Ukraine, Jews, and a Traumatic History

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.

Pale of Settlement

Pale of Settlement a region of the Russian Empire designated for Jews and few could live elsewhere. At the end of the 19th century, 95% of 5.3 million Jews in the Russian Empire lived in the Pale,

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.

Babi Yar

The Babi Yar ravine

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.

1941

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.

Russian Brutality

“Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews” Editorial cartoon “Judge Magazine” Theodore Roosevelt to Czar of Russia.

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.

Ukrainian Jewish street life 1919

Ukrainian Jewish street life 1919

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.

Jewish Pogrom

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.

A Jewish Family stands outside the ransacked home following pogrom of 1903

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.

1906 Bialystock pogrom

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.

Soviet Union

Bodies of Jewish Victims of pogrom in Ukraine in Feb 1919

Bodies of Jewish Victims of pogrom in Ukraine in Feb. 1919

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.

Victims of the Kyiv Pogroms of 1919

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.

Ukrainian President Zelensky

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.

 

 

 

12 comments

  1. jmartin18rdb

    It is all so disturbing and cruel. Putin is destroying Ukraine in order to save it? Save it from democracy? Save it from the yolk of free elections? Save it from a despotic leader? The world sees this for what it is. And we see it is history being repeated. Thank you Sally for heightening awareness of the savagery of these oppressors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve reblogged this and posted it on Facebook as well. I seriously doubt most people are aware of just how vile the treatment of Jews in Eastern Europe has been. As usual, you cover a topic in-depth in a way that informs the reader but doesn’t bog them down in asides.

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    • Thanks for the reblog and your support Doug. These are stories that nearly every Jewish child it raised with, yet I suspect that many, many others are unaware as this part of history is rarely taught at school. Russian aggression is brutal and Putin is following in a long line of tyrants. It’s helpful to understand all of history and put it in context.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect you are right, Sally. I don’t know if it would make people more civil and empathetic, but it wouldn’t hurt if they learned about the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Holocaust, and the current rise of neo-nazis in America and Europe because ignorance serves no one, and the past threatens to repeat itself. If sharing your post today helps open some eyes, then bless us both!

        I was stationed in Germany in the early 1970s. One of my motion picture jobs (I was an army motion picture photographer) took me to Munich. While my team was there, we took a side visit to Dachau. It was a misty day, gloomy and chilly. I was overwhelmed by the moment and the scent of death. (I swear!) I’d previously viewed camp liberation films – raw, unedited footage – in the company film library. The impact of seeing the real deal, the place, even cleaned up for visitors, made me cry. I was grateful I hadn’t been one of those motion picture photographer guys who filmed the camps in 1945.

        Liked by 1 person

      • What a powerful experience it must have been to be at Dachau. I’ve heard of friends who have gone to Auschwitz and shared what a moving experience it is. A few years ago my husband and I were in Italy and our flight home was a layover in Germany. As a holocaust survivor, he had a real visceral reaction to being there and hearing the language.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I was stationed there from 1970 to1972. The war, it always stayed with me, was still a very fresh memory for Germans of a certain generation, and many, like my landlady (whose husband was a dentist who was an officer in the SS!) seemed barely restrained from giving a Nazi salute.

        Once, in a small restaurant in Kaiserslautern, a one-armed derelict man came over to a table of us GIs and had a conversation with the two of us who could handle German. After he established that we were in the US Army, he proposed a toast – to Hitler and Richard Nixon! We left that place rather hastily!

        Friends of mine visited me in Kaiserslautern from Paris. I thought they’d enjoy a visit to Heidelberg, so we took the train there for a day trip. On the walk up the hill to Schloss Heidelberg, there was an antique shop. While looking in the window, the proprietor (who identified us as American – we do stick out!) set a book on Hitler in the window. My understanding at the time was that was very illegal. He removed it as soon as we left, which was immediately.

        While I enjoyed my time in Germany and Europe, there was still evidence of the war everywhere I went. Bullet-pocked buildings, the then-unrestored Reichstag building in West Berlin, older men with amputated limbs, those odd conversations like the one where my landlady mentioned the Volkspark had been so much nicer before the US Army (Patton!) came through and destroyed it. She seemed oblivious to the irony of bemoaning the destruction of a park with the aggressive war and genocide that happened in the name of the German people that lead up to it.

        Yes, the ghosts of the 1940s were openly seen, and the words “niemals vergessen” (never forget) were posted on many war memorials as well as on sites where atrocities happened.

        That generation, the older Germans then, seemed a little nostalgic for the time. The memories of the destruction of Germany toward the end, however, seemed to moderate that memory. Well, “Volkspark”!

        I can only imagine your husband’s uneasy feeling returning there. The Primo Levi books articulate one survivor’s experiences. Those and MAUS are among the best ways the rest of us can get – or want to get – to the horror of the camps. My reaction was to cry at Dachau. God only knows what terror your husband felt being back in that country. Whew.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wistful Nostalgic

        I only vaguely knew of it, mainly through reading about the jazz/dance band pianist Monia Liter (whose playing I highly rate); a Ukrainian Jew who left and went to Shanghai. He eventually moved over here (Britain). I was shocked to read the details of the brutality the Jews suffered in Ukraine and Russia. I never knew it was this bad. Such wickedness- what was wrong with “ordinary people” that they inflicted such violence on their neighbours and fellow citizens??

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      • It is so interesting to me how little most don’t know about this awful part of history that was perhaps too ugly to talk about. But just today a friend who is also an American Jew commented that we are all experiencing ancestral PTSD, these are the awful stories we’ve heard and now we see them writ large in our TV screens. The brutality of the Russians is now evident for all to see.

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  3. Thank you for your comments and history. I too have dna from the entire area of the conflict including the ukraine. I share your sentiments. No one in our family ever romanced on the notion of returning to Europe. Irrespective of that, we all, however, hope that conflict will end soon.

    Like

    • I am glad this resonated for you, and you understand the complex feelings this horrendous tragedy in Ukraine is stirring up for many. My heart breaks watching all this happen in real-time and seeing the pain and fear and feeling so helpless.

      Like

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