Rescuing the Yiddish Ukraine

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 and grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust—as it had about Ukraine more generally.

Ukraine was much calmer, and indeed much more forgotten, in July 2002, when Jeffrey Veidlinger and Dov-Ber Kerler drove into the city of Vinnytsya, southwest of Kiev, and found Bella Chirkova singing with the women’s choir. Wearing a red smock dress with a flowered pattern and a yellow peasant’s kerchief tied under her sharp chin, Chirkova looked like character out of a folktale. She was the oldest woman in the choir—and the best dancer. She walked with a cane; she danced without one. With a bit of encouragement, she hopped up and began swinging her arms across her chest, tapping her feet, and swaying her body—singing all the while. Every so often she held a note for several beats longer than the others did; her vibrato resonated uncannily. She was ninety years old.

The next day Veidlinger and Kerler interviewed Chirkova—in Yiddish. She had been born in 1912, as Beyle Kleyman. Her father had been a rabbi, her grandfather a cantor. At one time she had gone to synagogue. When there were no longer any synagogues, she went to Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian churches instead. The difference was not so important to her: there was in any case only one God and He was a personal one. In In the Shadow of the Shtetl, Veidlinger writes, “Her religion knew of no doubt but was also largely devoid of dogma.” “One should endure anything,” she told her unexpected visitors from Bloomington, Indiana. “One should not fight that. One should deal with all the troubles. If you don’t, then you can’t call yourself a Jew. That’s how it works, my children.”

Bella Chirkova might have been a great-grandmother singing a lullaby. Or she might have been a Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, casting spells in the forest. Chirkova knew remedies for the evil eye; she knew how to diagnose maladies using an egg, and how to cure a cough by drinking urine. She appeared to belong to a world that no longer existed.

Veidlinger is of the same generation as the novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. In Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Krauss’s The History of Love (2005) we meet Eastern European Jewish characters who we would expect to have been long dead, their world having long ago vanished. The novels express a longing for a direct connection to a disappeared world. Veidlinger and Kerler have come closer perhaps than anyone else now writing to achieving direct access to that disappeared world. This can be troubling. The shtetl Jews whose native tongue was Yiddish ought to have been “lost,” “vanished,” or “erased” decades ago. They and their ghosts have, for three generations now, been figures of literature. What is disconcerting about Veidlinger’s book is that these people existed in the twenty-first century at all.

The recovery of these Yiddish-speaking Jews and their stories was made possible by the eccentric charm of Dov-Ber Kerler, a linguist who grew up in Soviet Russia, the son of a Yiddish poet who spent five and a half years in the Gulag. Kerler and Veidlinger interviewed some four hundred native Yiddish speakers in Ukraine as well as Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia during the decade between 2002 and 2012. They created a film archive, housed at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music and named AHEYM (an acronym that means “homeward” in Yiddish and stands for the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories).1

Driving around Ukraine in a rented minivan, Kerler and Veidlinger entered a world of anachronistic juxtapositions: unpaved roads and statues of Lenin, cell phone shops and jugs of homemade compote, peasant costumes and espresso machines, white lace doilies and bones dug up from mass graves. They heard Red Army war songs and Yiddish folk songs and post-Soviet disco. They drove to remote places and looked around for native speakers of Yiddish. “Sometimes,” Veidlinger writes,

we just pulled into the center of town and asked if there were any elderly Jews in town. Oddly enough, nobody seemed particularly surprised by this question; some just pointed or gave us an address, and others hopped in the van with us and showed us exactly where to go.

Kerler could nearly always persuade people to talk to him. He resembles a character from a Sholem Aleichem story—ebullient, impractical, a mixture of sharp irony and disarming warmth. Veidlinger is utterly different: practical, grounded, unromantic. What is impressive about his writing is his sobriety.

The people Veidlinger and Kerler found were, for the most part, born in the 1910s and 1920s in the last years of the Russian Empire or the early Soviet Union. The oldest were born around the time of World War I, when Ukraine was occupied by five different armies. These were people whose existence was profoundly improbable: they should have been killed in the pogroms of 1919, or gone to the United States, or Moscow, or Kiev, or Israel, or died in the Soviet famine of 1933, or the Stalinist Terror, or—most likely—been killed in the Holocaust. Their voices have been marginalized several times over: by Soviet propaganda that denied any particularity of the Jewish experience during the war; by Western accounts that understood the Holocaust as something that happened in gas chambers in Auschwitz, not in pits dug in Ukrainian villages; by Jewish narratives in which the shtetl was a closed chapter.

Veidlinger and Kerler disrupted what might have been a story of their lives formed during Soviet times by asking the interviewees to describe their Soviet experience in a language other than Russian. These elderly people were telling their life stories in a native language that they themselves had almost forgotten. At moments they slipped into Russian—and Kerler had to bring them back. Often they needed to search for words; they no longer had anyone with whom to speak Yiddish.

Speaking in Yiddish, Veidlinger suspects, encouraged his interviewees to emphasize their Jewish identity. He is careful not to manipulate what he learns from them into a nostalgic portrait of the shtetl as a place where idealized Jewish values came true. For Veidlinger the irresistible image of communal harmony is always contrasted with the real image of brutal poverty. Electricity arrived slowly, and often only beginning in the late 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes he and Kerler found themselves in places where there was still no indoor plumbing.

Food was a constant preoccupation; and Veidlinger is struck by the detailed recollections of recipes. Evgeniia Kozak’s mother had taught her that “for a good broth you stuff a neck with chicken fat, with flour and the neck will be just so.” Sofia Palatnikova recalled her mother’s recipe for gefilte fish:

I take off the skin. That’s right, and I take out the bones. And then I put the fillet through a meat grinder. My mother did it with a chopping knife. She used to say that when you use the grinder it doesn’t taste as good. But I use the meat grinder. Then I add raw grated onion, then fried onion—just fried a little. Pepper. Salt to taste. Eggs…. And if there’s matzo meal—I have matzo meal almost all year round. I take matzo—it’s good for fish.

The recipes evoked both family and poverty. The vividness of these recollections of gefilte fish, homentashn, cholent (a stew made from meat and potatoes), farfel (egg noodles), latkes, and challah suggested not only a mother’s love, but also food’s frequent scarcity. Veidlinger is struck, too, that his interviewees remembered their parents’ weekly salaries precisely, to the ruble. Even in times free of pogroms, famine, and war, the shtetl was a place of anxiety and loss: from infant malnutrition, from smallpox and other poverty-borne diseases.

Veidlinger uses the expression “Soviet shtetl,” which might seem like an oxymoron. Most of the people Veidlinger and Kerler interviewed attended Yiddish schools during the Soviet campaign of the 1920s to promote national cultures. The slogan “national in form, socialist in content” was part of a Leninist nationalities policy. Its premise was that, just as the proletarian dictatorship was a stage toward the eventual withering away of the state, so the flowering of national cultures was a stage toward the eventual withering away of national differences. For Jews, the Bolsheviks chose Yiddish over Hebrew.2 They created a school system not of Jewish schools as such, but of Soviet Yiddish-language schools. A rabbi might choose to send his children to the Soviet Ukrainian-language school instead of the Yiddish school, so that his children would hear anti-Christian rather than anti-Jewish Communist propaganda.

Artur Fraçzak
A group of Jews after services at the synagogue in Berdichev, Ukraine. On the far right is Moyshe Vanshelboim, who, Marci Shore writes, ‘during the war had escaped the mass shooting that killed his father.’

Partly as a result of the Yiddish schools, through the 1920s and 1930s most of the shtetls in Soviet Ukraine retained their Jewish character. Despite the Bolshevik Revolution and despite Stalinism, Jewish customs were preserved. Coexistence with a Soviet world proved possible, just as coexistence with a Christian world had been. Close relationships with non-Jews continued to exist together with invisible boundaries. In each shtetl there were intricate divisions of labor between Jews and non-Jews. Jews were often cobblers, tailors, watchmakers, and barbers. Very few were engaged in agriculture. Trades were learned within the family, and marriages were often made within a profession.

Bolshevism was about rushing History toward a Communist outcome. Yet in the provinces, “the Revolution…moved at the speed of evolution.” The stories from these towns portrayed a Bolshevik state that was more chaotic and less totalitarian than in the cities. As the Bolsheviks consolidated power, Judaism moved from the public into the private sphere. When the Soviets turned synagogues into movie theaters, Jews gathered in one another’s homes for prayer. They organized clandestine minyans and underground schools. In the interviews there was an absence of talk about “communism.” Moscow was far away. The interviewees tended to locate authority locally. “Power rest[ed] within individuals,” Veidlinger writes.3

Stalinism, with its forced collectivization of agriculture, reached the Ukrainian countryside in the early 1930s. As Stalin violently requisitioned their grain, selling it abroad and using the hard currency to fund industrialization, Ukrainian peasants became emaciated, then swollen; then they died of hunger. Some people ate frogs from the river. Some resorted to cannibalism. Frida Pecherskaia remembered how her mother would throw herself on the ground and eat the grass. Eventually her swollen mother gave up Pecherskaia to an orphanage. For the non-Jews, the Ukrainians, it was even worse, many of the interviewees said. Even during the height of the famine, special “Torgsin stores” remained—almost obscenely—stocked with cornmeal and other foodstuffs. The Torgsin stores sold food for hard currency. Often it was dollars sent by American relatives that saved the lives of Jews while their Ukrainian neighbors starved to death.

When the famine ended, Pecherskaia’s parents came to the orphanage to take their daughter home. Less than a decade later, starvation returned. In 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany, and Soviet Ukraine was invaded by Romania, a German ally. Pecherskaia saw her infant sister die a few days after their arrival in a Romanian concentration camp. Pecherskaia’s other sister, Rivele, was slowly starving to death. Then one day the Jewish inmates charged with collecting dead bodies grabbed Rivele and tossed her onto the cart of corpses. Although she was weak, Rivele was still moving. Pecherskaia and her mother screamed. But the corpse collectors—“our people, the Jews”—closed the cart and moved on, condemning Rivele to burial alive.

When Veidlinger met Shloyme Skliarskii in Bershad, in western Ukraine, in May 2008, he was wearing a checkered dress shirt, a gray blazer, and a leather newsboy cap. He was living on Lenin Street. He recalled that in the spring of 1942 his village of Zhornishche had been occupied by the German army; it was controlled by Ukrainian policemen. On May 26 a boy from the neighboring town of Ilnytsya ran to Zhornishche to tell the Jews that pits had been dug in Ilnytsya.

The next morning Captain Zavalinsky, a former stable boy, led the Ukrainian police in rounding up Zhornishche’s Jews. They threw the children into two wagons led by horses. They forced the adults to march. Skliarskii broke away. The policemen ran after him, and Zavalinsky fired. With a bullet in his left arm, Skliarskii climbed over a fence and ran through fields of wheat, leaving a trail of blood. As he told the story, he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve and showed the American visitors his scar.

In Berdichev, in northern Ukraine, Veidlinger met Moyshe Vanshelboim, who during the war had escaped the mass shooting that killed his father. Vanshelboim took Veidlinger and Kerler on a walk through an unremarkable field of overgrown pale grass to the site where his mother, his two teenage sisters, and his five-year-old brother were murdered. “Here are the bones. Do you see them?” Someone had recently vandalized the grave, likely in search of gold; bones were lying on top of the dirt. Vanshelboim reached down to pick up a small skull. “Who knows?” he said to Kerler. “This could be the skull of my little brother.”

In Bratslav, in central Ukraine, Moyshe Kupershmidt led Veidlinger and Kerler along a dirt road toward a scenic cliff overlooking the Southern Bug River. It was a warm summer day; children were playing in the water, young couples were sunbathing on the riverbank. He had been there and seen everything, Kupershmidt told them. He had been working as a driver for the Germans and he had a pass; he saw how they threw live children over that cliff. It had been winter then. The river had just begun to freeze, and the weight of the small bodies broke the thin layer of ice.

Jews under both German and Romanian occupation, Veidlinger points out, did not speak of these experiences as “the Holocaust”; and the familiar images of the Holocaust—trains, gas chambers, Arbeit macht frei at the gate to Auschwitz—were absent from their accounts. In Ukraine, Jews were not deported to Auschwitz. The Holocaust happened at home.4 The interviewees described it as a wave of pogroms, and understood it the way they understood Sovietization, in local terms. They spoke about how some Ukrainians tried to help the Jews and others collaborated with the Germans. The Ukrainian police they perceived as worse than the German authorities. They were worse because they were familiar, because they were one’s own.5

“Life was quiet in Berdichev,” Vanshelboim told Veidlinger. He illuminates a larger point: provincial, “backward” areas became the center of the twentieth-century experience of totalitarianism. The monstrosities of modern social engineering were largely acted out in premodern spaces—premodern in the most literal, material sense: places lacking not only the experience of Enlightenment-inspired liberalism, but also electricity, telephones, toilets, and paved roads. In these small, provincial places far away from Moscow and Berlin, where everyone knew everyone else, the residents experienced Stalinism and Nazism, and their interaction with each other.

Vanshelboim found his way back to Berdichev after the war; Kupershmidt found his way back to Bratslav. They returned to Jewish shtetls that had become Ukrainian villages. They returned to live among the death pits; their backyards were mass graves. They did not forget where these graves were; in any case, weeds grew over decomposing bodies more abundantly than elsewhere. They remained there among their non-Jewish neighbors—neighbors who had sometimes helped them, had sometimes collaborated in the murders of their families, and had sometimes done both. Their stories challenge our desire for narrative clarity and historical closure. “Skliarskii returned to live with the local stable boys who had become executioners,” Veidlinger writes. “For sixty years, Kupershmidt, Skliarskii, and others like them worked alongside their Ukrainian neighbors, shopped in the marketplace with them, and relied upon them for assistance in their old age.”

Hitherto the story of the Holocaust in the Eastern European shtetl has been told by those who left—on behalf of those who did not survive. What do we learn from these stories told from the shtetl itself? In the Shadow of the Shtetl restores horror to the setting in which it occurred: at home, among familiar people and places. For these people, the Holocaust happened in the same place where they and their neighbors baked bread and repaired shoes and milked cows and lit candles—both before the killing and afterward. In their accounts the everyday and the extraordinary, the innocuous and the gruesome are continually intertwined. The same people participated in both. The relationship between the normal and the abnormal, the intimate and the alien takes on a different shape in these stories—perhaps a shape that can help us better understand places like Rwanda or Cambodia—or Bosnia.

Veidlinger and Kerler arrived at the last moment: almost everyone who appears in the book is now dead. Kupershmidt is today buried in the Jewish cemetery on the beautiful cliff overlooking the Southern Bug River—the cliff from which he watched the bodies of the Jewish children, still alive, break through the thin layer of ice and sink into the river.

  1. 1

    The AHEYM website includes film clips with subtitles and biographical information:

  2. 2

    On the struggle between Hebraists and Yiddishists to create secular “Jewish culture” during the Russian Revolution, see Kenneth B. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2009). 

  3. 3

    On the “privatization of power” under Soviet rule, see Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton University Press, 2002). 

  4. 4

    On the Holocaust in the East, see The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, edited by Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Indiana University Press, 2008); Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Christoph Dieckmann, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2011); Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010). 

  5. 5

    On the topic of intimacy between victims and local collaborators, see the extraordinary play by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, Our Class, translated by Ryan Craig (Oberon, 2009). The play was inspired by the history of the Jedwabne massacre in German-occupied Poland. See Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Penguin, 2002); Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz (Random House, 2006); and Jan T. Gross with Irena Grudzinska Gross, Golden Harvest (Oxford University Press, 2012).