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In My Grandfather’s Footsteps

Ukraine’s problem with its Jews is nothing new. My great-grandfather, sick of the endless pogroms and unflagging hatred of the local populace, was acutely aware of this when he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1909. 

But it is hard as a Jew not to feel involved when reports emerge that worshipers leaving a Passover service at a synagogue in Donetsk were handed leaflets calling for all Jews over 16 years of age to register at the pro-Russian local municipality or face deportation and loss of businesses and property. Add to that last week’s fire-bombing of a local synagogue in Nikolayev, a Black Sea port city of approximately 500,000 located in southeastern Ukraine about 110 kilometers from Odessa, as well as a similar incident this past February at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 400 km. southeast of Kiev, in eastern Ukraine, and it is not difficult to see why worldwide Jewry is becoming alarmed.

But unlike other anti-Semitic incidents around the world, the ones in Ukraine seem mired in a fog of conflicting allegations. Accusations fly between pro-Russian champions and Ukrainian nationalists, each claiming innocence and blaming the other for anti-Semitic acts as a way of harming their public relations image in the West.

It is not open to debate that the Ukrainian nationalists have a long history of anti-Semitism stretching back for hundreds of years. Their latest manifestation, the Svoboda party and Pravy Sektor, are openly calling all their opponents “Zhids.”
A cursory Google search yields pictures of rallies with bare-chested skinheads with swastika tattoos holding flags with neo-Nazi symbols. It is also claimed that they’ve been busily printing and distributing hot-off-the-press versions of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Nevertheless, local rabbis have been loath to take sides. Rabbi Reuven Stamov of the Masoret community in Kiev has been quoted as saying: “We have plenty of unpleasant things from the Svoboda members… but so far there has been a distance between words and actions… the authorities haven’t done enough to find out who was behind the latest attack… it isn’t clear where the attackers came from, it could have been someone from the former regime who wanted to smear the opposition.”

Bizarrely, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Kiev’s chief rabbi, lashed out at pro-Putin Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chabad’s chief rabbi of Russia, for even suggesting the Jews of Ukraine needed support. “Plenty of anti-Semites in Russia can use the help of Berel Lazar before he worries about anti-Semitism in Ukraine,” said Bleich.

Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer wrote on February 25 that perhaps the true threat to the Jews of Ukraine is that the anti-Semitic card is being played by both sides “with the Jews in the middle.”

Ukraine’s problem with its Jews is nothing new. My great-grandfather, sick of the endless pogroms and unflagging hatred of the local populace, was acutely aware of this when he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1909. Answering an advertisement from a coal-mining company offering to pay the transportation of Ukrainian miners willing to relocate to Schuylkill, Pennsylvania, my great-grandfather and grandfather decided that being tailors was close enough, and took them up on the offer. I seriously doubt whether either Joseph Terlinsky (my great-grandfather) or his son David (my grandfather) ever dug a pailful of coal from those abundant black hills, as they soon relocated to Brooklyn and began making pants once more.

My pregnant grandmother, left behind in Ukraine for what became an untenable length of time, joined the rest of the family with my, by then, three-year-old father when – family legend has it – she was finally able to muster the fare on her own.

This was in 1911. Sitting on my desk is a photo that this intrepid woman had printed on a metal oval showing herself, her infant son (my dad) and daughter. I was told that she mailed it to her husband as a not so- subtle reminder of those left behind. Often, I stare at those pictures, blessing the initiative of my Ukrainian ancestors in leaving that dark place behind and allowing my brothers and me to enjoy the safety and freedom of an American childhood.

Had they stayed, they would no doubt have shared the fate of those million Ukrainian Jews slaughtered by the Nazis and their enthusiastic Ukrainian helpers during the Holocaust, more than 30,000 of them in the infamous pit of Babi Yar in Kiev. Indeed, someone recently sent my Facebook account a little-publicized group of rare photos showing Jewish women being forcibly stripped naked in the streets of a Ukrainian town and then beaten not by German soldiers or local militia or police, but just average townspeople. The raw, visceral hatred in the faces of those men is something that is hard to forget.

So what is going on in Ukraine today, and why should we, as Jews, care? In a vastly simplified nutshell, the most recent struggle began when pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by mobs of angry citizens.
Those who were tuning in will remember the lavish palace where Yanukovych held court amidst his impoverished countrymen, displayed on Ukrainian television at his ouster. If you listened to them, they were fighting corruption, the emptying of their treasury, by a stooge of Moscow.

Why then, did a referendum allowing the people of Crimea to choose annexation to Moscow over continuing to be part of Ukraine result in an 83 percent turnout, and a 95.5% landslide choosing annexation to Russia? Maybe because the majority of those in Crimea are ethnic Russians? There are those that claim that the vote was a sham. Writing in the New Republic, Oliver Bullough contends that the vote gave only two options: Do you want to join Russia? Or do you want to make Crimea independent, by returning to the (abortive) constitution of 1992? “Since there is no sign that anyone in Crimea wants to be independent, that is actually one option, with no way of voting against it,” he wrote.

The West, in general, seems to support not so much Ukrainian democracy and independence – after all, the ouster of its elected president was singularly undemocratic – as much as the fanciful idea of a Ukrainian spring which sees Ukrainians embracing the EU and the West with fervor.

In line with that, US President Barack Obama stated to reporters at the White House before the vote: “The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.” Admittedly, it is hard to see the suffering of people undergoing what to all intents and purposes seems like a brutal repression which includes the invasion of Russian troops that have left dozens dead and wounded. Unfortunately, that seems to be the pattern of “Springs” all over the world.

In all this, the Jews are really just a side issue. Nevertheless, there have been calls for Israel to send in troops to protect local Jewish communities. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, CEO of the European Jewish Association turned to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon with an emergency call for Israel to send guards to protect Jewish communities in Ukraine. That was back in February. Another such call is sure to come if the situation worsens.

Wisely, so far Israel has kept out.

“Ukraine is not a world power but it’s a large country which will either be a member of the European Union in the future or Russia’s main ally,” former Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Zvi Magen, told Haaretz. “So either way, it’s good we have a positive relationship with them.”

As for those who worry for the 200,000 Jews caught in the middle, there is a way open to them, the same way that was open to my grandparents and father. It is my hope that they take it before it’s too late. We in Israel are looking forward to welcoming them.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 25 April 2024.

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8 comments on “In My Grandfather’s Footsteps”

  1. Sidney Cooper

    My father, may he rest in peace,lived in a small village,in the Ukrain called SLAVUTA. When he was 17 years old he left because of the pograms and came to America in 1905. It seems nothing has changed since then.

  2. Chanah

    The only info I have on Ukraine comes from recent immigrants to Israel who were in my Hebrew Ulpan class. They stated they were not free to publicly celebrate Jewish holidays. For example, it was forbidden (this was as recent as five years ago) to put a menorah in the window during Chanukah. They said nothing about Russians being the reason.

  3. Jennie

    If you are so interested in the truth of the above matter, why don’t you seek it on line by googling the subject or visiting a library…I repeat it over again: the anti-Semitism in Ukraine always was and still is fueled by Ukrainians, not Russians…Read my original post again…And of course, there are few and rare exclusions of decent and noble Ukrainians and Russians…But history is a persistently stubborn thing : you can’t change or reinvent it…I was born and raised there…

  4. Jennie

    Mr. Blumstein,

    I was lucky enough to be able to leave Ukraine over 4 decades ago…Your friend is not telling the truth. I can assure you, that following hitler & Nazis,there is no other more violently anti-Semitic Nation, then Ukrainians…Ask your friend about Petlyura, Chapayev, Haydamak & those of Ukrainian “heroes”, who helped Hitler to massacre hundreds of thousands of Jewish children, women & man…Many Ukrainians all over the world do hate Jews to this day…I think, it is being past from one generation to another.. It is a well known historical fact, but with some rare exclusions…Why don’t you just simply google your question…And then again, not every Ukrainian was a Nazi.. During my childhood there, I had a few Ukrainian friends, who accepted me for who I was and with whom I was friends. I still hope, that there are some normal, honest & humanitarian Ukrainians in Ukraine of now..

    • Paul Blumstein

      Jennie,

      You are talking about the past, I am talking about now. You are correct about the past as I also had relatives there.

      The issue is how are the relations now. And I’ve seen some articles to corroborate what my friend is saying.

      Perhaps you should learn what a false flag operation is before you jump to conclusions.

      Paul

  5. Jennie

    Exactly right, Naomi.. There is nothing new or unheard off about what is happening now in Ukraine..News travel fast these days and I hope, that the Jewish people around the world,seem to be more curious about their brethren and more vigilant. Even the “closet” Jews around the world, beginning to understand, that without a strong Israel, with Jerusalem as the center of our “Universe”, we would be exposed to violent bigotry acts throughout the world…
    Every year @ about this time, my heart is filled with sad and painful memories: the Shoa(of course) & the “pinuy” of Gush Katif..I am a daughter of Aushwitz survivors.. But my comment is more a eulogy for the land we loved & called proudly home, but were forced to give up by our own Israeli Government..
    We were told, that if only we give up that land, we’ll have peace with our enemies…But we were fooled…The beautiful agricultural fields and grows, orchards, vineyards, flowers for export all over the world, all that miracle happening in the Sinai desert, that gave a huge boost to the Israeli economy and hope for a new era of peace, was affirmed with our building of a most beautiful urban & High Tech city in the Negev: Yamit..It saddens me,That Israelis forgetting what we have sacrificed unnecessarily & am confident, that children in Israeli schools are not being taught about this painful unnecessary chapter in our strive for peace…over 30 years ago…

  6. Renee

    Hi
    I know that I’ve written to you previously about buying your books on kindle. You told me that they are all available in the format. Well, I live in Australia and that isn’t true for here. Is it possible for that to be changed so that I can purchase your books?

  7. Paul Blumstein

    A friend of mine is a non-Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who is still very much connected to people still there.

    He tells me that the anti-semitism that is going on is recent and is being done by Russians and pro-Russians as a false flag operation to make the Ukrainians look bad.

    He says that, as a result, the Ukrainian and Jewish communities have drawn closer together.

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