This past week, while the world watches incredulously as Ukraine is being attacked without cause by Russia, I was preparing a presentation about the Jews of Ukraine for a study group I am in under the aegis of Hadassah Greater Atlanta. While I began with a look at current events, I segued into a recap of Ukrainian history and then some specifics about the history of Jews in a portion of “right bank Ukraine” that includes the province of Vinnytsia.
Part of the reason I limited myself to this region is because my family came from there – and I still have family there: my second cousin – who knows Yiddish – and his son – who speaks English. I only learned of and met during the past year and cannot describe the feeling of finding and connecting with family of whom I had no previously awareness. Incredible to fill in each other’s blanks, to get to know each other…and to worry about their wellbeing in scary times such as these.
Another part of the reason I take particular interest in this province comes from a book I am reading, In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine, by Dr. Jeffery Veidlinger, and used for my presentation. In addition to research and source documentation, the book is based on nearly 400 interviews during the first decade of the 2000s, when Dr. Veidlinger and his team sought out Yiddish speakers in that area of western Ukraine. The conversations in the language of their childhood was a perfect conduit for drawing out memories.
As he explains in the book, many of the Jews that did not escape to the United States or Palestine or anywhere else before at the turn of the 20th century, moved to the larger cities during the 1920s or 1930s. But not all of them. It is the experience of those who stayed behind in the small towns, in the shadow of the former shtetls where they had been born or raised, that he was interested in. And deservedly so.
These inside views of Jewish life in these small towns, in synagogues and in homes, during Revolutions or the Great Terror, during the Holocaust or the Holodomor (Holocaust by bullets) – each paint stroke builds an unmistakable picture.
One of the things I learned from his book was that the Soviets ran schools specifically for minorities in their own languages. German. Ukrainian. And Yiddish. These schools were not religious in nature; no officially sanctioned schools were. But they existed. And for a time, Jewish parents sent their children.
What I’ve learned today from Dr. Veidlinger’s latest blog is that at one brief point in its history, Ukraine printed currency in multiple languages – and these surprisingly included Yiddish.
In my presentation, I also shared photos of historic synagogues in Vinnytsia. I thought about Dr Veidlinger’s descriptions of what his interviewees had said – that there were synagogues for butchers and synagogues for cobblers, synagogues for tailors and synagogues for coopers – each occupation had its own. Then I thought about how so many were turned into cultural centers or workers clubs and others were torn down. And along with them, history was no longer visible.
During the discussion following my presentation, we also spoke about researching genealogy, and this made me think of Alex Krakovsky, a man who has spent an inordinate amount of his time for a number of years trying to scan as many vital records and revision lists and anything else he can from archives in Kiev and elsewhere. His goal, like that of interviewers and professors, is to preserve history, to let the world know this is who is here, this is who was here, no one ought to be forgotten.
Today, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are taking a stand against a Russian threat, while much of the world stands in solidarity. The phrase that comes to mind, the one I want to wish all Ukrainians, whether or not they are escaping over the border or staying the home to fight armed only with Molotov cocktails and determination, is one my grandmother who emigrated from the region in 1925 used to say to me. “Zie gezunt.” Be healthy.
Whether in small towns and former shtetls or in large cities. Whether in an underground shelter or on the street. No matter where the people of Ukraine are right now, may they be healthy and stay safe. “Zie gezunt.” Be healthy. And may we see a swift end to Putin’s horrific and unconscionable act of aggression. Let that be our future history.