Jeff Montanari

The Historical Connection Between Ukraine and Israel

Let us review the history of Ukraine and Israel. From Jewish pogroms, to immigration, to a thousand years of imbedded history, these lands are interlinked from then to now and forever.

Many American are justifiably outraged by the recent attacks on Israel, yet the ongoing violence in Ukraine seems to be fading from their concern.

However, I argue that anyone who feels sorrow for Israel should extend the same compassion to Ukraine, given its intertwined history with Israel.

A century ago, the areas that are now Ukraine , Poland and Russia were home to vibrant Jewish communities, including my mother’s cousins. My family hails from Galicia, a region that has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, and Ukraine within the USSR. Scattered across cemeteries, both identified and unidentified, from Tarnow to Nur to Rzeszow to Lviv, many of my relatives now rest in Tel-Aviv, though their roots remain in ancestral Ukraine-Poland, where records are often hard to locate. Despite the changing political structures, anti-Semitism remained a constant in the region, accompanying the Jewish communities who lived according to their faith and spoke Yiddish. This was the world depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the stories of Ukrainian Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem. In reality, life was likely more stressful, with added challenges like the 1930s famine caused by Stalin’s genocidal policies, which starved millions of Ukrainians, Jews, and others, as noted by Anne Applebaum in her book, “Red Famine”.

Jewish communities in the region faced periodic pogroms, leading some to emigrate to Israel as early as the late 19th century. One such immigrant was Naftali Herz Imber, a poet from my family’s region, who wrote the poem that became Israel’s national anthem, “Ha-Tikvah.” Those who emigrated to the area called Palestine before 1915 made the right choice, as the 20th century showed.

Immigrating to areas called Palestine, as Imber did in the late 19th century, was risky. Yet, as the 20th century revealed, those who chose to immigrate made a wise decision. Whether to Israel or the United States, those who left before 1915 made the right move. In 1941, the Germans, sometimes aided by locals as historian Jan Gross notes in his book, “Neighbors”, rounded up entire Jewish populations in Ukrainian and Polish villages, force-marched them to nearby forests or ravines, and executed them by shooting. Reading reports of Hamas attacks on peaceful kibbutzim, agricultural communities, is eerily reminiscent of these German assaults on Jewish settlements. In both scenarios, civilians were deliberately targeted and killed solely because they were Jews.

Ukraine and Poland are replete with such horror stories, with mass graves in forests, some still unmarked as of 2024. I have spent a considerable amount of time alone in Poland, walking through forests, cemeteries, and fields in search of lost history. In one village, Jews lived with their children. One person in this recollection was too frail to evacuate before the onslaught arrived. Thus, while the older sister was sent to Siberia to spend the war safely in an orphanage, her father and sister stayed behind. They were killed along with all other Jews in their settlement.

Rzeszow, a historic city in southeastern Poland, lost 95% of its 50,000 Jews, with the Nazis paving the streets with broken stones from the Jewish cemeteries. There are countless stories like this across Poland and Ukraine. I have walked these steps and seen firsthand what took place.

After the Holocaust, some of the orphaned survivors chose to stay. Unable to live in Jewish communities anymore, they hid their Jewish identity as much as possible, simply trying to fit in and survive. However, many other survivors left, immigrating to Israel, the United States, Canada, or any other country that would welcome them.

For our non-Jewish cousins who profess love for the Jews, this history is significant. It means that many Jews worldwide currently have relatives, friends, or at least deep historic roots in two war zones—Israel and Ukraine. Many Ukrainians are Jews, including President Zelenskyy himself. Genealogy studies show that among the indigenous people of Poland and Ukraine, there is a notable percentage of Jewish ancestry in all peoples including non-Jews. Despite religious differences or ignorance, Jewish populations predate these countries’ existences, and intermarriage over the years has created deep, intertwined bloodlines.

Russia’s antisemitism is still evident in its taunts against Ukraine. The attacks on civilians, a hallmark of this war, eerily resemble the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941 and the tactics of Hamas.

Here we review the powerful words from Rabbi Avigdor Miller on the Russian history of lies, “First of all, we learn the hypocrisy of the nations, the sheker of the nations; asher pihem dibar shav, that their mouths speak falsehood.  We see that everything that Russia said about American imperialism, all of their complaints about American imperialism, is all lies. And bah zeh velimed al zeh – if they’re liars when it comes to that, you can be sure they’re lying about a lot more. Not only when it comes to imperialism; everything.  When Russia spoke about helping the poor, the working people; all the Marxism talk about helping the working class, the proletariat, it’s all lies. It’s only a grab for power.  There’s no idealism.  There never was any idealism. The first Communists to seize power wanted to take power that the czar had so that they should have the power; and even though they spoke words of idealism, it was a sheker.” Words of yesterday that is still applicable today.

To mention just one example, a year and a half ago, the entire world was horrified by the images from Bucha, a small town in the Kyiv region. Aerial photographs showed streets strewn with the bodies of executed civilians, their hands tied behind their backs. This horrific sight was only the beginning of the revelations of atrocities, which included the summary execution of many more civilians, prolonged torture, and widespread rape of women and young girls. The bodies left on the town’s main street were the Russians’ deliberate parting gift as they withdrew, designed to terrify onlookers and effectively achieving that aim.

There is no question that what happened at Bucha was horrific. However, we, the onlookers from across the ocean, have grown desensitized to such reports from Ukraine. We no longer react with outrage to the near-daily bombings that continue to take civilian lives—bombings of obviously non-military targets such as schools, playgrounds, maternity hospitals, and pizzerias. In his “Diary of an Invasion”, Ukrainian journalist and novelist Andrey Kurkov documents his reflections on the war from the beginning. Initially, he wondered just how bad it could get. But as we see through his journal entries, the echoes of the Holocaust are growing louder and louder.

For Jews, living through a genocidal war, whether in one place or another, is sadly familiar. It has been a harsh reality for too long. Holocaust survivors have been among the victims of the war in Ukraine, and others have fled as refugees, prompting reflections of déjà vu. In Israel, one of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas over the weekend is a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor from WWII.

This history deeply affects many of Jewish descendants worldwide. It fills me with profound sadness and alarm for Jews in both Ukraine and Israel. This discouraging history also serves as a stark reminder, especially in light of recent statements by some Harvard student groups, that antisemitism remains alive and well—not just across the ocean, but here at home in the USA.

The history of Ashkenazi Jews traces back to the Israelites and Hebrews of historical Israel and Judah. They share significant ancestry with other Jewish populations, deriving primarily from the Middle East, Southern Europe, and Eastern Europe.

Ukraine maintains an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate-general in Haifa. Approximately 30,000 Ukrainians have settled in Israel, primarily in the Tel-Aviv area enjoying good food, life, economy and growing families, while Ukraine boasts one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Notably, Ukraine was the first state outside of Israel to have both a Jewish president and prime minister simultaneously.

During the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) from 1917 to 1921, pogroms against Jews persisted. Yiddish was an official language in the UPR, and Jewish members occupied positions in all government posts and institutions. The establishment of a Ministry for Jewish Affairs marked a significant milestone as the first modern state to do so. For further reading on this topic, “The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust” provides valuable insights.

This extensive history in Ukraine underscores the enduring connections generations of Jewish children have to Ukrainian soil, forever tying them with Israel.


Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

Jan T Gross: A landmark book that changed the story of Poland’s role in the Holocaust

On July 10, 1941, in Nazi-occupied Poland, half of the town of Jedwabne brutally murdered the other half: 1,600 men, women, and children—all but seven of the town’s Jews. In this shocking and compelling classic of Holocaust history, Jan Gross reveals how Jedwabne’s Jews were murdered not by faceless Nazis but by people who knew them well—their non-Jewish Polish neighbors. A previously untold story of the complicity of non-Germans in the extermination of the Jews, Neighbors shows how people victimized by the Nazis could at the same time victimize their Jewish fellow citizens. In a new preface, Gross reflects on the book’s explosive international impact and the backlash it continues to provoke from right-wing Polish nationalists who still deny their ancestors’ role in the destruction of the Jews.

Diary of an Invasion by Andrey Kurkov. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing

The pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19 : prelude to the Holocaust


“Between 1918 and 1921 an estimated 100,000 Jewish people were killed, maimed or tortured in pogroms in Ukraine. Hundreds of Jewish communities were burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and destitute, including orphaned children. A number of groups were responsible for these brutal attacks, including the Volunteer Army, a faction of the Russian White Army. The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust is a vivid and horrifying account of the atrocities committed by the Volunteer Army, written by Nokhem Shtif, an eminent Yiddish linguist and social activist who joined the relief efforts on behalf of the pogrom survivors in Kiev. Shtif’s testimony, published in 1923, was born from his encounters there and from the weighty archive of documentation amassed by the relief workers. This was one of the earliest efforts to systematically record human rights atrocities on a mass scale. Originally written in Yiddish and here skillfully translated and introduced by Maurice Wolfthal, The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19 brings to light a terrible and historically neglected series of persecutions that foreshadowed the Holocaust by twenty years. It is essential reading for academics and students in the fields of human rights, Jewish studies, Russian and Soviet studies, and Ukraine studies.”

About the Author
Dr. Jeff Montanari, author of "God Made You a Jew", a theological expose' on combatting missionaries. Dr. Montanari discusses issues between religious faiths in defense of Judaism. He is a graduate of Regent University and Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim. An endorsed military Orthodox Jewish chaplain with the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol. He is also a blogger with The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva 7 and is a lifetime member of the Jewish War Veterans, a member of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER). He holds membership as a Daedalian, the Naval Order of the United States and Military Order of the Loyal Legions of the United States. He is a former associate Rabbi at Congregation Pirchei Shoshanim, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Pacific Region District chaplain, and an Orange County Sheriff’s Department chaplain. Ari Ben Avraham A.A, B.A., M.A., M.Rav., D.MIN.
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