The Jerusalem Post yesterday published an amazing story about the small town of Bershad, dubbed ‘Ukraine’s last shtetl’. Described as a “drab town 160 miles south of Kiev”, Bershad is located due south of Pavolitch (Pavoloch in Russian), where my family originates, close to the present-day border with Moldova. Its population numbers some 13,000, around 50 of whom are Jewish.
The town initially appears no different from hundreds of other grim Ukrainian towns where a handful of ageing Jews try to keep their traditions alive. My father and I experienced several similar settlements when we were in Ukraine in 2005 to visit our ancestral home and carry out research for A Forgotten Land. We were shocked, in particular, to find that the tiny Jewish community in Makarov – home to a famed dynasty of Twerksy Rabbis, and also to my great-grandfather Meyer – had no idea where the renowned Rabbi’s Court had stood. All were incomers who had not known Makarov before the Second World War.
But Bershad is clearly different, “a living testament to the Jewish community’s incredible survival story – one that has endured despite decades of communist repression, the Holocaust and the exodus of Russian-speaking Jews”.
In marked contrast to the region’s other Jewish communities – in fact to religious communities of any faith, which were harshly persecuted in the Soviet era – the authorities returned the town’s synagogue to the Jewish population in 1946, after the Nazi’s were defeated. While most shtetls were wiped out by the Nazi invasion (the Jews of Pavolitch were rounded up and shot in 1941), Bershad survived owing to its westerly location, which put it under the occupation of Romanian, rather than German, troops during the war. The Romanians were less systematic in their slaughter of Jews. They liquidated neighbouring shtetls, but Bershad (with a pre-war Jewish population of 5,000) became a Jewish ghetto with a population of 25,000. The majority perished, but after the war, some 3,500 remained.
In the post-war era, the community attributes the shtetl’s survival to centuries of coexistence with the gentile population. Bershad’s Jews were workers – metal workers, shoemakers, carpenters and fishermen – whose families had worked alongside non-Jews for generations. Unlike in larger towns, they were not regarded as class enemies, such as intellectuals or merchants.
Bershad’s elderly Jewish population recalls following the traditional rituals and festivals, with the smell of baking wafting from the makeshift matza bakery before Passover and families gathering outside the synagogue to hear the shofar on Yom Kippur.
Most of Bershad’s Jews have emigrated to the US or Israel since the Soviet Union collapsed and exit visas became freely available. The matza bakery has closed; the synagogue is more of a community centre and rarely achieves a minyan; and what remains of the Jewish quarter is disintegrating following a quarter of a century of emigration. The last remaining native Yiddish speaker is considering leaving for Israel. But the fact that Bershad’s Jewish community survived as long as it did is a miracle in itself.
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 delving into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.