[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By Josh Tapper
Aaron Kaganovskiy had lived in the coastal city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine for nearly six peaceful years before the fighting began. One day in the early months of 2014, he noticed that the Ukrainian flags once flying above the city had been burned, replaced by those of Russia. Constant mortar shelling clapping in the distance soon provided an unsettling soundtrack to his life as a Chabad emissary and teacher in the local Jewish school; once, during a Rosh Hashanah service in 2014, he counted 56 rockets fired on the city.
Sparked by a surge of pro-Western protests on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti in late 2013, violence quickly migrated eastward by the following spring, engulfing Ukraine’s eastern regions in a deadly slow-burning conflict between Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists that simmers to this day. When armed separatists entered Mariupol’s synagogue after a prayer service and asked if the community needed security, Kaganovskiy and his fellow worshippers politely declined, explaining to the men with guns that they could take care of themselves.
“When the situation started, we didn’t want to leave,” Kaganovskiy, 32, said of his wife, Chaya, and three children, all under ten years old. His confidence dissipated, however, even as the Ukrainian army fought back separatist forces and seized control of Mariupol in June 2014. Kaganovskiy recalled the day the Ukrainian army decisively pushed the separatists out of the city. As a group of rebel fighters retreated in the direction of his house, bullets flew underneath one of his windows. Kaganovskiy’s children hid inside. When they asked “Daddy, are we going to die today?” he knew it was time to leave.
I met Kaganovskiy on a cold and wet afternoon last November, at a housing settlement for Jewish refugees from eastern Ukraine on the outskirts of Kiev. The previous night, he told me, his car had flipped in a near-collision with an oncoming vehicle and he was suffering the numbing effects of a likely concussion. Some 150 people live in the fledgling settlement, which was founded two years ago by Moshe Reuven Azman, the Chabad rabbi of Kiev’s Brodsky synagogue, to absorb the stream of Jewish refugees fleeing from Ukraine’s east. The settlement was named Anatevka, a nod to both the fictional village of Sholom Aleichem’s stories and the actual village, Hnatevka, in which it is located.
Though the Ukrainian army has secured Mariupol, implementing relative stability in the city, Kaganovskiy insists that he “never wants to go back.” At Anatevka, Azman has raised enough money to build a wooden synagogue, an elementary school, a turf soccer pitch and a cluster of concrete apartment blocks amid swaths of golden cabbage fields. Kaganovskiy intends to keep his family there, where life, he said, is finally calm.
Kaganovskiy is among the 1.8 million people displaced by the conflict, according to United Nations figures. To say that the Maidan protests, the ensuing revolution, and the now-frozen conflict in the Donbass have upended Jewish communal life in the country is to state the obvious. Beyond internal migration, which has seen thousands of Jews resettle from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in cities like Kiev, Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), Kharkov, and Odessa, thousands of others have left the country altogether. Nearly 7,500 Ukrainians made Aliyah in 2015, according to the Jewish Agency, a 230 percent jump from 2013. While the number dropped to around 5,500 in 2016, representatives from the Jewish Agency told The Jerusalem Post last year that they anticipate the annual total to increase once again, fueled in part by a country-wide economic crisis that includes rising inflation and meager pensions. The total number of Jews in Ukraine is difficult to assess; the European Jewish Congress estimates roughly 360,000 while Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola tallied only 56,000 in 2016.
Compounding the problems of a sputtering economy and demographic precariousness is what Eduard Dolinsky, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee (UJC), a Kiev-based lobby group, calls a “worsening moral condition.” In the wake of the Maidan protests, which took off five years ago in response to the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s reluctance to re-orient Ukraine westward, both politically and economically, the country has witnessed a program of state-led de-communization, as well as an upsurge in Ukrainian nationalism. These forces have fostered a discourse within some segments of Ukrainian society that promotes anti-Semitism and, most alarmingly to Jewish activists like Dolinsky, the historical whitewashing of Ukrainian complicity during the Holocaust.
Through the government-funded Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, the country has attempted to revise the anti-Semitic image of the World War II-era Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military faction, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In 2015, during the height of fighting against Russian-backed separatists, Ukraine passed a law, widely condemned among western scholars, outlawing public disrespect toward the OUN and UPA, both of which the Institute of National Memory trumpeted as supporters of Ukrainian nationalism nonpareil.
In this climate of historical revisionism, incidents of anti-Semitism have taken on an even darker hue, Dolinsky told me when we met recently in a Kiev café. He pointed to a series of vandalizations in 2015 and 2016 at the Holocaust memorial at Kiev’s Babi Yar ravine, where more than 30,000 Jews were murdered by Nazis in 1941, and, this past October, to a riff over the unveiling of a statue depicting Symon Petliura – a nationalist leader blamed for inciting pogroms in the 1920s that killed some 50,000 Jews – in the western city of Vinnytsia. Opposition to the statue, which was erected a few meters from a synagogue, prompted the head of the local branch of the nationalist Svoboda party, Volodymyr Bazelyuk, to threaten on Facebook that Jews should “get accustomed to our rules,” leave the country, or be punished.
Dolinsky was born in Lutsk, in northwestern Ukraine, and founded the UJC ten years ago with the Ukrainian-Jewish businessman Oleksandr Feldman, who is now a member of Parliament. Since Maidan, Dolinsky has taken a rather pessimistic tone in the international press on the future of Ukrainian Jewry. What disturbs him most about high-profile anti-Semitic incidents, such as the defacements at Babi Yar, is apathy at the state and local levels. “Civil society doesn’t react at all,” he told me. “But most troubling is that law enforcement and general prosecutors do not reply and do not react to anti-Semitic acts.”
For some, the government’s laissez-faire approach to Ukrainian nationalism and its attendant anti-Semitism reinforces the notion that the problem is not, in reality, a serious one. Considering the economic challenges plaguing Ukraine since the conflict began – GDP has fallen from $180 billion to $100 billion since 2014, making the country one of the poorest in the former Soviet Union – Jews have largely dodged anti-Semitism or scapegoating on a mass scale.
“It’s very curious that there’s a lot of discontent with the pace of reforms, with the success of dealing with [economic] problems, with corruption, but happily the discourse has not devolved into ethnic slurs or stereotypes, or a heightened anti-Semitism,” said Adrian Karatnycky, co-director of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian nonprofit that promotes Ukrainian-Jewish cooperation. “Between the influence of the occupation of eastern Ukraine, the taking of Crimea by Russia, and the 10,000 dead as a result of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has not seen a big rise of xenophobic sentiment. Yes, there are occasional outbursts of anti-Semitism by thuggish, not particularly astute parliamentarians or demagogues, but they’re few and far between.”
Nearly everyone I spoke to over a three-day period in Ukraine – Dolinsky included – emphasized strong relations between Ukrainians and Jews. After all, as locals often point out, Volodymyr Groysman, a Jewish politician from Vinnytsia, was appointed prime minister in 2016. As the general population deals with substantial economic problems, the intrusion of anti-Semitism into everyday discourse has taken a backseat to other concerns caused by the conflict. (The Israeli government disagreed in its annual report on global anti-Semitism, which found more attacks on Jews in Ukraine last year than all other post-Soviet states combined.)
When I met Svetlana Bukova, a 36-year-old single mother who moved from Luhansk to Kiev in June 2014, she was picking up her two-year-old daughter, Diana, from a subsidized daycare program at Halom, the capital’s new Jewish community center. Though Bukova’s father, who was also forced from Luhansk, sometimes grumbles about the prominence of far-right parties that entered Ukrainian politics in the wake of the Maidan protests, she said the issue of nationalism barely registers for her. Bukova knows it’s in the air, but “I don’t feel anti-Semitism at all, and I’m not afraid at all,” she said. Instead, she focuses her attention on more mundane concerns, like feeding and buying diapers for her daughter and finding a solution to the apartment she abandoned in Luhansk but won’t visit as long as fighting persists in the east.
Of course, Jews, like most Ukrainians, have been ravaged by the economy, which faces a $5 billion pension deficit and an average monthly salary that hovers around $250. Refugees, especially, have struggled to find new work and housing in central and western Ukraine amid widespread mistrust and suspicion of IDPs from the largely Russian-speaking eastern regions. Another factor, said Valeriya Kvasha, a 42-year-old mother of two teenagers, who left Luhansk for Kiev in the summer of 2015 after a bomb hit her apartment building, is the sense of uncertainty and dislocation. “The problem in your mind is that you still expect that you will return,” Kvasha said of Luhansk. “Your apartment and other real estate is still there, so are friends, work and other such things.”
At the same time, Kvasha, the head of Jewish Family Services in Kiev, now feels at home in the capital. In the years since leaving Luhansk and Mariupol, Kvasha and Kaganovskiy, respectively, no longer consider themselves refugees, a positive step toward rebuilding. In a way, they represent the sense of stability, even normalcy, Jewish life has attained five years after the start of the Maidan protests upended Ukrainian society. Halom, the shining 17,000-square-foot community center that opened in 2016 with funding from the Joint Distribution Committee, also points to this parallel narrative. It’s a narrative publicized less frequently in the West – which has grown accustomed to a doom-and-gloom portrait featuring trenchant anti-Semitism and the refugee situation – but it is perhaps more indicative of the present condition of Ukrainian Jewry.
In Kiev, there is a vigorous synagogue culture, across denominations; and in Dnipro, there is the 50,000-square-foot Menorah Center, purportedly the largest in Europe and funded by the Jewish billionaire and former governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. This past October, around 1,000 people gathered in Odessa for the annual Limmud FSU conference.
Dani Gershkovich, the JDC director in Kiev, arrived in late 2014 from Yekaterinburg, Russia, just as the conflict was reaching its peak. He said the crisis has sparked a communal awakening of sorts, most clearly in the groundswell of Jewish aid activity and voluntarism, even among IDPs like Kvasha, who were absorbed by Jewish communities elsewhere in Ukraine and now feel a sense of duty to give back. Since then, the Israeli-born Gershkovich has observed a level of intra-communal support that has kept morale among Ukrainian Jews afloat. He cited Moshe Azman’s refugee settlement, Anatevka, where residents live for free, as one prominent example. “If we are comparing the Jewish population and the general population, the situation of the Jewish population right now is much stronger,” he told me. “If you are Jewish in Ukraine, you are lucky. There is no other way to see it.”
Gershkovich also stressed that the material benefits available for needy Jews surpasses those of non-Jews, especially among the elderly. One woman I met inside Halom, Lidiya Gorelik, a 71-year-old from Kharkov, explained that without financial support from the JDC, her $40 monthly pension would not have been able to cover the new windows fitted to her apartment, as well as daily necessities, like medicine and laundry bills. In return, she founded a casual social program for others her age. “I cannot give to my children,” who live in Israel, “so I give to other people,” she said.
While older Jews rely willingly, and heavily, on patronage from communal organizations like the JDC, Gershkovich worries about a younger generation of Ukrainian Jews trying to start careers and make a living in their country’s depressed economic state. “For now, the situation is stable, but I feel that the young people, 40 and younger, really don’t like it,” he said. “Frustrations will come more from the younger generation.”
Still, some from that younger generation, like Anna Bondar, Halom’s director, remain committed to building Jewish life from within. Bondar, 30, understands that programs at the Jewish community center can seem unappealing to younger Jews, but she is determined to raise the profile of the Jewish community – through outreach and youth activities – in order to stave off emigration. Thoughts of leaving have crossed her mind, but for now, Bondar said, she works for Ukraine. “I consider Ukraine my native country, my homeland,” she said. “What’s important for me is to be helpful for the Jewish community here and that I’m part of the process of creating hope.”
The future remains uncertain, no doubt, but hardly hopeless. Despite the Jewish Agency’s prediction, Aliyah is on the decline, and an active network of Jewish institutions – from synagogues to social-service organizations to university-level Jewish Studies programs – are supporting a community that feels it can continue to exist in spite of the low-grade conflict in the Donbass. Amid the ceaseless battles over historical memory, there is also a greater reckoning with Ukraine’s dark Jewish past; in 2016, the country commemorated the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar with a series of events organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Even Dolinsky softened his tone when pressed about the future. “We have a small community now that is strong,” he said. “I sincerely believe that there is a future for Jews here and the community will revive and survive for many years. We’re going to live in Ukraine.”
Josh Tapper is a journalist and doctoral student in Jewish history at Stanford University. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Tablet, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, among other publications.
Photographs by Brendan Hoffman