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.
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.