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How should Jews think about Ukraine?

Like so much else in Jewish history, the story is one of light and darkness.

An Orthodox priest blesses Ukrainian Military Air Force University cadets after a monthly memorial service for soldiers who have been killed during fighting against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2022. Russia maintains it has no intention to attack its neighbor, but demands that NATO not expand to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations or deploy weapons there. It also wants the alliance to roll back its deployments to Eastern Europe. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

(RNS) — On Facebook, there are various ways of indicating your relationship status.

When it comes to the Jews and Ukraine, there is only one word that is appropriate: “complicated.”

As I listen to the news emanating from Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, what kinds of thoughts swirl through my head?

I think, first and foremost, of my good friends from my boyhood — first-generation Ukrainian Americans, whose parents were among the most gracious people I had ever known; proud of their roots; active in their church, with balalaika music in their home.

I reach across the miles to them, in hope and prayer.

And then, I think of us American Jews. For many of us, our roots are in Ukraine — or, at the very least, the general neighborhood. Many American Jews trace their stories back to the Pale of Settlement. That was the western part of the Russian Empire, which contained modern-day Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, most of Poland, small parts of Latvia and much of Ukraine. 

But, that larger story is a dark one.

In the 1600s, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth included Ukraine. The Jews became middlemen between the Polish Catholic landlords and the Greek Orthodox Ukrainian peasants.

In 1648, the Ukrainian national hero Bogdan Khmelnytsky (or Chimielnitsky, or Chmielnicki — there are many variant spellings) led an uprising against the Polish landlords.

But, his real victims were the Jews.

The words from a contemporaneous account — “Yeven Metzulah,” by Nathan Neta Hanover — are chilling.

It came to pass in 1648 that there was a Cossack officer named Chmielnicki (may his name be blotted out) … who was extremely wealthy, cunning, and a brave warrior.

Many Jews in communities who could not flee … were killed for the sanctification of God’s name, cruel and harsh deaths. Some were skinned alive and their flesh thrown to the dogs, some had their hands and feet cut off and were thrown in the road to be trampled by horses … Some were buried alive. Children were slaughtered at their mothers’ breasts … There was no bizarre means of murder that they did not inflict on them. Thousands of Jews were killed east of the Dnieper, and hundreds were forced to convert. Torah scrolls were torn and made into sacks and shoes.

Between 1648 and 1658, as many as 100,000 Jews died and 300 communities were destroyed. It was to be the greatest devastation in Jewish life until the Holocaust.

And yet, with that, and even because of that, Ukraine was the place of our greatest spiritual revolution.

The Cossack massacres plunged the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe into deep despair.

Hasidism liberated the Jews from that despair. Ukraine was the cradle of that mystical, introspective, transformative movement that would arguably become the greatest spiritual revolution in Jewish history. Its founder, the Baal Shem Tov, was born in Okopy, Ukraine; he lived and died in Medzhybizh. Ukraine was the home of the greatest place names in Hasidic history: Berdichev, Chernobyl, Mezeritch. To this day, pilgrims visit the grave of Reb Nachman of Bratslav in Uman.

So, too, the Ukrainians have had their own national tragedies.

The modern story of Ukraine bears witness to the twin bestialities of both the Nazis and the Soviets.

Stalin’s Five Year Plan decimated Ukraine. In 1933, in the greatest humanly caused famine in history, Ukrainians would die in the millions. During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in Europe, or in the world.

As Timothy Snyder writes in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Hitler thought the Slavs were subhuman. He wanted Ukraine’s fertile lands. 

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes deliberately murdered around 14 million civilians in the “blood lands,” the region that extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States.

But, in particular, Ukraine was a Jewish killing field — and perhaps the worst. Consider what happened at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of Kyiv. On that site, Nazi forces executed almost 34,000 Jews — on Sept. 29-30, 1941. It was the single largest mass killing in the Holocaust. The late Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar” in memory of the horror:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails …

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk …

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

How many Jews died in Ukraine during the Holocaust? Perhaps as many as 1.5 million to 1.6 million.

But, then again, let us bring even more nuance into the story. Many Ukrainians risked their lives to save Jewish lives.

  • In Hoszcza, a Ukrainian farmer, Fiodor Kalenczuk, hid a Jewish grain merchant, Pessah Kranzberg, along with his wife, their 10-year-old daughter and their daughter’s young friend, for 17 months. During the last week of September 1942, 500 Jews in Hoszcza were slaughtered. Because of Fiodor, the Kranzbergs were not among them.
  • In Kiev, a Russian Orthodox priest, Aleksey Glagolyev, hid five Jews in his home.
  • A farmer near Trembowla allowed 13-year-old Arieh Czeret to stay in his barn.
  • In Budzanow, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Ufryjewicz, saved a Jewish family by baptizing them and falsifying baptismal certificates. He forged his parish register so as to give them an entire Christian ancestry.
  • In Turka, Sister Jadwiga, who was also the head nurse at the local hospital, hid 12-year-old Lidia Kleiman in a cubicle in the men’s bathroom, which was used as a broom closet.

Yes, the relationship between the Jews and Ukraine has been complex, and even delicate at times.

Let us, therefore, remember that the current president of Ukraine is Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

He is a Jewish comedian.

For a while, the prime minister of Ukraine was Volodymyr Groysman.

He is also Jewish.

So, ask yourselves the following questions.

  1. How many countries have had Jewish presidents and Jewish prime ministers — simultaneously? (That would be Israel.)
  2. Could the United States ever elect a Jewish comedian as president?

I conclude with a story, as retold by Yaffa Eliach in “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.”

The story is about something that happened in the Janowska work camp, which is near Lvov, or Lviv, Ukraine.

The Nazis forced the Jews in the camp to dig huge pits, and then forced them to leap across. Those who successfully made the jump would live; those who fell into the pit would meet their deaths.

Two men stood at the edge of a pit: the rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira, and a friend, who was a freethinker, an anti-religious Jew. Even though neither man was in great physical shape, they both jumped, and they both made it across.

“How did you do it?” the freethinker asked the rabbi.

The rabbi replied: “I was holding on to my ancestral merit. I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory.”

“But, you, my friend?” the rabbi asked. “How did you reach the other side?”

The rabbi’s friend answered: “I was holding on to you.”

May that tale from a work camp in Ukraine give us all the courage — to leap across the pits of despair, and to find people to hold on to.

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