Light and Dark: History of Jewish Life in Ukraine

By Benjamin Taied

The Babyn Yar Memorial in Ukraine. Photo: AP Photo/Efram Lukatsky

On Tuesday, March 1st, a Russian missile hit Kyiv’s main radio and television tower, just a short walk from the neighboring Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, shaking Jewish people worldwide. Babyn Yar commemorates a series of massacres carried out by Nazi Germany during its campaign against the Soviet Union; it is estimated that around 33,000 Jews were murdered at the site in the infamous Babyn Yar Massacre. It’s uncertain if the Russians had the memorial center in mind — They were likely looking to take down Kyiv’s television stations. The strike claimed the lives of five individuals.

However, striking a spot so close to where thousands of the city’s Jews were murdered in a two-day massacre in 1941 is distressing. The Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel issued a statement condemning the incident. Leaders from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish Committee expressed similar sentiments.

For many Jews, Ukraine conjures up images of pogroms, antisemitism, and Nazism. During the Holocaust, between 1.2 million and 1.6 million Jews were slaughtered in Ukraine. Despite the treatment of Jews under the Nazis and the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Ukraine today is, thankfully, no longer what it once was.

In 2019, to the surprise of many, Ukraine elected a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with 73 percent of the vote. Even though he is not religious, Agnostic Judaism is common among Soviet Jews, Zelensky has never shied away from claiming his Jewish heritage. Some of Zelensky’s relatives, including three great-uncles, were killed by the Nazis. “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?” he forcefully tweeted following the strike on Tuesday.

Volodymyr Zelensky is Ukraine’s current president, and is the only Jew to have ever served in that role. Photo: RM/Shutterstock

Despite Soviet efforts to hide the memory of Babyn Yar, Ukraine has held commemorations at the solemn site on a regular basis since 1991, acknowledging that tens of thousands of Jews and others, including Roma, were killed under the rule of the Nazi dictatorship and its collaborators. On the 50th anniversary of the massacre in Babyn Yar, a menorah-shaped memorial to the Jewish victims was erected. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial opened there last year.

Andrej Umansky, a postdoctoral scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization who grew up in Kyiv, said that “[t]oday’s generation is certainly not antisemitic like it was in the Soviet Union, adding, “We know so much more about what happened in Ukraine to the Jews, thanks to Ukrainian scholars.” He pointed out that many of them are not Jewish. It is important to know that the was little to no public discussion of the Holocaust under the Soviets. The site at Babyn Yar, for example, simply acknowledged that Soviet civilians were killed there.

Recent polls reveal a shift in public opinion in favor of Jews. Ukraine was deemed to be the most welcoming of Jews among all Central and Eastern European countries in a 2017 Pew Research study. In the survey, only 5% of Ukrainians stated they would not welcome Jews as fellow citizens. The numbers were as high as 14% in neighboring Russia, 18% in Poland, and 22%in Romania.

Jewish Ukrainian protestors rallying in New York City. Photo: Victor J. Blue/NYT

As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s excuse for invading, aimed at “de-nazifying” Ukraine, rings hollow, if not completely hypocritical. Anti Semitism is not state-sponsored in Ukraine. “The world opened up and people started to learn about religions and nationalities,” Misha Galperin asserts, the head of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. “People began to travel elsewhere. They got a different exposure to Israel, among other places. Odessa has a regular flight to Tel Aviv. It’s only three hours. It became real and humanized.”

Following the mass exodus of Jews from Ukraine in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, Jewish populations in both Ukraine and Russia rebuilt and expanded their communities, though they are still not nearly as large as they once were, according to Mark Levin, CEO of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry. Ukraine’s Jewish population is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 people. “In the last 30 years,” Levin said, “There’s been a renaissance of Jewish life and a building of new Jewish institutions, be it religious, cultural, educational, social. These are important Jewish communities in the Diaspora today.”

Thousands of Haredi Jews from around the world visit Uman, a city in Ukraine’s central region, each year to visit a pilgrimage site where a prominent Hasidic rabbi is buried. According to Umansky, most Ukrainians consider Jews to be a part of the country’s history. “Life in the Soviet Union was constant antisemitism against Jews. It’s not like that now.”

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