What is happening in Ukraine is for Jews part of a long collective and traumatic history. And we feel it in our souls.
Today, in solidarity we are all freedom-loving Ukrainians.
But the story for me is a complicated one. This place that destroyed so many of my Jewish people is now a symbol of resistance and democracy. The emotions are complex and old memories are resurrected.
My narrative as an American Jew is far from unique.
I am a descendent of Eastern European Jews. Centuries of shifting borders and maps redrawn create ambiguity over nationalities.
But never over my religion.
For hundreds of years, my Jewish ancestors lived in that region but were excluded from the culture. Ukrainian blood runs through me. As does Russian blood.
But I don’t identify with either the way say someone who is of Irish descent feels about Ireland. I have no longing for the Pale of Settlement that region of the Russian empire (includes today’s Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus,) that Jews were historically confined to under the Czars from 1791 until 1917.
These were lands we left for good reason.
Most Eastern European Jews are here in America because for generations they tried to kill us.
Successive waves of violence from Czarist pogroms in Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th century to mass executions by the Nazis have left an indelible scar.
Fertile Ukrainian soil is saturated with generations of Jewish blood. The graves of our ancestors bear witness to the horrors of Jewish history. On Tuesday, Russian bombs desecrated the Jewish cemetery adjacent to the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial.
The irony of Putin’s false justification of the invasion of Ukraine — that the Russians had come to “denazify” the country, and then striking a site where tens of thousands of Jews had been killed by the Nazis, makes my head explode as though hit by a cruise missile.
In the autumn of 1941, one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century occurred on the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Nazi-occupied Kyiv.
33,771 Ukrainian Jews were murdered in a two-day span marking one of the deadliest massacres of the Holocaust.
Just a week after capturing Kyiv from the Soviets in September the Nazis issued this order using the derogatory term “yids” for Jews:
All yids of the city of Kyiv and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Melnikova and Dorohozhytska streets. Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linens, etc. Any yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.
After two years of neutral relations between Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., and with information tightly controlled by Soviet media, the Jews of Kyiv had little understanding of the danger they were in. Commanded to march, they were ordered to strip and driven in small groups towards the edge of the ravine and shot.
The Nazi mass killings contained echoes of earlier pogroms.
Ukrainians- including descendants of the perpetrators of the earlier pogroms- helped Nazis slaughter many of the remaining Jews of the region through mass shootings.
The tragedy in Ukraine today echoes a history of brutal Russian aggression. Human rights offenses that Jews are familiar with. Over a century ago tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews were murdered, tortured, and raped in hundreds of pogroms perpetrated by the Russians.
Unlike the Holocaust, earlier waves of antisemitic violence have largely been forgotten by history. Yet at the time these ethnic riots were front-page news.
The current fighting in Ukraine has resurrected some of these long-forgotten stories, passed down decades ago by relatives.
People are struggling to piece together the history of their family’s past.
This week, my Facebook feed has been filled with faded, sepia-toned photos of grandparents and great-grandparents who fled Kyiv at the turn of the last century to escape the horrific, large-scale pogroms.
Living in constant fear from state-sanctioned anti-semitism, nightmarish memories of rampaging Cossacks whispered long ago by long-deceased grandmothers and grandfathers are resurfacing and being shared on social media.
The stories shared of horrifying atrocities are eerily similar- parents murdered, sisters raped and slain, children chased out into the cold threadbare and starving. Entire Jewish cities were ransacked, houses burned, and stores looted.
The Bialystock pogroms in 1906 were particularly gruesome. The killing was brutal and barbarous – nails were driven into the heads of people, the bones broken in hands and bodies, and clubbed to death with rifles.
The conditions of life for the Jews in the Czarist empire were so severe the only solution was their emigration. But many stayed.
In 1917 after the Russian revolution, the Pale of Settlement was abolished and Jews could live where they wanted in the Soviet Union but the violent pogroms continued.
Between 1918 and 1921, over a hundred thousand Jews were murdered in Ukraine by peasants, townsmen, and soldiers who blamed the Jews for the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. In hundreds of separate incidents, ordinary people robbed their Jewish neighbors with impunity, burned down their houses, ripped apart their Torah scrolls, sexually assaulted them, and killed them.
Hundreds of Jewish communities were burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and destitute.
Both communist and anticommunist forces ravaged Ukraine’s Jews in these pogroms, including in Tetiiv, the site of a March 1920 massacre by rampaging White Russians. In a particularly hideous atrocity, the Whites burned a group of Jews alive inside a synagogue — with one report estimating 1,127 dead.
Largely forgotten today, these pogroms—dominated international affairs in their time. There were warnings that six million Jews were in danger of complete extermination.
Twenty years later, those dire predictions would come true.
Today I lament the suffering and destruction that another tyrant has caused. But to have a Jewish president in Ukraine descended from a Holocaust survivor standing up to a dictator is empowering.
President Zelensky released a statement in Hebrew calling for the Jews of the world to speak out against the attacks on Ukraine:
“I am now addressing the Jews of the world: Don’t you see what is happening?” Zelensky asked. “That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent now.”
“Nazism is born in silence,” he warned, “so shout about the killing of civilians, of Ukrainians.”
We cannot afford to be silent. Even as we remember.