since. Although Church writings in Kyivan Rus' included anti-Judaic themes, the Kyivan princes welcomed the role Jews played in trade and finance, and from the late eleventh century Kyivan Rus' became a refuge for Western European Jews fleeing persecution by the Crusaders.
After unifying the southwestern areas of Kyivan Rus', Prince Danylo of Galicia-Volhynia invited Armenians, Germans, Jews, and Poles to settle in the area, bringing with them artisanal and commercial skills. Interestingly, my grandmother talked about an Armenian quarter in the shtetl of Pavolitch, where she grew up. Although some miles east of Galicia-Volhynia, its origins may have dated from this era.
In the 13th and 14th centuries small Jewish communities developed in Galicia-Volhynia, and Jews helped establish Lviv as a centre for international trade between Central Europe and lands to the east. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania later assumed control over these regions, affording Jews royal protection, but not granting them the rights of citizens. Jews were subject to a raft of economic measures restricting them to work in jobs such as currency exchange and moneylending, breeding the stereotype of the miserly Jewish moneylender. Jews tended to reside in, and help develop, urban areas, making towns such as Lutsk important centres of Jewish life.
Around the same time, Polish princes offered protection to Jews, welcoming them to settle in Poland. This encouraged significant numbers of Jews fleeing persecution in Western Europe to migrate to Poland. In 1507 the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland granted the Jews a charter of protection that exempted them from the jurisdiction of municipal authorities, and offered security against physical attack and the right to practice their religion.
These protections prompted Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central Europe to migrate eastward in significant numbers, living among local Christian Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. Small communities of these Ashkenazi Jews could be found in several northern Ukrainian towns, in contrast to the earlier Jewish inhabitants there, whose primary language was probably Slavic.
Further east, the Crimean Khanate covered much of present-day central and eastern Ukraine from the 15th to 18th centuries. As elsewhere in the medieval Muslim world, Jews in the Crimean Khanate were considered a tolerated monotheistic minority and were allowed to engage in commerce and freely practise their religion, as long as they accepted a subordinate status and kept a low profile.
The largest migration of Jews eastward into Ukrainian lands came as a result of Poland’s territorial expansion and colonising efforts following the Union of Lublin in 1569, which united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795).
In the Commonwealth, Polish nobles established around 200 private towns around their estates, which attracted considerable numbers of Jews. Jews often administered the nobles’ estates, managing the land, mills, taverns, distilleries, and wine-making operations. They also collected taxes for the Polish nobles and provided credit to both the landlords and peasants. Jewish merchants and artisans, driven out of several Polish cities by their economic competitors, also settled in these towns where they established regular markets and fairs. Jews often found themselves caught between the nobility, who expected them to maximise profit, and the peasants, who resented the economic burdens imposed on them.
Between 1569 and 1648 the number of Jews in the provinces of Volhynia, Podolia, Kyiv, and Bratslav increased from 4,000 to 52,000, encompassing 115 localities. Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gained significant autonomy with Jewish regional councils and a central body of Jewish self-government.
Each Jewish community (kehilah) had its own kahal, or administration, run by leading members of the Jewish and Rabbinical community. Each kahal sent representatives to meetings of a national Jewish council, the Va’ad (or Sejm in Polish) which represented the Jews of the Commonwealth before the king and the Polish parliament. The council also debated and legislated major religious and socio-cultural issues, organised responses to attacks on Jews, served as a high court of appeal for Jewish community courts and apportioned among the communities liability for the collective tax on Jews.
It was in the small market towns owned by the nobility of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that Jews created the shtetl culture mythologised in Jewish folklore. Shtetl is a Yiddish word of Germanic origin meaning ‘small town’ and commonly refers to a small market town with a large Yiddish-speaking Jewish population, which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It is distinct from a dorf (village) and from a shtot (large town, city). A shtetl would generally have between 1,000 and 15,000 Jewish inhabitants, comprising at least 40 percent of the town’s population.
The shtetl was home to all classes of Jewish society, from wealthy entrepreneurs to petty shopkeepers, innkeepers, shoemakers, tailors, water carriers, and beggars. Cultural life was regulated by the Jewish religious calendar and traditional customs, characterised by attitudes, habits of thought, and a unique rhetorical style of speech full of allusions rooted in Talmudic lore. Despite widespread poverty and episodes of anti-Semitic violence, the shtetl produced a vibrant folk culture and a remarkably expressive language, Yiddish.
The Polish lands where so many Jews had settled became part of the Russian Empire during the partitions of Poland under Catherine the Great in 1772–95. Since the late ﬁfteenth century, Jews had been forbidden to settle in Russia, but with the annexation of Polish territories, Catherine became the ruler of the largest Jewish population in the world. Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers and hoping to benefit economically from Jewish trade, Catherine resisted pressure from the Orthodox Church to expel the Jews and settled on a compromise. She created the Pale of Settlement.
Jews were barred from Russian cities and restricted to living in the formerly Polish lands, territory that falls within present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Some assimilated Jews received special permission to live in the major imperial cities (including Kyiv), others took up residence in the cities illegally. The Pale lasted until the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.
Click here to see the document on which this article is based
The Ukrainian city of Odessa is enjoying something of a Jewish renaissance, as the opening of the former Soviet Union’s first kosher drinking den in the city testifies. The succinctly named Kosher Bar opened in the cosmopolitan city’s port area in August. Its look is sleek and modern, with a zigzag marble counter and smart sofas with a patio and dance floor. The music ranges from Israeli dance rock to mournful Hassidic tunes.
The cocktails are named after famous local Jews. Try a Sholem Aleichem – a playful fruity concoction of tequila, pineapple juice, lemon and syrup – in honour of the famed Yiddish writer. Or a Meir Dizengoff – an azure gin froth-topped cocktail designed to evoke the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, in memory of the first mayor of Tel Aviv who spent his formative years in Odessa.
While it’s true that Odessa was already home to several kosher restaurants that serve kosher-certified alcohol, a bar with its own signature house drinks that is completely kosher has never existed before in the former Soviet Union, according to the Ukrainian-Israeli businessman behind Kosher Bar.
And, some might say, for good reason. Having to import many ingredients from Israel pushes up costs, making a drink here unaffordable for many. And closing on Shabbat means the bar can’t cash in on some of the most profitable weekend trading hours, while Passover dietary laws affect the types of drink the bar can serve during the popular spring holiday period.
While Kosher Bar may be Odessa’s first… well… kosher bar, the city’s contemporary wining and dining scene has been attracting plaudits in recent years, including for its trendy Jewish cuisine. Try Dizyngoff – or Dizzy to its regulars – named after that mayor again, a hipster Israeli-Parisian-Asian fusion restaurant located not far from Kosher Bar and close to the city’s famous Potemkin steps. The menu is heavily, although not exclusively, Israeli-influenced and original Jewish-themed cocktails feature again. Anyone for a Damascus Gate or Purim Spiel?
The founders of establishments in this new wave of Jewish bars and restaurants are part of a generation of western-educated Odessans who are coming back to the city after living abroad. Kosher Bar’s owner is a Ukrainian-Israeli businessman based in Jerusalem. His family immigrated to Israel from Odessa when he was a child. One of Dizyngoff’s founders studied hotel management and culinary arts in Switzerland and France, completing her studies at the Ecole Gregoire-Ferrandi in Paris.
“Deep inside of ourselves, figuratively speaking, we consider ourselves to be Orthodox Jewish hipsters. The Orthodox have an answer to every question in life, they are the happiest people you will ever meet,” another of the restaurant’s owners told Tablet in an interview soon after the restaurant opened in 2016.
Odessa has long been considered the cradle of Israeli culture, and now Israeli culture is returning to Odessa. Long before the State of Israel was founded, the Jewish community in Odessa raised money to buy the land where the city of Tel Aviv was established. And the Ukrainian city’s geography formed a partial blueprint for Tel Aviv’s town planning.
With a Jewish population of close to 200,000 – about a third of the city’s total – before World War II Odessa was one of Eastern Europe’s most prominent Jewish cities and a cultural hub. It was here that modern Hebrew was born in the poems of Shaul Tchernichovsky. Also born in Odessa were essayist and Zionist intellectual Ahad Ha’am and Israeli national poet Haim Nahman Bialik.
The Jewish population is down to under 50,000 now, mostly secular and from mixed families. But signs of the city’s Jewish past are everywhere. Jewish staples like forshmak and tzimmes feature on the menus of Odessa’s historical and upmarket restaurants, even though the waiters often know nothing about the origins of these dishes. Visiting Odessa back in 2005, my father and I dined on blintzes and knishes, evoking memories of my Ukrainian grandmother’s home cooking.
Today a robust tourist trade between Ukraine and Israel is developing as growing numbers of visitors from both countries take advantage of visa-free travel. Cultural exchanges have become common, with Odessa hosting numerous Israeli events and an Israeli cinema week. And Jewish religious life in Odessa is also undergoing something of a revival too, with its Brodsky synagogue – once the largest in the south of the Russian Empire – returned to the Jewish community a few years ago after a century of state ownership.
Like most people, until recently I had never heard of Rhea Clyman. But now that I have, I stand and applaud her. Her story deserves to be more widely known.
Clyman was a young Canadian journalist who broke through so many boundaries of her age. Born in 1904 in Poland to a poor Jewish family, she and her family emigrated to Toronto two years later. Here she lost part of her leg in a road accident as a young child. Forced to leave school after her father’s early death to help support her family, she worked as a child labourer in a factory, but refused to let poverty and disability stand in her way. She augmented her meagre schooling by teaching herself in the hope of one day becoming a journalist – in itself an unusual career for a girl at that time, let alone one of her background.
In the 1920s she moved from Canada to New York and then to London, Paris and Berlin, where she witnessed and reported on the rise of Hitler. In 1928, aged just 24, she headed east again, to Moscow, where she learnt Russian and began working as a freelance reporter for the Daily Express in London and the Toronto Evening Telegram. She lived with a Russian family and travelled unaccompanied, experiencing the hazards of daily life under Stalin. Her travels took her north to see first hand the labour camps of Karelia. Her Russian boyfriend had been arrested and sent to Siberia for dealing in foreign currency.
On a three-week road trip through Ukraine in 1932, Clyman witnessed and exposed one of the most shameful events of the 20th century, the deliberate mass starvation of millions of Soviet citizens in Ukraine, an event now commemorated as the Holodomor. While other foreign journalists reported on the famine, few saw what Clyman had seen, for most were only able to visit the areas affected by the famine as part of an organised group whose experiences were limited to what the regime allowed them to see.
Clyman wrote of seeing starving peasants on the streets of Kharkiv, where children were eating grass to stay alive and thousands were executed as punishment for the theft of a few ears of corn. On the same trip, she drove through the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where today the war between Ukrainian troops and Russian separatists lingers on, reporting on the tough conditions suffered by miners and their families.
Eventually she reached Tbilisi, Georgia, where the secret police were waiting for her. Clyman was arrested by the OGPU – a precursor to the KGB – accused of spreading disinformation (what today we would label Fake News) and forced to leave the Soviet Union. News of her expulsion was carried by hundreds of newspapers around the world.
The Soviet authorities denied the existence of the famine, and it is thanks to foreign journalists like Clyman that the Holodomor became public. It is impossible to accurately gauge how many people died of starvation in central and eastern Ukraine in 1932-33, but historians estimate the figure was between 3 and 10 million, and the Holodomor is widely recognised as genocide and a crime against humanity.
From London, Clyman continued to publish articles about her trip through what she described as the “Famine lands of Russia” and the atrocities of Stalin’s dictatorship until departing once again for Germany to report on the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II. As a Jew writing about Nazi anti-Semitism, it was too dangerous for Clyman to remain in Germany. She escaped to Amsterdam by plane with a group of refugees, surviving a deadly air crash in the process. The rest of her career was spent in Montreal and New York, where she died in 1981.
Rhea Clyman is now the subject of a film, Hunger for Truth. Watch a trailer here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hungerfortruth
And her story will soon feature in a book by Jars Balan, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.
I have just watched a fascinating little documentary about Fania Brantovskaya, now in her 90s, who conducts walking tours of old Jewish Vilnius (Vilna) in Yiddish.
Listening to her speak I was vividly reminded of my own grandmother, Pearl, and the recordings my father made of her talking about her life back in Russia. Fania’s intonation, the cadence of her language, mirror almost exactly my grandmother’s speech.
Fania was born in 1922. She had just started university in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Vilna. She tells how two Lithuanian policemen knocked on her door at 6am on 6 September and told her family they had to move into the ghetto, giving them just half an hour to pack.
Fania lived with her parents and sister in a crowded apartment shared with four other families. She points out their three windows, on the middle floor of a large three-storey building. Fania guides us past the hospital, school, theatre and library that continued to function within the ghetto walls. Indeed, the Vilna ghetto was known as the Jerusalem of the ghettos for its intellectual and cultural richness. But death was never far away, with regular deportations from the ghetto to Ponary, now Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.
Fania’s father changed her birth date to make her appear four years younger than she actually was, enabling her to avoid the call up to work in the Nazis’ forced labour camps. Instead she joined the United Partisan Organisation that was formed in the ghetto in January 1942 by the poet Abba Kovner, among others, as a means of Jewish self-defence and to sabotage German industrial and military activity.
The partisans smuggled arms, food and medicine, and found ever more ingenious ways of doing so. Chimney sweeps carried guns in false-bottomed cases, while wounded men and women hid supplies in their bandages. Fania worked as a messenger, using the slogan “Lisa is calling,” in honour of a partisan who had died early during the resistance.
After more than two years in the ghetto’s stifling narrow streets, in September 1943 Fania managed to escape to join other partisans living in the forest a two-day march away. She couldn’t have known at the time, but her escape was to precede the liquidation of the ghetto by just a few hours. Fania never saw her family again. They were divided up and taken to different concentration camps across the area, where they perished.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, Fania lived in the forest, where she and her fellow partisans continued their struggle against the Nazis and their local collaborators. They lived in tents and underground shelters dug from the earth, with walls of wooden planks and foliage pulled over for cover, sleeping on pieces of wood covered with spruce branches. They had very little to eat, surviving mostly on grain flour donated by local people and hot water. Some locals would willingly give them food, she says, but others would not. Nevertheless, after two years in the ghetto, Fania says, the forest made her feel like a human being again.
Today Fania works as a librarian at the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, where she created a collection of Yiddish books. She leads walking tours of the city of her youth, keeping alive the language and memory of her family and the tens of thousands of other Vilna Jews murdered at Ponary and elsewhere.
Fania is one of just two or three thousand Jews living in Vilnius today, a city that had been a major Jewish population centre for over four hundred years. Around 70,000 Jews were resident there by 1941, close to half the city’s population. Through much of its history, Vilna was a hub of Jewish culture and learning. The definitive edition of the Talmud was printed on the Vilna presses, the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—known as the Vilna Gaon—was one of the most authoritative Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages. And YIVO, an organisation dedicated to the study of Yiddish life and language, was founded in Vilna.
After the war, Vilnius became part of the USSR, as capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I visited in 1989, shortly before Lithuania finally gained lasting independence. Even in Soviet times, the city had a lively and attractive air, but it has changed a lot since then--the historic centre has been restored and a buzzing arts and entertainment culture has taken root. It must be time for a return visit, before Fania and her walking tours are no more.
The documentary, by Edita Mildazyte, can be viewed here:
The tiny settlement of Anatevka is a pretty interesting place. Located just outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev (Kyiv), it is a rare example of a modern-day shtetl, built for Jewish refugees fleeing the war in Eastern Ukraine. It’s also an attempt to revive the Jewish communities and way of life that existed in these parts before they were torn apart by pogroms and, later World War II.
If the settlement’s name sounds familiar, that’s because Anatevka was also the fictional home of the iconic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s most famous character – Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof. Bizarrely Anatevka has become interesting for another reason too: it is playing an unlikely role in the impeachment story of President Donald Trump.
Anatevka was founded in 2015 by Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, a large burly man with a bushy beard, and an ardent Trump supporter. In its early days, the nascent village was built almost entirely of wood, as so many Eastern European shtetls were, with a three-storey wooden synagogue including two mikvahs (ritual baths), a residential block with 20 apartments and a shared kitchen. A brick-built school, apartments, a clinic and an orphanage soon followed.
The facilities are built largely by local residents – builders, carpenters and tradespeople who were forced out of their homes by gunfire, rockets and bombing in cities like Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol – who earn a small salary for their work. Those without building skills take on other roles like preparing food, working in the school or looking after the synagogue.
Rabbi Azman used his own money and funds raised from private donors to create not just a refugee centre but a living, breathing community based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance – a spiritual as well as physical revival of the shtetl. The village continues to rely on donations, mostly from the US. “I’m in debt to my eyeballs, but I’m not afraid because this is God’s mission. Besides, each day that Anatevka is running is another day that my community lives in dignity. Builds a future. You can’t put a price tag on that,” Azman told The Times of Israel in 2016.
Around 30 families now live in Anatevka, and some 200 pupils attend school there, the majority from Azman’s old community in Kiev. A high fence surrounds the village and entrance is through a brown, metal gate with military guards.
Not everyone here is a practising Jew, indeed several are not Jewish at all but have a Jewish wife or husband. The majority of Jews who fled Eastern Ukraine are secular. “We don’t force anyone to become a practising Jew,” Azman says. But there are rules people must obey if they want to live in Anatevka. In public, all residents must respect the Sabbath and dress modestly, although behind closed doors they are permitted to do as they like.
So how did this tiny Jewish community become embroiled in a political scandal half way across the world? Bizarrely, Anatevka’s honorary mayor is none other than embattled Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. The settlement found itself at the centre of an aborted effort to get the former mayor of New York to come to Ukraine in May for a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect, whom he planned to push for investigations that would help President Donald Trump politically.
Giuliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are board members of the American Friends of Anatevka, a charity raising funds for the village. They allegedly introduced Giuliani to several Ukrainian officials as part of a pressure campaign to convince Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden. Parnas and Fruman stand accused of funnelling money, much of it allegedly of foreign origin, into Republican campaigns in the US. Both pleaded not guilty on 23 October to four counts of campaign finance violations in a federal court in New York City and are now awaiting trial.
I have written before about the revival of the Yiddish language, in particular in the US where a hit Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof is currently running in New York.
But many will be surprised to learn that Yiddish lives on in parts of Eastern Europe too, in a few isolated communities that survived the Holocaust and its destruction of a once vibrant Jewish culture.
A group of linguists and historians from Indiana University spent seven years from 2002-2009 interviewing nearly 400 elderly Yiddish speakers across rural Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia and documented their journeys in photographs and video. They named their project AHEYM meaning “homeward” in Yiddish, and doubling up as an acronym for “Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories.” In subsequent years AHEYM expanded its work into Latvia and Poland.
The project is led by linguist Dov-Ber Kerler and historian Jeffrey Veidlinger and explores Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II. The interviews cover a range of topics, including family and religious life, community structure, cultural activities and recreation, education, health, food and folklore, as well, of course, as harrowing tales of Holocaust survival and life under the Communist regime. They include musical performances, anecdotes, jokes and folk remedies. Some present guided tours of local sites of Jewish memory.
These testimonies bring to life the story of those Jews who stayed behind. The interviewees were mostly born between 1900 and 1930 – they would have grown up in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and not only survived the Holocaust, but rebuilt their lives in the very places where some of the most horrific events of the 20th century occurred.
The majority of Jews who survived the war in Eastern Europe soon abandoned the shtetl and the Yiddish language, following the call of the metropolis or a life abroad, where they lost many of the local customs and practices that had defined Jewish identity in the shtetl.
But a small number of Jews came back to these small communities after the war. Some returned after evacuation – often to a different town from the one they had left, others came out of hiding. Some literally crawled out of mass graves to reclaim their lives.
The AHEYM team has catalogued, annotated, and translated into English nearly 800 hours of videotaped interviews in Yiddish with such survivors. The recordings are preserved at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music and form part of the EVIA Digital Archive Project.
Most of the video clips lack English subtitles, but even as a non-Yiddish speaker I found them addictive. I can’t understand much of the content, but I recognise the accents and the cadence of the language. They recall the recordings I have of my own grandmother telling stories similar to many of those in the AHEYM archive. Some of the videos are funny, some are strange and of course, some are chillingly harrowing.
“When they called us here for work, how could we have imagined that they would murder us?” remembers an old man near Berdichev. “My mother asked me to watch the bread while she went to work. That’s what saved my life and that’s why I bake bread every day, in honour of my mother who kept me alive with her request.”
Visit the AHEYM website for more information: http://www.iu.edu/~aheym/index.php
A selection of the videos is available on the AHEYM Facebook page
And a full list of the recordings can be found here http://eviada.webhost.iu.edu/atm-subcollections.cfm?sID=69&pID=162
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.