There is no minority in Ukraine with the more complex history than Jews taking into account their relations with Ukrainians. However, in any area where they lived, the destiny of this nation was very dramatic.
The neighborhood of Ukrainians and Jews couldn’t be described as unclouded. There were tears and blood. But it is all in the past. And now, after several waves of emigration of Jews to their historic homeland, the reverse process has started, some of them returned to Ukraine. One of the reasons – there are many spheres for running business. The second one is the low level of anti-Semitism.
From the earliest times in Ukraine
Israel immigrants were in the Ukrainian lands long before the local population, Slavs, adopted Christianity. They were engaged in trade and crafts. Even in times of Kievan Rus there were quite a lot of them. In Kiev, in particular, according to the historical sources, there were even Jewish blocks.
In XIII-XVI century Jews from Western Europe began to migrate to Eastern Europe. The reason was the religious intolerance, inquisition rise, ethnic cleansing. In particular, this was rapidly evident in Spain, where Jews were especially numerous. Jews found a new home in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Many of them settled in the lands of modern western and central regions of Ukraine. They lived there as separate communities, kept their faith and followed their traditions. They traded and did the crafts and usury, the latter is one of the reasons of anti-Semitism. Many Ukrainian and Polish fell into debt bondage, that is why during riots, unrest and war Jews were often victims of pogroms. The second reason is the religion. Jewish was perceived by Orthodox and Catholics as something hostile to Christianity. They said that ancient Jews crucified the Christ.
The government of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russian Empire cut the rights of Jews. They were forbidden to hold administrative positions at universities, to own land, etc. Being in such isolation (including from inside) Jewish communities in Eastern Europe reached a very high level of development and culture. One of the most powerful and influential modern trends of Judaism — Hasidism emerged in central Ukraine. The sacred place for all Hasids is Medzhybizh (Khmelnytskyi region) and Uman (Cherkasy region). In cities such as Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Uman, Proskuriv, Novograd, Volyn, Korosten, Ovruch, Berdychiv Jews constituted a majority.
The first half of the XX century seemed bloody and difficult for Ukrainian Jews. During the Holocaust, that is Genocide made by German authorities to the Jews during the Second World War, there were about 1.5 to 2 million Jews killed. Those who survived remember those days as constant terror. Many Ukrainian saved Jews, hiding them in their homes at the risk of their own life. Subsequently, those brave people of good heart were called the Righteous among the nations. In Ukraine about 2 472 people officially received this title.
Creation of their own world
According to the 2001 census, about 100 thousand people call themselves Jews in Ukraine. The largest community is in Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk. But in general representatives of this natianality live in all parts of the country. There are about 600 Jewish organizations funded by foreign funds and wealthy Ukrainian sponsors. Areas of their activities are different — from Hebrew courses organizing to the elderly and needy supporting. In 2012 in Dnepropetrovsk one of the largest Jewish centers in the world – Menorah was opened. Every large city has synagogues and schools that educate people according to Jewish tradition and teach them Hebrew. In addition they provide only kosher (that is correct in terms of the Torah) food.
One interesting feature is that there are a lot of Jewish organizations in Ukraine. They are different, with different leaders. Religious structure is also multisided; there are all areas of Judaism. Nevertheless they all hold close, support and help each other.
Synagogues take the central place in all communities; they are called the houses of worship. This is not just a temple but a place of gathering, communication and mutual support. Speaking about the latter, all other nationalities should learn that from Jews.
«We have a lot of charitable projects», says Oleg Rоstovtsev, a member of the Board of the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk. «There is a house for elderly, inhabited by people who survived during the Holocaust and war. We have a program of support for seniors, people with special needs. We have a great program for children, several kindergartens and a spirit school. Funds for these programs are given by members of the Board of trustees of the Jewish community and sponsors. Ordinary members of the community raise money for some projects independently».
We live in peace
In Kiev there are at least seven synagogues. The largest of them is Brodskyi synagogue.
We spoke with Gaban (i.e., a member of the Board of the synagogue) Joseph Asman. He is from Israel, he came to Ukraine 19 years ago. His parents are natives of our country. He says that in Israel he spoke Russian with his parents at home and outside the home – Hebrew. Now living in Kiev with his wife and children, by contrast, at home he speaks Hebrew and outside the home – Russian.
«Our goal is to help Jews living in Ukraine to live according to the Jewish tradition, according to the Torah», says Asman.
Asman says that in Ukraine practically nothing prevents Jews to be themselves. All who have Jewish blood and want to live as a Jew can do freely. Usually it will be enough just to come to the synagogue.
Olena Kyrylyuk, Head of Children’s Center «Anathemas» in the Brodskyi synagogue, supports his words. «Ukraine is a country many Jews consider to be their second home», she says. «No wonder there were always a lot of righteous Jewish, the graves of which are visited by people from all over the world. This is a very fertile land. I cannot say that here we feel uncomfortable».
Regarding anti-Semitism, Oleg Rоstovtsev, a member of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community says that in every country there are different people, but it is not necessary to make conclusions about the whole society, taking into account its worst representatives. It is the same as the Koch’s bacillus. Everyone has this bacillus, but that does not mean that everyone has tuberculosis».
«From my point of view, any statements about any danger in Ukraine or any uncomfortable conditions for Jews and other minorities are rumors and speculations», says Oleg Rоstovtsev.
So in spite of the past, that not always was straightforward, Jews now feel safe in Ukraine. During the Maidan events, in winter 2013-2014, representatives of the Jewish communities fought side by side with Ukrainian. A good argument that proves the absolute absurdity of «fascist» accusations of Ukrainians.
Moreover, now Ukrainians understand difficulties Jews face in Israel in the confrontation with the Arab world much better. Now, unfortunately, we also know how it feels when the war is at hand and it unites our nationalities.