Ukraine’s Jews walk narrow line between murderous past and uncertain future
As Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Groysman winds up a three-day visit to Israel, Jews back home try to cope with economic difficulties and the effects of war
ODESSA, Ukraine — At two years of age, Masha cannot walk yet, although she has learned to sit and stand. When she arrived at the Tikva foster home in Odessa six months ago, she could not even hold her head. Since then, she has had four epileptic fits.
When her mother went to hospital to give birth, doctors said she needed a Caesarean section. But they would only operate if she paid them the usual bribe. The mother — so poor that she lived with 11 others in a single, filthy room — did not have the cash. It was only when Masha was starting to choke in the womb that hospital staff agreed to carry out the surgery.
Although it is too early to tell how Masha will fare — neurosurgeons say she has not sustained brain damage — she is lucky to have been rescued and brought to a place with around the clock care, along with her brother Mishka, one and a half, who came to Tikva with a lung infection but is now developing normally.
The two were discovered by Tikva social workers as they lay seriously ill in a hospital. They were on their way to a state orphanage. Masha just lay in bed, not moving.
Their father is an alcoholic. Their mother, who is thought to be mentally ill, is pregnant again.
Masha and Mishka are two of an estimated 100,000 orphans in Ukraine, around 80 percent of whom are described as “social orphans” whose parents are either too poor, abusive, drunk or high on drugs to raise them.
These children end up in bleak and dilapidated state orphanages where they receive minimal education, hygiene and emotional support. At age 18, they are spat out onto the streets where most enter the same cycle of poverty and addiction that trapped their parents.
Tikva, a non-profit organization, managed on Jewish Orthodox lines by British-born Refael Kruskal, has rescued some 2,250 abused, abandoned and homeless Jewish children over the past 15 years.
The organization estimates that another 2,500 Jewish orphans are spread around the country and it employs 30 full-time agents to find them.
The 300 orphans currently residing at Tikva are schooled from kindergarten on, together with 700 Jewish children and youth from normative homes.
Many Tikva alumni immigrate to Israel. Others go onto the organization’s university courses in Odessa.
Society in crisis
The plight of orphans like Masha and Miskha illustrates the crisis in which Ukrainian society is mired, punch drunk by repeated blows that began in recent history with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s.
Jobs for life disappeared overnight and people used to depending on the state for their every need suddenly had to fend for themselves, without a social safety net to catch those who failed.
The Orange Revolution, which began in late 2004 to protest a corrupt presidential election, was followed in early 2014 by the so-called Revolution of Dignity – a mass protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square against then President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign a deal with the EU, in favor of closer ties with Russia. As the result of clashes between protestors and police, 100 Ukrainians died and more than 1,000 were injured.
That was followed by Russia’s military intervention and subsequent annexation of Crimea and the so-called frozen war in eastern Ukraine which has pitted pro-European Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed separatists, hitting the Ukrainian economy hard.
The International Monetary Fund has already transferred around half of a $17.5 billion rescue pledge to Ukraine. But in a report published in April, it says that while growth is starting to return, some structural reforms are being carried out and serious attempts are being made to root out endemic corruption, much remains to be done.
Incomes are still just 21% of the EU average with the result that the black market is still an integral part of everyday life. Gas and oil prices have spiraled upwards, much of industry and all agricultural land is still state controlled, over-regulation deters foreign investment and dreadful roads make travel bumpy and interminably slow.
Huge wealth gaps persist between the majority of poor to just-about-managing and the so-called oligarchs who lined their pockets in the early post-Soviet years by snapping up privatized industries.
A colonial pawn
Ukraine – sandwiched between Europe to the west and Russia to the east and located just a stone’s throw from Turkey across the Black Sea – has been tossed back and forth over the centuries by the vicissitudes of colonial rulers, its borders shifting back and forth over the centuries like sand.
Home to one of the world’s biggest Jewish communities before World War ll, the territory occupied by today’s Ukraine witnessed more than its fair share of murderous pogroms against the Jews. The local Orthodox church raised – some say still raises – its flocks on anti-Semitic tropes, such as that Jews suck the blood of Christian children to make matza on Passover.
Indeed, it was the intensity of violence against Jews encapsulated by four pogroms in the cosmopolitan city of Odessa in the 19th and early 20th centuries that drove a group of Jewish intellectuals in that city to lay the foundations for modern Zionism.
One in four Jewish Holocaust victims
During World War ll, an estimated 1.5 to 1.6 million out of 2.7 million Jews living in shtetl villages and market towns across the country were murdered, often with the enthusiastic involvement of local Ukrainians and of Romanians (the latter in the Romanian-controlled area of Transnistria in the south west).
That is one in every four of all Holocaust victims in Europe.
Whereas Jews in other countries were deported to the gas chambers to be exterminated, the vast majority of Ukraine’s Jews were either shot or starved to death, their bodies left to rot in an unknown number of unmarked graves.
The best known mass graves are in a Kiev ravine, known as Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were gunned down over just two days in September 1941.
But fields and forests all over the country are blighted by the bulges indicative of mass graves, not all of them Jewish. They are still being discovered to this day.
The Soviet-era moratorium on discussion about the Holocaust lead to an explosion of Holocaust testimony after the Communist order collapsed, to the identification of many of the sites of murder, and to the start of moves by private organizations to erect memorials to the dead.
Rita Schweibes, now nearly 81, was born in the town of Tulchyn, in western Ukraine – once the seat of the Polish Potocki family, whose vast Palladian palace is currently undergoing renovation.
Several thousand Jews – sources give different numbers — lived in the town when the Nazis entered in July 1941.
A deal between the Axis powers placed the town under the Romanian-administered area of Transnistria until it was retaken by the Soviet army in 1944.
Soon after occupation, the Jews were herded into a ghetto. Some were put into a former Jewish school building, where they were deprived of food and water for two days. “Children were so thirsty, they were licking the windows,” Rita recalled.
“A doctor from Tulchyn came to inject the Jews with three types of typhus. We were all taken to have showers, and when we looked for our clothes, they were all wet and had been covered with lice. It was December 7, 1941. We had to put the clothes back on. Then we were driven 40 kilometers by foot to the Pechora death camp – [a former hospital and barracks complex] — through snow and mud – 20 km on the 7th and another 20km on the 8th. Those who couldn’t walk were killed on the spot.”
Rita, then aged five, was with her father, mother, brother, uncles and aunts. All took turns carrying her. “All the Jews wanted to push their children into the Ukrainian crowds lining the road, to save them. My father tried to exchange a tablecloth for bread with someone, and suddenly SS police arrived in a car with three soldiers. They shot and killed my father right there.”
Rita’s mother died a month later in the Pechora camp of grief. Rita was left with her 15-year-old brother, who temporarily lost his mind, and who, following the Soviet liberation, was to die in action fighting with the Soviet army.
“The doctor who had given us the injections would come every day to check how many Jews had died. He would always say ‘It’s not enough'”.
As typhus began to spread to the local population, a decision was made to bury Jews who had died from disease, cold and starvation in pits in the forest. Some victims – rejected in the selections for labor forces to build roads – were even buried alive.
Between 150,000 and 250,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews died at Pechora. Rita somehow survived typhus and starvation, thanks to individuals who took great risks to get her food.
“I vowed to God that if I survived, I would tell the story until my dying day,” Rita said.
She was one of just 330 residents of Tulchyn who returned to the town after the war.
Today, just 11 Jewish Holocaust survivors live in Tulchyn, only four of whom are still mobile, out of a total Jewish population of around 150.
Across the country, an estimated 2,700 survivors are still alive, spread across 42 locales.
Support for the poor
Several Jewish and Christian organizations provide support for those Jews in need, among them the American Joint Distribution Center’s Hesed program and Christians for Israel, based in Holland, which works with other Christians bodies as part of the Christian Aliyah Alliance.
Katja, one of a handful of Jews waiting for CFI food parcels in Tulchyn last week, said, “Everybody knows what the Jews went through, but they’re a little envious that the Jews know how to organize themselves. To them, the food parcels we get look like manna from heaven.”
Katja is recognized as a victim of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, some 400 km (250 miles) to the north. Childless, she has had her thyroid and part of her kidneys removed.
Galina Delezha-Pysko, 78, who worked as a pediatrician for more than 50 years, has spent her whole life in Tulchyn.
She has two sons, both university-educated and married, both unable to find work.
One daughter-in-law works for the ambulance service. The other recently lost her job.
One son, now 30, periodically goes missing. “He’s lost his memory,” says Galina. “There’s something wrong with his brain. He was at Maidan Square and it seems he was injured. Who needed Maidan? People’s lives have just become worse.”
Galina – who is elegantly turned out in what she reveals are second hand clothes — receives a monthly pension of 55 Euros (NIS 217, or $60). This is roughly a third of the budget an individual needs to subsist without extras such as medicines and travel.
Galina tries to give as much as she can to her children. For her, the food parcels from Christians for Israel are like a lifeline.
Christians for Israel, headquartered in Holland, is motivated by the Bible and biblical prophesies predicting that the Jews will be returned to the Land of Israel from “the land of the North” and that gentiles from the nations will help them.
Since 1996, in cooperation with other organizations, it has been helping Jews to immigrate to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, India and France.
To date, CFI Ukraine — with eight buses, ten employees and many volunteers — has probably distributed 100,000 food parcels, says Belgian Koen Carlier, who founded the organization’s Ukrainian branch in 2004 . He predicts that 25,000 parcels will be delivered in the coming year.
The organization also helps Jewish orphans, provides for meals and other needs in Jewish schools and has erected 20 memorials to Holocaust victims.
To help with the practical side of encouraging immigration to Israel – its main aim – CFI Ukraine also ferries those about to emigrate to get their passports and other documents, and to get onto Israel-bound planes.
CFI, which has been working closely with the Jewish Agency in the Ukraine since the 1990s, has been active in rescuing Jews from the eastern Ukrainian battle front and helping them emigrate to Israel.
In 2014, it established a 29-bed shelter in a rented house in a quiet village outside Kiev. “People stayed for anything from one night to nine months before flying to Israel,” recalled Natasha Kryzhanovsky, 55, a former journalist and editor, now a CFI field worker, who found Christianity in 1993 after hearing about “G-d’s plan for the Jewish people.” A ball of energy with a keen ability to multitask, she has since visited Israel 21 times.
While reviewing some of the photos pinned to the staircase of individuals and families who have stayed at the shelter – 2,800 individuals, of whom almost all were from eastern Ukraine — Natasha recalls, “Some of the people who came to us couldn’t speak because they were so deeply in shock. Russian propaganda had told them that there were Nazis in Kiev, and they thought we would put them in a camp.”
“During the early period of the war, I had no time to watch the news. I knew where the bombing was taking place according to where people were phoning from.”
“During those first months of war, it was still possible to cross the border from eastern Ukraine. People found back roads, they stayed with relatives. When it got harder, people who wanted to get out had to go into Russia and re-enter Ukraine from another part.”
Thanks to CFI’s work to raise awareness about Israel and the Jewish people in the church — the organization does not preach to the Jews — the Baptist church has helped in eastern Ukraine, while also looking after many Jewish mass graves.
Natasha stops at a photograph of the late Lala Moisevna, then 92, who had spent four years hiding under the floorboards during the Second World War, protected by a Christian family. In old age, she had become paralyzed, and received food parcels from CFI. “She so wanted to go to Israel that we put her on a stretcher for the plane. Three days after she arrived in Israel, she died. I will never forget her eyes. They were so full of light.”
Many of the oldest Jews still living in eastern Ukraine will not leave and are supported with food parcels.
Other Jews from the region have become internal refugees in the main cities.
A second CFI shelter operates out of Dnipropetrovsk in south central Ukraine, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and the Christian Aliyah Alliance.
The Chabad organization is also active, present in nearly all of Ukraine’s 200 Jewish communities. That is with the exception of the Russian-backed separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, whose Chabad rabbis left their flocks after the war started and who today operate out of Kiev and travel the world in search of funds.
Chabad helps to run schools for Jewish children, most of whom arrive with next to no knowledge about their Jewish heritage, and to manage Jewish orphanages in Odessa and the north western city of Zhytomyr.
Chabad, which was founded in the Ukraine, accepts children as Jewish under the broadest definition, which allows repatriation to Israel so long as the individual has a Jewish grandfather. This is in contrast to the Tikva organization, which sticks to the Jewish Halachic definition of a Jew as the child of a Jewish mother.
Unlike Romania, whose government held its first Holocaust Memorial day in 2004, Ukraine has not yet taken responsibility for its role in the Holocaust and only recently decreed that Ukrainian pupils should study the subject – for one session of 55 minutes.
Authorities have not yet funded any memorial for Jewish Holocaust victims, preferring to commemorate all of Ukraine’s wartime dead.
But while there are plenty of testimonies to the cruelty of local Ukrainians, more than 2,500 Ukrainian non-Jews have been given the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s official Holocaust memorial body, Yad Vashem.
Celebrating Ukrainian nationalists
One consequence of the war in eastern Ukraine has been a move by the authorities to replace Russian street names and monuments with Ukrainian ones, some of which honor people associated with anti-Semitism.
In the city of Vinnitsa, one street has been newly named for Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian leader who fought for Ukrainian independence after the Russian revolution, but whose role in anti-Jewish pogroms is still controversial.
In Uman, a new monument recently appeared to commemorate Ivan Gonta, an 18th century Cossack involved in a massacre of Jews, Poles and Eastern Catholics.
Some Ukrainians told the Times of Israel that out of economic despair, anti-Semitism is being directed against the country’s prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, who is Jewish on his father’s side, and against President Petro Poroshenko, who is not.
Groysman has been in Israel this week, meeting among others with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, patching up bilateral relations that were marred when Ukraine backed a UN Security Council resolution lambasting the Israeli settlement enterprise last December.
Historian Dr. Boris Zabarko, chairman of the Ukrainian association of Holocaust survivors, says there is no anti-Semitism coming from the government today because, “Now, Ukraine has a new enemy — [Russian President] Vladimir Putin – so they’re paying less attention to the Jews.”
Nevertheless, there have been isolated attacks on Jewish cemeteries and institutions. Earlier this month, for example, Ukrainian nationalists daubed Nazi swastikas and the words “tolerance is weakness” on headstones in a Jewish cemetery in Cherkasy in central Ukraine.
Natella Shapiro, the Orthodox principal of the Jewish school in central Ukraine’s Bila Tserkva, was shocked in March to hear a member of a Ukrainian nationalist party address an annual celebration attended by central and local government officials with a poem that excoriated Jews as the enemy and included classic anti-Semitic slurs.
“I posted something about this on Facebook, and received many anti-Semitic responses, such as ‘go back to Israel’ and ‘this isn’t your country,'” she said.
Some 500,000 Ukrainian Jews are estimated to have immigrated to Israel since the fall of the Soviet Union. But in the absence of relevant Ukrainian census figures – religion is no longer included on identity documents – the number of Jews still in the country who have the right to emigrate to Israel cannot be fixed definitively. Some say 200,000. Others estimate that there are up to one million.
The Jewish Agency runs a variety of activities to attract the attention of potential Jewish immigrants and to educate them about Jewish life and possibilities in Israel.
Is there a future?
Judging by gaudy real estate adverts in Hebrew, the only place in Ukraine where the Jewish presence might be booming is Uman.
Here lies the burial place of Rabbi Nahman, founder of Breslav Hasidism and a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Hasidic movement nearby.
Thousands of Orthodox pilgrims and not a few traditional working class Israelis looking for blessings flood into Uman from all over the world, and plans are for a multi-million dollar complex to replace the ramshackle building that houses the tomb and the tacky souvenir stores around it.
Nearby Breslav is also undergoing small-scale renovation with the building of souvenir stalls near to the grave of Rabbi Nahman’s disciple and scribe, Nathan Sternhartz.
But elsewhere, is there a future for the Jews in Ukraine? Most community leaders who spoke to the ToI said no, although religious figures were careful to emphasize that not all Jews would leave and that Jewish institutions had to continue operating for as long as Jewish communities were around.
The CFI’s Koen Carlier, who married a Ukrainian woman 11 years ago and is raising three children in Vinnitsa, is also in for the long haul.
“It wasn’t easy to come here and leave everything behind. Many of my family members thought I was crazy,” he said.
“But God was leading me and I went to the right place at the right time. And I’m still here!”