Around the Jewish World (part 1 of 2): Spirit of Shtetls Endures in Small Ukrainian Towns

Fifty-five years ago, Yona Stoler, a 16- year-old Jewish boy, was shot by a German firing squad on the outskirts of Mogilyov-Podolsky, a small town in the Vinnitsa region of central Ukraine.

On that August morning in 1941, Stoler was the only Jew out of 1,000 who survived the mass execution.

“There were rabbis among my ancestors,” says Stoler, now a retired dentist. “I feel it is my obligation to keep tradition in our small community.”

Today, Stoler is one of only two men in the 1,000-member Jewish community in Mogilyov-Podolsky who know how to pray in Hebrew.

Nonetheless, a small synagogue in the old town opens its doors daily for afternoon prayers.

“We have a minyan every day,” Stoler says proudly, because in most of the region’s Jewish communities it is difficult to get 10 Jews together even for Sabbath services.

Like elsewhere in the Vinnitsa region, many Jews in Mogilyov-Podolsky live and work on the same streets their grandparents frequented in past generations.

Indeed, nearly half of Ukraine’s 600,000 Jews still live in small towns where one can feel the spirit of the shtetls of old.

While there is little remaining of shtetl life elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the old, lopsided wooden houses of Jewish quarters throughout the Vinnitsa region have not changed greatly since the turn of the century.

The region has a population of some 15,000 Jews, less than 1 percent of the general population.

Before the war, the region’s Jews accounted for what has been estimated at between 30 percent and 60 percent of the general population, making Vinnitsa one of the most important Jewish centers in Ukraine.

The region’s Jewish roots, like most of Ukraine’s, run deep.

A Jewish community thrived here until the mid-17th century, when Cossacks led by Bogdan Chmielnicki butchered thousands of Jews throughout Ukraine.

By the end of the 19th century, the Jews had managed to strengthen their ranks. But their numbers dwindled again in the years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when they were once again subject to pogroms.

Most of those who did survive during the Russian civil war were later exterminated during the German occupation of Ukraine in World War II.

Now, more than a half-century after the war, Jews throughout the region are struggling to regain their heritage.

Many Jews now living in the Vinnitsa region returned to Ukraine from Siberia or Central Asia, where they fled when German troops were approaching their homes.

Lev Gershenzon, 82, says he never went to synagogue until recently.

Before World War II, Gershenzon was the principal of one of the Yiddish- language schools in Mogilyov-Podolsky.

“It might be funny, but I just recently discovered how important I am for the community. If I didn’t come today, probably there would have been no service in our synagogue,” he says.

The old men praying in the synagogue remember the brisk Jewish life that existed in their native town decades ago.

Most of them are Holocaust survivors; they personally witnessed the destruction of their community at the hands of the Nazis.

One encounters similar experiences throughout the region, where Jews work as doctors, teachers, craftsmen, shopkeepers and unskilled laborers.

Misha Lanter is the last Jewish artisan in his native town of Gaisin.

“My father was a tailor, and I’ve been a shoemaker all my life,” the 59-year- old explains in Yiddish. His workshop is located on the same street on which dozens of Jewish craftsmen worked before the war.

Moisei Semidubersky, a construction worker in Bershad, knows well that every Jew in town calls him a “shikker,” the Yiddish for drunkard.

But the 59-year-old survivor of the Bershad ghetto does not seem to care much about his reputation.

“At least 1 do not work on the Sabbath,” he says.

There are no rabbis in the towns of the Vinnitsa region.

Lev Klyahandler of Bershad refers to himself as one, though he never received any religious training.

But every Saturday, Lev walks down the street to the synagogue carrying the proof of his devotion to his adopted calling.

The retired doctor never leaves the ancient Torah scroll in the synagogue — so that “it won’t be stolen,” he says, from the 170-year-old adobe building.

Most of the provincial communities in Vinnitsa have no functioning synagogues.

“Those who can pray cannot walk, and those who can walk cannot pray,” said Leonid Sklyar of Zhmerinka, where the last synagogue was closed by the Soviet authorities in the 1960s.

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