Ilya Bezruchko

Stone beasts of Ukraine: Jewish guardians of eternity

(photo is provided by the organizers of the exhibition to the author)
(photo is provided by the organizers of the exhibition to the author)

Just a few days ago, Israel’s UN envoy Gilad Erdan took the floor at a Security Council meeting with a speech connecting Iran, which backs Hamas, with the war in Ukraine, where Teheran is supplying Russia with military aid after Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Yesterday, another dozen of these Iranian drones, sent by Russian officers, attacked the very Jewish heart of Ukraine – Odesa City. One of them hit the apartment building, causing casualties among civilians and severe damage to the house. However, not only Odesa suffers from the continuous attacks of the Russian army equipped with Iranian weapons, but also other cities and villages of Ukraine. Those geographical points were the birthplace of famous rabbis, poets, writers, and politicians who built the state of Israel, its culture, and society afterward. 

As I’ve mentioned in my blog, Ukraine had and has, till now, one of the most significant European Jewish communities with a long history deeply connected to the development of Jewish culture and religion. Nowadays, despite the full-scale Russian invasion and continuous rocket and drone attacks, the Jewish community of Ukraine implements significant historical and cultural projects. Among them is the exhibition “Sataniv: The Lost World of the Ancient Jewish Cemetery” – the 300-hundred-year heritage of the Jewish history of Ukraine. The exhibition is taking place in Dnipro in the most prominent Jewish museum in Ukraine and one of the largest similar museums in Europe, “Memory of the Jewish People and the Holocaust in Ukraine,” supported by the United Jewish Communities of Ukraine.

(photo is provided by the organizers of the exhibition to the author)

“Sataniv: The Lost World of the Ancient Jewish Cemetery” – created by a team member of the local history project “Ukraine Incognita,” Dmytro Polyukhovych, a local historian, traveler, and photographer from the West of Ukraine. The exhibition consists of 25 tablets with his works, which he calls “vytinanki.”

I have always been fascinated by carvings on ancient Jewish tombstones, especially from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 19th century. Those times were the peak of the development of Jewish carving art. Then, unfortunately, degradation occurs. This is connected with the rapid collapse of Jewish towns-shtetls and, accordingly, of culture and art, which began after Russian authorities spread its power to the territories of Right-Bank Ukraine in general and Podillia in particular. It is quite difficult to show all the beauty of the works of ancient masters in ordinary photos. That’s why I came up with my own know-how – to remove all the mess on original tombstones after hundreds of years. The result is an independent work of art.” – notes Mr. Polyukhovych.

A beautiful baroque tombstone at the burial place of Braina, Aaron’s daughter, who died in 1776 (photo is provided by the organizers of the exhibition to the author)

Most of the tombstones carvings illustrate the sacred texts of the Torah and Talmud. Meanwhile, the “back-of-the-book” plots are also popular on some tombstones. For example, the main element of a beautiful baroque tombstone at the burial place of Braina, Aaron’s daughter, who died in 1776, was a bear with branches in her paws. In his plot, the master also plays up the name of the woman: Briana, which means “brown” in Yiddish. So, we see the parallels between the name of the deceased and the bear’s brown fur.

It is worth emphasizing that the exhibition is not only about necropolises but all traditional Jewish folk art. Unfortunately, the communists and the Nazis destroyed most of the heritage of this kind.

(photo is provided by the organizers of the exhibition to the author)

The idea of creating the exhibition appeared thanks to Vitaly Kamozin, the operations director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, who, after getting acquainted with the “vytinankas,” suggested showing them to people more widely than in the photos on social networks. He and Gene Bat Suri Horodetska became the exhibition’s patrons. 

Ukraine is an extraordinary place for the Jews of the world. For centuries, it was the heart of the development of Shtetl culture and became a cradle of Hasidism. Ukrainian Jews, since the country obtained its independence in 1991, are an integral part of Ukrainian society and Ukrainian political nations. Despite the war, Ukrainian Jews, in short-term breaks between volunteering for the country’s sake and communities in need, find enough time to honor the Jewish culture that developed in these lands for more than one thousand years since the first Jews appeared on the lands of modern Ukraine. From my point of view, such events as the exhibition show the strength of mind and spirit of local Jews and give a bit of optimism regarding the future of this prominent European community.

About the Author
Ilya Bezruchko is CEO of the co-working network in Ukraine, a blogger and the Jewish activist.
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