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Jewish Ukraine

UKRAINE’S SORDID PAST

If you would have asked me a few weeks ago how I feel about the country of Ukraine, I probably would have responded that I have no feelings or maybe I would have retorted that I loathe, despise and detest the very country that has hurt my family and my people for too long.

There is in all likelihood not one square inch of earth in that whole region that does not have Jewish blood spilled all over it. It is amazing to me that the very soil does not have a reddish tint to it and a blood copper smell.

I should know, as my ancestry comes from Ukraine and from Russia. I have no great love for Russia either as the persecution of Jews and the Jewish religion was so bad, that I firmly believe that the communist leaders and those who followed were mentally sick. Let’s, however, stick to Ukraine.

The history of the Jews in Ukraine goes back over a thousand years. According to those who enjoy statistics, Ukraine has the fifth largest Jewish population in the world. Did you know that the Yiddish language was printed on the currency between the years 1917-1920? Another interesting tidbit; because of the enormous presence of Jews, one of the three Kyivan city gates (circa 1015) was called Zhydovski (Judaic).

1648–1649

While there was anti-Semitism everywhere, it was raised up a significant devastating notch in 1648, run by a bloodthirsty Cossack with the last name Khmelnytsky. He led vicious bands of thugs and went on a killing rampage, all based on the premise that since the Jews were landowners the general public had to pay them rent. The Ukranians were aghast they were beholden to people they considered inferior. Ridiculous. The whole region was owned by noblemen. It was a common practice that the noblemen leased out their vast acreages to entrepreneurs who subleased to others. Many Jews were industrious, and they took the risk of signing this huge lease in the hopes of subletting. The Jew was hated and not the noblemen because it was the lessee’s job to collect the rents.

The estimates of deaths range from 20,000 (recent revisionists) to 300,000 Jewish men, women and children slaughtered in horrifying and horrendous ways. After the dust settled (the dust never really settled), over 300 Jewish communities were totally destroyed. The devastation was so great that to this day, Jews mark a certain day in the Hebrew calendar as a day of mourning and reflection. There were mini pogroms over the years until …

1821, 1859, 1871, 1881 and 1905

Anti-Jewish pogroms began in Crimea and then spread to Odessa and to another 62 cities and an unbelievable 626 Ukrainian villages. These pogroms were commonplace.  No clear number of how many dead or wounded. Needless to say, one life is more than enough. Pogroms continued on and off continuously throughout the years.

1917–1921

Horrors took place between 1917-1921 when Russian and Bolshevik armies invaded the independent Ukrainian state that had been established in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Specifically, between 1918 and 1921, over 1,000 anti-Jewish riots and military actions took place in about 500 different locales throughout what is now Ukraine. Armed militants tore out Jewish men’s beards, ripped apart Torah scrolls, raped Jewish girls and women, and, in many cases, tortured Jewish townsfolk before gathering them in market squares, marching them to the outskirts of town, and shooting them. On at least one occasion, insurgent fighters barricaded Jews in a synagogue and burned down the building. Sound familiar?

The numbers are difficult to pin down, but a conservative estimate is that 40,000 Jews were killed and another 70,000 subsequently perished from their wounds. Others put the number closer to well over 100,000. Approximately 600,000 Jewish refugees were forced to flee across the border, and millions more were displaced internally. About two-thirds of all Jewish houses and over half of all Jewish businesses in the region were looted or destroyed.

Why, you may ask.

Some posit that the White Party who were always anti-Semitic went after Jews with renewed enthusiasm because so many Jews sided with the Red Party, called the Bolsheviks. They pointed to Trotsky who had actually disavowed his faith as a symbol of Jewish perversion. While this fact may or may not be true, this did not stop the Bolsheviks from taking horrible actions against the Jews, killing and beating and of course forcing Jews to the front lines of war and treating them as third-class citizens.

Historians also point out that Jews were blamed by all sides for hoarding bread, importing hostile ideas, giving comfort to the enemy, and conspiring against the nation. Like Nazi, Germany, the newspapers, journalists and official proclamations fueled this false narrative.

COMMUNIST RULE 1918–1987

Communism has killed more people in the 20th century than all wars combined. While I have no idea of how many Jews were killed under Lenin, Stalin and their horrific successors, the low estimation of people killed by communism is 60,000,000 and the high is well over 100,000,000.

UKRAINE 1941-1945

Close to a million and a half Jews were shot and killed by the Einsatzgruppen and by local Ukrainian supporters in various regions of Ukraine. In fact, the largest cemetery in the world is a ravine called Babi Yar, located in the capital city of Kiev. The first documented massacres took place on September 29-30, 1941, killing approximately 33,771 Jews over those two days. It is estimated that this sacred ground holds the remains of close to 150,000. When I visited Babi Yar a few years ago, I was disappointed to witness that the ravine held a playground and a dog park. It was disheartening to say the least. To add further anguish, the Russians recently bombed the Babi Yar ravine

2014

When I learned that a Jew by the name of Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian with no prior political experience, became the sixth President of Ukraine, I was so impressed. An elected Jew leading a country with such a repugnant past is incredible. The fact that he won with 70% of the vote is nothing short of amazing.

2022

Irony of all ironies, the hated Jew of Ukraine is now not only a national hero, he has become the international symbol of resistance to tyranny and oppression. He has the world behind him (whatever that means). He comes from a long line of warriors as his family fought off the Nazis and other invaders in the past. However, President Zelensky took this battle of good vs. evil to new heights. I am proud that this giant of a man is from the tribe.

May God bless him and his family.

If you enjoy Jewish history, go to www.thechaicenter.com/academy.  There you will find hundreds of classes given by me on a myriad of topics and themes.

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About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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