Jews Find Complex Ties With the New Ukraine
Despite encouragement from the moderate nationalist government, Ukraine's Jewish community says anti-Semitism lingers
RIVNE, UKRAINE — ON the outskirts of the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne, a sign written in Cyrillic and Hebrew points the way to a hillock above the road. From the crest of the hill, you can look down into a round pit, at the center of which rises a stone memorial. Around the edge of the pit, on dark marble sheets, the names of more than 17,000 Rivne Jews are inscribed in Hebrew.
On Oct. 7, 1941, the Jews of Rivne were driven from their homes by German invaders. According to eyewitness accounts, they were marched to this pit, ordered to undress, shot, and shoved, many of them still alive, into the mass grave.
The memorial here is freshly built, in parts still unfinished, constructed less than two years ago by Ukrainian Jewish organizations with support from the Yad Veshem Institute in Israel and the Ukrainian Council of Christians. But already there are signs of vandalism, a few fence posts knocked to the ground.
The memorial itself captures the complicated situation in which the Jews of Ukraine - and of the entire former Soviet Union - find themselves.
The Ukrainian government of President Leonid Kravchuk has visibly encouraged the Jewish community, which numbers about 500,000. The government has supported the return of synagogues, has officially marked Jewish holidays, and openly acknowledged the horrible events that took place here during the Nazi occupation period.
`Wave of anti-Semitism'
At the same time, however, there is what Lvov Jewish community leader Kotlik Bension calls a ``wave of anti-Semitism.'' Much of it is associated with extremist Ukrainian nationalist groups, which embrace anti-Semitic ideas as part of a broader anti-Western and anti-Russian outlook. In western Ukraine, where such groups have the strongest support, five extremists won seats in the Ukrainian parliament in elections held last month.
The most prominent group is the Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA) and its paramilitary arm, the Ukrainian Self-Defense Organization (UNSO). The UNA newspaper, Golus Natsii (The Voice of the Nation), regularly features anti-Semitic cartoons and writings.
``Old and worn-out Europe is in trouble again,'' wrote Dmitro Donzob in a recent issue. ``The brutal Uncle Sam with his leveling and ruinous cosmopolitanism, cult of money, and Coca-Cola ideology is exerting his pressure upon Europe. Both international Zionism and Russian chauvinism are also engaged in their vicious business.''
UNA leader Andrei Shkil denies any anti-Jewish views: ``We don't want to build an anti-Semitic or anti-Russian state. We want to build a pro-Ukrainian state.''
Ukrainian nationalist groups were particularly active in protesting the trial and continued detention of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian emigre to America tried for war crimes in Israel but later released when his conviction was overturned. Ukrainian protesters gathered at the Lvov synagogue carrying slogans such as ``All the gold of Ukraine is in the hands of Jews,'' reports Mr. Bension, the Lvov Jewish leader.
The feisty Jewish activist recounts a confrontation he had over these incidents with UNSO leader Yuri Shukevich. `` `Why don't you like Galician Jews?' I asked,'' referring to the westernmost regions of Ukraine. ``He answered, `I don't have complaints against Galician Jews, but I do against Israel.' I said, `You should like Israel because you and Israel both want all Jews to leave Ukraine.' ''
Bension associates the upswing in ``political anti-Semitism'' with the recent election. ``It is just a tool of radicals who try to garner votes,'' he says. ``I don't think Galicia will support them.''
Moderate nationalist groups such as Rukh garnered the majority of seats in this part of Ukraine. They resolutely reject what local Rukh leader Yuri Klushkovsky calls ``the spread of views of a fascist type.'
But the concerns about Ukrainian extremists and the growth of anti-Semitism must be seen against a rather dark historical backdrop. It is here, in the rolling fields of western Ukraine, out of sight of the world's eyes, that Germany embarked upon its ``final solution.''
The mass killing of Rivne was repeated in countless towns of the so-called Pale of Settlements, a vast sweep of White Russia, Ukraine, and eastern Poland in which the Jews of the Russian Empire had once been confined. According to historian Martin Gilbert, within five weeks of the June 22, 1941, German invasion of the Soviet Union, the number of Jews killed exceeded the total killed in the previous eight years of Nazi rule.
The added dimension to these events, however, is the widespread participation of Ukrainians, particularly in the west, in assisting and even initiating attacks on Jews. In cities such as Lvov, where a population of 160,000 Jews present at the time of the Nazi occupation was entirely wiped out, ``Ukrainians themselves seized Jews and turned them over to the authorities,'' Mr. Gilbert says. Some Ukrainian nationalists supported the ``final solution'' during the German occupation in the name of reasserting Ukrainian rule over their lands.
Still Bension, an Odessa Jew who lost several family members during the Holocaust, believes that in general the emergence of an independent Ukraine has been ``more positive than negative for Jews.'' He points to the revival of the tiny Jewish community in Lvov, numbering around 15,000, which has gotten back a former synagogue and another building from the local government.
The organization is promoting a wide range of activities including services, Sunday school lessons for children, even lessons for wives on how to keep a Jewish household. ``Now step by step, we are trying to revive everything that is characteristic of Jewish life,'' Bension says.