Opinion

It’s Time for Jews to Embrace Our Ukrainian Identity

Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, April 21, 2019.
AFP

If you would have asked one of my grandparents or great-grandparents where we are from, they would have almost certainly said we’re Polish. Or if you had asked them in Yiddish, they’d probably have answered “Galitzianer.” And I was fine with calling myself a Polish Jew as well, though I’ve been to Poland only twice in my life. In the nearly a century since my ancestors left Polish Galicia, they’ve called Berlin, Geneva, Milan, Manchester and Jerusalem home, and I feel various degrees of love and connection to all of them, but a thousand years of flourishing Jewish life in Poland, no matter how it ended, is something I never wanted to cut myself off from.

And that remains the case today, but recently I’ve been less sure of my Polish roots. Every time I have written in this paper about the ongoing political and historical controversy over the role played by Polish individuals and the Polish nation as a whole during the Second World War, I’ve been inundated with emails and responses online. A few lovely people reached out to say that they despise the way the current government in Warsaw is trying to rewrite history so it will fit in with their nationalistic agenda. But over ninety percent of what I’ve been receiving from Poles falls into three categories of anti-Semitism. Some of it was old-fashioned, unvarnished hatred towards Jews. You don’t need me to describe that for you.

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The other two types of reactions are victim-blaming. There’s the pseudo-historic kind – cherry-picked facts and revisionist articles on cruel Jews who were kapos at concentration camps or Communist commissars. And the “political” kind about how Israel is a genocidal Nazi regime which has spent the last seventy years ethnically cleansing the Palestinians. In both cases, the conclusion is the same: Whatever happened to the Jews back in Europe, they deserved it and have no right to present themselves as victims.

I know there isn’t one typical reaction of all Poles. And in many ways I can understand why they are anxious for the world to recognize that they were victims as well, and that millions of Polish citizens, non-Jews as well as Jews, were murdered by the Germans during the war. There are plenty of nuanced positions in today’s Poland on how to treat that period of history, just as in the village where my grandfather was born there were people who wouldn’t allow him to enter his childhood home when he returned on his only postwar visit, and others who are working today to commemorate the memory of the Jewish residents who lived there for generations and were taken away in 1942 to be gassed in the nearby death camp at Belzec.

Part of me wants to cling on to my Polish roots, and not allow anyone to deny me of my family’s history. Another internal voice says screw them. I’ve been blessed with so many better identities, and my children have even more. Keep your Polishness for yourself.

In the last few years, a new dilemma has been added to the identity menu. Technically, all my great-grandparents were Poles, or Galitzianers, but thanks to today’s international borders, I can add Ukraine to my roots. My maternal grandmother’s family, before emigrating to Switzerland, came from Buchach, and while the majority of Jews there regarded themselves as Polish and had indeed been subjects of the Polish kings for centuries, today the town nestles firmly in western Ukraine.

Tracing my roots back to Buchach is a much more appealing course than the trail back to any of the other drab shtetls and provincial towns my forebears hail from. Buchach has tons of yichus. It was the birthplace of my hero Emanuel Ringelblum, founder of the Oyneg Shabbess archive in the Warsaw Ghetto and of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Jewish life in Buchach was celebrated in so many wonderful books and short stories of another great son of the town, S. Y. Agnon, some of which were published first in the pages of this newspaper. To the best of my knowledge, no one from my family has been back to Buchach since the end of the First World War, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s my ancestral hometown. And even better now for being part of modern Ukraine.

On my first visit to Ukraine eleven years ago, I was convinced it was an incurably anti-Semitic country. At a vast working class cemetery on the edge of Kiev, I was taken to visit the grave of Andrei Yushchinsky, the 13-year-old Christian boy whose slain body sparked off the “Beilis Case” blood libel against Kiev’s Jews in 1911. The grave had been swept clean of snow, fresh flowers and new icons were arranged on it and the stone slabs quoting the court’s verdict which ruled that Yushchinsky had been ritually murdered was still there. In another Kiev neighborhood, I interviewed the then-president of MAUP, the largest college in the country, which had published “academic” studies into the Beilis Case, justifying the prosecution, and which more recently had speculated on the “danger” of local Jewish organizations like Chabad.

But in the time that has passed since, in every visit to Ukraine I’ve seen how politicians, activists, businesspeople and journalists have been trying to change Ukrainian society and – despite the rise of more patriotic feelings in the country in the wake of the Maidan revolution and Ukraine’s military conflict with Russia – detoxify Ukrainian nationalism of its anti-Semitic legacy. It still has a way to go, and Ukraine doesn’t lack its own deniers of the past, but there’s no coincidence that as of this Sunday’s election of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine is now the only other country besides Israel to have both a Jewish president and Jewish prime minister. Pretty impressive for a country that was the last one to perpetrate a blood libel.

We don’t need to be naïve about this development. There are distinct political motives for Ukraine’s sudden Judeophilia. Its leaders are anxious to draw closer to the West and push back at the Kremlin-directed Russian propaganda that for years has tried to portray all Ukrainian patriots as neo-Nazis. We live in an era when progressive left-wing politics in many Western countries increasingly condones and even endorses anti-Semitism under the thinly veiled guise of anti-Zionism. Meanwhile, in other east European countries such as Poland and Hungary, the right-wing governments’ anti-Semitic-style nationalism and xenophobia are excused because of a “pro-Israel” foreign policy, which actually means just pro-Netanyahu. The way Ukrainians have tried to change course, even if it is partly motivated by political expediency, is an encouraging exception to these trends.

It’s hard to decide what to make of Zelensky’s election. The landslide victory for a 41-year-old comic actor with no relevant experience can be seen as yet another manifestation of the populism sweeping democratic politics around the world. But the 73 percent of Ukrainian voters who supported him were united in rejecting the corrupt, Moscow-manipulated and oligarch-driven politics from which the country has suffered since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It would be wise too keep any expectations that Zelensky succeeds where his predecessors failed suitably reserved. But his election is in itself historically significant. By voting for a Jew, Ukrainians were consciously rejecting part of their nation’s past.

Historically, Jews from the western part of Ukraine considered themselves Polish and those from Odessa and the eastern provinces were Russian. “Ukrainian Jews” is a relatively new concept, but one whose time has come. I’m not quite ready to give up on my Polish roots, but I think it’s time for those of us whose families lived in what is today Ukraine to add it, as well, to our melange of identities. Le’shana haba’ah b’Buchach.