Recent events and key actors, past and present, have apparently upset many of the 80,000- or 300,000 Ukrainian Jews–surprisingly, no-one really knows since so many have left for the U.S. Or Israel. They voted for the ousted, actually democratically elected, Viktor Yanukovych as the best of a poor lot in the last election and are now faced with the unknown, haunted by memories of repeated persecutions and an unpredictable future. The changes demanded by the street protestors, among them the universal hatred for the country’s pervasive corruption, may eventually prove beneficial. But the uncertainty and the presence of extremist groups among them have also aroused new fears, most prominently exhibited in the Jewish press outside Ukraine. “Ukraine Jews Hunker Down Amid Turmoil” went the liberal Jewish weekly Forward’s headline. Sounding more urgent was the center- right Times of Israel: “Israel urged to send forces to guard Ukrainian Jews,” where Rabbi Menahem Margolin, who heads the European Jewish Association, described “a growing wave of anti–Semitic attacks” during the recent upheavals and asked for the dispatch of Israeli “trained security guards to protect communities in Ukrainian cities and towns.” Meanwhile, an Orthodox rabbi quoted in the Algemeiner, a new and very pro-Israel online site, advised Jews to leave after an attack on two rabbinical students. The site also reported that in late February a synagogue in Simferopol, Crimea (which was taken over by Russians) was spray painted with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” according to Anatoly Gendin, director of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea.
Not everyone agrees. Ukraine’s chief Reform rabbi, Alexander Dukhovny, said, yes, there were ultras among the Kiev protestors but most Ukrainians want a tolerant western/American style of pluralism. And Yaakov Bleich, an American-born Chabad rabbi in Ukraine, questioned quick and negative judgments, concluding that Ukrainian anti-Yanukovych protestors “are not anti-Semites, they’re not right-wing, nationalist neo-fascists or Nazis, the way the Russians have been trying to paint them,” adding that leaders – unnamed– had assured him that they will not allow anti-Semitism.
So are worrywarts making too much of what thus far seems to be isolated outbreaks of anti-Semitism? Is historical memory coloring present judgments? Will the Jewish issue become part of the debate over who’s doing what to whom?
I’m a faithful reader of the NY Times and appreciate the recent coverage of their Kiev correspondents Andrew Higgins and Andrew Kramer in the midst of the chaos and bloodshed. I was struck by their far too brief reference to some protestors’ “dark nationalistic ideologies” from Ukraine’s past, some of whom, they reported, seemed to be shouting pro-Nazi slogans. Still, we wonder who speaks for whom? What kind of Ukraine do the protestors and their successors want? Does their vision include Jews and other minorities? And if the IMF demands severe austerity as the price of a bailout of the bankrupt interim state, and if the economy collapses and ordinary people begin feeling real pain, will Jews be blamed?
There’s something else the American mass media have so far ignored: An in-depth examination of far-right Svoboda, one of the three main post-Yanukovych parties now in play. Some think they have modified their past views but that remains to be seen. Then, too, how influential will they be in the new government? Even so, last December, our resident foreign policy tough guy, John McCain, traveled to Kiev and met with Ukrainians, including Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok, who has rarely been shy about criticizing Jews.
Then there are fringe Ukrainian ultra-extremists such as Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), Patriots of Ukraine, Trident and White Hammer, whose thugs carried clubs, firebombs, chains and other weapons and now boast, without evidence, of having been at the center of the protests. Still, if they had not been outnumbered by what we hope were genuinely pro-democratic Ukrainians, their presence recalls brown shirts in street battles in Weimar Germany.
Seumas Milne of the liberal British Guardian, went much further. The protesters he saw and overheard hardly seemed interested in a future democratic and tolerant Ukraine. Taking issue with major media outlets, he wrote, “You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings.” Ukrainians, he went on, “are deeply divided about European integration and the protests.”
Timothy Snyder, who teaches history at Yale and wrote the brilliant book Bloodlands, offered quite a different picture of pro-democratic street protestors, outraged enough at official and private greed and cronyism to risk the government’s violent counter-attacks. In The New York Review of Books he says “the protestors represent every group of Ukrainian citizens” including “Christians, Moslems and Jews” and that “Jewish leaders” — unidentified– “have made a point of supporting the movement.”
Years ago, walking with my cousin in Odessa, the third largest Ukrainian city and with a sizable Jewish population, we talked about how our grandparents managed to survive Nazi and Rumanian savagery, aided as well by local Ukrainians. Quoting from eyewitness accounts plus Rumanian and German documents, Wendy Lower, John K. Roth Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College and author of “Anti-Jewish Violence in Western Ukraine, Summer 1941” described Ukrainian militia joining with Nazis and Rumanians to murder the 18,000 Jews still left in the city. (“The Rumanians were the worst,” my cousin’s mother-in-law told me). I asked how most non-Jewish Odessans had treated them before, during and after the war. By way of answering my cousin took me to a statue of the writer Konstantin Paustovsky, whose magisterial The Story of a Life explored the complexity and richness of Ukrainian life and culture, much of it unknown to outsiders, at least until the current revolution or coup d’état –take your pick—in Kiev. My cousin then explained that some, not all, Ukrainians were helpful. Yet once allowed to leave, tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews departed for the U.S. and Israel.
My cousin was right and there have been good and bad times. But in today’s perplexing, still unraveling and completely unpredictable climate, history plays the major role. Jews have lived in Ukraine since at least the eighth century, when the Khazars, believed by some to have been Jewish converts, arrived from Asia. But many more began coming after the Union of Lublin in 1569, which consolidated the Kingdom of Poland and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. Since then, Ukraine’s history has been stained over and again by violence against Jews.
“They [Jews] appear to have been well aware of their dangerous situation,” wrote Heiko Hauman in A History of East European Jews. “Many sources speak of their weapons or of their fortified synagogues. And then came the great catastrophe.” He meant Bohdan Khmelnitzky, a heroic figure in Ukrainian history, who led a force of Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants in 1648 in a brutal war against Poles and Jews, “sparing neither women nor children,” as an early chronicle went. Pogroms regularly followed pogroms, encouraged and fostered by the Tsarists but by Ukrainians as well, peasant mobs and Cossacks often attacking obscure shtetlach, villages fictionalized and popularized in Fiddler on the Roof and made real by my mother’s experiences .
During WWI, my father was drafted into the Tsarist army. After the Bolshevik seizure of power he was shanghaied into a White army and I’ve never forgotten his recollections, which he often shared with me, about Jews assaulted being by all sides, especially in Ukraine. Indeed, in the 1918-1920 civil war, some 80,000- 100,000 Jews were killed, the most until Hitler decided to try for a record.
In WWII, many Ukrainians, perhaps because of their justifiable hatred for Stalin and the Communists, whose pitiless policies managed to kill several million of them during the manufactured famine enforced in the early thirties, turned to the Nazis who had little use for them save as collaborators against the Soviets and the Jews. Some joined the SS, and some served in the death camps. The Ukrainische Hilfspolizei or Auxiliary Police, worked German-conquered territory in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, and helped murder 7,000 Jews in Lviv in the summer of 1941. Elsewhere, many Ukrainians killed village Jews and stole their property.
Most famously, Stepan Bandera and his OUN-B organization (The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) had an on and off relationship with the Nazis. Once jailed by them and then released, he served alongside of them. In 1941, in Cracow, a meeting with German approval and not far from where the death camps would soon appear, Bandera’s OUN-B declared “the Jews of the USSR constitute the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime, and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine.” The OUN-B, wrote Delphine Bechtel of the University Paris-Sorbonne, willingly collaborated with the Nazi extermination program as did the Ukrainian Insurrectional Army (UPA), Bataillon Nachtigall, and the Division SS-Galizien, the latter comprised of Ukrainian volunteers, In June 1941, OUN-B leader and Nazi collaborator Roman Shukhevych wore a German uniform leading Bataillon Nachtigall into Galicia. In 2007 his life and career was memorialized in a Lviv church and honored with an exhibit “Freedom and Ukraine: The Motto of Roman Shukhevych.” Nearby, a huge Bandera memorial has just been completed.
Three years later, in 2010, then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko honored Bandera posthumously with the National Hero of the Ukraine Award. This, too, is part of Ukrainian-Jewish history.
Only time will tell. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s interim president, is a western-style liberal economist and no anti-Semite. Pending the May elections, the two major parties have been given cabinet posts, but Svoboda and the Right Sector are also part of the government and hold some cabinet posts. Meanwhile, despite Russian military threats and some of our neoconservative chicken hawks, in tense, confusing times it’s always best to proceed with caution. It’s called diplomacy.
Murray Polner wrote “Disarmed & Dangerous,” a biography of the Berrigan brothers (with Jim O’Grady) and “We Who Dared Say No To War” (with Thomas Woods Jr.).