Tough Times Again for Ukraine’s Jewish Population
We are now witnessing the latest round of violence and tragedy in the Ukraine. And not for the first time, hundreds of thousands of Jews in that embattled country, perhaps as many as 400,000, find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Historically, Jews in Ukraine have suffered disastrous losses during times of upheaval. During the Cossack uprising of 1648-57, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, 15-30,000 Ukrainian Jews out of a total population of 51,000 were murdered or taken captive. The organized violence against the helpless and impoverished Jews in the Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th century spawned a new word in the lexicon of hate – pogrom. Many of our grandparents fled the Ukraine, arriving on American shores penniless with little more than a dream of a safe haven. During the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War, another estimated 30,000-100,000 Jews were killed.
The total civilian losses during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine is estimated at 7 million, with more than 1 million Jews shot by Einsatzgruppen killing squads and Ukrainian collaborators in Western Ukraine.
To be sure, the Jewish community has not been center stage in the current epic struggle for Ukraine’s future. The just-deposed Prime Minister represents the still powerful pull of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin has always made it clear he will not accept a Ukraine that is tied to NATO or the European Union. So far he’s used the economic carrot of cheap oil and other incentives, but possible military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, with its significant Russian population — cannot be dismissed.
On the other side are Ukrainian activists who rallied around a Euro-centric vision of the future. Anyone and anything that insists on a link to Moscow and the memories of 70 years of tyrannical Soviet rule is out of the question. Unfortunately, among the masses of people who braved beatings, bullets, and death, were members of the nationalist Svoboda party, some of whose leaders have openly expressed anti-Semitic views.
Against this unsettling backdrop, after last month’s beating of two Jews, Kiev’s Chief rabbi has called on the city’s Jews to leave. Now comes word that unknown perpetrators hurled firebombs at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev. That house of prayer opened in 2012 – a sign of Jewish renewal in the Ukraine – was built on the spot where the Jews of that community were ordered to gather before being deported by the Nazis to their deaths.
It goes without saying that Jewish institutions are bolstering security and it has been reported that some public events have been canceled. One can only wonder what kind of Purim and Passover await our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Ukraine.
What will members of Europe’s third largest Jewish community do? Will they stay or go? The late Simon Wiesenthal imparted sage advice when he said, “Where democracy is strong it is good for Jews and where it is weak it is bad for the Jews.”
We can only hope and pray and that the forces of true democratic values and inclusion win the day in the Ukraine. That would be a blessing for all its people. In the meantime, today’s Ukrainian Jews are free to ponder an option their forefathers could only dream about. Israel is but a non-stop flight from Kiev. Look for those flights to be extra crowded in the days ahead.