( Courtesy: Aleksandr Riman)

The city of “fifth column”

In 1967, Aleksandr Yakovlevich Askoldov, 35, graduated from the Advanced Management Course finished filming the movie “Commissar” based on a story by Vasily (Solomon) Grossman, “In the city of Berdichev.
A senior comrade who decided what movie brand with widespread distribution, the work of them fell ill young manager immediately. It was on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution when this work was too vivid a reminder of the existence of a strong Jewish life within the territory of the Soviet empire, was made publicly available Soviet cinephile.
That life was the subject of ruthless oppression of the cars of the Red Army with machine guns and helmets of Petliura troopers. Grossman (1905-1964) was born in Berdichev, his father was an engineer and his mother teaches French and knew the details of the tragedy of his city, which spoke predominantly ídish, the principal city of a uyezd, or district, in the province of Kiev: “The mounted and infantry units arrive in large quantities from all sides, and running from house to house people exhausted and dusty, kind and thrifty farmers but capable of murder, dressed in blue coveralls, greedy chickens, towels and boots of the inhabitants. All were familiar with this, because the city had changed hands fourteen times and had been occupied by supporters of Petliura, followers of Denikin, Bolsheviks, Galician, Polish, Tyutyunik bands and Marusya, and the Ninth Regiment, a regiment crazy anyone. And it was always the same as last time. “
When filming the story of Grossman, which was written in 1934, the director Askoldov included in his film a scene that showed Berdichev Jews when they were exiled from their hometown. People dressed in coarse linen striped fatigues, marching toward its inevitable destruction, could result in the Jews a compassion that was totally unnecessary, in the opinion of the Soviet film bureaucracy. A pity that seemed particularly out of place against the backdrop of the Six Day War in which Israel emerged victorious … In short, the film was banned, and recently reached the screen 20 years later, in 1987. It was then that became accessible to a mass reading public works scandal from the point of view of socialist realism V. Grossman Life and Fate and Everything flows, besides the black book, the author compiled and edited together with Ilya Ehrenburg.
In an essay on the fate of the Jews of the city in which Grossman was especially interested, the author wrote: “Before the war, thirty thousand Jews lived in Berdichev: half of the total population of the city. Although southwestern oblasts (the former Territory of Settlement), a large number of Jewish towns and cities representing at least 60 percent of the total population was considered Berdichev the most Jewish city in Ukraine. Even before the revolution, anti-Semites and members of ‘The Black Hundreds’ called her ‘Jewish capital’. “

A city of rabbis, tailors and traders

Admittedly it was not only “anti-Semites and members of ‘The Black Hundreds'” they considered to Berdichev the “Jewish capital” but also and above all, the Jews themselves, including well-known writers like Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Der Nister and others who repeatedly visited the city in search of characters for their works.
[…] The first documented reference to “the people of Berichikovo” which later became the city of Berdichev, dates from 1546 and a report dated in 1593 tells us that “in the town of Berdichev, recently settled, where there 140 homes in total, the mill was leased first by a Jewish owner by 100 coins per year, and the toll to cross the bridge over the dam (customs duties) was set at a half-penny per car ” . The Jewish historian M. Vishnitser, citing this passage in his article “Berdichev” in the fourteenth volume Jewish Encyclopedia [Encyclopaedia Judaica], states that “as family property Tyshkevich (Tiskiewicz) Berdichev was under the rule of Poland, and from mid-fourteenth century to 1793 was one of the most important Polish Jewish communities, often known as the ‘Jerusalem of Volhinia’ “.
We do not know anything about what fate befell the Jewish community of Berdichev during the pogrom of 1648, but probably local people of Jewish faith have been completely destroyed by bands of Bogdan Khmelnitsky (Bohdan Khmelnytsky), as the Jews of the nearby town of Polonnoye. There, according to historian Natan Hanover, Cossacks massacred ten thousand “enemies of Christ.” In any case, as noted by M. Vishnitser, “of the seventeenth century, no longer any news on the Jewish population of Berdichev” …
Only in the early eighteenth century a strong activity was noticeable by traders and merchants of the Jewish faith. This was reflected in the economic and financial situation of Berdichev. In 1765, by order of King Stanislas II Augustus Poniatowski in Poland, began operating annual fairs in the city. In these shows, thanks to low tariffs, there was a wide variety of goods from different countries of Europe and Asia. According to the census taken that same year, 1765, 220 Jews lived there. Jewish men were tradesmen, shopkeepers and traders of alcoholic beverages, ie, owners of small establishments for consumption of alcoholic beverages. These traders of alcoholic beverages were the main object of hatred of anti-Semites, because “the Russians became drunk. However, the renowned Russian writer Nikolai Leskov said in his pamphlet, The Jews of Russia (1893) that “to be fair, we must consider the difference between the rights of Jews and forced overcrowding, conditions in which some people warmly devoted to another occupation, but have no chance, because the area allowed for them, there is one constant demand: vodka.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak and his followers Berdichevsky

As is well known, “the areas allowed for the Jews” were outlined in the Russian empire in the late eighteenth century, when after three partitions of Poland, were included in Russian regions with a large Jewish population. Berdichev and much of Volhinia became part of the Russian state in 1793. At that time, the city was considered one of the centers of the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe, largely thanks to the renowned philosopher and tzadik (good and honest man) Jewish Rebbe Levi Yitzhak Ben-Meir (Berdichevsky Yitzhak Levi), who was the rabbi of the city from 1785 until his death in 1810. One of the fundamental principles of Hasidism “love your neighbor” was expressed most clearly in the philosophical legacy of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak. The author also comply with this rule in their daily lives, according to Hasidic legend tells us: “Once, after the morning prayer, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak asked a man who was well respected in the city to help him with collecting donations for the poor of the place. The man was busy at the moment with the daily reading of Tehillim (Psalms of David) and, with a gesture, told to wait Rebbe Levi Yitzchak. ‘The Almighty is served by many angels, you read Tehillim and other Exalted, said Rabbi Yitzhak,’ and he can expect if you suddenly interrupt the reading of your prayers. But our poor and hungry can not wait a minute. “
The work of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak and his followers caused a backlash by supporters of ideas “Enlightenment” of Moshe Mendelssohn, the Berlin Jewish writer and founder of the Haskalah movement. Among the Russian followers of this movement included diverse people: both those who knew the European tradition and perfectly irreproachable moral qualities had to be doubtful “interested parties” seeking to satisfy their personal ambitions and get rid of the disadvantages competitors. Among the first was the writer and teacher Yitzhak Ber Levinzon, who worked in Berdichev from 1820 to 1823. The Jewish historian Israel (Sergei) Tsinberg wrote in his article “Isaac Ber Levinzon and his times” that the Enlightenment considered it “his duty of conscience to defend the Jewish religion against any attack.” When, in 1833, a baptized Jew of Vitebsk, “convinced of the truth of Christianity and willing to illustrate his brothers,” wrote the play The road to knowledge of the true faith, Levinzon “did not hesitate to speak out against this book, revealing la. . . ignorance, slander and malicious distortion of facts by the author.

Iosif Galperin – Merchant and philanthropist

The situation changed after the death of Levinzon in 1860 when extremist tendencies predominated among the “enlightened” of Berdichev. Iosif Galperin, merchant and philanthropist, was the subject of organized persecution by those in the city. “We do not see any other Jew,” wrote S. S. Gromek, governor of the city of Berdichev, “who loved his fellow more and were more involved in their interests and needs. In a time of anger, fires and other national calamities, his house was always surrounded by wretches, of whom not one would not have been helped. Iosif Galperin was the first that worked with any charity to meet the overall needs of the city. “
Because he recognized the importance of universal education for young Jews, Galperin not hide his sympathy for the Hasidic movement and decried the “Enlightenment” which openly violated the traditions of his people. Angered, the “friends of progress,” started a war of destruction against Galperin. Thus, succeeded in weakening the confidence of the leading financiers in the renowned European trading house Galperin and Sons. After a series of legal actions, Iosif Galperin ended up in prison. He died there, before his death, rejecting the “mercy” of their enemies, who promised to help him regain his freedom.
As a result of the work of “Enlightenment” in Berdichev, many merchants and wealthy merchants left the city in mid-nineteenth century, and the system of general and vocational education for children and adults ran out of regular funding for many years. According to the 1897 census, over 90 percent of Jewish children of Berdichev not going to a school that provides general education, and only the system of jedarim (Jewish elementary school) gave them the traditional children from Berdichev families with many children an opportunity to study the spiritual heritage of his people. Only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the situation improved in the area of education and public assistance for the poor. It opened an orphanage and community hospitals, schools and a vocational school for women.

“Statistics know everything. . .

Sometimes a cold statistical summary gives a better idea of national and social character of a city determined that a relatively bright and artistically satisfying. Especially if we speak of a fragment of the Bol’shaya Entsiklopediya, or Great Encyclopedia, published in the early twentieth century in St. Petersburg under the editorship of S. Yuzhak and history professor P. Milyukov, who would later founded the Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets) and Minister of the Provisional Government. From information on Berdichev, it follows that the population census of 1897, amounted to 53,728, but was “increasing rapidly”. At 1 January 1899, 50,460 of the 62,283 people there were Jewish, there were 7 synagogues and 62 Jewish houses of worship, compared with 10 Russian Orthodox churches and Roman Catholic. As the author of the passage, the number of primary schools jedarim-Jewish-in the city was so great that even “was not recorded.”
From this modest observation, you can draw the following conclusion: every child, even belonging to the poorest Jewish family, he received a basic education, which included the study of Hebrew, commentaries on the Torah and the history of our people. Children with more skills could continue their education by studying the Talmud, a Jewish philosophical achievement is unique in its scale and magnitude. Many contemporary scholars and teachers of various nationalities have indisputably shown that studying the Talmud (the “oral Torah”) not only makes it possible to acquire a vast amount of knowledge in various spheres of life, but also develops students’ ability to creative thinking, or as they say today, combinative thinking. So it is no accident that often graduates of jedarim later were outstanding mathematicians, designers, linguists, film makers and traders. In other words, excelled in the fields that require a complex approach to solving difficult problems and the ability to find the correct output for unusual situations. However, unfortunately, were few young Jews who used their talents, in particular, their organizational skills-to the detriment of their own people.

In the fire of the Bolshevik revolution

After the revolt of October 1917, Berdichev was inundated Yevsektsiya activists, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, who arrested and disarmed the Zionists a Jewish group of self-defense on the eve of the pogroms of Petliura in early 1919. But when they defeated the followers of Petliura, and later, in June 1920, expelled the Polish troops Berdichev, a new pogrom-Bolshevik this time befell the inhabitants of the city.
As a result of civil war and the Red Terror, there were only about thirteen thousand Jews living in Berdichev, according to the census of 1926, ie, twenty thousand less than in 1899. However, even in 1926, over 90 percent of Jews in Berdichev ídish stated that was their mother tongue. The authorities could not ignore this and decided to exploit this language to the communist re-education of the Jews “left” of the former Land Settlement. However, there was strong resistance in Yevsektsiya policy Volhinia, and even the Jewish newspaper the Moscow Emes (Truth) was forced to admit that workers in Zhitomir province refused to attend classes on Shabbat, as a result of which the whole process of instruction in schools for Jewish workers was close to collapse.
Trying to gain the sympathy of the Jewish population at the beginning the Soviet regime showed, in every sense, the principle of equal rights for different peoples and languages they spoke. Until the mid-1930s, worked in the city several Jewish schools, and continued to appear the newspaper Der Arbeiter (The Worker), which published 10 issues per month. In 1924, Berdichev became the scene of the first court of Ukraine that the paperwork was done in ídish. However, on the eve of World War II and in particular, once the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Jewish cultural and educational activities in the city were reduced to almost nothing. The only center for national and religious life among Jews in Berdichev in the years of pre-war was illegal yeshiva of Chabad Chassidim, under the leadership of the young rabbi E. Pinsky (1914-1942).

The destruction of Atlantis Jewish

The early days of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, almost all young people in Berdichev were mobilized and sent to the front. On July 7, German troops who had stormed the city, found there mainly elderly, women and children. Almost all of them, some twenty thousand in number, were massacred in October 1941, and most-twelve thousand were killed in the course of a single day, Sept. 15. As the eyewitnesses said, “the graves were filled with blood, clay soil and not absorbed, and blood is spilled and left huge puddles on the floor … The wounded who fell into the pit were killed not by bullets but suffocated drowned in the blood that filled the pit. The five graves were filled to the brim: he had to throw them heaps of earth over the bodies to cover … Three times during a brief period, the earth covering the graves were cracked and opened by the internal pressure … Three times the Germans rounded up peasants and forced them to take new clusters of earth on the graves enormous. “
The writer V. Grossman included in his novel Life and Fate some scenes of the last weeks of life in the ghetto of Berdichev, using artistic technique a letter from an old Jewish woman to her son, who lived “in the great world.” No prizes for guessing that the writer attributed to this woman, a French teacher-features of his dead mother. With remarkable precision, Grossman played the psychological atmosphere of this horrible human zoo behind barbed wire, whose occupants try all possible ways to convince themselves that they will achieve escape death. Today we can also learn valuable lessons from this description for us: the Jewish intellect, deprived of a genuine historical and national soil and the will to resist, the Jewish genius, relying on the mercy of “civilized nations”, was predestined perish. So writes V. Grossman about this issue, using your own words of a wise teacher:
“I give Yura homework in French, and I worry about her mispronunciations. And then the Germans burst into the ghetto to steal, and sentries, fun, kids shoot them from behind the barbed wire, and any further confirm that our fate can be decided any day. So that’s what’s happening, but people are still living. We even had a wedding here recently. Countless rumors arise. Now, choking with joy, a neighbor reported that our troops have taken the offensive and the Germans are fleeing. Now, suddenly, there’s a rumor that the Soviet government and Churchill have given them an ultimatum to the Germans, and Hitler ordered not to kill the Jews. Now, it is reported that the Jews will be replaced by German POWs.
“It so happens that there is nowhere else as much hope as in the ghetto. The world is full of events, and all events, their meaning, their cause, are always the same: the salvation of the Jews. Many hopes! The source of these expectations is the same: the life instinct, with no logic that resists the terrible inevitability that we all must perish without trace. And I looked at that and I can not believe: we really are all convicted persons awaiting execution? “
These lines sounded great even more relevant today when, about six months ago, were spoken by an actress in a new program that discusses the works of V. Grossman, transmitted by a satellite television channel in Russia. The Israelis also, once again, are forced to ask the same question: Who are we? “People sentenced to death row or citizens of an independent state, able to cope with a bloodthirsty enemy? If we can not draw conclusions from the recent past, it may be that the tragic experience of the powerless European Jewry has not taught us anything. I rather believe that this is not true …

Published in the Tribune newspaper (The Tribune), Tel Aviv, 17 December 2002.