By Asher Weill
Dateline: Sydorovychi, Ukraine: A few days ago, on 4 November, exactly on the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an unusual event took place in the village of Sydorovychi in the province of Ivankiv, Western Ukraine, not far from the Polish border and just 50 kilometers from the town of Chernobyl. Surrounded by a small group of rather bemused villagers in this rural and isolated hamlet deep in the black chernozem soil of Ukraine, on a bleak and chilly autumnal day, a group of Rabin family friends, together with Eitan Haber, the late prime minister’s head of bureau and spokesman, and activists from the Limmud FSU educational movement, have gathered together in the local community center of the small hamlet. The occasion is to unveil a memorial tablet carrying the bronze image of Nechemia Rabin the father, flanked by his two children, Yitzhak and Rachel. The bas-relief sculpture was commissioned by a Ukrainian artist who based the work on an iconic photograph in the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.
At the event, the governor of Ivankiv Province, Anatoly Sviridenko, was at pains to draw a comparison between Israel and the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia. “Our country is being torn apart and we are fighting for our independence just as you did in 1948, and we hope that sanity will prevail. You have your own land and we want to ensure ours.”
Gennady Polischuk, the director for Ukraine and Moldova of Nativ, the once-clandestine unit in the Prime Minister’s Office that deals with the Jews in the FSU, said that, “the dreams of Nechemia came to fruition through the lives of his children – dreams that were halted through three fateful shots. It is our responsibility to pass a message to the next generation so that history does not repeat itself.”
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU who had headed The Jewish Agency delegation in the FSU in the 1990s remembered that he was called by Haber who told him that the prime minister was due to make an official visit to Russia. Chesler recalled that he had arranged that the prime minister would visit the Choral Synagogue of Moscow and “the usually stoic and unemotional general melted when a group of first year schoolchildren danced the hora with him and I actually saw a tear in his eye. Later on when he opened the new Jewish Community Center in Kiev, I realized his deep connection to his Russian roots.”
Some five years ago, Chaim Chesler embarked on a mission to locate the birthplace of Nechemia Rabitzov, the father of the prime minister, even though the Rabin family thought it was impossible because the Ukrainian authorities said the village had been destroyed in the war. He pored through maps and documents in Ukrainian archives and old family documents and eventually located it – as was then confirmed by Rachel Rabin, Yitzhak’s sister who lives on Kibbutz Manara, and who checked Nechemia’s old Russian passport and found that Syderovychi was indeed listed as his birthplace.
In this this village, with barely 200 inhabitants today, Nechemia was born in 1886 and in 1905, left for the USA, subsequently changing his family name to Rabin. In 1917 with a group of young volunteers from the Jewish Legion, he moved to Palestine and worked at the Palestine Electric Corporation. There he met and married a fiery activist and fervent communist called Rosa Cohen (known as “Rosa the Red”), who had been born in Mogilev in Belarus in 1890 but had become disillusioned by the Russian Revolution and became a leader of the labor movement and the first commander of the Haganah in Haifa in pre-state Palestine. Their eldest son, Yitzhak, was born in Tel Aviv on March 1, 1922.
In 2010, in the presence of Yitzhak Rabin’s grandson, Yuval Rabin, a memorial plaque, in Ukrainian and Hebrew, had been unveiled outside the cultural center of Sydorovychi. The village had one street where Jews lived, including the Rabitzov family, headed by Menachem, the father of Nechemia and grandfather of Yitzhak and Rachel. Today in the whole area there remain barely 50 Jews, none of them in Sydorovyichi itself.
This weekend, for the second time, a Limmud FSU conference is taking place in Lviv, Ukraine. Eitan Haber and other friends and colleagues of the late prime minister have shared their reminiscences with an audience of some 700 mostly young Russian-speaking Jewish Ukrainians. Their talks are among more than 150 presentations, lectures, discussions, workshops, master-classes, cultural events and performances as part of a packed three day weekend of Jewish learning, culture and history.