As I write this, the Russian army is poised to invade and annex and unknown portion of your southern territories. Part of the most blatant bid for imperial conquest since the fall of the Cold War, the advance of Putin the ersatz-Czar, is truly frightening for the peoples of Eastern Europe as a whole. As a democrat and a firm believer in the right of the self-determination of nations, I wish you the best of luck in stopping the invader. But as a Jew, I cannot help but feel torn about a land with such a history.
Bogdan Khmelnytsky is your national hero, the leader of the uprising against Polish rule and domination. You dedicate statues and currency to the Hetman. For my people, he is nothing more than a butcher, a monster second only to Adolf Hitler whom we hold responsible for one of the worst slaughters of Jews in the pre-Modern era. You remember 1648 as a glorious year of revolt; we remember it as the year of the evil decree. Similarly, what you remember as your struggle against the Reds in 1919, my people remembers as 1648 redux.
Nor can I forget the horrifyingly enthusiastic manner in which many Ukranians joined in the slaughter of Jews when Nazi Germany invaded. Till this day, I still hear stories of the Ukranian collaborators gunning down Jews or guarding camps and watching thousands be gassed and burned. You and I have a blood debt, one which can never be repaired.
I know there were members of my people who mistreated you, even in 1648. I know that in the 20th century, a small portion of my people joined and assisted the hated Bolsheviks responsible among other things for the Holodomor – albeit not in the name of a Jewish identity they usually despised, but in the name of an ideology meant to crush us all in the name of ‘scientific socialism’. But I also don’t recall any of those who butchered my people trying or even making a pretense of separating the guilty from the innocent, the ideological communist from the normal Jew. So this is an excuse I cannot and will never accept or understand.
I know that there were also better times -that between these bloodlettings, Ukraine was a great and fertile land for the economic and spiritual development of Jews. There must have been plenty of times of coexistence and cooperation between us.
I know that there were many decent people among you such as the anarchist-cum-adventurer Nestor Makhno, who treated Ukraninans and Jews fairly. But I cannot bring myself to see the light amid so much darkness, nor lift my eyes to see the fertile fields lying just beyond the virtual Dniepr of my people’s blood.
Yet I also see you today. I see a people struggling to break free towards freedom despite terrible internal problems and external challenges. I see a tolerant people who wonderfully accommodates thousands of my brethren every year at Uman. I see a people abandoned by the ‘enlightened’ peoples of the world to despotism, since you are not considered ‘civilized’ and Western enough – and yet still you fight. I see all this, and I think that maybe, just maybe, we can look forward together to a fertile field of growth, even if looking back would mean drowning once again in the Dniepr.
So, may God damn you for your past, Ukraine – but may He bless you with a bright and ever freer future, for all our sakes.