(Courtesy:Borderland – A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid )
There have been Jews in Ukraine since before the word “Ukraine” existed. The Greek colonies of the Black Sea coast had their Jewish traders, and the earth embankments f ancient Kyiv were pierced by a Jewish Gate. The first record we have of the existence of the city is a letter written in Hebrew by the Jews of Khazaria, an eighth-century Turkic kingdom on the Black Sea steppe to a synagogue near Cairo. There were Jews in Lviv in the fourteenth century, and in the Volhynian town of Lutsk in the tenth. But they did not start arriving in large numbers until 1369, when the Union of Lublin allowed Poles and Jews to migrate east into the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. Through succeeding centuries, despite waves of emigration in the face of pogroms and poverty, Ukraine’s Jewish population grew steadily, totaling about 3 million people—8 percent of the population — by the outbreak of war. When the Nazis struck, Odessa had 180,000 Jews, Kiev 175,000 — as many each as the whole of the Netherlands. Kharkiv had 150,000, Dnipropetrovsk and Lviv 100,000 each. In the sleepy shtetlech of Galacia and Volhynia — places like Ivano-Frankivsk — they made up 40 percent or more of the population. These were pious places, poor and tradition-bound. Men wore side-curls and velvet hats with squirrel-tails; their wives kept the children quiet with tales of dybbuks and golems, and shone their hair with kerosene. It was the land of miracle-working rabbis and the mystical kabbalah, of arranged marriages and strict Sabbaths full of prayer and song and ritual. The exception was bustling, brash Odessa, synonymous, in Jewish lore, with frivolity and irreligion. Odessa produced musicians and orators (among them Trotsky and the early Zionist Leon Pinsker), and from its poor Jewish quarter, the Moldavanka, a legendary tribe of gangsters. Travelers remarked on the self-confidence and dignity with which Jews walked the city streets, and if a Jew wanted to say that a man was prosperous, he might say that he ‘lived like a God in Odessa’.
As old as the history of Ukrainian Jewry is the history of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. One of the first written records we have of Jewish settlement in Ukraine is also a record of anti- Jewish violence. On the death of Prince Svyatopolk in 1113, according to the Rus chronicles, the Kiev mob rioted, looting the homes of Jewish merchants who had profited from Svyatopolk’s hated monopoly on salt. For the next several centuries, there were too few Jews in Ukraine to be much of an issue, but with Jewish immigration following the Union of Lublin, the potential for hatred increased. Many Jews arrived as agents to Polish landowners, who deputized to them the collection of rents and taxes, and management of taverns and mills, at which the surrounding peasantry were often obliged by law to buy their drink and grind their corn. They lived huddled under the protection of Polish palace walls, and built their synagogues like mini-fortresses, with gun-embrasures and cannon on the roof. Hence when (Ukrainian folk hero) Bohdan Khmelnytsky rebelled in 1648, his peasant army’s murderous fury was directed as much at Jews as at Poles.
‘Wherever [Cossack troops and Ukrainian peasants] found the szlachta (Polish landowners), royal officials or Jews,’ says the nearly-contemporary Eye-witness Chronicle, ‘they killed them all, sparing neither women nor children. They pillaged the estates of the Jews and the nobles, burned churches and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole.’
The Polish fortified towns, to which Jews fled for protection, fell like ninepins. In some places Poles shut Jews out, in others they handed them over in exchange for their own lives. Usually both groups were massacred together. In Nemyriv, Khmelnytsky’s soldiers burned the synagogue, murdered Jews with their own ritual knives, and tore up the covers of their holy books to make shoes. Similar massacres took place during the uprisings of the next century, notably at Uman, seat of the Polish Potockis.
Again, Poles and Jews shared jointly in the peasants’ fury: a common practice was to hang a Pole, a Jew and a dog from the same tree, with the words, ‘Pole, Yid and hound — each to the same faith bound.” Through the 1800s, Orthodox attitudes towards Jews hardly improved, and at the end of the century they actually worsened. While in Western Europe Jews were beginning to integrate, with spectacular success, into middle-class gentile society, in the Russian empire they remained legal and social pariahs. Save in the big cities — from which most Jews were excluded by the Pale of Settlement — the old pattern of Polish or Russian landlord, Jewish tradesman and Ukrainian peasant hardly shifted, all three groups locked together in a frozen web of mutual dependence and resentment. To the peasant, Jewry represented the alien Polish- or Russian-speaking town, the mysterious money economy which paid little for his labour and charged much for manufactured goods. Anti-Semitism became socialism of the imbecile. When pogroms broke out in Yelizavetgrad (today’s Kirovograd) in 1881, the local paper blamed the Jews’ precarious dual role as money-lenders and tavern-keepers: ‘Let the Jew deny a drink to a drunken or penniless peasant, the hatred begins.’ Even in rich, easygoing Odessa, as Zionist Vladimir Zhabotinsky remembered of his schooldays the 1890s, integration was only skin-deep:
‘Without any propaganda, without any ideology, we ten Jews used to sit on one row of benches in class, next to one another…We were quite friendly with our Christian classmates, even intimate with them, but we lived apart and considered it a natural thing that could not be otherwise…’
Odessa was the site of the first modern pogroms. In 1871, on the night before Easter, drunken sailors started throwing stones at Jewish homes and shops. Though deaths were few, the looting went on for three days before the police restored order. As the decade progressed, the tsarist government increasingly used anti-Semitism to offset the rising tide of revolutionary dissent. When Aleksandr II was assassinated by anarchists in 1881, riots swept southern Ukraine. In Kiev, a barefoot mob looted the Brodsky vodka warehouse and rampaged through the poor Jewish suburbs. Though police kept the peace in the wealthier districts, and here and there university students turned out to help defend Jewish property, most townspeople looked the other way. ‘It was a calm and sunny Sunday holiday,’ wrote an onlooker. ‘Christians were strolling about. I don’t know what astonished me more, the boldness of the plunderers or the shocking indifference of the public.’
The 1881 pogroms, passed over in deafening silence even by Liberal luminaries such as Turgenev and Tolstoy, were followed by the infamous May Laws, toughest yet in a long litany of anti-Semitic legislation. Jews were excluded from legal practice and from the officer corps, from every sort of government job, from teaching posts, from juries, from the boards of asylums and orphanages, even from military bands. They could not vote or stand in elections for local councils, and they were forced to contribute a disproportionate number of conscripts to the army. They were barred from owning or leasing land, and from the oil and mining industries. A quota system, the ‘numerus clausus’, made it hard to get into secondary school or university. Worst of all was the tightening-up of the Pale of Settlement, under which Jews needed special permits to live in the cities. Foreign visitors were shocked to see lines of migrant workers being driven through the streets at dawn, victims of night-time police raids. Not surprisingly, one of the chief results of the May Laws was the wholesale corruption of the tsarist police force and bureaucracy, enabled, by this mass of lunatic legislation, to extract a fortune in bribes. As the empire began its long slide towards revolution, right-wing monarchist groups took to blaming Jews for all Holy Russia’s reverses, publishing rabidly anti-Semitic pamphlets and employing uniformed thugs, the ‘Black Hundreds’, to beat up Jews and students. In 1905, when naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese forced Nicholas II to grant Russia’s first-ever constitution, they vented their fury in a new wave of pogroms.
In Odessa 302 people are known to have been killed; more deaths went unrecorded. ‘On Tuesday night October 31St,’ the shocked American consul reported home, ‘the Russians attacked the Jews in every part of town and a massacre ensued.’
From Tuesday ‘til Saturday was terrible and horrible. The Russians lost heavily also, but the number of killed and wounded is not known. The police without uniforms were very prominent. Jews who bought exemption received protection. Kishinev, Kiev, Cherson, Akkerman, Rostoff and other places suffered terribly, Nicolaev also.’ With tsarism’s final collapse a new superstition — Jew equals Bolshevik — was born. The vast majority of revolutionaries were not Jewish, of course, and the vast majority of Jews not revolutionaries, but it is true that Jews were over-represented in revolutionary organizations in relation their numbers. (The same, paradoxically, applied to the offspring of Orthodox priests, who were also often well educated but prospect-less.) When the Bolsheviks, came to in 1917, Jews were able to take government jobs for the first time — hence the connection, in the minds of peasants whose first sight of a Jew in a position of authority was to come to requisition grain or conscript men for the Red Army, between Jewishness and nastier aspects of communism. The fact that Jews — like all non- Russian minorities — were murdered in disproportionate numbers during Stalin’s purges did little to shake this perception.
Ukrainian-Jewish relations were not all bad. In 1918 the Ukrainians’ short-lived Rada government declared ‘national-personal autonomy’ for Jews and set up a special ministry for Jewish affairs. Its banknotes were printed in four languages — Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish — and the head of the Ukrainian delegation at the Paris peace talks, amazingly, was a Jew, Arnold Margolin. In Galicia too, Ukrainians and Jews sometimes cooperated: in 1907 four Zionists were elected to the Vienna Reichsrat with Ukrainian support (both sides hoping to off the Poles), and in 1922 Jewish and Ukrainian parties fought joint campaigns in elections to the new Polish parliament. But in the 1930s, as Polish democracy crumbled, attitudes hardened. Popular support the moderate Ukrainian party UNDO fell away in favour of the underground terrorist group OUN, which borrowed its philosophy from fascist Germany. (Members swore to a Decalogue of commandments, the first of which was ‘You will attain a Ukrainian state or die in battle for it’, the ninth, ‘Treat the enemies of your nation with hatred and ruthlessness.’) In 1940, six months after Germany and Russia had up Poland between them, OUN split in two — the more moderate ‘Melnykivtsi’, under the Civil War veteran Andriy Melnyk, and the fanatical ‘Banderivtsi’, under the young head of OUN’s terrorist unit, Stepan Bandera. Released from prison by the Germans in 1939, Bandera explicitly declared war on Ukrainian Jewry. ‘The Jews in the USSR,’ an OUN congress in Cracow resolved, constitute the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime, and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine.’
For all Ukraine, the war years were ones of unparalleled violence, destruction and horror: 5.3 million of the country’s inhabitants died during the war — an astounding one in six of the entire population. (The equivalents for Germany, France and Britain one in fifteen, one in seventy-seven and one in 125.)
Of these, about 2.25 million were Jews. Most died in situ, rounded up, shot and buried in woods and ravines outside their own home towns. Others were sent to the gas chambers at Belzec — just over the present-day border with Poland — or to the slave-labour camp on Janowska Street in Lviv. Two hundred thousand people died in Janowska Street, and of all 600,000 people deported to Belzec — greeted at the railway station by a poster, ‘First a wash and breakfast, then to work!’ — only two are known to have survived. Altogether, the Holocaust killed 6o per cent of the Jews of Soviet Ukraine, and over 90 per cent of the Jews of Galicia.