Jewish tombstones in Ukraine
Jewish tombstones in UkraineiStock

As the war in Ukraine drags on longer than anyone thought possible, it seems Jewish history has become one of the unintended casualties. Though warfare against civilians should always be condemned, the willingness of many Jewish organizations and congregations to declare ardent solidarity with Ukraine glosses over the unspeakable atrocities suffered by Jews there over the course of centuries.

In echoing President Biden’s moral pronouncements about a conflict many believe was greenlit by his foreign policy weakness, some Jewish supporters have proclaimed their supposed Ukrainian roots and loyalties. But such claims are revisionist fantasies that ignore how their ancestors were persecuted with forced ghettoization, pogroms, and massacres in the Pale of Settlement and beyond. Most who didn’t flee were ultimately slaughtered during the Holocaust by German forces and Ukrainian collaborators.

Jews are not ethnically or culturally Ukrainian any more than they are truly Russian, Polish, or Scandinavian – regardless of where their forebears ended up. They have a distinct national and ancestral character, as well as a dynamic history that saw their progenitors migrate after the Dispersion to many foreign lands, carrying with them idiosyncratic beliefs, traditions, language, and blood connections.

While Jews experienced occasional periods of prosperity in Ukraine, they were more commonly consigned to ghettos and subjected to harassment and persecution. Hundreds of Jewish communities were annihilated by Bogdan Khmelnytsky’s cruel hordes during the Cossack uprising of 1648, and thousands more Jews were butchered a century later by Ivan Gonta and thereafter in the bloody pogroms that marked the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1917 and 1921, Ukrainian forces massacred well more than one-hundred thousand Jews during the Russian civil war, a horror that was eclipsed twenty years later when the Nazis murdered a million or more Jews there with the aid of many local confederates.

It says more about the historical tolerance for Jewish suffering that Khmelnytsky, Gonta, and prominent Nazi collaborators are considered national heroes by many in Ukraine today.

And yet, some American Jews unreservedly proclaim solidarity with Ukraine (in accordance with Biden administration posturing), seemingly ignorant (forgiving? o)f the abuse inflicted on their people in the country they now champion.

It seems the more Jews become acculturated to their host societies, the more they tend to lose meaningful connection with their past. Although this disconnect often occurs passively as Jewish educational standards erode among the non-Orthodox, it is just as often an affirmative act of denial of collective Jewish consciousness and personal family history. Indeed, those who forget their family narratives find it easier to disregard the larger connection to their people.

The loss of personal and collective Jewish identity greatly concerned my maternal grandparents, with whom I was quite close into adulthood.

My grandfather, Herschel Zvi, was born into a family of blacksmiths in the Ukrainian shtetl of Voroshilovka, near the city of Vinnytsia. He was the eldest of eight children born to Moshe Mordecai and Chava Medved, and his first languages were Yiddish and Hebrew. He had a traditional cheder education supplemented by tutors to teach him the Slavic languages necessary for conducting business (Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish). The Cossacks may have hated Jews, but they needed them to shoe their horses. When he was old enough, his parents sent him to the Slabodka Yeshiva for a year or two but called him home to run the business when his father left for America to earn money for the family.

When Moshe Mordecai returned a year or so later, my grandfather decided to leave because the business was not big enough for both of them; but that wasn’t the only reason. My grandfather experienced Jew-hatred most of his life to that point, and he recognized the ominous significance of the brutal pogroms that rocked Kishinev in 1903 and 1905. So, he and some cousins determined they had little future as Jews in Ukraine and decided to leave. Some emigrated to Brazil and others to Eretz Yisrael, while my grandfather came to the United States. Those who stayed behind suffered greatly under the Soviets, and his youngest brother Yankele was sentenced to a gulag in Siberia for engaging in capitalist activities (he manufactured and sold fishhooks and other sundry metal goods). Ironically, Yankele’s exile saved his life as most family members who remained behind were killed by the Germans and their collaborators in 1941, some at Babi Yar.

Among the relatives who also came to the States was his first cousin, Pinni Potok (renamed Fanny on her immigration papers), who would become his wife. My grandmother was from Brailev, another shtetl near Vinnytsia, but unlike my grandfather’s family, hers was Hasidic and she received her name from their Rebbe. Apparently, my great-grandmother, Hinda Etel (for whom my mother was named), had one child prior to losing several others before their third birthdays. While pregnant with my grandmother, she and her husband, Yankel, sought a bracha from their Rebbe, who predicted the baby would be a girl and instructed them to name her “Pinni” after Rav Pinchas of Koretz and dress her in a kittle until her third birthday. The Rebbe said this would assure her long life, and indeed she lived 96 years in good health.

My grandmother’s family left Ukraine when she was nine after surviving multiple pogroms. As the family journalist, she assigned me the task of recording her stories (I’m still working on the transcripts all these years later), and one particularly chilling account still resonates with me to this day. Also born to a family of blacksmiths, my grandmother related how whenever pogroms were anticipated, shtetl neighbors would bring silverware to be sharpened so they would have weapons to defend themselves when the Cossacks came to rape, murder, and pillage. Pogroms were always expected on Easter and Christmas, but they could occur at any time for any reason. These events seared her memory so deeply that she could never go to sleep until she made sure all the silverware drawers were closed.

My grandfather came to the US through New York’s Ellis Island and ended up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but my grandmother’s port of call was Galveston, Texas. Her family was included in the “Galveston Plan,” which was instituted and financed by the philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff in 1907 to rescue Jews from the deadly pogroms sweeping the Russian Empire and settle them throughout the Mississippi River Valley. Fanny spent ten years in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, before joining other family in Philadelphia, where her mother’s cousin was a rabbi, shochet, and mohel. Though she and my grandfather were cousins, they never met until he visited her family in Philadelphia. After a courtship of only a few days, they married and returned to Bridgeport, where my grandfather parlayed his blacksmithing skills into a metal manufacturing business.

Politically, my grandparents were distinct from many of their peers in that they never embraced the Democratic Party and rejected all forms of socialism. Both firmly believed Roosevelt was antisemitic, an observation confirmed for them during World War II when he refused to rescue Jews from genocide – at the same time a special army unit was tasked with saving great works of European art. It seems artwork mattered more under FDR’s watch than saving Jewish lives.

During the 1930s and 1940s, my grandfather closely followed all news from the British Mandate and supported the Revisionist Zionists. He greatly admired Jabotinsky and met him when he was on a fundraising junket in the United States. Substantial funds and materiel were shipped to Israel through Bridgeport before and after 1948; and my grandparents were eyewitnesses and participants as members of an activist community that honored the past and anticipated the future.

They clearly believed in both their history and destiny as Jews.

Towards the end of his life, my grandfather wondered whether he’d made a mistake coming to America instead of following those cousins who emigrated to the Jewish homeland. He was alarmed by increasing assimilation and intermarriage rates after only two generations and wondered how many of his descendants would retain their Jewish identity. In his view, the loss of observance and historical fluency were part of the same dialectic that had blinded so many Jews to the impending Holocaust in Europe.

If he were still alive, he’d be heartbroken to see liberal Jewish organizations disparaging tradition, denigrating Israel in the name of “social justice,” or rationalizing leftist and minority antisemitism. And he would lament the ignorance of those who negate their personal history by claiming to be Ukrainian, Russian, German – or anything other than Jewish. He firmly believed the adage that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” As a fitting corollary for today, however, I think he’d also say that “those who forget where they came from are doomed to oblivion.”