Rescuing the Yiddish Ukraine

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Artur Fraçzak
Shloyme Skliarskii, Bershad, Ukraine, 2009. Marci Shore writes, ‘With a bullet in his left arm, Skliarskii climbed a fence and ran through fields of wheat, leaving a trail of blood’ to escape the massacre in his village in 1942.

A quarter-century after the end of the cold war, Europe finds itself facing a moment of truth with Russia. At stake most immediately is Ukraine. Once again, as during Nazism and as during Stalinism, the European periphery has become the center of European history. In February we saw a climax of a revolution in Kiev, on the main square known as the Maidan, live-streamed on YouTube. We saw people on the streets facing water cannons, tanks, and snipers. It was a revolution whose success was based not only upon the sophistication of an emergent civil society, but also upon people’s willingness to die in protest against a gangster’s tyranny. And its victory in late February could barely be celebrated, so closely was it followed by a creeping Russian-sponsored seizure, first of Crimea, now of eastern Ukraine.

During the protests on the Maidan, Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych told the West that the protesters were fascists and anti-Semites. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin maintains the same position now. It is an accusation that is taken seriously in view of Ukraine’s dark history of pogroms, and of collaboration in the murder of Jews during the Nazi occupation. Yet this is an accusation that ignores the accounts of Jews who have actually taken part in the recent revolution.

Natan Khazin, a Ukrainian Jew from Odessa, is an ordained rabbi. He emigrated to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces. Then he returned to Ukraine, this time to Kiev.

“I never imagined,” he said in a recent interview, “that I would put my combat knowledge to use in quiet and peaceful Kiev.” He came to the Maidan first as an observer of the clashes between the protesters and Yanukovych’s security police. Then he became an adviser: those on the Maidan could see that Khazin had experience. Soon he was in charge of several operations. “I came to realize,” he said, “that this was my war.” In the first days he said nothing about the fact that he was a Jew. Then, gradually, he began to tell people. “I was shocked by the reaction,” he said. “People called me ‘brother.’ Everyone.”

Khazin was not alone. Several veterans of the Israeli military fought on the Maidan, and one of the people killed by government snipers was a Jewish veteran of the Soviet Red Army. Local Jews formed a combat unit of their own in Kiev, and local Jews in Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine, are today organizing self-defense units against a feared Russian invasion.

Whatever may follow, the Maidan represents an extraordinary new chapter in the history of Ukrainian–Jewish relations. This new chapter has surprised much of the rest of the world, which had forgotten about Ukrainian Jews—the children …

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