Vinnitsa: Remembering the Slaughter

by Nathan Roi

On Thursday, June 17, 2011, in the small town of Vinnitsa, some 150 kilometers south of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, a moving ceremony was held to mark 70 years since the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German wehrmacht, marking the start of “Operation Barbarossa,” in 1941, and the beginning of the Holocaust on Soviet soil. The ceremony was held with the participation of Minister Maj. Gen. Yossi Peled, representing the government of Israel, MK Alex Miller, chair of the Knesset Education Committee, Zina Kalay-Klaitman, Israel’s ambassador to the Ukraine, Chaim Chesler, founder and chair of Limmud FSU, and other dignatories.

The Holocaust researcher, Dr Aharon Weiss, told the audience that the adults were taken separately to the execution site in the city, and then the small children. More than 25,000 people, including 5,000 children, from among the 37,000 members of the Jewish community were murdered. Just a few kilometers from the site of the slaughter, the Germans established Hitler’s easternmost command bunker.

The ceremony of remembrance, which was conducted by a well-known Russian-Jewish actor Emanuel Vitorgan, was attended by members of the local Jewish community and participants in the Limmud FSU Conference that was taking place in the city at the same time. Other participants included Vladimir Groisman, the mayor of Vinnitsa, and Nicolai Djiga, the governor of the district, Yulia Dor, director of the Jewish Community Center in Kiev, Boris Maftzir, director of the Names Project at Yad Vashem, Idan Pesachovitch, representative of the Jewish Agency, Amir Ben Zvi of the American Joint Distribution Committee, Prof. Ilya Altman of the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the rabbi of the Vinnitsa community, chairman of Limmud FSU in Ukraine, Osik Akselrud and its director Galina Rybnikova, and the director of the Tekuma Institute for Holocaust Studies in Ukraine, Igor Shchupak.

Minister Yossi Peled, himself a Holocaust survivor, was born in Belgium. During World War Two, he was adopted by a Christian family together with his sister, and lived under a Christian identity until the age of six. After the war, his mother returned to find him and they immigrated to Israel. At the ceremony he said, “The presence of all of us here today, and I myself, when most of my family was murdered in Auschwitz, but who became a general in the Israel Defense Forces, is overwhelming proof that the people of Israel live!

Chaim Chesler said that “the importance of Limmud lies in its efforts to create a better life for Jewish communities who have succeeded in rebuilding a new community on the ashes of the old.” Ambassador Kalay-Klaitman thanked the local residents who do not forget the past and who undertake that the memory of the murdered thousands is commemorated in a fitting and dignified manner.

During the course of the ceremony, young people from the Jewish community, which numbers only a few hundred today, placed stones and small teddy bears on the memorial in memory of the slain children. The provincial governor and the mayor of Vinnitsa laid wreaths, a siren was sounded and the national anthems of Ukraine and Israel were played. Following the ceremony, Limmud participants also placed flowers on the memorial to soldiers of the Red Army who liberated Vinnitsa in April 1944.

Vinnitsa is situated in the large province of Podolia which was the center of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, in which hundreds of thousand of Jews lived and created perhaps the world’s leading center of Jewish culture and learning. It was the center of the Hassidism Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries and some of the oldest synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Europe were situated in its stetls and townships. Along Podolia’s rivers and railway lines – that exist to this day – are situated many of the towns and villages that were redolent of the Jewish way of life and the Yiddish language. It was this milieu that gave rise to so many leading Jewish writers, poets, thinkers and artists. It was the Pale which formed the background of the stories of Shalom Aleichem; the great theater producer Shlomo Mikhoels made several noted films there, such as Hamazel Hayehudi (“Jewish Fortune”), mabul (“Deluge”), and “Pages from the Past,” which preserved the special character of the Jews of the Pale, its culture, its humor, its art, its literature and poetry. A way of life that was swallowed up and destroyed in the Nazi maelstrom.

Summing up Limmud FSU Vinnitsa, Chaim Chesler said that he was proud that Limmud is one of the first Jewish organizations to commemorate the genocide of European Jewry that began in Ukraine, a year before the formulation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” at the notorious Wannsee Conference in January 1942. “It is Limmud’s privilege to act as a pathfinder for a better future for the reviving Jewish communities of Ukraine,” he said.