Those of us in North America, who have looked on in horror at the widespread destruction and heartbreaking loss of life brought about by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have never experienced anything like it. But sadly, we cannot say the same about Ukrainians.
Ukrainian history has had other such national calamities—and what we have seen is far from the worst, at least until now. For example, in 1932–33, at least three-and-a-half to five million Ukrainians died in what became known as the Holodomor, which is a Ukrainian word meaning “to kill by starvation” or the “Terror-Famine.” This catastrophe was a deliberately inflicted, peacetime horror brought about mainly by Joseph Stalin’s agricultural collectivization policies, which included the confiscation of personal property, including food and livestock, from Ukrainians who were, in effect, sentenced to death by starvation.
The Jewish community of Ukraine, which stretches back centuries, has sometimes had a double portion of such grief. Not only has it endured the general suffering inflicted upon the nation as a whole, but it has also borne the brunt of the particular violence visited upon it time and time again simply because it is Jewish. Yet, with the inexplicable ability that besieged Jewish communities have shown throughout history, Ukrainian Jews have not only survived but risen as though from the dead to make the distinctly Jewish contributions to spiritual life and culture for which they are recognized, admired, and sometimes envied.
The presence of Jews who mixed with Greek traders who lived along the Black Sea coast predates the first century. The Khazar kingdom was a regional power that occupied the area above the Caspian Sea. The Khazar rulers and upper classes actually converted to Judaism in the eighth century after the Khazar king arranged for representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to argue the merits of their respective faiths, as the story goes. In one of the ironies of history, it is even possible that the Khazar Jews founded Kyiv (then known as Kiev), the conquest of which is such a significant factor in the religious consciousness of Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Although the Khazar kingdom did not last, Ukraine became home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish people. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Jews migrated east from Western Europe, bringing the desired ability to stimulate the economy and the Yiddish language that had had its genesis in the Rhineland around the year 1000. After the thirteenth century, for 600 years, Ukraine had virtually no political autonomy, being at one time or another under the jurisdiction of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Austrian Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Tsardom of Russia. Only after 1991 could Ukraine be called an independent country in a sense we can relate to in the modern world.
The Memory of Persecutions
This region became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. During this era, absentee landlords often employed Jews of Polish extraction as estate managers for the nobility. Their administrative responsibilities included collecting taxes and other duties that made them objects of resentment among the peasants, who identified them with the ruling class.
The simmering bitterness erupted in 1648, one of the blackest years in Jewish history. Bogdan Chmielnicki, who eventually achieved the status of Ukrainian folk hero, led the initially victorious but short-lived Cossack and peasant uprising against Polish rule in Ukraine in that year. Since absentee landlords are seldom available to take revenge upon, Jewish estate managers are far handier targets, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities and tens of thousands of Jewish murders. Each year on Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av—the Chmielnicki massacres are remembered and mourned.
Another of the Tisha B’Av infamies perpetrated upon Jewish people is the series of pogroms in 1881–4, 1903–6, and 1918–21 against the Jewish people of the Russian Empire. By far, the worst was the latter, which followed closely on the heels of the conclusions of World War I and the disintegration of Tzarist Russia.
The last wave of pogroms occurred in conjunction with the Revolution of 1917 and the chaos that accompanied the Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917–21. Since Ukraine contained the largest number of Jewish people in the Empire, they were most gravely affected.
Local non-Jewish mobs carried out an estimated 900 major pogroms against their Jewish communities in Ukraine between 1918 and 1920. The lower estimate of deaths and injuries resulting from the attacks includes at least thirty fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries. However, some have counted the number of deaths as high as 60,000.
Scholars have asked why, given the widespread presence of antisemitism in these lands, pogroms occur at a specific time and place. It may be possible to identify a proximate cause that sparked the outbreak in some instances. For example, in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, one of the conspirators was identified as being Jewish. In other cases, a variety of factors come into play. However, one common factor stands out—the intensification of social unrest. Insecurity breeds fear, and fear seeks a scapegoat. Throughout history, the Jewish people have been a ready-made target. That holds true to this day and makes the existence of Israel, the Jewish State, that much more important.
In what may be the greatest irony, Ukraine is the only country besides Israel that can claim that, for a brief period in 2019, it had both a Jewish president, Vladimir Zelenskyy, and a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman.
Triumphs of Ukrainian Jewish Life
From the series of calamities described above, one would think that Ukrainian Jewish history is nothing but a series of unremitting disasters. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no way in the space of one short article to enumerate how Ukrainian Jewry has affected and continues to impact the Jewish world and even beyond. In the space remaining, I will mention two in passing that we will expand in other articles in time to come.
The first is the birth of the Hasidic movement, which originated in the middle of the eighteenth century. Israel ben Eliezer (1700?–1760), or as he became known, Ba’al Shem Tov or “Master of the Good Name,” is the founder of Hasidism. Settling in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh, his reputation as a wonder-worker and spiritual teacher spawned a movement that, within 100 years, would claim millions of adherents as it spread west through central Poland, Galicia, Belorussia, Lithuania, and points beyond.
As the movement grew and became decentralized, its spiritual leaders attracted their own followers and established “courts” that became dynastic. To this day, the varieties of Hasidic observance and teaching play an outsized role in world Judaism, particularly in Israel and America. Wherever there are Jewish communities, there is likely to be a Hasidic center seeking to attract “straying Jews” back into the fold.
Another area of Jewish life in which Ukraine has played a significant role is in the literary world, if for no other reason than S. N. Rabinovich (1859–1916), better known as Sholem Aleichem, was born there. He lived and worked in Odessa before emigrating to the United States in 1906 after the outbreak of pogroms mentioned above. He was among the creators of an extraordinary treasury of Yiddish literature. Vastly popular, he became well known for his humorous and lively depiction of rural shtetl life. His “Tevye the Dairyman” became the basis for the still widely performed Fiddler on the Roof. It is said that when word reached Mark Twain that Sholem Aleichem was pleased to learn that he was being referred to as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Twain responded, “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”
As you will find in other articles, not only has Ukraine become the focus of our time, but its Jewish history and contemporary presence are indispensable elements in the task of understanding its importance.
 Gary Scharnhorst, The Life of Mark Twain: The Final Years, 1891–1910 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2022), 461.