Posts Tagged ‘Pogrom’

UKRAINE: THE LAST GHOSTS OF A FLOURISHING JEWISH COMMUNITY

May 13, 2010

Kirovograd, Ukraine, 13 May 2010 – For most Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe, the Holocaust was the tragic episode in their existence. In the Ukrainian city of Kirovograd, it was one among many. Today a sad remnant of 1,500 Jews hangs on and wonders whether it is worthwhile.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews were half the population of this large, sprawling city. They ran the local tramway, small industry, mills and shops. Most doctors were Jews, and Jews founded hospitals, pharmacies and schools. They were at the heart of city life.

They did not choose this place of their own accord. The old Russian Empire pushed Jews to the Pale of Settlement on the fringes of the Empire. Kirovograd, founded in the 18th century as Elizavetgrad, was one of the places where they could live – a fortress township built to defend Russia from Turks and Tartars.

So settle they did, but only in the city. Opportunities to become rich by owning land in the countryside were barred to them. In 1881 came the first pogrom, started by the local authorities. Then another in 1905, and two more in 1907 and 1919. Local Jews such as Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev joined the new Bolshevist Party and rose to its leadership – but Stalin had both murdered.

When the Nazis turned up and slaughtered all the Jews they could find – 22,745 of them – that was not quite the last straw. Having regained control, the Soviets refused to let the survivors (those who fled or served in the Red Army) commemorate the genocide.

The Communists insisted that the Nazis were the product of bourgeois capitalism, and denied that the Jews were singled out for racial reasons. They saw it all as class warfare, so the Jews were no different from the other Ukrainians and Russians killed in the war. Only in 1991 could the local Jewish community erect a Holocaust monument which told the truth. The state of Israel helped finance it.

Kirovograd is dotted around with fine buildings erected by the Jews, but hardly any remain connected with the Jewish community. The Communists forced the Jews to stop religious activities in 1938 and used the ornate, Moroccan-style synagogue as a recreation centre. This is the only building back in Jewish hands.

Inside is a modest exhibition illustrating their history. An American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped set it up. The guide spends two hours showing me around. There is so much to explain – a story of endeavour and transient success, but mostly a long, sad litany of persecution.

In local memories, the fate of the Jews is just one misfortune in a dire series. Several million Ukrainians perished in a famine in the early 1930s caused by the seizure of their food by Soviet commissars. Hundreds of thousands were killed by the Nazis, who treated Slavs only slightly better than Jews. These atrocities mark spirits deeply too.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, 5,300 Jews were left in Kirovograd. Now only 1,500. Nobody persecutes them any more, but in a poverty-stricken economy they are left to fend for themselves. They drift away to new homelands offering more promise.

Despite all its efforts, the community scarcely survives. The city which Jews were once told to make their home may soon have none at all. In their synagogue, I feel I am looking at a house of ghosts.

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