Ben Judah

It is not hard to find a minyan in Kharkiv… but for how long?

The terrifying hypothesis of a Ukraine without Jews is rearing its ugly head once again


A woman places a candle in front of the Menorah-shaped memorial dedicated to the victims of the Babi Yar massacre during the commemoration ceremony on the 76th anniversary in Kiev on September 29, 2017. - Ukraine marks 76 years since the Nazis slaughtered 34,000 Jews on the outskirts of Kiev during one of the worst single massacres of the Holocaust. (Photo by Genya SAVILOV / AFP) (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)

June 01, 2023 12:07

Eighty years ago, in 1943, as the Red Army finally turned the tide of the war, the Soviet Jewish war correspondent and novelist Vasily Grossman wrote an essay whose title presented a chilling hypothesis: Ukraine without Jews.

The thought had been unimaginable to him. But as Stalin’s forces entered shtetl after shtetl, finding them ruled by the silence of death, he realised the extent of the Nazis’ crimes.

Grossman could hardly imagine his homeland without old Jewish men strolling under the poplars in their prayer shawls on Shabbat, without the pompous shoemakers, without the black-eyed and curly-haired children running through the dusty streets, contrasting with the pale hair and eyes of their Ukrainian counterparts. But that was what he was seeing.

“A people has been murdered,” he wrote. But thanks to mass Jewish evacuations of the Ukrainian cities to safety in Russia and central Asia, the annihilation was not total.

Now that hypothesis, Ukraine without Jews, is rearing its ugly head once again.

As Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, head of the city's Chabad tells me, at the event to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of Kharkiv’s Jewish school, which took place shortly before the invasion, nobody believed the American warnings of imminent attack.

The rabbi still could not believe it later that night when he was called by a member of his shul saying that Kyiv and Kharkiv were being bombed, until seconds later when he heard the explosions.

Over the next few days, the invasion briefly reached the centre of Kharkiv, where
Rabbi Moskovitz even saw Russian jeeps before they were forced back by Ukrainian troops.
“At the start of the war,” says Rabbi Moskovitz, “I thought the community would disperse.”

However, especially since Ukraine repelled Putin’s forces from Kharkiv, a lot of Jews have chosen to stay. Of the 400 children at the Jewish school before the war, he estimates only half have fled, their destinations split between Israel and the rest of Ukraine.

“My view is this,” the rabbi explains. “If the war ended today, we would have a smaller but stronger Jewish community, as so many people we’ve never heard from before have gone to the synagogue and the community for prayers and support. But if it lasts a long time, a lot more people will leave.”

Rabbi Moskovitz and Jewish organisations on the ground agree: thanks to the efforts of organisations like the British World Jewish Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as well as heroic rabbis on the ground, synagogues and community centres have risen to the humanitarian challenge. As a result, it has never been easier to find a minyan.

“We are a city under bombardment,” said Rabbi Moskovitz. “I was really struck by how many people attended Shavuot at the synagogue and by how many of them are new faces.”

What of the future? Rabbi Moskovitz is worried that if the war drags on for years and years — there is only so long people can live under bombardment — even more people will leave, as Western and Jewish “aid fatigue” kicks in.

People working closely with the Ukrainian Jewish community estimate that those filling up the synagogues are mostly the old, and that a very large proportion of the younger generation have left for Europe or Israel already. The signs are that, even if it is stronger, the war will leave the community smaller. The question is how much smaller.

The Ukraine of Vasily Grossman, in 1939, had 1.5 million Jews, with vast numbers of them still living a rural, shtetl life.

The Ukraine of 1970, of heavy industry, where they had mostly become an urban, technical intelligentsia, had some 700,000. Before Russia invaded in February 2022, only some 45,000 Ukrainians — a decline of some 93 per cent — reported they were Jewish to the census.

But given widespread intermarriage and assimilation, Jewish organisations estimated an “enlarged Jewish population” of people with one Jewish parent at 90,000 and those eligible for Israeli citizenship, which is one Jewish grandparent, at up to 190,000.

Their future will depend on whether or not Ukraine can win the war and stop the bombing.

If Zelensky succeeds in his summer offensive, liberating Ukrainian territory and pushing Russia into a ceasefire on its own terms, even though congregations may be smaller, the newfound unity and meaning may well provide an impetus for the remaining Jewish community to thrive. That in a country which could be rapidly integrated into the West.

However, if the offensive fails, the nightly bombardments of Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities continue and the West begins to taper off its support, then the spectre beckons of Rabbi Moskovitz no longer being able to care for the elderly survivors of Grossman’s war, just as the school finally empties.

Not only the West but the Jewish organisations trying to prevent this need to stay the course.

June 01, 2023 12:07

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