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March 14, 2022 10:35 am

Painful Memories in Ukraine, Past and Present

avatar by Jacob Sivak


Refugees fleeing the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine wait for hours to board a train to Poland, outside the train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The tragedy and horrifying images from Ukraine resulting from the Russian invasion of the country brought to mind a picture in my late father’s family album. It’s a small (three inch by one and one-half inch) black and white photo, taken in 1920.

My father, 10 at the time, is shown with his parents and two of his sisters. My grandparents were only 47, yet to me, they look much older. The location is Kishinev, a city in Bessarabia, then a region in Romania. Today, the city is known as Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova.

The windup of World War I coincided with the start of a brutal civil war in Russia (1917 to 1921), involving several factions, including: communists (Reds), reactionary/monarchist forces (Whites), and Ukrainian nationalists. “Russian Jews between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920,” by Oleg Budnitski (translated by T.J. Portice, 2012) describes this period in detail.

I have my own source of information about this era — my parents’ memoirs. They immigrated with their families to Canada in the mid-1920s, when they were in their early teens, my mother from Lithuania and my father from Russia (Ukraine). My parents left Canada for kibbutz life in Mandatory Palestine in the early 1930s, married there, and then returned to Canada shortly before World War II. Later, with my help, they wrote their memoirs: “Chienke’s Motl and Motl’s Chienke” (Mantua Books, 2011).

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My father, the youngest of seven children, was born and raised in a typical Jewish shtetl in Ukraine — the town of Monastyryshche (Monistrich in Yiddish), about 130 miles south of Kyiv (Kiev) and 15 miles from the larger town of Uman. He described his shtetl as a self-contained Yiddish-speaking civilization, consisting of about 3,000 Jews, a sugar plant, and six synagogues, including a prayer house for Rachmastrivka Hasids, like his father. The shtetl was surrounded by four nearby Ukrainian villages.

Monistrich escaped the turmoil and brutality of the Russian civil war until 1920, when the village experienced a savage pogrom carried out by White Russian forces under General Denikin. Many of the Jews managed to get away when they heard word of the coming pogrom. But one of my father’s brothers, a 15 year-old, had typhus and couldn’t be moved. His grandmother stayed behind to care for him, and she and the boy were killed. All told, 200 were killed and 800 injured.

Following the pogrom, two of my father’s older siblings made their way to Romania, to the city of Kishinev. From there they were able to immigrate to Canada. The rest of the family followed by horse and wagon, traveling in stages, first to Ternivka, my grandmother’s home town, then on to Bershad, then Chechelnyk, and finally the border town of Raskov on the Dniester River. Smugglers helped them cross to Romania in rowboats, only to rob them of their belongings once they were across.

To be recognized as refugees, it was necessary for them to state that they fled Russia because of the Bolsheviks. They lived in Romania as refugees for three years, before receiving Canadian visas and traveling to Montreal in late 1923.

All wars are terrible, but civil wars are especially brutal, and the death toll from the Russian civil war has been estimated at between two and six million. Minorities such as Jews and Mennonites were especially targeted. Budnitskii states that for Jews, “only the Holocaust would surpass this period in savagery and wanton murder.” (According to Yad Vashem, there were about 1,400 Jews in Monistrich, nearly 75 percent of the population, at the beginning of World War II. Most of them were murdered by the German occupiers on May 29, 1942.)

As of now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is into its third week and there is no end in sight. More than two million Ukrainians are now refugees. When I look at some of their faces on television, I see the same expression of pain and devastation that I see in the photograph in my father’s album.

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo.

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