Ukraine’s Jews again caught between a rock and a hard place

Shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union, I received an invitation to participate in a conference in the newly independent Ukraine. The organizers asked me to appear on the country’s version of “Good Morning America,” watched by millions of citizens. The anchorwoman interviewed me for nearly 15 minutes, in the 7 a.m. slot, neatly sandwiched in between a Bugs Bunny cartoon and the national weather. 

Having arrived at the studio while it was still dark, it was only when I left the TV station that I noticed I had been interviewed a few feet from the site of the infamous Babi Yar massacre, where, in one week during September 1941, at least 34,000 Jews were mass murdered in the ravine by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. I confronted the head of the conference and said, “I never would have agreed to be interviewed in a building that literally stood astride where so many of my Jewish brothers and sisters were murdered. I would have demanded a different venue!” I will never forget her response: “My dear rabbi, what difference does it make? Here in Kiev, every second stone is dripping with Jewish blood.”

We are now witnessing the latest round of violence and tragedy in Ukraine. And, not for the first time, hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps as many as 400,000, find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

To be sure, the Jewish community has not been center stage in the epic struggle between opposing forces. The just-deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, represents the still-powerful pull of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin has always made it clear he will not accept a Ukraine that is tied to NATO or the European Union. So far he’s used the economic carrot of cheap oil and other incentives, but possible military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, with its significant Russian population, cannot be dismissed.

On the other side are Ukrainian activists who rallied around a Euro-centric vision of the future. Anyone and anything insisting on a link to Moscow and the memories of 70 years of tyrannical Soviet rule is out of the question. Unfortunately, among the masses of people who braved beatings, bullets and death, were members of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which has neo-Nazi roots, and some of whose leaders have openly expressed anti-Semitic views.

Jews have not been a key target in this historic confrontation, though after last month’s serious beating of two Jews, and the escalating violence on the streets of the capital, Kiev’s chief rabbi has called on the city’s Jews to leave. Now comes word that on Feb. 23, unknown perpetrators hurled firebombs at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev. Not surprisingly, Jewish institutions are bolstering security, and it has been reported that some public events have been canceled. One can only wonder what kind of Purim awaits our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ukraine.

Flowers at the site where anti-Yanukovich protesters were allegedly killed in recent clashes in Kiev. Photo by David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Simon Wiesenthal always said, “Where democracy is strong it is good for Jews, and where it is weak it is bad for the Jews.”

Historically, Jews in Ukraine have suffered disastrous losses during times of upheaval. During the Cossack uprisings of 1648-57, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, between 15,000 and 30,000 Ukrainian Jews out of a total population of 51,000 were murdered or taken captive. The organized violence against the helpless and impoverished Jews in Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th centuries literally spawned a new word in the lexicon of hate: pogrom. Many of our grandparents fled Ukraine during that time, arriving on America’s shores penniless, with little more than a dream of a safe haven. During the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War (1917-22), another estimated 30,000 to 100,000 Jews were killed in the territory of what is now modern Ukraine.

The total civilian losses during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in World War II is estimated at 7 million, with more than 1 million Jews shot by Einsatzgruppen killing squads and Ukrainian collaborators in Western Ukraine.

I am afraid my academic hostess in Kiev more than 20 years ago wasn’t using hyperbole when she spoke of a blood-drenched Jewish history in Ukraine. We can only hope and pray that calmer heads will prevail and that the forces of democracy and inclusion will win the day there. In the meantime, today’s Ukrainian Jews have an option their forefathers could only dream about. Israel is but a nonstop flight from Kiev. Look for those flights to be extra crowded in the days ahead.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.