I went all the way to ‘racist’ Kiev and all I got was love

By Jessica Elgot, June 21, 2012
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In many ways, it was a typically Jewish weekend, watching the England match, synagogue on Saturday morning, with a late lunch of hummus and matzah and gefilte-fish. Not so unusual in North-West London. But this weekend, I was in Kiev.

It seems a frivolous reason, but had Poland-Ukraine not hosted Euro 2012, and had we not acquired England versus Sweden tickets, my dad and I would probably have never set foot in the city that my great grandparents called home.

My grandparents themselves have never visited. Fear about what they might encounter has put off many Jews wanting to find out more about their Eastern European ancestors, even if it also offers the chance to watch football.

My paternal great-grandparents arrived in England almost exactly a century ago. My great grandfather Reuven worked as a tailor in Leeds, joined by his wife Mariashe some time later. A religious couple, they lived in the Leylands in Leeds, with their five children, barely speaking English, speaking in Yiddish and sometimes Russian when they wanted to communicate privately. They never spoke about their lives in their home country before they died.

‘Come back’ said our taxi driver. ‘I’ll help you find Babushka'

By-and-large, no one understood why we were going. Friends raised their eyebrows in horror, before enquiring if we had seen “that Panorama programme”. My grandmother politely enquired why we wanted to go to “that shmatte place”. As I left for the airport, I got a sweet good-bye text from my house-mate. “Have a lovely trip. Please don’t get Jew-bashed.”

We feared the worst, about the locals, the racism, the hotel and the food.

But what we were not expecting was to be able to lunch in a smart Jewish restaurant called “Tsimmes”, to be offered kreplach and latkes in every Ukrainian restaurant, and to see Orthodox Jews hurrying in to the Brodsky synagogue, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Stadium where Steven Gerrard et al were warming up for Friday night’s game.

We happened across the shul by accident on the way to the game, swarms of football fans milling around in the bars close to the synagogue entrance. I expected the walls to have at least been graffitti-ed. But the building was spotless.

There were some disconcerting moments. We saw a man wearing a t-shirt with “Nazism: Just Do It”, as we left the game. On a stroll down souvenir street — St Andrew’s Descent —some stalls had various items of Nazi memorabilia, mixed with Soviet-era antiques.

A wooden sculpture of a Jew counting money was at the entrance to the Jewish restaurant, but our Ukrainian guide pointed out it had been made by a Jewish artist.

The most heart-rending experience was reading a newspaper report in a Kiev museum from 1912, of the Beilis Affair. A religious Jew, Menachem Beilis was accused in 1911 of murdering a 13-year-old boy, using his blood to bake bread. A vicious antisemitic campaign followed in the Russian media.

Beilis was acquitted in 1913, and helped at great risk by non-Jewish lawyers and academics, but the case had dragged on for two years. It was in 1912 that my great-grandmother arrived in England from Kiev. It is not too much of a leap to assume life in Kiev had become intolerable for Jews.

Nevertheless, I began to feel uncomfortable when I realised how I had assumed antisemitism would be around every corner — even going so far as to look for it. Whatever happened historically, and whatever was filmed on the football terraces before the world’s media rolled in, Kiev now certainly seems to be on its best behaviour.

We left the Ukraine not-much-the-wiser about our family, but our prejudices about the country and its surly inhabitants had been shattered. Even the hotel had been charming. Roman, our taxi driver taking us to Borispol Airport, told us he was studying English. We struggled with conversation throughout the 40-minute drive, my dad having attempted to learn a few words of Ukrainian from a “teach yourself” CD.

“You like Kiev?” Roman asked. “Yes,” we chorused. For the first time on the trip, Dad mentioned our connection.
“My family came from here, from Kiev”. Roman didn’t understand. “My babushka, is from Kiev,” my Dad tried again.

Roman’s eyes lit up. “Babushka — here, from Kiev?! Where from, what street?” But we didn’t know. As we took the suitcases out, Roman scribbled down his number and handed it to us. “You, come back Kiev, I will help you find Babushka!”

Last updated: 3:15pm, June 21 2012