Exploring the Jewish heartland of eastern Europe

Ukraine is where Jewish past and present merge in a kaleidoscope of feeling, sight and impression.

A MOTORBOAT passes under a footbridge over the Dnieper River in Kiev, Ukraine. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MOTORBOAT passes under a footbridge over the Dnieper River in Kiev, Ukraine.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Uman is on the bucket list of many people, and not only Breslov Hassidim.
By the tens of thousands, from all points of the globe, they converge on the town for a street party of praying, chanting, dancing and singing at the revered burial site of Rav Nachman. Uman rocks for two days.
Whether Nachman of Bratslav, a great-grandson of founder of Hassidism the Ba’al Shem Tov, had wanted it this way is a moot point. The charismatic and contentious figure died of tuberculosis in 1810 at the age of 38; he had come to Uman to die so that he could be laid to rest where 20,000 blameless Jews were butchered in 1768 by Haidamack Cossacks in a field.
Travelers on a spiritual trip are drawn further afield. The tombs of rabbinic greats are spread in an arc over the western borderlands of Ukraine – what used to be the province of Galicia. More ohels (specially marked resting sites) and killing fields.
In reality, though, Ukraine offers more than a trip down veneration or memory lane. For one thing, a lot of Jews live there still: around 200,000, making Ukraine far and away the Jewish heartland of Eastern Europe. A quartet of quite Jewish cities remain: Odessa, Kiev, Lviv and Dnepropetrovsk, all abounding with heritage, magnificent old architecture and modern Jewish flavor.
“Belz, mayn shtetele, mayn heimele” begins a popular Yiddish song from 1932. The old look and feel of the shtetl can be found in the former Pale of Settlement to this day. Market squares, sagging wooden homesteads, public wells, waddling geese by the roadside, relics of mikvaot and synagogues all flatter to deceive. I visited the old shtetl of Medzhybizh. Here, 300 years ago, the Ba’al Shem Tov lived and taught. A massive medieval fortress, worth a visit, overlooks this cradle of Hassidism. Down in the village the old cemetery contains a new ohel, as big as a house, over the tomb of the “Besht.” Beyond the cemetery a new synagogue complex is painted white to match the ohel.
It was Sholom Aleichem who put the shtetl on the Western map.
That immortal character Tevye the milkman daidle-deedle-daidled his way through stage and film productions of Fiddler on the Roof.
Tevye sang and suffered in Berdichev, a shtetl of 30,000 Jews on the eve of the Nazi invasion. But you have to go to Aleichem’s hometown, Kiev, to see a statue of the author in a public square, where his dapper figure smiles and doffs his hat to passersby.
But here and everywhere lurks the dark shadow of pogroms and the Shoah. So many monuments to so much martyrdom, mostly deep in verdant forests and tricky to find.
What made Nazi killing squads do so much of their work where larks sing, wild berries grow and foliage breathes? Ukraine, though, is not another Poland or Lithuania – an open air Jewish museum. To be sure numbers have plummeted, even from the mere half million Jews who emerged alive from the Holocaust (out of two million in the 1930s), yet Ukraine is a living work in progress.
Odessa remains a stunning port city filled with architectural wonders and Jewish flavor. The imposing Brodsky synagogue with its four domed towers was the first Reform temple in tsarist Russia. Granted, crowds no longer pack the stalls to hear famous cantors and choirs, but Shabbat and holy day services are still held.
After grisly pogroms near the turn of the 20th century, when Jews abandoned Odessa in droves, Zionism took root. The port became the “Gateway to Zion” from which refugees embarked for Palestine.
Many Zionist leaders were natives of Odessa: Leon Pinsker, Meir Dizengoff (first mayor of Tel Aviv) and not least, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The city was a magnet for Jewish arts, crawling with Yiddish theaters, literary salons and libraries. Yiddish writers, most of all Isaac Babel, evoked Odessa: “It seems to me you could say a lot of good things about this important and most remarkable city in the Russian Empire.”
There’s been a Jewish community in the capital, Kiev, for a thousand years. A 10th century letter from Kiev Jews was unearthed in a geniza (cache of documents) in a Cairo synagogue. Modern Kiev is a vibrant city of tree-lined boulevards, parks and piazzas, a city that will keep a Jewish traveler occupied for a week. The main shul is a 19th century Brodsky synagogue, a massive fortress-like building taking up an entire city block. The best vantage point to get a whole canvas of Kiev is from a boat on the wide Dnieper River. Gold and green onion domes atop white churches dazzle the eye. The most startling sight is a 100-meter-tall female warrior on the riverbank, the heroic figure wielding in one hand a shield and in the other a sword. Her name is “Woman of the Motherland.”
There she towers, making a bold and massive statement about Soviet hubris after Hitler’s army was decimated.
If Odessa stuns and Kiev fascinates, then Lviv (Lion) charms.
The old-world, prewar look and feel about the city is partly thanks to the German high command. Grand baroque mansions, cobblestone squares, broad boulevards, decorative facades and trams trundling up cobble roads remain intact, partly owing to the city being earmarked for a Third Reich museum to which people would come to learn about the extinct nation of the Jews. The city used to be home to more than 150,000 Jews, close to a third of its inhabitants. They were liquidated in a reign of terror, during which nearly every synagogue and Jewish cemetery was demolished. One or two were left intact, like the Tsori Gilad shul with its rare, brilliantly colored wall paintings from the 1930s, to serve as museum pieces in a quaint museum town.
Take an overnight train if Dnepropetrovsk in central Ukraine is on your itinerary. It should be, if Odessa is on it, because the two lie on a straight line from Kiev. It should be on any heritage tour, because the city is home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, to say nothing of what could be the Diaspora’s largest Jewish communal center, encompassing the 1852 Golden Rose Choral synagogue, a Holocaust museum, a study center and a fully kosher hotel.
Trains and some airports are a throwback to Soviet days. The romance of a bygone era, of wood-paneled coaches and tough KGB-type women looking after each wagon thrill the imagination.
Local airports are another throwback. Passengers have to collect their baggage from a tractor- pulled trailer. At the Lugansk airport I clambered into the belly of a 1950s-era two-prop aircraft to stow my bags. Then came an hour wait for the pilot who, on that Sunday morning, had overslept. On approach to Kiev airport I watched the wheels on their wooden structure dawdle past my porthole.
Ukraine is where Jewish past and present merge in a kaleidoscope of feeling, sight and impression.
Harvey World Travel Birnam in Johannesburg, South Africa offers tour packages to Ukraine.