Ukraine Embraces its Jewish Minority, and Reckons with its Traumatic History

In embracing its Jewish minority, Ukraine exhumes long-buried secrets

Ukraine Embraces its Jewish Minority, and Reckons with its Traumatic History
Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends the commemoration ceremony for the victims of Babyn Yar (Babiy Yar) on the 80th anniversary in Kiev, Ukraine on Sept. 29, 2021 / Ukrainian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

After encircling the Soviet Red Army in late September 1941, Nazi forces captured Kyiv and promptly posted notices ordering Jews to gather near a place known as “Grandmother’s Ravine,” or “Babyn Yar” in local parlance. Days later, locals watched long columns of people shuffle past. On Sept. 29 and 30, SS-led forces gunned down nearly 34,000 Jews — not including children, who were often buried alive as Nazi policy forbade wasting bullets on them — and dumped them into the ravine. By the end of the war, some 100,000 dead, including thousands of Ukrainians and Roma, lay in the mass grave at Babyn Yar.

“Any normal human being will have strong feelings on a day like this,” 82-year-old Gennady, a retired engineer, told a journalist on the vast, park-like grounds of the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial on the 80th anniversary of World War II’s deadliest massacre.

Moments earlier, on a broad path leading to the main Soviet monument to the massacre, Orthodox priests in white robes lit candles and called for a minute of silence. Dozens of elderly Ukrainians, many holding a single, long-stemmed red rose, then clambered up concrete steps to the massive sculpture as a loudspeaker broke the stillness of the crisp, clear morning with an old Soviet tune about Nazi murderers.

“Here, where they killed so many innocents,” Gennady added, “how can you not be sad about it, and feel anger toward those who killed them?”

2021 is shaping up to be a watershed year for Ukraine’s Jews — a reckoning with the past and an overdue embrace of a long-suffering minority.

That sadness and anger may be the driving force behind plans to vastly expand the Babyn Yar memorial and a series of other Ukrainian initiatives that appear to finally lay out the welcome mat for the country’s Jews. The sociopolitical landscape has been opening up to them for some time, but 2021 is shaping up to be a watershed year for Ukraine’s Jews — a reckoning with the past and an overdue embrace of a long-suffering minority.

Jews are thought to have arrived in what is now Ukraine in the fourth century, settling in Crimea and along the Black Sea coast. They soon began to migrate inland, even converting some Turkic tribes of the Khazar Khaganate. After the Rurik Prince Sviatoslav took Kyiv from the Khazars in the mid-10th century, Jews began settling in the new capital of Kievan Rus’ — the motherland of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. Many moved west to Galicia, where they established a thriving and fast-growing community, while the Jews who stayed carved out their own district in 11th-century Kyiv. The Rurik leaders took kindly to them, placing some in key administrative and financial posts. When Yaroslav the Wise, Sviatoslav’s grandson and perhaps the greatest of the Rurik dynasty, built three fortified entrances into Kyiv about a millennium ago, he named one of them the Jewish Gate.

Darker days arrived with the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the mid-17th century, when Cossacks and Crimean Tatars embarked on a decadelong campaign of violence against Jews, as well as Catholics. In the late 18th century, most of Ukraine was included in Catherine the Great’s Pale of Settlement — the vast, underdeveloped region the Russian Empire set aside for Jews.

Despite several brutal Cossack-led pogroms in the 19th century, Ukraine’s Jewish community continued to grow. By 1900, several major cities, including Odessa, Dnipro and Chernivtsi, were more than a third Jewish. But these numbers began to decline as wave after wave of pogroms shook the southern Russian Empire in the early 20th century.

From 1917 to 1921, the period surrounding the Russian Revolution, Jews in Ukraine suffered more than 1,000 pogroms, killing as many as 30,000. Two decades later, the Nazis presented their final solution. In the weeks after the Babyn Yar massacre, German-led forces killed 50,000 more Jews in and around Odessa. In the end, no people suffered more during World War II than the Jews of Ukraine: as many as 1.5 million killed, a quarter of all Holocaust dead. The war’s end improved their lot, barely. From its early days, the Soviet Union marginalized Jews, taking away their synagogues, schools and traditions. After WWII, Josef Stalin declared war on “rootless cosmopolitans,” code for Jewish people. Jews across Ukraine and beyond lost their jobs and were refused entry to colleges and universities.

From 2.7 million in 1941, Ukraine’s Jewish population fell to 840,000 by the late 1950s and less than half a million by the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally free to depart, a quarter of a million Jews left Ukraine in the 1990s. Ukrainian emigrants began to dominate the diaspora. Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, was born in Kyiv. “Fiddler on the Roof” author Sholem Aleichem grew up just outside the capital before fleeing to New York in 1905. Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, Noam Chomsky, Roseanne Barr, Jon Stewart, Carl Sagan, Mel Brooks and many more, also have Ukrainian roots.

The shift toward making Ukraine feel more like home likely began with the 2012 opening of the $100 million Menorah Center in Dnipro, which includes a Holocaust museum, a synagogue, kosher restaurants and Jewish research institutes. The center, which is shaped like the Jewish candelabra and said to be Europe’s largest Jewish community center, was built by Jewish billionaires Gennadiy Bogolyubov and Igor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky, who was named governor of Dnipro in 2014, soon drew considerable praise for helping halt the advance of Russia-backed separatists who had taken chunks of Ukrainian territory to the east. (In March, the U.S. sanctioned Kolomoisky for corruption, barring him from entering the country.)

In 2015, Ukraine’s president participated in the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and a Jewish politician, Volodomyr Groysman, was named speaker of Parliament. The next year Groysman became Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister. A 2018 study by Pew Research Center found just 5% of Ukrainians would prefer not to have Jews as fellow citizens, the lowest among all 18 countries surveyed (Russia, 14%; Greece, 16%; Romania, 22%). A Pew study the next year found that 83% of Ukrainians had a favorable opinion of Jews, again better than any other country in the region and a 15% increase from 2009.

Antisemitic attacks and acts of vandalism have been in steady decline in Ukraine for more than a decade. When in 2019 Zelensky announced his campaign for the presidency, the greatest outcry was not from the Orthodox church or Ukrainian nationalists, but from fellow Jews. Leaders like Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the chief rabbi of Dnipro, expressed fears of future pogroms should Zelensky falter in office. But religion played no part in the campaign, and two years into his term, Ukraine has instead accelerated in the other direction.

In January, the government approved plans for a $100 million, two-museum memorial at Babyn Yar, slated to be the world’s largest Holocaust shrine, at more than 320 acres. In May, the country marked its inaugural Day of Remembrance for Ukrainians who saved Jews during WWII on the same day its top rabbi inaugurated a new synagogue at Babyn Yar. In July, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa won the Golden Eye for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival for his film about Babyn Yar and the Holocaust in Ukraine. Later that month, Zelensky seemed to make the Babyn Yar memorial a top priority when the president’s close adviser, Andrii Yermak, head of the presidential administration, was tapped to be the lead government liaison to the memorial building committee.

Ukraine is also a spiritual center for Hasidic Judaism. Israel ben Eliezer, or Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hasidism, is buried in Medzhybizh, while Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was born in Medzhybizh and buried in Uman. After a sharp, pandemic-driven decline in the number of pilgrims visiting Nachman’s grave for Rosh Hashanah last year, Uman saw near-record visitor numbers this year, with an estimated 30,000 Hashidim attending in early September.

Soon after, Ukraine’s Parliament passed a law banning antisemitism. As of early October, the law was awaiting final approval from Zelensky, who lost family members in the Holocaust.

Add it all up, and Ukraine’s Jews are witnessing an unprecedented embrace. “Jews are more accepted today in Ukraine than at any time in its history,” said David Fishman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America who teaches in Kyiv and has written about Ukraine’s Jews. The qualifier is that fewer Jews in Ukraine means they are less noticeable, and that, given recent political developments, Ukrainians now tend to blame many of their problems on Russia.

Also, while attacks on Jews are rare, antisemitic attitudes and stereotypes persist, according to Fishman. Artem Ryzyhkov, an award-winning, Kyiv-based visual artist and cinematographer who was among those strolling the Babyn Yar grounds on the 80th anniversary, concurred. “Go to the market and ask people, ‘What do you think about Jews?’ ” he advised. “They will tell you dirty jokes about Jews and money.”

Still, the war with Russia in eastern Ukraine seems to have spurred a shift in national identity, from stressing Ukrainian ethnicity to stressing Ukrainian citizenship. “Thanks to Putin, there are now Ukrainian Jews,” is how the chief rabbi of Kyiv put it in 2016. Most Jews who remained in Ukraine did so because of strong familial bonds, according to Fishman, who agrees that the war with Russia boosted their sense of patriotism. Setting aside the spike in 2014, when the conflict led to higher Jewish emigration, departures have slowed to a trickle of 2,000 to 3,000 per year. Meanwhile, Jews from Israel and the U.S. are increasingly booking “roots tourism” trips to Ukraine.

Today, some 80,000 to 350,000 Jews live in Ukraine, depending on who is counting, and an increasing number seem to view it as another homeland, outside the Holy Land. “After leaving to many countries for many years, Jewish communities here are remembering and recognizing their roots, their family roots, their traditional roots in Ukraine,” said Igor Shchupak, head of the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies.

The next big hurdle is the Babyn Yar memorial, which is slated for completion in 2025 but has been plagued by controversy. Many Ukrainians fear that Ukrainian Jewish oligarchs’ significant financial backing for the project could enable Russian influence. Two of the billionaires planning to fund the memorial, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, appear on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fishman sees such fears as unfounded, pointing out that the chair of the memorial committee — Natan Scharansky, a one-time resident of the Soviet gulag and a former deputy prime minister of Israel — is unlikely to be pushed around. In addition, Ukraine’s parliament last month passed a law curbing the influence of oligarchs, suggesting governmental vigilance on this matter. The real issue, according to Fishman, is Ukrainians’ desire to avoid acknowledging that some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, including at Babyn Yar. “Anyone who mentions this sad and unfortunate fact is branded a tool of Russian influence,” he said.

In his deeply researched book, “Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine,” Brown University history professor Omer Bartov details how the Jews of Galicia, in western Ukraine, were first killed and chased away by the Nazis, then saw their existence denied by locals in service of Ukrainian nationalism. “Today, as independent Ukraine struggles to reassert its still intensely disputed national identity,” Bartov wrote in 2015, “this known, familiar, but deeply buried secret, emerges once more from the burial pits and ruins.”

Embracing the country’s Jewish minority was always going to require exhuming such secrets and exposing them for all to see, and Babyn Yar seems to offer an excellent opportunity. Ryzyhkov expressed concern about Russian influence, but he strongly supports the construction of a powerful and illuminating monument to the Holocaust in Ukraine. “For the last 30 years, they have put up housing towers and built malls on top of cemeteries, instead of museums,” he said. “You have to build something for history or else you will repeat it.”

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