For many in the West, Ukraine is just another far off country in middle Europe that is none of our business. But with the huge build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders in recent months and widespread distrust of Russian president Vladimir Putin, fears of an imminent Russian invasion continue to mount. Putin has already chipped away at the country, taking Crimea in 2014 and fomenting war in the east that continues to simmer and leaves parts of the Donbas region – the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – in the hands of Russian-backed separatist regimes.
The West imposed sanctions in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but apart from some disgruntled rhetoric, remained relatively complacent. Today, European and US leaders are busy holding rounds of talks with Putin and his henchmen – attempting to avert a war by means of diplomacy and dialogue – and preparing harsher sanctions. Several commentators have called to mind Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in the 1930s, as Hitler picked off the Rhineland, Sudetenland and Austria. Doing deals with dictators can have terrible consequences.
Ukraine is a complex and diverse nation with a rich Jewish history and up to 200,000 Jews still living on its territory today. The following 12 facts about Jews in Ukraine are taken from a recent article on aish.com.
1. Jews have lived in Ukraine since ancient times.
Jews have been living in the territory of present-day Ukraine since ancient times. The ancient Greek city of Chersonesos, near present day Sevastopol, Crimea, was home to a Jewish community in Roman times, evidenced by archaeological finds including menorahs, oil lamps depicted with a Torah shrine, and graffiti in Hebrew and Greek. One Hebrew fragment even mentions Jerusalem – the only known instance of this outside ancient Israel. One of the menorahs appears to date from the Hellenistic period, making it one of the earliest known to scholars.
2. The Kingdom of the Khazars is said to have converted to Judaism.
Eastern Ukraine was home to the Khazar empire, a kingdom of Turkic people that arose in south-eastern Russia in the 6th century and extended as far west as Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Some accounts indicate that in the 8th century, the Khazar king converted to Judaism and ordered his followers to do so as well. Many Khazars became Jewish, embracing Jewish holidays and Shabbat and keeping kosher. In the Middle Ages, the great Spanish Jewish sage Judah Halevi (1075-1141) wrote The Kuzari, a philosophical tome that imagined discussions between the Khazar king and a visiting rabbi who had persuaded him to convert. The Kuzari is a robust defence of Judaism against critics from other religions and from indifference.
3. Ukraine was a refuge for Jews in the Middle Ages.
Kiev was home to a substantial Jewish community in the 11th and 12th centuries. One entry point in Kiev’s city walls was known as the “Jewish Gate”. There are also references to a Jewish scholar at the time known as Moshe ben Yaakov of Kiev. The Khazar kingdom fell in the 1200s, when Mongol tribes invaded much of present-day Ukraine and Poland. In order to build back power and wealth, Poland invited new residents to move into its territories from the west, primarily from Germanic lands. The invitation attracted Jews who were fleeing massacres in central Europe in the wake of the Crusades and the Black Death. Jews settled throughout Poland, including in areas that make up part of present-day Ukraine, particularly Volhynia, at the intersection of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. By the 1400s, up to 30,000 Jews were thought to be living in 60 different communities across Ukraine, including in Kiev.
4. Ukrainians blamed Jews for their landlords’ greed.
Much of present-day Ukraine became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The territory at that time was an uneasy mix of many different ethnic groups. Much of the farmland and industry in Ukraine was owned by Catholic Polish nobles. The peasants were a mix of Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians and (particularly in the south) Cossacks. Polish landlords and nobles used a system known as arenda whereby agents – often Jewish – managed the land and businesses and collected taxes on behalf of absent landlords. Many of the arenda were in the alcohol trade: brewing, selling alcohol and managing inns and taverns were often seen as Jewish professions. Local peasants blamed the Jews for the abusive or exploitative practices of the landlords, including raising taxes. This was the cause of much of the antisemitism that became entrenched in Ukrainian culture.
5. The Chmielnicki Massacres
A series of Cossack raids began in 1648, aimed at freeing Cossack communities from the domination of Polish landlords. The leader of these attacks was Bohdan Chmielnicki, who agitated for an independent Ukrainian country. Reflecting Cossack culture, Chmielnicki blamed the Jews for his countrymen’s problems. Between 1648 and 1651, Chmielnicki’s followers murdered about 20,000 Jews, destroyed synagogues and desecrated Torah scrolls. Around half of all Jews living in Ukraine fled. Chmielnicki appealed for military aid from Russia and in 1654 much of Cossack-controlled Ukraine became a client state of Russia. Sporadic pogroms continued through the years, most notably in Uman in 1768.
6. Ukraine became the centre of the Pale of Settlement.
In the late 1700s, Russia gained great swathes of territory, much of it home to large Jewish communities. Russia won Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 as well as three tranches of Polish territory, in 1772, 1793 and 1795, making it home to the largest population of Jews in the world. Jews had long been banned from living in most of Russia, and remained unwelcome guests. Catherine the Great confined Jews to the newly acquired territories, creating the Pale of Settlement (Cherta Osedlosti in Russian and Der Techum Ha’Moyshev in Yiddish). A notable exception was the encouragement of Jews to settle in sparsely populated Crimea.
7. Hasidic Judaism started in Ukraine.
The founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) lived just outside the borders of Ukraine, but his disciple Rabbi Dov Ber – the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772) – was responsible for spreading the ideas of Hasidic Judaism and developing it into a distinct religious movement within Ukraine from his base in Mezeritch – incidentally the home town of my paternal grandfather. Within a generation, Ukraine was home to some of the most important and influential Hasidic masters, including Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. Ukrainian Jewish communities embraced Hasidic Judaism, with its emphasis on rigorous religious practice combined with spirituality and an emphasis on infusing religious observance with joy.
8. Thousands of Jews visit Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Ukraine every year.
Perhaps the greatest Hasidic rabbi in Ukraine was Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1811), a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who built a large community in the Ukrainian town of Zlapotol in the early 1800s. He taught that Jews should strive to feel close to God at all times, and that feeling happy is best way to appreciate God’s many blessings. He is buried in Uman, 125 miles south of Kiev. The town has become as a major pilgrimage site for tens of thousands of Jews, who congregate there each year at Rosh Hashanah.
9. The term “pogrom” was coined after riots in Ukraine.
Pogroms broke out in 1881, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, as a consequence of Jewish involvement in the murder plot. Although these weren’t the first massacres of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the frequency and intensity of the mob attacks in Ukraine resulted in the phenomenon being given a new name: pogrom, which means “destroy” in Russian. Pogroms continued sporadically until 1905, when some of the most violent antisemitic attacks followed the release of Tsar Nicholas II’s October Manifesto, which guaranteed all Russian subjects basic political rights. Over 800 Jews were murdered in pogroms in Odessa after the manifesto’s publication. A common element of the pogroms was that police and other authorities did nothing to prevent or stop the violence. Later, the chaos that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 sparked hundreds of pogroms in over 1,300 towns and villages, killing approximately 100,000 Jews. The best known of these took place in the Ukrainian town of Proskurov, where three-days of violence from February 15 1919 killed 1,500 Jews.
10. Modern Zionism was born in Ukraine.
Following the pogroms of 1881, a group of Jewish students concluded that the only way Jews could live in safety was in their own land – the land of Israel. In 1882, they formed the first modern Zionist organization, Bilu. The name was an acronym of the Biblical verse Beit Ya’akov Lechu V’nalcha – “The House of Jacob, come let us go'' (Isaiah 2:5). Bilu raised funds to send 14 university students from Kharkiv to the Jewish agricultural cooperative of Rishon Le-Zion. They lacked farming skills and faced continual violence from Arab raiders, but their experiment in farming in the land of Israel showed other Jews in Europe that it could be done.
11. One and a half million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Before the Holocaust, Ukraine had Europe’s largest Jewish population. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Nazi Einsatzgruppen entered towns in Ukraine and elsewhere, rounded up all the Jews, forced them to dig mass graves, then shot them. The largest Nazi mass-killing in Ukraine – and one of the largest single massacres of the entire Holocaust – took place near Kiev on 29-30 September 1941, when 33,771 Jews were killed at the ravine of Babi Yar. Jews were ordered to assemble in the city centre and marched under Nazi guard – and in full view of the populace – to Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev. Over the following two years, over 60,000 more people were murdered at Babi Yar, including Soviet prisoners of war, Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, and psychiatric patients from a nearby hospital, as well as Jews. Of the approximately 100,000 people murdered at Babi Yar in total, around 60,000 were thought to have been Jewish. After the war, the crimes of the Holocaust were covered up. Babi Yar was largely filled in and only received a memorial 1976. It did not specify that Jews were the primary victims.
12. Ukraine’s president is a Jewish comedian who once played a president on TV.
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in 2019, he wasn’t a politician – though he’d played one on TV. Zelensky was the star of a hit television show there called Servant of the People, in which he played an honest president. His fellow countrymen were sick of corruption, and elected the Jewish actor with a landslide 73% of the vote. When Zelensky came to power, he served alongside Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, making Ukraine the only country other than Israel to have a Jewish president and prime minister. Facing 130,000 Russian troops amassed at his borders, President Zelensky has appealed to the example of the Jewish state: “Both Ukrainians and Jews value freedom, and they work equally for the future of our states to become to our liking, and not the future which others want for us. Israel is often an example for Ukraine.”
For the full article, see https://www.aish.com/jw/s/Ukraine-and-the-Jews-12-Facts.html?s=nb&p=n1
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.