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Ukraine is a republic in Eastern Europe, bordering the Black Sea to the south, 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. The current territory of what is today the nation of Ukraine was once the southern part of the first Eastern Slavic state, Kievan Rus. The capital of modern Ukraine is Kiev.
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 religion.
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 in Poland-Lithuania.
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.
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 garments".
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.
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 Ukrainians set up the National Council which sought to separate Ukraine from Russia. Leaders of the Ukrainian nationalist movement tried to reach an agreement with the Jews — but these efforts never materialized. As it turns out, the Ukrainian nationalist movement tried to appease the Jews so they could get their vote and support to separate Ukraine from Russia. The National Council had no intention to change the country’s attitude about the Jews.
After 1917, during the Civil War, about 100,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine. Two decades of Soviet rule did little to eradicate the hostility against the Jews. During World War II, parts of the Ukrainian population collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating the Jews in occupied Ukraine
After World 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.
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 Jewish groups.
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.
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Carolyn Slutsky, “Overseas donors make a difference for community in one Ukranian city,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (November 3, 2004)
“Synagogue rededicated in Ukraine,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (April 21, 2005)