Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Chernobyl’s Jewish history

Aerial view Chernobyl nuclear power plant with sarcophagus. (Chernobyl, Ukraine)
(Photo Credit: Vadim Mouchkin / IAEA - Jewish News)
Aerial view Chernobyl nuclear power plant with sarcophagus. (Chernobyl, Ukraine) (Photo Credit: Vadim Mouchkin / IAEA - Jewish News)

Jews may only be mentioned explicitly twice in the HBO television series Chernobyl, but this belies the deep Jewish history of the region.

Chernobyl is one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Ukraine, dating from the sixteenth century. By 1897, it had grown to over five thousand, more than fifty percent of the total population. During the Civil War, following the Russian Revolution, the population were subject to pogroms and many Jews fled to larger cities.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, there were less than two thousand Jews in Chernobyl, equating to one Jew for every five residents of the town. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, roughly fifty percent of Chernobyl’s Jews were shot. The rest were murdered by the end of 1942. Jews returned to Chernobyl after the war. The Jewish population in 1970 was estimated at 150 families. At the time of the nuclear disaster, there were fifty families left.

Atypically, Chernobyl was a disaster for which Jews were not blamed. That is mainly because almost none were involved. The area had already been cleansed of Jews. As Vice Chermain of the Council of Ministers, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) tells Professor Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) in the television series:

Do you know anything about this town, Chernobyl? Not really, no. It was mostly Jews and Poles. The Jews were killed in pogroms and Stalin forced the Poles out. And then the Nazis came and killed whoever was left. But after the war, people came to live here anyway. They knew the ground under their feet was soaked in blood, but they didn’t care. Dead Jews, Dead Poles. But not them. No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them. And here we are.

Many have pointed out the Holocaust-era echoes of the scene when the residents of Pripyat, situated roughly two miles outside the Chernobyl nuclear plant, are ordered to evacuate the city. They are told to bring their documents, some food, and basic clothing. The evacuees walk, carrying their children and suitcases, while assisting their elder relatives. They climb on board buses, which leave, never to return, despite being told they would return within a week.

However, a far more powerfully resonant scene takes place later in the show. Three army conscripts are sent into the now deserted city to round up, shoot and bury the abandoned pets of Pripyat. They load their rifles and go about their grim task, refuelling with vodka given the emotional torment of their task. One of them, a recruit, visibly balks at the prospect. When he encounters a mother and her litter of new-born puppies, he hesitates until his more experienced and grizzled colleague takes on the responsibility and we hear the shots offscreen. The pets are loaded into a truck and then buried in a mass grave.

Unconsciously, or otherwise, the sequence recalls the Nazi “Jew hunts,” as documented by Christopher Browning, in which, often on tips from local Poles, combed the forests for escaped Jews who were then shot. Such Jew hunts even developed into a sport.

Some even suggested that the plant’s explosion was divine retribution for what had happened during the Holocaust. There was something seemingly biblical about this terrible explosion and its fallout, resembling something from the Ten Plagues visited upon Egypt. Indeed, Jews felt enslaved in the Soviet Union and the Chernobyl disaster was a factor in their exodus, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union according to its then leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, played by Jewish actor David Dencik in the series. (Another actor British viewers might recognize is Paul Ritter, who here plays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief-engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and the supervisor of the catastrophic safety test which resulted in the meltdown, but is known for playing the Jewish dad in the sitcom Friday Night Dinner).

Jewish scientists found their opportunities limited in the antisemitic atmosphere of the Soviet Union. This is because, as the “hero” Legasov admits, opportunities for Jewish scientists were limited to curry favour with the Kremlin. Jewish scientists felt discriminated against by Legasov when allocating research funds or trips to the West.

Consequently, the young turbine engineer Igor Kirschenbaum is the only recognisably Jewish name in the whole series. He was present in the control room at the moment of the explosion, responsible for switching off the turbo generator 8 and starting its spin down. In real life, Kirschenbaum certainly felt that his career had been hampered by antisemitism.

Despite its accuracy, the show fails to mention that many of doctors sent to Chernobyl were Jews. Or that hundreds of Chernobyl firefighters moved to Israel for medical treatment and relocated there with their families permanently.

Tens of thousands of Jews made the decision to leave the Soviet Union in the late 1980s primarily because of the disaster. This paved the path for what became a mass exodus of a million and a half Russian-speaking Jews dispersed around the globe. Many moved to Israel where they joined the nuclear industry.

On this side of the continent, it was the Jewish Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, Dr. Michael Abrams (my father) who was relied upon to handle the impact of the radiation on Britain.



About the Author
Nathan Abrams is Professor in Film at Bangor University in Wales.