Ukraine: 70 Years After

by Nathan Roi

The wholesale slaughter of the Jews which began with “Operation Barbarossa,” will be marked this year by many ceremonies. The Limmud FSU Conference for Russian-Speakers which ended a few days ago in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, was one of the first.

There are many reasons for this but one becomes apparent when you study a map of Ukraine. For example: along the railway line leading from Vinnitsa to Kiev, one reads the familiar names of hamlets and towns that on the eve of “Operation Barbarossa, were heavily populated by Jews. To be exact, the census reveals that there were 1,532,776 Jews; or five percent of the total population and 45.3 percent of the Jews spoke Yiddish.

The Yiddish spoken in Ukraine, by the way, was one of the richest versions. For proof of this, read Shalom Aleichem or Mendele Mocher Sefarim in the original. It should be remembered that in this area of the Jewish Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to live under the Tsarist Empire, the Jews accounted for 26 percent of the total population in Kiev, 33 percent in Odessa, 15 percent in Kharkov, 18 percent in Dnepropetrovsk, 30 percent in Zhitomer (home town of Chaim Nahman Bialik) and 37 percent in Berdichev. The Pale of Settlement, with its overwhelmingly Jewish population, effectively ceased to exist in June 1942.

In Vinnitsa, where the Limmud FSU conference was held, 37 percent of the population in 1942 was Jewish. With the onset of the war, after a series of pogroms in Western Ukraine, they were herded into a ghetto in the town and from there to the place of execution. We were taken to visit the awful site, were 5000 children and 20,000 adults were murdered in separate groups.

The present mayor of Vinnitsa is a young Jew, Vladimir Groisman. In preparation for the state ceremony honoring the slain, he arrived together with Nicolai Djiga, the non-Jewish governor of the district, who spared no opportunity to mention the cooperation between the Jews and non-Jews in the town today. “I am very fond of Jews,” he was at pains to point out to the Jewish audience at Limmud.

Yacov Livne, the head of the Euro-Asian Desk of the Israel Foreign Ministry, said that the 20 year old relations between Ukraine and Israel stand on a solid base of more than 1000 years.

There were ups and downs in the relationship and dreadful tragedies, but also a flourishing of culture and spiritual creativity. (In this, one might include Zionism the cradle of which was, to all intents and purposes, in the Pale of Settlement.)

Livne says, “On the basis of these relations, a dialogue between the two nations is taking place daily, in the economic sphere (joint trade amounts to nearly half a billion dollars a year); and we have signed a protection agreement on investments and will be signing other agreements on trade expansion.”

“We have signed a mutual agreement on the cancellation of entrance visas, which was initiated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and endorsed by the Knesset and the number of Ukrainian tourists visiting Israel has already grown by 30 percent. The Minister of Tourism believes that we can bring 250,000 tourists from Ukraine every year. After cancellation of visas with Russia, tourism grew from 150,000 to 600,000 visitors.

Following the visit to Ukraine of President Shimon Peres, Viktor Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine is due to make a reciprocal visit Israel. The chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Committee Israel-Ukraine,and chair of the Knesset’s Education Committee, MK Alex Miller, says that there is a great deal of support for Israel’s political stance by Ukraine. “We are making considerable joint efforts to increase trade ties. We are investing a great deal in economic and cultural relations and I have no doubt they will improve.”

The director of the Israel Cultural Center in Kiev, Yulia Dor, says that some 1,500 people visit the Center every month to participate in its various activities. Every aspect of Israel’s cultural life are available to Ukrainian Jews and non-Jews alike, she says. “The Center was inaugurated by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one month before his assassination and there is no reason, even if relations are sometimes fragile, that we won’t continue to go from strength to strength.”

Translation by Asher Weill