Coexistence in Kiev

Anti-Semitism appears to be retreating in Ukraine, home to many horrors of the Holocaust.

Coexistence in Kiev (photo credit: KIEV INTERFAITH FORUM)
Coexistence in Kiev
During the first glorious days of the Ukrainian summer, well-dressed women wearing impossibly high-heeled shoes strolled down the stylish streets of downtown Kiev. Music students sat in front of the famed golden domes of the refurbished St. Michael Monastery singing Ukrainian folk songs as they plucked the strings of the traditional bandores – a wooden lute-like instrument – hoping for a few coins from passing tourists.
And inside the opulent Kiev Intercontinental Hotel in the upscale center of the Ukrainian capital, rabbis, priests, imams, one Buddhist priest and a few hundred lay people of different faiths gathered to discuss the new challenges confronting religions and their role in democracies and secular societies at the Kiev Interfaith Forum’s Second International Faith Conference. Hosted by Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandr Feldman, who is one of the founders of the Forum, the conference was meant to give religious leaders an opportunity to discuss the role of religion in a time of widespread social and political changes.
For Jewish participants the conference was also a chance to reassess the status of Ukrainian Jews in the land where some of the bloodiest pogroms and Nazi massacres against Jews took place.
“I am happy I live here in a time when anti-Semitism is looked on as a sign of bad taste,” says the well-dressed and debonair Feldman, 52, a small black kippa clearly visible on his short-cropped dark hair. “I can’t say we don’t have a problem; these anti-Semitic attacks are something that happens, but they are stopped by the police and are dealt with by intervention even of the president.”
Feldman, who is also president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and rediscovered his own Jewish roots only a decade ago, concedes, nevertheless, that there are still some political parties that play on anti- Semitic biases for political gain. On the other hand, he says, one small act by Israel – the reciprocal removal of visa restrictions on travel to and from the Ukraine – has actually done a lot to counter these biases. “People are reacting to rhetoric less and less,” he asserts.
So while some European leaders have come out against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych because of accusations of corruption and suppression of political opponents, it seems the Ukrainian president has been good for the Jews. Indeed, the Passovereve attack on an Orthodox Kiev resident notwithstanding, Chabad Rabbi Jonathan Markovitz, who has served the Kiev Jewish community for 12 years, says the current Ukrainian government has made fighting anti-Semitism a top priority. In fact, says Markovitz, Yanukovych immediately and strongly condemned the attack on the young Jewish man.
“Everything has changed. If two years ago the government disregarded anti-Semitism, the current president is trying very much to move toward the Jews,” says the 42-year-old emissary who was born in Kiev and moved to Israel with his family when he was three.
“Every year before the Jewish holidays he addresses the Jewish community. I don’t usually hear any anti-Semitic remarks from people when I walk down the street.”
Although he doesn’t normally run into anti-Semitism as he goes about his business in his dark suit, hat and long bushy beard, which mark him as a Jew, he can’t say that anti-Semitism has been purged from Ukrainian society, Markovitz adds. Just recently, he notes, a youth accosted him with a Nazi salute and “Heil Hitler.” Markovitz, whose own grandparents perished at Auschwitz, often goes to schools to talk about the Holocaust.
“The hardest thing is when I speak to older people and they try to justify what happened,” he says. “They say it was war.”
Through his work in the parliament and the Kiev Interfaith Forum, Feldman has done a lot to bring the issue of religious tolerance to the forefront, at least, of Ukrainian politics, notes Markovitz.
Outside the hotel a small group of Ukrainian Orthodox women were voicing their opposition to dialogue between religions – even among different Christian denominations.
Mainly kerchief-headed grannies and middle-aged women, they stood stern-faced and stoic, reciting prayers as they clutched icons of Jesus and Mary, prayer beads and posters.
“We are Christians and any unity of religions only brings about the anti-Christ,” explains one woman in halting English, as another looks on with visible disdain towards a journalist asking questions. “We don’t believe in dialogue with others. We are Orthodox and all the other religions are not the proper way.” The women were from a tiny rogue conservative faction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and their protest against the participation of one of their bishops in the conference stemmed from an internal political-religious schism between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Young Ukrainian journalist Vlad Golovin, who moderated one of the conference sessions and identifies himself as a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, assures that the women represent only a very marginal and inconsequential segment of the Church.
For him, he said, the long Christian history of his country – which was only interrupted for 70 years during the takeover of the Soviets – is one of tolerance. He insists that there were some priests in Kiev who spoke out against pogroms targeting Jews.
“We are a different society. We can see and understand, we can find information about different societies,” he says. “In the 19th century you could tell me to hate the Jews but in the 21st century you tell me the same thing and I can check the facts on the Internet to find out the truth.”
His country, he says, is more tolerant than it was in the past. “We are not the only religion. I have friends from all different churches,” he says. “Those who think otherwise are a very small number of people and they are not significant.”
But for people with a strong sense of Ukraine’s dark past, the ethnocentric closed-mindedness expressed by the women demonstrators awakens fears of a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Taking into consideration the location of the conference, the history of brutal anti-Semitism here is hard to ignore.
Not far from all this resurrection of religious devotion and talk of dialogue and tolerance – all of which would have been inconceivable some two decades ago under the Soviets – lie the deep ravines of the lush Babi Yar forest, which only some dozens of years ago were soaked with Jewish blood in a two-day Nazi orgy of mass murder in which an estimated 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were forced to undress and shot to death at close range on September 29-30, 1941. Thousands more Jews and other Ukrainians were murdered there in the ensuing months.
In all, it is estimated that some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were killed during the Holocaust – both in Nazi concentration camps and in the hundreds of ravines and gullies dotting the forests throughout the Ukraine, not only by the Germans but also at the hands of Ukrainians who were only too eager to collaborate.
According to an estimate by Vladimir Danilenko of the State Archive of the Kiev Division, at least 100,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in violent pogroms from the start of the last century until World War II and thousands more were killed in the previous century, when until 1913 Jews constituted up to 30 percent of the population of Kiev.
With its three synagogues, one mikve and one kosher restaurant, which serves up a mean borscht, the Kiev Jewish community is lively and warm, says Markovitz, but it is still only a shadow of the vibrant community it once was before World War II , when there were some 40 synagogues and Jewish centers of learning scattered throughout the city. “Today I stand here and I think we have won,” says the rabbi during a break in the conference, sipping tea as two Orthodox bishops chat nearby. “It is not just me personally who is an answer to anti-Semitism, but I can be proud of the Israeli army and I can say kaddish and blessings and the Ukrainian army will stand by my side for protection.”
Though the variety of activities for today’s Jewish youth may not be as diverse as that in London, for example, the atmosphere for the young Jews of Kiev has indeed improved since the 1990s, notes Jewish activist Victoria Godik, the 29-year-old president of the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students (UUJS). Young people are not afraid to walk around the city wearing a Star of David necklace or a kippa, but there is still more to be done, she says.
“It still is not enough. I want to stay Jewish and raise my children in a Jewish environment,” she says, noting however that a move to Israel is not in the picture for her in the near future. Though the days of quaint Jewish shtetl life may be gone, the big cities can still be thriving centers of Jewish life, Godik believes. “I think the Diaspora has a right to exist and if we have a strong Diaspora, we have a strong Israel and vice versa.”
Nevertheless, sitting in one of the large conference rooms of the hotel, she notes the proximity of Babi Yar and adds that despite the apparent integration of Ukrainian Jews into Kiev society, the Holocaust, including the story of Babi Yar, unfortunately still remains a topic relegated only to the Jewish realm. The history of the forest massacre is taught only in Jewish schools. Indeed, the only memorial dedicated specifically to the Jewish victims of the atrocity was put up after the fall of the Soviet Union by the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Despite the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of the older generations, Lyudmyla Sukhareva, 23, event coordinator for the UU JS, says she has been lucky in her young life not to have experienced any outward anti-Semitism, although undeniably there is the passive “cultural” anti-Semitism, which exists and is experiencing a resurgence in Europe, she says. “We simply do not have proper education in Ukraine,” says Sukhareva. “In order to combat anti-Semitism, we have to start in the schools and here we are not even discussing that.”
Galina Pechayko, a 35-year-old organizational powerhouse, is the deputy director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and Feldman’s right hand. She is not Jewish. When she applied for the position of his assistant, she was unaware she would be working in a Jewish organization, but it was irrelevant for her anyway, she says. “I’ve always been friendly with Jews but for me there is no difference between people of different faiths,” she says in a rare moment of rest during the conference. “If you don’t know Jews, then maybe there are traces of some traditions of anti-Semitism, but it is not rational.”
At the historical Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery compound scores of young Ukrainian Orthodox seminarians and young priests joined by faithful members of the Church lined the entrance, eager to greet Jerusalem Greek Orthodox Patriarch Teophilos II, a key speaker at the conference, who was also scheduled to lead a mass at the ancient compound.
As the patriarch was showered with flowers and a warm welcome, other conference participants were led by perky red-haired tour guide Natalie Markova, 21, on a tour of the compound. They craned their necks to view the icons painted on the inside of the monastery’s historical hospital chapel.
Markova, who is Ukrainian Orthodox, cheerfully bounced through groups of tourists and worshipers, as she led her charges back onto the bus. “For me there is no difference between religions. It’s all part of our history,” she says, sporting a little girl’s backpack with a pink-haired rag doll on her back, so her troupe can identify her among the other groups of tourists.
On the last day of the conference, which took place in a special parliamentary session, an Azerbaijani Muslim clergyman sat at a roundtable almost directly across from an Armenian Orthodox Christian priest. Despite the political tensions between the two nations, they addressed each other cordially.
Pakistani imams shared the table with an Israeli rabbi, a Catholic priest from Jordan, a Buddhist monk from Russia and a representative of the Orthodox Church of the United States.
There were only two women among the conference speakers, but in a country where tourist maps include photographs of women with abundant cleavage and pouty lips advertising exclusive “men’s clubs,” it appears that the issue of equality of the sexes is being left for a later time.
“I don’t feel any difference in the way I am treated,” Forum founder Feldman tells The Jerusalem Report. “At least there is no difference at the high levels. Probably there are some people who still harbor anti-Semitic sentiments but it is not a big problem. We are working on it. We are a very new republic with a young history and with a lot of time ahead of us.”