Ukraine is a republic in Eastern
Europe, bordering Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland and Slovakia to the West, Hungary to the south and Romania and Moldova to the west and south. Jews have had a long history in Ukraine and today the Jewish population in Ukraine is approximately 70,200, making it the eleventh largest Jewish community in the world.
- Early History
- Rise of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry
- Chmielnicki Massacre
- Indepenent Ukraine & Jewish Autonomy
- After World War II
- Modern Jewish Community
- Battles with Anti-Semitism
Jewish settlements in Ukraine can be traced back
to the 8th century. During the period of the Khazar kingdom,
Jews lived on the banks of the River Dnieper and in the east and south
of Ukraine and the Crimea. The Kingdom was considered the most influential
of the medieval period because of its economic and diplomatic standing.
The Khazars, an ancient nomadic Turkic people who reached the lower
Volga region in the 6th century, were held in high esteem
by the pope and other national leaders and played a major role in solving
the region’s conflicts. The Khazars’s Empire, at its height between
the 8th and 10th centuries, extended from the
northern shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as far west as
Kiev. Jewish refugees from the Byzantium, Persia and Mesopotamia regions
— fleeing from persecution by Christians throughout Europe, settled
in the Kingdom because the Khazars allowed them to practice their own
Over time, Jews integrated into the society and married
Khazar inhabitants. At first, Khazars from royal families converted
to Judaism. But other citizen from
throughout the Kingdom soon followed suit, adopting Jewish religious
practices including reading the Torah,
observing the Sabbath,
keeping kosher and switching
to Hebrew as the official
written system. At a time of religious intolerance, the Jews of Khazaria
contributed to building a powerful nation while living in peace.
The Jews of Khazaria may have been among the founders
of the Jewish community of Poland and of other communities in Eastern Europe.
In 965 A.D., however, the Khazar Empire suffered a
blow when the Russians ransacked its capital. In the middle of the 13th century (1241), the Khazars were defeated by the Mongol invasion —
an invasion that devastated all of Poland.
To rebuild the country and defend its cities, Poland recruited immigrants from the west, mainly Germany,
promising to help them settle in villages and towns. German Jews, many
of whom were massacred by Christian crusaders in the 1200 and devastated by the Black Death in 1300, immigrated to Poland. Jews in Poland shared
a heritage with the new immigrants, but not a language. To communicate
with one another, Jews in Poland created a common language. Yiddish.
Made up of a combination of Middle German, Hebrew, Polish and German-Hebrew,
Yiddish became the Ashkenazi national Jewish language.
Later, Jews from the western provinces of Poland moved
to Ukraine because of the economic opportunities created by Poland’s
expanding influence, which increased even more so in the 16th century with the consolidation of Poland-Lithuania over the region. By the end of the 15th century, between
20,000 and 30,000 Jews were living in 60 communities throughout Poland-Lithuania,
most of them in cities. Ukraine became the center of Jewish life
Rise of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry (1569)
But life in Poland-Lithuania was not easy for the
Jews. The church continued to pressure the nobles to punish and limit
Jewish influence — putting the nobles on the spot because they
recognized the economic contribution made by the Jews in society. When
Jews settled in Ukraine, they became more prominent in the trade
business, selling dye, cloth, horses, cattle and estates. Jews were
also making connections with other Jewish communities in the Ottoman
Empire, serving as liaisons between the two worlds. But what Jews
were mostly known for — and detested for — was their role
in the Polish government as collectors of customs, duties and taxes
on behalf of Polish landlords, bankers and physicians.
As Jews prospered, anti-Semitism flourished. The country’s lower classes, including the Ukrainian Cossacks,
saw Jews as working for the nation’s wealthy landowners and accused
Jews of robbing the wealth of poor people to better enrich them. By
the end of 16th century, Poland sought more control over the Ukrainians Cossacks, who rose up against
their Polish landowners and the Jews. Life for the Jews then took a
turn for the worst.
Chmielnicki Massacre (1648-1649)
The Cossacks, meanwhile, wanted to free Ukraine
from Polish domination — and sought to rule Ukraine. In 1648,
the Cossacks, led by Bohdan Chmielicki, began a series of campaigns
by instigating the uprising of the Cossacks against the Jews. Chmielicki
told people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of
the accursed Jews.” Angered by this notion, the Cossacks massacred tens
of thousands of Jews during 1648-1649, in a war that would later be
considered among the worst of that time period.
Many Polish Jews fled the country, but most were brutally
murdered. The massacre was devastating — both in numbers and effect.
According to Jewish chronicles, the death toll reached approximately
100,000, and nearly 300 Jewish communities were destroyed. Cossack cruelty
was so great that many Jews preferred to flee to captivity under Crimean
Tartars, to be sold as slaves. The Deluge, as the catastrophe came to
be known, brought devastation to both the Jews and the general population
during the years of insurrection, invasions and wars. Famine and epidemics
swept through parts of the country.
The following excerpts describe eyewitness accounts
of the atrocities that took place in the regions of Mogila, Zaslav,
and Nemirov, between 1648 until 1651.
In the city of Mogila they slaughtered 800 nobles together with their wives
and children as well as 700 Jews, also with wives and children. Some
were cut into pieces, others were ordered to dig graves into which
Jewish women and children were thrown and buried alive. Jews were
given rifles and ordered to kill each other...They surround young
women and, as they struggled to escape, cut their clothes from their
bodies. Then they performed abominations on them until they died screaming....
They arrived... (disguised) as if they had come with the Poles... in order
that he open the gates of the fortress... and they succeeded... and
they massacred about 6,000 souls in the town... and they drowned several
hundreds in the water and by all kinds of cruel torments. In the synagogue,
before the Holy Ark, they slaughtered with butchers' knives... after
which they destroyed the synagogue and took out all the Torah books...
they tore them up... and they laid them out... for men and animals
to trample on... they also made sandals of them... and several other
Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their
hands and limbs chapped off and their bodies thrown on the highway
to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted
upon them and were then thrown on the street to die a slow death.
They tore open women and then whipped them forcing them to crawl to
their deaths.... others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants
in their mothers' laps. They were sliced into pieces like fish....
The infants were hung on the breasts of their mothers. Some children
were pierced with spears.
Ukraine did eventually become independent —
but not for long. In 1651, Chmielnicki suffered defeat and was forced
to accept a treaty that did not give him as much control over Ukraine
as he had hoped. In 1654, Chmielnicki persuaded the Cossacks to transfer
their allegiance to the Russian czars. Anti-Semitism worsened after Ukraine was annexed by Russia in 1653, as the Nationalist
and Socialist Party of Ukraine took control over the region. The
pogroms of 1881 broke out and spread through the provinces of Ukraine.
But even the Chmielnicki massacres didn’t halt Jewish
migration to Ukraine. Jews continued to play a prominent role in
the economic recovery of the country during the 17th and
18th centuries. The sufferings endured by the Jews in the
Ukraine also gave rise to spiritual and social trends for both Jews
and Christians. The Hasidism movement developed and spread throughout the country. After the pogroms
of the 1880s, Ukraine became the birthplace of the Hibbat
Zion, the Bilu and the
Am Olam movements as well as the “Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood,” which
sought to “bring back” the Jews to the religious purity of the Bible
and draw them closer to Christianity.
Independent Ukraine & Jewish National Autonomy
After the October 1917 Revolution and the civil war,
more than 300,000 Jews left Ukraine for other parts of the Soviet
Union. But some Jews stayed. The period from March 1917 to August 1920 constitutes a special chapter in the history of the Jews of the Ukraine. The Ukrainians established a National Council (Rada), which in January 1918 proclaimed the separation of Ukraine from Russia; this episode came to an end in August 1920, when the Red Army completed the conquest of the Ukraine.
During this period the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalist movement attempted to reach an agreement with the Jews. They established relations with the leaders of Zionism in eastern Galicia and jointly waged a struggle against Polish aims in the Ukraine. Jews were represented in the Rada (with 50 delegates), a secretariat for Jewish affairs was established (July 1917), and a law passed on "personal national autonomy" for the national minorities, among which, the Jews were included.
In December 1918, the Jewish ministry passed a law providing for democratic elections to the administrative bodies of the communities , a Jewish National Council was formed, and the Provisional National Council of the Jews of the Ukraine was convened in November 1918.
These institutions, however, were short-lived. In July 1918, the autonomy was abolished, the Jewish ministry was dissolved and the pogroms which then took place – without the Ukrainian government taking any effective measures to assure the security of the Jewish population – proved that the whole of this project had been directed more at securing the assistance of the Jewish parties in order to achieve complete separation from Russia than at really developing a new positive attitude toward the Jews.
After World War II
War II, parts of the Ukrainian population collaborated with the
Nazis in exterminating the Jews in occupied Ukraine.
War II, under Nikita Khrushchev’s rule over Ukraine, Ukrainian
Jews who fled to Soviet Asia during the occupation slowly returned to
reclaim their homes, possessions and jobs. The Ukrainians who remained
in the communities were hostile to the returning Jews. The government,
once again, refused to interfere in the conflicts between the Russians
and the Jews. As a result, anti-Semitic sentiments surfaced everywhere — in the nation’s literature and
art, and through political propaganda.
This anti Jewish atmosphere prevailed it Ukraine
during the postwar period. Only a few synagogues were allowed to remain opened, but even these were under close watch
by the secret police.
In the 1960s, however, Ukrainian intellectuals made
an effort to help and understand the Jewish plight. Some Ukrainians
tried to raise awareness about the atrocities that Jews experienced
during the Holocaust. Though defending
the Ukrainian character of their republic against “russification,” some
Ukrainian intellectuals went out of their way to emphasize their solidarity
with Jewish demands for the revival of Jewish culture and education.
Ukraine declared its independence on August 1991. Most
of the Jews voted for independence. Several times, the leaders of the
Ukrainian national movement expressed a positive attitude toward the
Jews of Ukraine and the desire to work with them. To further that
goal, an international conference was held in Kiev in 1991 on Ukrainian-Jewish
relations. Ukrainian president Kravchuk commemorated the 50th anniversary of the mass murder of Kiev’s Jews at Baby
Yar, and acknowledged the Ukrainian people’s share of guilt for
the destruction of the Jews. He also showed support for the denunciation
of the U.N. resolution equating
Zionism with racism, a belief some of his citizens still held true.
Modern Jewish Community
In 1989, a Soviet census counted 487,000 Jews living in Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet
Union, 80% of the Jewish community has emigrated. Efforts have been made to revive the Jewish community in
Ukraine, which numbered 80,000 in 2005 (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 20).Today, the community
has formed 40 religious societies, and built 24 synagogues.
Jewish organizations created within Ukraine have been raising funds
for relief within the Jewish community, promoting Jewish participation
in the political system, furthering Jewish education, and building memorials
to commemorate those who perished during the Holocaust.
Jewish life is once again, on the upswing. Since 1993,
the Jewish population has expanded its organizational numbers to roughly
250 organizations, located in more than 80 cities. Some of these organizations
include the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Association of Jewish Communities
and Organizations of Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the
Jewish Council of Ukraine, and the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The state
now recognizes Jewish cultural and religious institutions, including
14 Jewish day schools, 10 Yeshivot, and 70 Hebrew and Sunday schools.
An American rabbi, Yankel
Blau, was named chief rabbi of Ukraine. To partially atone for past
transgressions, the Ukrainian government has returned 20 synagogues
to the Jewish community and has passed legislation to return all confiscated
religious memorabilia over to Jewish leaders.
The Jewish community in Kiev, though diminished since the 1990's, has seen an upswing since it became the seat of the Ukrainian chief rabbinate and the opening of a Jewish day school (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 12). The city now has three new congregations, three
Jewish newspapers and two professional Jewish theater companies. The
International Solomon University, the first Jewish university in Ukraine,
opened in Kiev in the fall of 1993. Hebrew studies departments have
been established at the Universities of Kiev and Odessa. Large and active
Jewish communities are thriving in Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk.
In late 2004, a new Jewish community complex opened
in Zaparozhye with a theater, gym, kosher kitchen, library, Jewish school,
kindergarten, orphanage, and welfare center to serve the estimated 15,000-20,000
Jews in the city.
In April 2005, the historic Egie Kapai synagogue was
rededicated as a Reform temple
in the town of Evpatoria in the Crimean Peninsula. decades after it
was closed by the Communist Party. The synagogue was dedicated by Rabbi
Alex Dukhovny, leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, in the presence
of local politicians. The synagogue was founded in 1912 and was returned
to the Jewish community in 1999. It was reconstructed using funds donated
by the Leo Baeck B’nai Brith Lodge in London, the World Union
for Progressive Judaism, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
and local sponsors. Some 100 of the city’s 800 Jews are affiliated
with the local Reform congregation.
Despite this growth, however, Ukrainian Jewish communities still face
major challenges: extreme food shortages for the elderly, middle-aged
unemployment and the encroaching threat posed by proselytizing Messianic
Fearing Russian aggression and fleeing from the Ukrainian revolution that decimated the Eastern portion of the country during 2014, many Ukrainian Jews made the move to Israel. During 2014 over 5,000 Ukrainian Jewish individuals immigrated to Israel, mostly from the Donbas region which had been hit especially hard by violence and uncertainty during the revolution. This wave of immigration represents a one thousand percent increase over the same period during the previous year. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) paid for one flight filled with 226 Ukrainian Jews to Israel during 2014. The organization plans to continue this program and hopes to send one plane load of Ukrainian Jews to Israel every month during 2015.
In an interview with the Executive Director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, Mark Levin in the January 2015 edition of Moment Magazine, Levin paints a hopeful picture for Ukraine's Jewish citizens. Levin states that the Jews living in Ukraine are "hoping that this time around the politcal reformers don't allow infighting to destroy any chance to create a true economic and political renaissance." When asked about problems with anti-semitism in the Ukraine, Levin happily replied that "today is much better than it has been." He supports this claim by pointing out that there are no far right wing parties in the current government, and that Jews and non-Jews have been fighting alongside each other during the revolution. Levin said confidently that the Ukranian Jewish leaders are happy with the government at the moment and there have been some positive developments in Ukranian attitudes towards Jewish individuals. The Jewish population in the Ukraine has been more affected by the war economically than anything else, and the Jews who have been directly involved in the civil war have been personally affected by the loss of their jobs and homes, and robbed of their normal lives. During the interview, Levin stated that "if they had the means or wherewithal to leave, they have." Levin estimates that there are only a few thousand Jews left in the Ukraine following the civil unrest of the revolution, mostly the elderly.
During the first four months of 2015, 6,499 Jewish people made Aliyah from all over the world. More than a third of these individuals (1,971) came from the Ukraine. These numbers represent a 215% increase in immigration from the Ukraine to Israel over the same period during the previous year, during which only 625 Ukranian Jews made the move to Israel. Immigration to Israel from Russia has increased dramatically, from 1,016 in the first four months of 2014 to 1,515 in 2015. Aliyah from France also slightly increased.
Battles with Anti-Semitism
In Ukraine, anti-Semitic sentiments were associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. During
the 1990s, Ukraine was still experiencing anti-Semitism. Well-known
groups, such as the organization of the Ukrainian Idealist, based in
Lvov, the State Independence of Ukraine party, and the Ukrainian
National Assembly, still had strong paramilitary backing, and were active
in anti-Semitic rallies, and distributing anti-Semitic publications.
Although Jews have advanced in governmental positions,
they still face much hatred because of their religion and beliefs. Many
Ukrainian citizens still distrust Ukrainian Jews and believe that the
Jews’ primary loyalty is to the Jewish people and not to the Ukrainian
nation. For example, Yakov Penek reported during the June 1995
Conference on Soviet Jewry in South Florida:
“In the fall of
1993, Mayor Gurwitz’ former political challenger Kostishev showed
a movie on the local television in which Gurwitz is portrayed as an
agent of the world’s Zionism who wishes to sell Odessa, his native
town, to the world’s capitalism.”
A survey conducted in 1990 revealed that 7% of the
nation still believes that Jews are actively seeking to take over the
political and social circles of Ukraine. In addition, the survey
points out that 10% also believe that the Jews are responsible for the
misery and economic devastation still plaguing the region.
In October 2013, Lviv's Prosecutor's Office opened a criminal investigation of two police detectives believed to have beaten and humiliated a Jewish man while trying to extort money from him. The man, 29-year-old businessman Dmitry Flekman, was arrested by the officers and held in an interrogation room for nine hours. The officers purportedly urinated on Flekman and fractured his tailbone with blows to the back They also forced him to sit on the floor, explaining the chair “was not for stinking Jews,” and one of them said “he’d do what Hitler did.”
Sources: JTA. “Aliyah from Ukraine triples in first quarter of 2015,” Haaretz (May 1, 2015)
"Fleeing civil war, thousands of Ukrainians take refuge in Israel", Jerusalem Post (December 22 2014)
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