Ukraine and Jews during the past century experienced massacres and Nazi collaboration – now chasidic Jews are fighting alongside the Ukrainian Army in their war against Russia.
A “History Is Not Destiny” presentation was given by Professor Elissa Bemporad at the Young Israel of Forest Hills Yom HaShoah Remembrance on April 27.
Professor Bemporad is Chair of Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Ukraine and Poland fought the Red Army for independence after the Communist Revolution in 1917. Jews were accused of not being loyal, of being sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. In fact, both Jews on the Right – Zionist and nationalistic – and on the Left – Jewish Socialists – “supported the idea of an independent Ukraine,” said Professor Bemporad.
Ukrainian violence was so intense, Jews started looking to the Red Army for salvation. The Red Army was killing Jews, but less so. By 1919, Vladimir Lenin stopped the Red Army from doing this.
More than 150,000 Jews in Ukraine were killed by the end of the war in 1921. One out of 12 Jewish women had been raped, “a form of looting.” “Once they stole everything, the only thing left to take was the women and girls,” said Professor Bemporad.
An estimated 1,500,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed by Germans and the thousands of Ukrainian perpetrators during the Holocaust. Ukrainians were “deceived by the German promise of independence,” said Professor Bemporad.
Most Ukrainian Jews “did not experience the ghettos of Eastern Europe” and “were not killed in the extermination camps like Auschwitz.” They were mostly shot. A high number were Jewish women and children, because most of the Jewish men were already in the army.
More than 33,000 Jews were shot dead by Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators in less than 48 hours outside of Kiev at the Babi Yar ravine.
Since 1991, Professor Bemporad “has really witnessed a new Jewish history.” Volodymyr Zelensky was elected with 73% of the vote in 2019. His Jewishness never became politicized. Nor does Zelensky deny his Jewishness.
Some non-Jewish Ukrainian members of the government wore yarmulkes when an anti-Semitism law was approved in 2021. Zelensky didn’t wear one.
Ukrainians and Jews have taken refuge at the mikvah in Uman. Chabad and Hillel are helping Jews and non-Jews.
While anti-Semitism does exist for the approximately 100,000 Jews living in Ukraine, life has been safer for Jews there in 2021 than in many American cities, said Professor Bemporad.
“So, it’s not about forgetting; it’s rather a reminder that we can start turning those pages, writing new ones in the book of the Jews of Ukraine.”
Rabbi Asher Schreier of the Young Israel of Forest Hills said there are a little more than 16 million Jews today, not yet the 18 million Jews in the world before the Holocaust. 75-80% of Millennial Jews try to hide their identity “because if you go out publicly, proudly Jewish, you might get attacked.” The year 2021 had the most hate crimes against Jews in recent history.
Our teachers, great rabbis, and great sages teach us: Eisav hates Yaakov. “Anti-Semitism has always existed and will always exist,” said Rabbi Schreier.
At Passover, Jews say how in every generation people arise who want to kill us. However, “we have G-d with us at all times, in all situations, in all places. And that’s what’s going to keep us going.”
“There will always be these tensions. There are always going to be difficulties,” until the final redemption. “What is promised to us is that we will survive. We will continue to move forward. We will continue to thrive. We will continue to succeed,” said Rabbi Schreier.
Yom HaShoah reminds us “to be vocal, we have to speak out, we have to be active. We have to make sure that we are standing up for what’s right.”
T’hilim were said by Rabbi Yaakov Meirov of Chazaq and Rabbi Judah Kerbel of the Queens Jewish Center.
Keil Malei Rachamim was chanted by Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Congregation Machane Chodosh, concluding the 59th annual Holocaust remembrance at the Young Israel of Forest Hills.
By David Schneier