Behind the Headlines: Remaining Jews in Ukraine Countryside Try to Memorialize Past, Build Future

On the road outside Kiev, the city’s stately avenues and river views give way to the dusty paths, sunflower fields and wandering cows of the Ukrainian countryside.

Almost every wooden farm cottage has a hand-drawn water well, and as the cars zip by, an occasional horse-drawn cart clops along beside them at the slower speed of another era.

Many years ago, this region was the heart of the Jewish Pale of Settlement — the towns were bustling shtetls, and Jewish life alternated between periods of vicious pogroms and thriving creativity.

Yiddish was spoken on the streets. Sholem Aleichem spent time in these parts, and not far away is the birthplace of Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism.

Today, after decades of repression and then rapid emigration to Israel, few Jews remain. But those that do are slowly, cautiously, still some-what fearfully, reclaiming their heritage, even as their numbers dwindle.

Ten of the small towns outside Kiev have newly created Jewish community groups, with one of the most active in Boguslav, home to 247 Jews.

Boris Greenberg, 56, is the leader of Boguslav’s Jewish Cultural Association, formed a year ago. A stocky man whose light blue-grey eyes contrast with the deep, nut brown of his leathery skin, he is the town’s main keeper of its Jewish past.

“Until the war, 11,000 of the 13,000 people here were Jewish. Everyone spoke Yiddish, even the non-Jews,” he said.

And now? Most people speak Russian or Ukrainian. Yiddish is rarely heard.

In a place of so much history — some of it suppressed, most of it on the verge of being forgotten — creating memorials and recognizing former Jewish buildings is an exercise in the restoration of truth.

A CLOSED SHUL SERVED GESTAPO, COMMUNISTS

In the middle of a small juncture in the road is a simple brick and cement building with a new wooden entrance. Once one of Boguslav’s four synagogues, it was closed in 1917.

Years later, the building’s basement was used as an interrogation cell for the Gestapo during World War II. After the war, the building was turned into a museum for the Pioneer Youth.

Today, the local government is dismantling cherry-red Soviet memorabilia from the building. But even behind the posters and slogans and Lenin plaques, nothing of its Jewish past remains.

A little further outside town is a deep ravine where the Nazis ordered 3,900 Jews to dig their own grave and then killed them.

In 1969, when openly Jewish activity was still dangerous, Greenberg began a memorial to these victims. It took him four years to finish it.

Today it stands, a cleared field and a simple mound of earth the size of a coffin, with a plaque that reads: “Here lie the remains of Jews killed by the fascists in September 1941.”

At the Jewish cemetery in another section of Boguslav, another plaque, this one built by the government, honors the victims of fascism — but without mentioning exactly who they were.

“Everyone knew it was for the Jews, but they didn’t want to write the word,” said Greenberg. Near the monument are new graves without Hebrew lettering or Stars of David. “We have anti-Semitism. People are afraid,” he said.

Nearby, the old section of the cemetery remains a lopsided tumble of tombstones, some shaped like tree stumps with branches cut to nubs, other resembling crouching lions. They are overgrown with foliage but here, too, Greenberg has been attempting to restore order.

Still, the main task of the Jewish Cultural Association concerns the living, especially the town’s many poor and elderly Jews.

On one afternoon, Greenberg brought a holiday food package from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to a couple in a hobbled old wooden home that looks like it emerged straight out of a Marc Chagall painting, lopsided walls and all.

LIVING ON LESS THAN $20 A MONTH

In the main room, Moise Gofeld, 76, lay on his iron bed, his remaining hairs white, his teeth few. His wife, Perel Shmulevony, 73, shuffled across the floor to offer greetings. As pensioners, they receive less than $20 a month from the government, provoking hardship and fury.

“Bread costs 3,000 coupons (less than 10 cents). What kind of life is that?” rasped Gofeld, who worked all of his life as a shoemaker. “When we were young,” he said, “there were four or five synagogues. Now, nothing.”

And how was Jewish life under the Soviets? Despite his years, he summoned sarcasm with ease. “Oh, it was very good,” he said.

In another home, Aaron Rottenshtein, 70, also lay in bed, alone and ill. His pension barely pays for medicine, and with the recent death of his son, he was tired and sad.

When asked how he lives on his small budget, he explained that he eats only rice and milk. And then he began to cry.

“I can’t sleep at night, I am alone, without money, without anything,” he said, shaking. Too upset to continue, he got ready to return to bed.

From this difficult encounter, Greenberg traveled on to the new office of the Jewish Cultural Association. Inside the tiny, two-room office was a spectacle of color: Six or seven types of wallpaper decorated the walls, and the ceiling was painted in a colored star pattern.

One room, which had a long table spread with Jewish books, held a gathering of 12 people, including local Jewish activists, the mayor and the Ukraine representative of the JDC, which paid for the renovation of the office. Over lunch, Greenberg said, “Before, a lot of people didn’t say they were Jewish. I was never like that.”

Greenberg thinks the Jewish communal programs “will continue for three or five years, and then it will be the end. Many Jews are leaving for Israel, and I have the feeling that anti-Semitism will increase.”

For all his efforts, the history of Boguslav — of Ukraine — remains a heavy stone.

Look closely at the thin concrete rectangles separating the town’s sidewalks from its streets: They are cut from Jewish tombstones.

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