In Ukraine, Jewish travelers mark a spiritual legacy… and horrific persecution


KIEV, Ukraine — During an Independence Day celebration in the town of Rohatyn, on the last day of our group tour through Ukraine, a television reporter asked me what we Israelis thought about the country. Put on the spot, I blurted out platitudes, saying that the country was beautiful and that the people were very nice. I did add that most of the participants on our tour had roots in this very area: that their parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins had lived around here.

Then one of our group leaders, Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau, reminded the reporter that over two million Jews throughout the Soviet Union had been murdered in the Holocaust, and that the Ukraine had been left with virtually no Jewish population. He ended with a plea for people everywhere to learn to live together with respect.

Incredibly, the reporter had a follow up question that left us all completely stunned. “Did anyone in your group locate his family during the trip here?” he wondered.

And that about sums it up. Yes, we found them, throughout quaint, 19th-century villages, lovely little towns and bustling cities – in mass graves, overgrown cemeteries and the gully that was Babi Yar. You simply cannot visit Ukraine without learning of the horrors of the Holocaust, and of the residents who clapped as their friends and neighbors were taken away.

And yet – and yet, it was this same Ukraine that gave birth to Hebrew literary giants like our national poet Haim Nahman Bialik, Nobel prizewinner Shai Agnon, the irrepressible Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem and many others.

Along with Holocaust memorials, our tour featured a visit to the stomping grounds of several literary greats with Dr. Ruhama Albag, an incorrigible researcher and lecturer with an inimitable style who is an expert on Yiddish and Hebrew literature. The tour’s other leader was Rabbi “Benny” Lau, a knowledgeable and openhearted rabbi who would be taking us to the cradle of the Hassidic movement.

We began our tour in Kiev with Lola Gilbo, an articulate, humorous native of the city. After riding around to see the sites we entered the renovated Brodsky Synagogue. A merchant who ran a beet sugar empire from Kiev, Lazar Brodsky erected the largest synagogue in the city in 1898. Gilbo told us that it had such great acoustics that cantors stood in line for the privilege of leading Friday Night services.

Rabbi Lau had explained early in the tour that his focus would be on the disputes between cultures within Judaism – and that there would be no whitewashing of the facts. Thus when we stopped in front of the remarkable architectural structure that was once a Karaite synagogue, we learned about the friction between rabbinic Judaism and the Karaite splinter movement, conflicts that began at the sect’s inception in the 8th century and continue until this very day.

In a nearby plaza, a statue of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich – also known as Shalom Alechem — hinted at what was to come next. Dr. Albag gave us a short biography of this fascinating man, mentioned that he had lived right here from 1897 to 1905, then had us in stitches with her hilarious rendition from “The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl.”

After a walk through historic Kiev, we stopped at Sophia Square to view both an 11th century basilica and a statue of Bogdan Khmelnytsky. Hailed as a national hero for liberating Ukraine from Polish rule in 1648, he is considered the driving force behind atrocities carried out by his men against tens of thousands of Jews in the Tah and Tat pogroms that same year.

Early the next morning we set out for Babi Yar, site of a mass murder in 1941 on the edges of Kiev: over 33,000 of the city’s Jews were marched to a ravine and shot in cold blood. The Russians who ruled Ukraine until 1991 wanted to plug up the gully and turn the infamous site into a lovely city park. But these plans were shelved after renowned Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote about Babi Yar and awakened many Russians to the horrors of anti-Semitism.

After reading the poem aloud with the passion it deserved, Dr. Albag explained the meaning of Yevtushenko’s last sentence: that a truly patriotric Russian would reject and despise anti-Semitism. And she reminded us of what our rabbi had said earlier: for evil to win, it is enough for good people to take no action.

Haim Nahman Bialik was a young journalist in Odessa when he was asked to write a report about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in which several dozen Jews were murdered and hundreds wounded. Survivors related atrocities so horrific that Bialik traveled to the village of Korostyshiv – heavily Jewish and home to his wife’s parents — and shut himself up for months in a little wooden cabin. The result was an epic poem called “A City of Slaughter.”

We moved on to Zhitomir, to the site at which Bialik had experienced a long-lasting trauma when he was seven years old. Bialik’s family had lived on the wrong side of Zhitomir. When he was seven, his father died and his mother felt she could not keep her son at home. As we stood in the lane next to the house where his mother dropped the little boy off like a package, Dr. Albag read to us from Bialik’s poem “farewell.”

He wrote that he kissed his sister and his brother goodbye, and kissed as well all the mezuzot (enclosed blessings on the doors), kissed the doors and windows, took his mother’s hand, and walked with her to the brick covered house where his grandfather lived. And he said that it was on a morning like this that Abraham led his son to the slaughter. When Dr. Albag finished reading, and told us that these were the last lines he was ever to compose, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (actually on the little lane).

Israel ben Eliezer, father of the Hassidic movement, often played hooky from school – or so it is said. Imagine: he wandered through fields and forests, without the faintest inkling of the role he was to play in history by founding one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world.

On our way to Medzhybizh, where he spent the last 20 years of his life, we passed through a view of tiny hamlets and wooden cabins sprinkled here and there. During our ride, Rabbi Lau explained why Hassidut spread like wildfire in the 17th and 18th centuries. Imagine, he said, massive numbers of dirt poor East European Jews living desperate lives. Barely able to survive, persecuted for their Judaism, they were depressed and felt disconnected.

Yet in their towns and villages lived a very thin layer of rich Jewish intellectuals who gave their children the best of educations, built synagogues and basically cornered the market on religious practices and religious thought. Studying the Torah filled their spiritual batteries, whereas millions of uneducated, poverty-stricken Jews lacked any resource at all for a spiritual experience.

Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, who became known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name and abbreviated as the Besht) walked right into this vacuum. Although based in Medzhybizh, he traveled from village to village healing bodies and souls with herbs he found in the woods and offering spiritual solace to downtrodden Jewish peasants. Two generations later, his grandson Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh institutionalized what would become known as Hassidut when he began taking money for religious favors, and holding court in the luxurious residence he built for his family.

Five years ago there was very little to mark the tomb of the Besht, located next to the town fortress in Medzhybizh. Today, however, operated by a group of Chabad Hassidim (Hassidic Jews), it stands inside a large mausoleum (which Hassidim call a “tent”). Next door a large hostel offers food and overnight lodgings to a multitude of pilgrims who come to pray over his tomb.

Born the very year that the Besht put down roots in Medzhybizh, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev was one of his followers. Compassionate and gentle, he is famous for challenging God in his writings and advocating in the heavenly court on behalf of the Jewish people.

Jews flock to Berdichev to pray at his tomb, hoping he will intercede in their behalf just as they believe he did when he was alive. But his “tent” is remarkably cheesy, with an awful bathroom curtain hanging between the male and female sections – a curtain to which Dr. Albag, especially, objected as a travesty. At that, our other fearless leader said that we can be as cynical as we like, but suggested we try mentally peeling off the external layers and remembering the heart of Hassidut.

On our third night we reached the town of Kamenetz-Podolsk. Even before the mass murders that took place here during the Holocaust the Jews of Kamenetz-Podolsk suffered severely at the hands of anti-Semites.

But the 1757 auto-da-fé in which the town Bishop burned every Talmud he could get his hands on was different, for it was caused by a dispute between a Jewish sect called the Frankists, and traditional rabbis. Soon after the bonfire took place (in the plaza by our hotel, as it happens), the Bishop received a huge promotion. Unfortunately for His Eminence, a few weeks later he mysteriously kicked the bucket!

Late at night we took a walk along the promenade for a stunning view of the city’s citadel and the houses nestled below. The next day we headed for Buczacz, birthplace of Shai Agnon. That day our bus was involved in an accident — the fourth of our buses to run into serious trouble. But knowing how important the Buczacz portion of the tour was to both participants and to Dr. Albag, Rabbi Lau promised that even if we had to get there by horse and buggy (which after all our bus mishaps was a distinct possibility) to Buczacz we would go.

Hardly any of the books that Shmuel Yoseph “Shai” Agnon wrote have happy endings, and the volume for which he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996 — “A Guest for the Night” – is no exception. And it is typical of many of his works. Indeed, in an interview for Israeli television he explained that he writes in order to tell his readers about life in East European Jewish communities, surrounded by gentile enemies but nevertheless keeping the faith.

One of the main attractions of this tour had been the opportunity to walk through Buczacz with Dr. Albag, following in the footsteps of Hirschel, the main character in Agnon’s “A Simple Story.” This wonderful tale of manipulation and star-crossed lovers takes place, like “A Guest for the Night,” in Buczacz.

With Albag quoting directly from the novel, we saw where his house would have stood and the grocery store where Hirschel would have been working when his mother (the cause of all his problems) suggested he take long walks. We followed him onto the bridge as he crossed the river, and stood with him below the home of his beloved Bluma as he begged her in vain to come outside. When Albag finished her reading, everyone – from her 13-year old daughter Aya to Rabbi Lau and his wife Noa — broke into spontaneous applause.

Our last day was spent in glamorous Lemberg (also known as Lvov), a center of Hassidut in the 18th century, and the site of major problems between traditional rabbis and and a new movement called Jewish Enlightenment (in Hebrew, Haskala) in the early 19th century. Before the Holocaust its Jewish population had reached 110,000. By the time the city was liberated from the Nazis, hardly any Jews were left.

We were standing next to the large building in which our rabbi’s great grandfather and grandfather had been born, when someone asked him “Who is safeguarding the property here? ” To which he replied: “Moichel Toyves (a Yiddish expression that translates as ‘Don’t do me any favors’). Better any four walls in Jerusalem than all the palaces of Lvov.”


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