Feb 2005 Journal

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Ukraine, a Jewish heartland

The current focus on Ukraine in newspaper headlines ought to jog our memory. This country, wedged between Poland and Russia - its very name means borderland - has long been a habitat of Jews. To actually call it a country may be a bit of a misnomer because its ranking in the world, and its exact borders, have often been matters of fierce dispute. For instance, Lviv, the current capital of Western Ukraine, bore the Polish name Lwów until 1939 and the Austrian designation Lemberg before 1918. Just as confusingly, Czernowitz, the easternmost outpost of Austro-Hungary which briefly belonged to Romania, now finds itself inside Ukraine.

These violent shakes of the kaleidoscope started around 1650 when the Cossack hetman Bogdan Chmelnitsky severed Eastern Ukraine from Poland and attached it to Russia, killing the bulk of the region's Jews in the process. When Poland went into terminal decline over a century later, the territory was carved up between the Romanovs and the Habsburgs, and a greater part of the world's Jews became subjects of Tsarist misrule. As their situation worsened, the active section of the Jewish population reacted in three different ways - mass migration, revolutionary activity, or strengthening Jewish national consciousness (in other words, Zionism).

Zionism as a force on the world stage is usually perceived to have been launched by Herzl in 1896 - but it had its precursors in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. Leo Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation, a work arguing the need for a Jewish national home, received powerful reinforcement from the similarly Odessa-based Hebraists Ahad Ha'am and Bialik and inspired the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), whose aliyah to Palestine raised the active Jewish population there to 25,000 by 1914.

Odessa Jewry was a teeming womb of talent. Pride of place probably belongs to the violinists Jasha Haifetz, Misha Elman and David and Igor Oistrakh, but there was also the 'Constructivist' painter El Lisitsky and the writer Isaac Babel.

Babel ventured into uncharted territory. During the post-1917 Russian Civil War he rode with the Cossacks - talk about a culture clash! - and his tales of the Moldavanka district of Odessa chronicle the activities of the Jewish gangster Benya Krik.

Babel also had a delicious gift of irony. At a congress of Russian writers in the mid-1930s, he complained that because the Soviet system had removed all the reasons for human unhappiness - such as poverty, insecurity, frustration - writers had little to get their teeth into. Such levity was not to be countenanced for long and by 1939 he had disappeared into the Gulag, never to return.

The disturbed aftermath of the Great War saw a short-lived independent Ukrainian state established in Kiev, whose head, Simon Petliura, was a pogromshchik in the Chmelnitsky mould. By 1922, however, Ukraine had been integrated into the USSR, and local Jewry enjoyed the (mixed) blessings of Soviet rule.

Then came the Second World War and Nazi occupation, during which the Ukrainians, further alienated by Stalin's forcible collectivisation and consequent famine, collaborated with the Germans in carrying out anti-Jewish massacres. The most notorious such atrocity occurred at Babi Yar in 1941 and has been commemorated in a Yevtushenko poem and a Shostakovich symphony.

The Ukrainians are among the European nations with the worst record of inhumanity towards their Jewish fellow citizens. One only hopes that the current crisis will so fortify the democratic antibodies in the national consciousness that they will in future no longer succumb to the virus of Jew-hatred.
Richard Grunberger

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