East-West duel inside the Pale of Settlement

East-West duel inside the Pale of Settlement

Taking a realistic look at the war, and at Ukraine’s Jewish history

The Babyn Yar killing site in Kyiv, Ukraine is made up of dozens of ravines and ditches where the German occupation forces and their allies killed tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews in September 1941. (Courtesy of The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center)
The Babyn Yar killing site in Kyiv, Ukraine is made up of dozens of ravines and ditches where the German occupation forces and their allies killed tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews in September 1941. (Courtesy of The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center)

Although on the most obvious level the war in Ukraine doesn’t have a lot to do with Jews, the irony of where it’s being fought is not lost on many Jews who have ties to Ukraine, and to Russia.

Alexander Smukler of Montclair, who analyzes the war for us, is struck by the Jewish history that played out on the land where this war now is unfolding.

“This whole East-West duel, the whole theater of war, is taking place right in the heart of what was the Pale of Settlement,” he said. The Pale was the part of Eastern Europe into which most eastern European Jews were herded and where they lived from the end of the 18th century until 1917, when the Russian Revolution freed them from those constraints (while imposing others).

Most of the towns and cities where this war is raging are places with long, usually tragic Jewish histories. Consider Bakhmut, whose story we told a few months ago — that’s the city where Ukrainians, at the behest of the Nazis but with their own gusto, shoved Jews into a salt mine, blasted the only entry closed, and left them to die. More recently, the Russians took it over and demolished it, and the Ukrainians fought to get it back, leaving only after many of their own soldiers and even more Russians had been turned into bloody pointless human sacrifices to Putin’s dreams. “I don’t know how many tens and tens of thousands of lives have been sacrificed for that small town, which used to be a Jewish shtetl at the start of the 20th century,” Mr. Smukler said.

Ever since Putin invaded Ukraine, Mr. Smukler, like many other Jews, particularly Russian and Ukrainian Jews, have supported Ukraine wholeheartedly. But it’s complicated. There is a long history of Ukrainian antisemitism, stretching back at least to the Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose pogroms murdered a jaw-dropping (if hard to say with absolute accuracy) percentage of the Jewish community in the late 17th century. Pogroms continued throughout the centuries, and Khmelnytsky is a Ukrainian national hero.

The problem of Ukrainian antisemitism, and the complications introduced by the war, were made clear in an unlikely setting — the Canadian parliament.

On September 22, Canada welcomed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and gave him the opportunity to address the House of Commons. After his speech, the House speaker, Anthony Rota, introduced Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian Canadian who, Mr. Rota said, was a Ukrainian war hero who’d fought for the country’s First Ukrainian Division.

The problem is that the First Ukrainian Division was also called the Waffen SS Galicia Division. It was made up of Nazis, and its members, under orders, killed Jews and Poles.

Hunka got a standing ovation, and Mr. Zelensky raised his fist to honor him.

“How do you think that happened,” Mr. Smukler asked. “The speaker of the Parliament took responsibility, but he is not the one who got the name. It was supplied by the Ukrainian embassy. I cannot believe that the people responsible, the people who staff the embassy, did not know who Hunka was,” or did not know what the Waffen SS was.

Alexander Smukler

“Why was he on the list? That is a bigger question,” Mr. Smukler continued. “Being Jewish, and sympathizing with Ukrainians, and honoring their heroism as they protect their land and fight the aggressor, I still cannot forget that Ukraine is glorifying Nazis.

“We have to admit it. Hunka was on its list of honored guests. And even after the Jewish community of Canada condemned it and published a strong statement about it, and even after the Wiesenthal Center condemned it and published a strong statement about it, we didn’t hear anything from the Ukrainians.

“Zelensky never said a word about it.

“Hunka is a hero of modern Ukraine, and that is a matter of concern not only for the Jews of Canada but for the American Jewish community. Why is it silent?

“We are all on Ukraine’s side in its fight against aggression, but we have to be honest with ourselves.”

The problem, Mr. Smukler believes, is traceable at least in part to Ukraine’s resistance to the kind of soul-searching, which might be imperfect but still was undertaken with disgusted honesty, that Germany asked of its citizens.

He has a story about it.

“My wife and I have been participating in the commemoration of Babyn Yar,” the massacre in a ravine outside Kyiv where Nazis — Germans and collaborators, including Ukrainians — murdered at least 33,771 Jews during the last week of September 1941. The massacre started on September 29 — Yom Kippur.

“We went to the dedication of the memorial there in 2016, because my father had escaped the massacre,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s why we were there.

“My grandfather saved his children — it’s a mystery exactly how he did it. This is what we know:

In Kyiv in 2016, stray dogs roam the monument to Babyn Yar, where Nazis and local collaborators murdered more than 30,000 Jews in 1941. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

“My father used to live in the heart of the Jewish district in Kyiv, called Podol. The Red army had taken everything they could find with wheels — but my grandfather had a lame horse and carriage, and he hid them.

“When the Germans announced that all the Jews had to move to Babyn Yar with all their belongings and families — there were signs up a few days before, with that announcement — my grandfather put my grandmother and three of their four children, including a newborn baby — my aunt — and two boys — my father and his older brother — and went in a completely different direction.

“The police — Ukrainian collaborators — were all busy pushing the Jews in the other direction, so they didn’t stop them. They thought that Jews couldn’t have a horse or carriage, so they thought they must be Ukrainian farmers.

“My family moved away from Kyiv, hiding on farms, and Ukrainian families didn’t turn them in. Instead they helped them. They fed them.

“But my grandparents’ oldest son, Efraim Smukler, my father’s brother, who was 19 years old, was captured two days before they left by the Ukrainian collaborators. He was brought to Babyn Yar and murdered there.

“So that’s why I was there.

“Many of my relatives went to Babyn Yar and died there. My grandfather had only a small carriage, so he could save only his immediate family.

“My father was supposed to be in Babyn Yar.”

The ceremony was impressive, and it was very moving, Mr. Smukler said.

“There was a huge ceremony, with the presidents of most European countries, and very heavy security. It was very emotional. A lot of people were crying. The service was so touching. The service, the music, the Kaddish.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Canadian House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota during a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on September 22, 2023. (Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images)

“We were standing right near the ravine, holding candles, when suddenly somebody jumped on my wife,” Alla Straks.

“This guy just jumped on her. I was so scared that he would push her down into the ravine but instead he kneeled down on her. He was screaming and crying. He was yelling ‘Forgive me! Give me forgiveness now! Forgive me!

“He was yelling for forgiveness in English, mixed with words in German.

“Security jumped on him, laid him down on the ground, put the bracelets” — handcuffs — “on him. And he kept screaming ‘Give me forgiveness! Give me forgiveness now!’

“It turned out that he was 38 years old, a consul general of Germany. He had some kind of breakdown during the service.

“A lot of people saw him. He had been crying hysterically during the memorial service at the ravine.

“And my wife told him, ‘I cannot give you forgiveness. I am not the person who can give you forgiveness.’

“I have never seen anybody cry like that.”

That incident “changed my life forever,” Mr. Smukler said. “We had been so scared, so shocked, we felt so sorry for him, so the next day we went to visit. I was very emotional. I realized that he was broken. That changed my attitude toward Germany and the Germans. I realized that the young generation now is different. That moment allowed  me to turn the page.

“The German people, the younger generation, they regret what happened, and they are looking for forgiveness,” he continued. “The Ukrainians haven’t reached that point yet. They still don’t understand what it means to look for forgiveness.

“So what happened at the Canadian parliament is so symbolic. It opened a pandora’s box. Why is the Ukrainian leadership still naming streets and raising monuments to honor people who killed us?”

Not only was the Ukrainians’ choice to honor Hunka painful to the Jewish community, in the end it was a self-own. “It ruined the image of Ukraine fighting against evil,” Mr. Smukler said. “It gave Putin such a gift! This is what he has been saying — that the Ukrainians are glorifying the Nazis.

“The Ukrainians are trying to present these people as national heroes because they were fighting against the Soviets. But during the war, all the Ukrainians who were members of SS units worked as local police. They were not on the eastern front. They were killing Jews inside Ukraine. They weren’t on the front lines fighting the Soviets. They were inside Ukraine, exterminating ghettos and fighting with Soviet guerrilla partisans.

“My heart belongs to Ukraine and to the heroic people there,” he concluded. “I am sure that the younger generations of Ukrainians do understand. I don’t believe that they are poisoned by the former Nazis. I just think that they have to be educated if they want to become part of the civilized world.

“They have to admit what happened.

“They have to go through the process that the Germans went through, to understand and admit that thousands of Ukrainians were guilty of killing Jews, and they have to understand what Jews feel when we see monuments erected to people like Hunka.”

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