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Vicki Polin
Social Justice Activist

Vladimir Putin and The Pale of Settlement

When Vladimir Putin started attacking Ukraine, many Jews like myself recognized some of the names of the communities being destroyed. These were the same shtetl’s our ancestors came from.

The area Vladimir Putin was attacking was originally a part of the “Pale of Settlement”, which meant several of these cities had a horrific history in which Jews were beaten, raped, tortured and murdered during various pogroms throughout history.

The Pale of Settlement was an area located within Eastern European countries in which were the only places Jews were allowed to live. The Pale mostly fell within the boundaries of what we now call Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova.

The Pale of Settlement was originally created on December 23, 1791 by Russia’s Catherine the Great, who was the last reigning Empress of Russia.  

The Pale was created as a way in which the Russian Empire could oppress Jews and limit their ability to move around, work and to own land. It was strongly frowned upon for Jews to communicate with non-Jews.  

Today in the United States separating groups of people by ethnicity, race and or religion — as the laws created for the “Pale of Settlements — would be considered antisemitic, racist and also be considered hate crimes.

As Putin started targeting and destroying various Ukrainian towns, many Jews like myself watched in horror. We realized he was recreating history. He was murdering innocent people in the very same communities our ancestors escaped from. Putin was creating a new pogrom.

My great-grandfather, Dr. Sholom Polin was one of the few Jews who was allowed to go to medical school in Kyiv in back in the late 1870s – early 1880s. Once Sholom completed his education he started a thriving medical practice in and around Motele, Russia (Belarus).

Over the years, Sholom became very aware of the increasing amount of hate mounting against Jews occurring throughout Russia. He started considering that he might have to move his family elsewhere. The last straw for my great-grandfather was when his oldest son Abe, was not allowed to attend medical school because he was a Jew. It was at that time Sholom and his wife Sarah decided to move the family to the United States. By 1912 all of the Polin side of my family migrated to Chicago. 

My grandpa Sam was born in Kishinev, Russia. Sam was around four years old when the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 occurred.  

My mother explained to me that if it wasn’t for a Christian neighbor hiding her father and his immediate family, they would not have survived. My mother went on to say, that the neighbor hid our family in their pig sty, because they believed it would be the last place anyone would look for Jews.

My mother shared that her father’s family hid in the pig pen for several days before it was deemed safe enough for them to travel. 

My grandpa Sam and his immediate family escaped Russia through the Port of Odessa, where a Jewish Agency assisted them to migrate to America. 

Until recently I knew very little about the tiny shtetl my great-Grandfather Victor was born. All I knew was that Ladyzhinka was located near Uman.  

I don’t know the exact year Victor, his parents and siblings left Ladyzhinka, yet was told they came to the United States between the late 1880s to early 1890s. 

As a child my mother explained to me that the hate against Jews grew quickly in Ladyzhinka. It was after a few family members witnessed the rape, torture and murder of many of their neighbors, that they left their homeland, and migrated to Chicago.

Thirty to forty years after my family left Ladyzhinka, the pogrom of July 12, 1919 occurred.  

The slaughter of Jews began during a weekly fair in the town. Some of the horrors were described in Russian. I was able to find an English translation, in which it described.

“Peasants cut both arms off of the local rabbi and stabbed him with pitchforks. After the pogrom 69 dead bodies were buried as well as unknown remains of bodies – arms, legs, and heads. The pogrom was organized and carried out by local Ukrainian peasants. Some of the Jews had predicted that there would be a pogrom, and escaped to Golovanevsk before it occurred. The rest of the Jews escaped to Golovanevsk after it. About 30 Jews” remained in the shtetl. They were mostly elderly or suffering from typhoid, with their wives and children who took care of them.”

When I think of Putin and the atrocities he is committing against the Ukrainian people, I couldn’t help but see the similarities of the violence that occur in the same region over a hundred years ago that ancestors of Jews experienced.  

Like so many other people, I shake my head trying to understand. With all the education there is about ending hate  — why is it that history keeps repeating itself?

About the Author
Vicki Polin is a feminist who has been a Social Justice Activist since her childhood. Vicki is also an award winning, retired psychotherapist who worked in the anti-rape field for just under forty years. For fun Vicki is an artist and nature photographer.
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