FROM BUBBIE’S SHTETL TO JEWISH RENEWAL
A VISIT TO THE JEWISH PAST AND PRESENT IN KIEV PROVINCE
Gerald S. Cook
I was fortunate to visit Kiev Province, Ukraine, briefly in September 2003. I saw the shtetls (villages, in the Yiddish language) of Zhivitov and Zashkiv, where my family lived, perhaps for several hundred years, before the Bolshevik Revolution and before the Holocaust.
In Kiev, I met Jewish children and their families at a Sunday school supported by Conservative Jewry worldwide. The children had been campers at Camp Ramah in the Ukraine, supported in large part by my uncle’s charitable trust fund.
The balance of my time, I was with my wife Barbara and thirteen other Michigan Jews from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit's Israel and Overseas Committee. Detroit's and Kiev's Jewish communities are paired. The purpose of the committee’s trip was to look at Jewish renewal programs funded from Detroit and determine continuing funding needs.
In this report, spellings of place names and family names vary, because they were not originally written in English. To read about the trip itself, skip over the first couple pages, where I detail why I took the trip and how I prepared.
FAMILY MEMBERS FROM UKRAINE
My maternal grandmother came to America as a child in 1910 from Zhivitov, in Kiev Province of the Russian Czar’s Empire. Her maiden name was Bessie Birholtz. After eight years in Chicago, she married Morris Teitel and joined him in Detroit. My mother Jeanette and her brothers Ben and Herman were born in Detroit, and most of our family continues to live in the Detorit area.
I had a very close relationship with my grandmother. I called her Bubbie, the Yiddish term of endearment for a grandmother. She was only 43 when I was born in 1942, and we always lived near each other. I helped with household chores when I slept at her home, and she taught me many things. We played cards, worked on picture puzzles and went to the movies. Bubbie lived to see me happily married to Barbara, and she loved playing with our children Cheryl, Matthew and Beth and my brother's children Stacey and Adam.
I remember many trips to Chicago as a child to visit Bubbie's large family, most of whom were also born in or around Zhivitov. Only her sister Gladys and her brother Morrie were American-born. Her father Joseph (called Yossel in Yiddish) Birholtz died before I was born. I recall the respect everyone gave to my great-grandmother Rebecca (named Bailla in Yiddish), a wise and loving woman, who stood proud and erect despite her lack of formal education and her life of poverty. I knew most of Bubbie’s sisters and brothers and their families, her paternal aunt Rose Spivak and Rose’s children Gloria Meyerberg and Lew Spivak.
WHAT I KNEW ABOUT UKRAINIAN ROOTS
Bubbie told me the name of her village in Ukraine was Zhivitov, and that it was located near Lipovetz and Vinnitsa in Kiev Gubernia (the Russian word for province). She said her father came to America first, leaving her mother with five small children. To support them, her mother sold vodka by the glass, without a license. When a bottle was almost empty, she had enough money to send my grandmother and her sister Fannie over the bridge into town to buy another bottle. Finally the police threatened to jail her if they caught her again selling liquor, so her family raised the funds to send them to America
After Bubbie died in 1981, I regretted not having asked more questions. I wrote to the Birholtz cousins to see what they knew. Thankfully, Gloria Meyerberg sent me a short family tree, beginning with my great-grandparents Aaron Zusev and Chaya Golde Birholtz, and including the names of most of their children, their spouses and where they lived. Many remained in the Czar's Empire when others departed for the U.S.A., Canada and Argentina. Gloria confirmed they were from Zhivitov. She also sent photocopies of some old photos.
I then received a treasure-trove of information from a distant cousin, Norman Goodis, who had researched the family of my great-grandmother Rebecca. There was a photo from about 1906, in Kiev Province. A photocopy the people pictured there. In the center sits my white-bearded great-great-grandfather Nathan (Nussen in Yiddish) Friedman, for whom I am named, surrounded by three of his four daughters and their large families. The other daughter and two sons-in-law were already in the U.S. Norman's family tree covers not only the Friedman family, but also the extended family of Rebecca’s mother Leah (or maybe Malka), whose maiden name was Ostrowbrod. Her brother was Motel Ostrow and her sisters' married names were Hannah Bella Yaguda and Chava Rudnick. I believe some of them lived in Zashkiv, about 25 miles east of Zhivitov
Norman's research helped bring me together with the branch of my great-grandmother's family which had remained behind, her sister Mindle’s family, the Rouds. By that time they were all living in Moscow, and we corresponded. I was pleased to meet them when they immigrated to the U.S. and Israel. That was the first face-to-face contact between those two branches of the family in 80 years. My cousin Svetlana Roud, hearing of my intention to be in Zhivitov and Zashkiv, asked me to visit her maternal grandmother Sofia (Sura Feigel) Traiger's town of Tetiev, where as a child she survived a massacre of the town's Jews.
INFORMATION FROM COMPUTER WEBSITES AND OTHER SOURCES.
The ship manifest Barbara found on the Ellis Island website shows my grandmother as age 9 upon her arrival in 1910. Bubbie told me she was born in 1899; which would make her 10 or 11 in 1910. I tend to believe her, not the manifest, since experts say there are many errors in the documents. She is listed as Basie, along with her older sister Frume (Fannie, shown as 11), younger brothers Berel (Ben, 7), Pesi (Pete, 4) and Schelek (Sam, 3). The ages may be wrong for all of them.
Their mother is listed as Riwke Birholz, age 33. Riwke is Rivka, since the ‘w’ and the ‘v’ are apparently identical in Cyrillic. (I remember that from listening to foreign born relatives in my childhood.) Rivke is the Hebrew form of the name Rebecca, the name she used in America. The manifest says her closest relative back home is Nussen Friedmann (her father), and her town is shown in flowery script as Schiwotov, which I know is Zhivitov. The document recites that she and the children are coming to join Jozef Birholz in Philadelphia. However, I heard she did not know where he was. She went first to Philadelphia to stay with one of her sisters. She then found her husband in Chicago, through ads placed in the Yiddish language newspaper.
We could not find any record of my great-grandfather Joseph Birholtz entering the U.S. What we did find on the Ellis Island website was Moische Welwil Birgolz’s arrival in 1908. We think this was really my great-grandfather, traveling under his brother’s name. The letters ‘g’ and ‘h’ are virtually the same in Cyrilic, I understand, so Birgolz is Birholtz. The manifest shows Moische Welwil Birgolz coming from Zhivitov, leaving behind a wife Rive. That would be my great-grandmother Rivke; Rive is the Yiddish form of that name. Moreover, Gloria Meyerberg’s family tree showed her uncle Moshe remaining in “Russia”.
In the Jewish Genealogical Society of Michigan’s library at Temple Beth El, I found Zhivitov and Zashkiv in the book Where Once We Walked, a shtetl finder, with all possible spellings of those names. I acquired maps from www.jewishgen.org and from Mrs. Faygie Weiss, the librarian at the Detroit area’s Holocaust Memorial Center. Mrs. Weiss also gave me other helpful materials
On Jewishgen.org, I found Jews with roots in the same towns, who gave me 40 surnames from their families to look for. I registered my families’ three surnames on that website, with my name and address, hoping others would contact me with information or inquiries. I also found people searching for information on the Friedman, Ostrowbrod or Birholtz/Bergoltz families. I did not find relatives, but learned more about the name Birholtz, which I had heard meant birch wood in German and Yiddish. One ‘Birgolts’ descendant surmised that the name was taken by people who left the German town of Birkholz, now a Berlin suburb. I learned that most of Ukraine's Jews originated in Poland, where they moved when they were expelled from Germany in the Middle Ages, so this seems plausible.
Ed Serotta's wonderful website, www.centropa.org, 'introduced' me to elderly Jews living in the Ukraine, giving their biographies and photos from their family albums.
I tried finding relatives or people from the same towns who came to the U.S. after WW II, by corresponding with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I drafted a letter sent to twelve Holocaust survivors from Zashkiv by Megan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Then I tried finding local people who immigrated from that area in recent decades, through the Resettlement Service at Jewish Family Service in Southfield, Michigan. Incidentally, many New Americans from the former Soviet Union would like to find the descendants of their relatives who left the Czar’s Empire long ago, but do not know how to do so.
I was surprised that the Mormons could not help me. It seems they just secured rights to copy Ukrainian records when the Soviet Union dissolved a few years ago, and they began with church records. Many Jewish records were lost in the Holocaust or in the upheaval following the Bolshevik revolution. I also learned that records for the Russian Empire are not as well organized or accessible as those for the western part of Ukraine, which was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Voter records recently translated on Jewishgen.org show Aron Bergalts in 1907 in Uman, the nearest big city to Zhivitov. Maybe he is my great-great- grandfather Aaron, without his middle name. I found my great-great-grandfather Aaron Zusev Birgolts in 1906 as the father of Moshko (i.e., Moshe) Birgolts, a property owner in Lukashevka, which an old Russian Jewish encyclopedia treats as a suburb of Zhivitov. I think this Moshko is the same person as shown in 1907 as a property owner in Zhivitov, under the name Mojshe Volf Burgol’ts, son of Aron. I think this is the brother whose identity my great-grandfather assumed, for some reason, to enter the U.S. in 1908 as Moische Welwil Birgolz. Volf is wolf, which translates as Velvel in Yiddish, or Welwil in Cyrillic.
The voter registrations for 1906 and 1907 do not include my other Ukrainian great-great-grandfather, Nussen Friedman, unless he is one of the Nukhim Friedmans, one in Uman, one in Monastyrishche north of there, and one in Terlitsa. Does anyone know if Nukhim is the Ukrainian form of Nussen? There were 17 Ostrobrods in Zhivitov on the list. Charting them by using their fathers' names shown there, it appears they were all in four families, perhaps with a common ancestor related to my great-great-grandmother.
A business directory from the Kiev archives showed Aaron Zusev, Boruch and Israel Bergolts (my great-great-grandfather and two great-great-uncles) in business selling dresses. The same directory lists a pharmacist in Zhivitov named Froim ben Shlomo Ostrobrod, perhaps a cousin of mine.
Just before we left home, our Shabbat dinner guest Michelle Brown told us her grandmother was also from Zhivitov. Michelle's dad faxed me the written recollections of his uncle Max Korson from his childhood in Zhivitov, where the family name was Korzonskaia. I spoke to Max's older sister Frances Biederman of Delray Beach, Florida, who told detailed stories from before they left in 1917. These included both happy memories and the horrors of a pogrom by a bandit gang during the Bolshevik Revolution. Petlura's gang killed 17 Zhivitov Jews, including her aunt and grandfather, despite appeals on behalf of the Jews by the local priest and church choir members. Frances remembered the Christian farmer, Tichon, who hid her family then, and helped them escape the area. If she knew his full name, I would have looked for his descendants, to convey thanks from those he aided.
Finding a few families from Zhivitov seemed remarkable, because the Jewish population was never large there. An old Russian Jewish encyclopedia said that in 1787 there were 161 Jews there, and another 535 in surrounding villages. In 1847, there were 708 Jews in the area. In 1897, the 1,935 Jews constituted just over 50% of the population there. By 1926, there were only 405 Jews.
FINDING A GUIDE
Friends in the Jewish Genealogical Society of Michigan made several helpful suggestions for a guide. Instead I chose Yan Privorotsky, who had been a graduate student of the Kiev area’s Jewish history until he moved to Israel two years ago. In Jerusalem he works on outreach to young adults from the former Soviet Union, at the Conservative Jewish seminary there, the Schechter Institute. Yan was to be visiting his parents and friends in Kiev, at the same time I was to be there. Yan proved to be a superior guide, and he continues to seek information for me.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF ZHIVITOV
On Friday, September 12, 2003, I found the old Jewish section of Zhivitov, still semi-rural, outside of a town with a few thousand people now named Zhivitovka. The old settlement north of the bridge, where the Jews lived, is named Novozhivitov now. That seems ironic, since 'novo' means new, and nothing looked new. I guess it was named when the Christians moved into formerly Jewish homes; it was new to them.
The village is in a beautiful setting, with the river dammed to create a lake, surrounded by meadows and hills. A horse grazed by the lake, and several farmers passed us in carts drawn by horses. From the bridge, I photographed the wood pilings of the old wooden bridge, probably the one Bubbie and her sister Fannie crossed so many times. An old lady pulled a heavy wagon full of melons from the fields to her home. Ducks, geese and chickens ran free in the yards, and I saw caged rabbits and other animals being fattened up for consumption or sale.
CONDITIONS SEEMED PRIMITIVE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE, BUT MODERN IN KIEV
En route to Zhivitov, we passed many villages similar in appearance, including nearby Bugayufka, where my great-great-grandmother's brother Motel Ostrow ran a general store. In and around Zhivitov, I saw people drawing water from wells. A couple walked along the road with sacks of potatoes slung over their bicycle. I helped the lady with the melons by pulling her cart into her courtyard, where I encountered storage sheds that may have been there since the Jews arrived here in the 1600's. People were dressed in peasant clothing, including babushkas on all the women's heads. The outhouse I used behind the bank in nearby Orativ had no toilet, just a hole in the floor; the sink inside the doorway at the bank had no running water. Fortunately I brought toilet paper and hand sanitizer The road south from Orativ was cobblestone-paved, so we turned around to use better roads.
By contrast, Zashkiv was somewhat modern, and Kiev much more modern In Kiev, younger people are stylishly dresses, restaurants and hotels are fine, the churches are beautiful, and many old buildings have been restored.
Before our trip, we learned from University of Michigan Professor Zvi Gitelman that the Ukrainian economy has worsened since they achieved independence from Russian domination after the fall of communism, just over a decade ago. Many people apparently had difficulty making the transition from communism to capitalism. Population and life expectancy have both fallen, and alcoholism is reportedly common. We also heard from a couple sources about government corruption, which makes bribery a necessity for every business. There are successful businesses. The Detroit committee dined one night with some of Kiev’s Jewish businessmen, including one who returned from Israel These men are making financial contributions to help the Jewish community in Kiev. We also met the American Jewish partner of a Jew who returned from New York to Kiev and created a big business.
THERE ARE FEW TRACES OF JEWISH LIFE OUTSIDE OF BIG CITIES
In Zhivitov, older villagers remember Jews, though no Jews remain. The last Jew, Mr. Wolf, was the sole survivor of the Holocaust who returned to Zhivitov. The Christians were not at all hostile to us. One family directed us to the former Jewish section. An old lady there answered our questions, and pointed to the small building which had served as the 'heder', the Jewish school my great-uncles would have attended. The synagogue which once stood next to it had burned down. She showed us one house which had been home to Khuna and Sura Ostrobrod and their daughters Manya and Lisa, perhaps cousins of mine. She said Lisa and her son moved to Vinnitsa. (I am trying to find them, using the Vinnitsa Jewish community’s website and Detroit area Jews from Vinnitsa.) Another lady said her home was once the Segalovsky's, one of the names I had on my list. She ran after us to present us with a gift before we left town.
Some of the homes looked about 100 years old, judging from dated photos in a book I was given in Zashkiv. Perhaps it is better that I never asked Bubbie to describe her house. I can look at this small group of homes as representative of the homes of my European ancestors, and of so many others who left the Czar's Empire to find freedom and opportunity.
I think we found the Zhivitov Jewish cemetery, following the directions of a villager. I knew its approximate location from the Jewsihgen.org website. As I had read there, it had no headstones, fence or gate, or any sign that it was not an ordinary farm field. In Tetiev, few stones remained in the cemetery we saw, one of several there. No memorial stood for the 5,000 Jews massacred there in 1917. In Zashkiv, one small section of the Jewish cemetery with newer graves was fenced and well tended, thanks to contributions from abroad. I read every stone with Yan, but found none of the 43 surnames on my list. Outside of this small fenced section, animals grazed and children played soccer around the one erect headstone and several broken ones. Yan was upset; there should have been thousands of headstones, because Zashkiv’s Jewish community dating back to the 1700's. In 1897, this town had about 2,500 Jews, half the total population. Most of the town's 26 stores at that time were owned by Jewish families. By 1939, 877 Jews remained, and nearly all of them were murdered by the Nazis.
I had hoped to see four or five former synagogues in Belaya Tserkov, recommended to me by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, email@example.com. However, a local Jew said not to bother; they had been substantially transformed after the Communist government confiscated them for other uses. I tried to visit regional museums in Tetiev and Orativ, to see if they could help me imagine my ancestors' lives, but both were closed, despite the posted hours.
JEWISH ELDERLY IN UKRAINE
Most of the remaining Jews outside the biggest cities are elderly, receiving food and other necessities through local 'hesed' societies. This is the massive aid program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as JDC, or "the Joint"), which feeds about 250,000 elderly or disabled people in the former Soviet Union. The recipients are mainly Jews, but also include Christian widows and widowers of Jews, and Righteous Gentiles who helped Jewish people during the Holocaust.
In Belaya Tserkov, I visited the 'hesed' office, which doubled as a clubroom for holiday celebrations. This 'hesed' serves about 500 people, many living in tiny villages, isolated from other Jews. The director, Basia Albina, showed me one wall with maps, flags and other decorations about Israel. The other wall bore photos of the family members lost in the Holocaust, World War II veterans, etc.
The head of Zashkiv's Jewish community, Rita Pisaruk, helps about 50 people get assistance from the 'hesed' in Cherkassy. I secured a list from her. She wanted information about her uncle Boris Dobin, a Detroit butcher originally from Ukraine, who had sent gifts to her family until 1967.(Back in Detroit, I let her know I found a Ben Dobin, who died in '67, on the index of Jewish burials in Michigan at www.thisisfederation.org.)
I showed Rita photos of my ancestors who left the Ukraine. Rita said my great-grandfather Yossel Birholtz strongly resembled the men in one widow’s late husband’s family photos. I asked Rita to see what that woman knew about that family's origins, so I could determine if we are related. Rita and Basia both looked over my list of 43 surnames, and gave me the names of a few people with the same names, including a widow named Ostrobrod. (Back home, I sent letters to the JDC office in Kiev, hoping they will send translations to the people. Unfortunately for those seeking relatives there, most of the elderly are women, bearing their married surnames, so they are less likely to know the relevant family histories.) I learned there is a Friedman from that area now living in Afula, Israel, and Yan will try to determine whether he is related to me.
In Zashkiv, I visited the homes of two 'hesed' recipients, bringing small gifts from Detroit. Faina Shihman was happy to receive a cassette tape of Yiddish songs and some house slippers. Nikolai and Galina Antonovsky said the kosher salami I brought was the first beef they'd had for several years. Nikolai said he'd changed his name many years earlier from an obviously Jewish name, to avoid anti-Semitism. The Antonevskys had invited a Christian neighbor, Raisa, to meet me, because she visits daily to help them.
I felt an immediate kinship in these homes. If these people were not distantly related to me, then their ancestors were friends and neighbors of mine. My family would be in their positions had they not left Kiev province almost 100 years ago, if they somehow survived the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin starving millions of Ukrainians, and the Holocaust. My wife Barbara was equally moved by her committee's visit to a widow in Korostyshev, one of about 80 elderly Jews remaining in that village west of Kiev.
We came away proud of this remarkable network of assistance, funded by contributions to Jewish Federations that support JDC, and by reparation payments for Holocaust survivors.
We were pleased to attend the dedication of an assisted living facility for elderly Kiev Jews. This was financed by charitable money from the Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore, the Jewish Agency, and funds from sale of surplus U.S. food authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Younger members of Kiev families may be more likely to move to Israel if their aged relatives are well cared for in Kiev.
JEWISH RENEWAL IN KIEV
Many of Kiev's Jews are discovering their Jewish heritage. Imagine the contrast I experienced when I returned to Kiev from Zhivitov, with no Jews remaining, and from the three desecrated cemeteries. I went directly to one of the JCCs, where Jewish college students active with Hillel conducted an inspiring Friday evening Shabbat service. We dined with them and heard about why they chose to be members of Hillel. Many came from families which did not observe Jewish traditions or know much about Judaism or Israel. These students had been trained to be our guides, and showed us places important in Kiev's 1,000 year Jewish history, including Babi Yar, where so many thousands were killed by the Nazis. I was proud that Detroit's Federation is supporting Hillel for students at Kiev's colleges and universities.
Our tour included the Brodsky Synagogue, an old shul beautifully restored for Lubavich Chassidim by some of Kiev's new Jewish entrepreneurs. I was honored with an aliya there on Shabbat morning. There was not a large crowd at services. One young man stood in a rear corner, dressed in casual clothes. I decided he was exploring whether he wanted to identify as a Jew religiously The people on our committee who attended Reform services in rented quarters said there fewer than 50 people there. Last year, they had a huge crowd for the High Holidays, but this year lacked funds to rent a hall. I believe the only other functioning synagogue is the beautiful Podol synagogue, restored by Kiev businessmen for Rabbi Bleich's Stoliner Orthodox group. I write about Conservative Judaism in the next section.
I believe the greatest Jewish renewal activity in Kiev is cultural and Zionist, not religious. There are a handful of small Jewish community centers scattered around Kiev, supported in part by Detroit's Federation. Some of Kiev's Jews are volunteers at the ‘heseds’ in Kiev, helping to assure there is aid for the elderly and needy. At the Jewish Agency's impressive building in Kiev, we saw classes, choirs, dance groups and clubs meetings. Many of the people traveled long distances by bus from other parts of Kiev, since there is no "Jewish neighborhood". I conversed with a young man who said he was there for the first time, because he heard they offered Hebrew classes and he knew no Hebrew.
The committee met with a group of Kiev Jews about to make aliya to Israel. The numbers of emigrants choosing Israel are definitely down since the second intifada began, with the resulting economic problems and security issues in Israel. Aliya from Ukraine and nearby Moldova was down from 15,000 people in 2001 to 7,000 in 2002, and perhaps 3000 in 2003. However, if life for the Jews becomes more difficult when Leonid Kuchma is no longer prime minister, more may choose to leave. We visited with parents and grandparents of teen-agers who were studying in Jerusalem, on a program designed to encourage them (and later, their families) to become Israelis. By audio-visual hook-up, the families in Kiev conversed with their children and grandchildren in Israel. The kids spoke only in Hebrew, even knowing their relatives had to wait for translations. This suggested to me that many of those teens would stay in Israel at the end of the program.
CONSERVATIVE JEWRY IN UKRAINE
I was very moved when I visited the Conservative Jewish school run by Jerusalem's Schechter Institute, part of the Midreshet Yerushalayim program of outreach to Jewry in and from the former Soviet Union. I saw 30 families who come on Sundays, Wednesday evenings, holidays and Sabbath. They use a public school building that was Kiev's Jewish high school before the Bolshevik Revolution. For my visit, children came by bus from Berdichev. That is because I have funded Camp Ramah for Ukrainian Jewish children for eleven years, from the trust fund established by my late uncle Ben Teitel. I saw all the generations engaged in study of an informal nature. Later, the adults were entertained with songs and dances the children learned at Camp Ramah. Before the show, I took Polaroid photos of the children. I left the camera and more film for them to enjoy, since this was something they had not seen before. The teachers and a few others who spoke English thanked me for supporting the camp. A couple teachers said they acquired their love of Judaism as campers, in the early years of the camp. One man was about to fly to Israel to begin studies at Schechter Institute to become a Conservative rabbi.
I talked to a father of two children not enrolled at the school, whose wife is not Jewish. He was impressed with what he saw, but wondered if his children would be accepted. I suggested he look at the children's faces; so many appear to be children of intermarried couples, and I assume some are not Jews according to Jewish law. When they acquire Jewish knowledge and spirit, I hope many will convert to Judaism.
The Teitel Trust donated money for office equipment for the Kiev school. Another American philanthropist is supporting the school for the next three years, along with Masorti Olami, the worldwide movement of Conservative Jewry. Similar schools are functioning in Berdichev, Khust, Mukachevo (formerly Munkatsch, in Austro-Hungarian days), Uzhgorod (formerly Ungvar), Priluki, Chirkassi and Nikolaiyev, all in the Ukraine. A Conservative day school flourishes in Czernowitz, where 450 people come for kabbalat Shabbat services, and another Conservative day school may open soon in Lviv (formerly L'vov, and before that Lemberg). Forty young adults run a chavurah group in Kierovograd. In Simferapol a 'kehilla' (congregation of Jews without a building or rabbi) wants to affiliate with the Movement, joining three kehillot elsewhere in the Ukraine. Midreshet Yerushalayim trains teachers and youth leaders from 19 Ukrainian Jewish communities, including those named above. Clearly, more funding is required.
I had assumed Jewish life in Ukraine would be just history before long. I knew huge numbers of Ukrainian Jews had emigrated to Israel, the U.S., Germany and elsewhere in the last few decades of the 20th Century. (Barbara and I met a plane full of Ukrainian immigrants in Israel a few years ago, when my uncle’s trust fund paid for their flight.) I was surprised by the numbers remaining in Ukraine, that many are identifying themselves as Jews, and that they said they do not plan to leave any time soon.
Only about 100,000 Ukrainians said they were Jews in the 2000 census, but we were told there are more. It seems many people chose not to create a government record identifying themselves as Jews. The history is too full of problems, and distrust of government too strong. JDC estimates there are 91,000 Jews in Kiev (comparable to the estimated 96,000 in the Detroit area). The Jewish Agency believes the total Jewish population of Ukraine is 215,000. Of course, this probably includes many who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
In mid-September, in a speech to the crowd at the Sunday school, translated sentence by sentence, I said I felt I had traveled hundreds of years back in time to visit villages two and three hours south of Kiev. I held up the photo taken there almost 100 years ago, showing about 30 relatives, and said I knew the name of every person in the photo. I said that my ancestors had passed along love of Judaism and love of family. Their teaching motivated my uncle to leave money in trust for the welfare of the Jewish people. This was how I was able to support the camp. I said my grandmother's stories and information from relatives inspired me and enabled me to make my voyage back in time.
I challenged these Kiev Jews to think 100 years into the future. Would their descendants have photos from today, along with family photos already old today? Would they know which people were in the these photos, and how they were related? What would they know about the religion and the principles that guided their ancestors? Would their descendants be Jews? The answers to those questions for Kiev's Jews and for Jews throughout the former Soviet Union depend in part on the financial aid provided by Jews from the U.S. and elsewhere, and on person-to-person contacts too.
If you have read this far, I would be very interested in your additions, corrections and questions. I know my impressions may be faulty, based on hurried preparation and just over three days in Ukraine. If you would like copies of some photos, let me know.
Text Copyright 2004, Gerald S. Cook
Website Display Copyright 2012, Igor Schein
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