In the land of the trident: the Jewish community in Ukraine

2017/9/2 14:25:15

Jews, it appears, will be living under the “Tryzub” – the gold trident that forms Ukraine’s national symbol, for some time to come.


Photo: Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky at the Jewish Community Center for Refugees in Kyiv.

(photo credit: Rabbi Vishedsky)


BY JONATHAN SPYER for the Jerusalem Post, Sep 2, 2017


Ukraine is a territory saturated in Jewish memory – memory both tragic and sublime. In every field of endeavor – religious thought, Zionist and socialist politics, art, music, military affairs, science, Jews from the territory on which the modern Ukrainian state is located have registered outstanding achievement.

It is the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, who grew up near Kameniec in what is now western Ukraine; Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, who was born in Miedzyboz in central Ukraine; Haim Nachman Bialik, the poet laureate of modern Hebrew literature, who was born in Zhitomir, in north central Ukraine. Goldie Meyerson, who became prime minister Golda Meir, was born in Kyiv. Israeli-born Moshe Dayan, famed fighter and commander, was the son of Shmuel Dayan, who came from Zhashkiv, in the Cherkassy region, central Ukraine. Isaac Babel, one of the foremost Soviet novelists of the mid-20th century, whose “Red Cavalry Tales” remains a classic of 20th-century Russian literature, came from Odesa. Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, architect of the Russian revolution and founder of the Red Army, came from Yanovka, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist Zionism, came from Odesa. Solomon Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem Aleichem, came from Pereyaslav, in the Kyiv governorate. And so on. The area has played host to an astonishing gathering of Jewish creative energies.


[Editor’s Note: In 2017, Volodymyr Groysman, a Jew, is Ukraine’s prime minister, the second most powerful position in the state structure and there are many other Jews holding positions at all levels of government - national, regional and local.]


It is also prominent among the lands of destruction. Ukraine is the land of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose statue on his horse and brandishing his famous rhino horn mace stands outside St. Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kyiv; his Cossack rebels butchered 100,000 Jews in a 17th-century uprising. It is the land of Simon Petlyura, whose fighters followed a similar murderous path during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution of 1917. And, of course, it is the land of the “Holocaust of bullets” of the mobile killing squads who followed the German armies as they swept through Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1941, systematically slaughtering Jewish populations in the verdant ravines and forests that characterize the country’s landscape until 1.5 million were dead.


So, Ukraine is filled with Jewish ghosts, its soil with Jewish blood. But there is Jewish life here, too. Estimates of the precise Jewish population vary widely. The European Jewish Congress claims that 360,000- 400,000 Jews live in Ukraine, which would make it the fifth largest Jewish community in the world. Other estimates place the number as low as 60,000. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in renewed strife and conflict. In August 2017, this reporter visited the country with the intention of taking a deeper look at the impact of this new war on its remaining Jews.


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