Opinion |

Ukraine's Jews Have Decided Not to Be Victims Any More

The Jews of Ukraine don't want to ignore their history, and antisemitism hasn't disappeared. But amid so much suffering, they've made a conscious choice

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A girl stands in front of lit candles forming the shape of Ukraine's borders, a memorial to the lives lost since the Russian invasion, in front of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Lviv, Ukraine
A girl stands in front of lit candles forming the shape of Ukraine's borders, a memorial to the lives lost since the Russian invasion, in front of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Lviv, UkraineCredit: AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The charming little hotel I stayed at last week in Krakow offers its guests a great day-trip deal. You can tour the magnificent Wieliczka Salt Mine, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II and Auschwitz, all with the same ticket, with a tour-guide and driver who take you from site to site in one easy all-inclusive day. I was sorely tempted to take the tour and report back, but sadly I had more pressing work to do.

If you’ve ever visited Ukraine in the past, you probably flew to Kyiv’s Borispyl or to one of the smaller airports in other cities. It’s a large country and the highways are, shall we say, not exactly autobahn-standard. But since the start of the war, Ukraine’s airspace has been closed and reporting there means either handling the rather erratic timetable of Ukraine’s valiant rail network or spending long hours on the road.

I’ve done the 12-hour trip (that's in theory, add time spent at roadblocks and other wartime detours like Russian invaders) from Krakow to Kyiv three times so far during this war, and if you know anything about Jewish history, the signs just hit you, viscerally. Every name of a village or town features prominently in Jewish history, and personal history as well, if your ancestors came from this part of the world, which, let’s face it, is true of every other Jew.

In my case, in the space of three hours driving in east Poland and west Ukraine, I drove past the exits to the birthplaces of both my grandfathers, and most of my great-grandparents. For me, the signpost bingo goes like this – Brzesko-Mielec-Yavoriv-Buchach – a series of names that evoke embedded memories and imaginings, both painful and wistful.

Some of these places I’d like to go one day and see, especially Buchach, with S.Y. Agnon, who went to cheder there with my great-grandfather and who brought the town to life in so many of his works, as my guide. I’m less sure about other places on the list. Why visit a village where you constantly ask yourself what the grandparents of those still living there did to your zaide?

S.Y. Agnon, born in Buchach, Ukraine, who brought the town to life in so many of his works, receiving the Nobel Prize in Sweden in 1966Credit: AGNON HOUSE

There’s something very discombobulating about covering a war and the suffering of another nation while constantly surrounded by visual reminders of another war which took place before I was born, but remains nevertheless deeply personal. One handy subconscious way of detaching memory is using the current Ukrainian names of the towns and villages, and trying not to think of them in their Polish or Russian versions more familiar from the historic record and family accounts.

It doesn’t always work. On Friday, walking back from the ornate and nearly deserted Tsori Gilad synagogue in Lviv, there was something about the dim lamp-posts, the soft evening light and my tiredness that doused the streets in sepia, and I couldn’t escape those black-and-white photographs, seared in my brain ever since I first saw them in a history book so many years ago.

I was back in Lvov, the scene of the pogroms 81 years ago, where the German occupiers didn’t have to do anything – they simply watched, amused, as the local Ukrainian nationalists forced their Jewish neighbors into the streets, beating them with sticks and whips, particularly the women, who were stripped of their clothes, running bloodied from their tormentors.

You can call it Lviv. You can renovate the synagogues. You can’t change history.

You try to blot it out but you really can’t. Not when right on the road about an hour east from Lviv there’s a well-tended cemetery with rows of neat white crosses, the graves of the Ukrainian soldiers of the SS Galicia Division, whose official colors were identical to today’s Ukrainian flag. And when besides those flags, throughout Ukraine, fly the red-black flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which carried out those pogroms in Lvov and countless other places.

"I say to those who have a problem with monuments to Ukrainian national heroes that if it bothers you so much, then don’t live in Ukraine," a leader of a major Ukrainian Jewish community told me this week. "We’re not for a moment forgetting what those Ukrainian nationalists did to us, but the fact is that Ukraine needs national heroes, and those that it has, did terrible things to Jews. We can’t change that.

"But it doesn’t make today’s Ukraine antisemitic. On the contrary, in today’s Ukraine Jews are popular, respected and successful citizens and it’s no coincidence that the president, many of the people around him and some of the most successful businessmen in Ukraine today are Jewish. One thing that I can promise you is that the national heroes who will emerge from this war will not be antisemites and many of them will be Jews."

Activists and supporters of Ukrainian nationalist parties hold torches as they take part in a rally to mark the 112th birth anniversary of Stepan Bandera, in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 1, 2021. Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

The statues of nationalists like Stepan Bandera and Symon Petliura will not be coming down. Nor will street names be changed. That’s not how history is commemorated in this part of the world. Here, the only statues of evil white men that are pulled down are those of Communists.

It may stick in our craw, but we have a duty to respect the Jews who live in these countries and if they choose to build a Jewish future here, and don’t want that future dominated by the past, that’s their prerogative.

"The definition of Jewishness here is not whether you are Jewish according to halakha or whether your Soviet identity card said your ethnicity was Jewish," a Ukrainian-Jewish friend said to me this week. "You’re Jewish if you were bullied at school for being Jewish." But there was no rancor or bitterness in his voice.

It’s not that antisemitism has disappeared in Ukraine, but it’s no longer a feature of life. It’s as if Jews and non-Jews here have managed to each take what they need from their difficult histories and just move on with the business of trying to build a country in Russia’s threatening shadow.

Protest in solidarity with Ukraine and against Russia's invasion in Tel Aviv, IsraelCredit: Hadas Parush

I’ve been traveling to Ukraine for the past 14 years and I’ve discovered that this is one of the countries where I’m definitely better off using my Israeli identity, which always elicits smiles, respect and a willingness to open up (though in the last couple of months, my British identity is also a great help in Ukraine thanks to Boris Johnson’s rather opportunistic war support).

Countless Ukrainian Jews have told me that a major part in the generational attitude change among their fellow Ukrainians is "because they respect Israel as a strong successful country and that’s made them look at Jews differently here as well."

It's not that the Jews of Ukraine want to ignore their history. They have Holocaust memorials and museums as well and in some Jewish communities, despite the war, this week, on May 8, Ukraine’s national Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, they went to those parks and fields where the killing-pits were, and held their own quiet commemorative events.

In a country which has seen so much death and suffering both in the past and right now, the Jews of Ukraine have made a conscious choice not to compete in the victimhood stakes, but to focus on the present and on the future. We can all learn something from them.

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