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Anti-Semitism in old Cossack city

NOVOCHERKASSK, Russia, Sept. 1 (JTA) — Olga Kornyenko, secretary of the Jewish community of Novocherkassk, runs her finger along the outlines of a red swastika-like symbol painted on a telephone pole next to the city’s Russian Orthodox cathedral. It is the logo of a Russian fascist group. “It’s clear this was done with official permission, so close to the main cathedral,” she says. “There are skinheads all over the city. We see swastikas, graffiti saying ‘Jews out,’ most of it since March of this year.” Does Kornyenko take it seriously? “Of course. Three years ago, there was no such graffiti. This is all new,” she says. A February 2001 study put the number of skinheads in Rostov at just under 1,000; they are believed to be behind the recent graffiti in Novocherkassk, Kornyenko says, but local Jews are more concerned that the authorities don’t have the offending wall daubings removed. Novocherkassk, a city of 200,000 people about 30 miles southwest of Rostov-on-Don, was founded in 1805 as the capital of the Don Cossacks. It is in a region of Russia considered the power base of the fascist Russian National Unity party and its youthful skinhead followers. “What can we do?” asks Lena Malyetskaya, director of Novocherkassk’s Hesed welfare organization. She notes that there are just 230 Jews in the city, most of them elderly Hesed clients. “We have very difficult relations with the city administration.” Novocherkassk’s first post-Soviet mayor was very friendly toward the Jews. In fact, says Jewish community chairman Anatoly Iasenik, it was the mayor’s suggestion in 1996 to organize a formal Jewish community. “He wanted us to vote for Yeltsin,” Iasenik explains. For the first three years, Iasenik says, that’s what the Jewish community leadership focused on. “We told Jews not to vote for the communist party.” Soon, they organized a local program affiliated with Hesed, with funding and advice from Rostov’s then newly created Hesed. In 1999, Iasenik registered the Jewish community as a state-recognized religious organization, affiliated with the Chabad-sponsored Federation of Jewish Communities. Chabad’s Moscow office sends them books and equipment, and pays their bills. A huge portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe hangs on the wall. Everything changed for Novocherkassk’s Jews with the election of a new mayor in 2000, one that local Jewish leaders say is not friendly to the Jewish community. One of his first actions was to shut down Iasenik’s newspaper which had supported the opposition candidate. The newspaper office, which the previous mayor had given the community for free, and which also housed the Hesed and religious community, was locked up. In April 2001, Iasenik’s home was bombed. Local Jews insist it was because he’d criticized the new mayor in print. The crime was never investigated, and Iasenik has since given up journalism. Official indifference to anti-Semitism continues, Iasenik says. He describes how he found signs posted around town reading “Buy a gun and kill a Jew.” He collected some and took them to meetings with the mayor, police chief and head of the Internal Security Service. “They wrote letters saying they couldn’t find the perpetrators,” he comments drily. For six months last year, the Hesed was homeless. “I would go from place to place for meetings, carrying a huge suitcase filled with all our documents,” Malyetskaya says. “It was very difficult to store the food packages.” Today, Hesed and the Jewish community share cramped offices in a pre-fab building in a dusty factory courtyard. There is no phone line, no Internet connection, and no sign at the street-level entryway to indicate that these are Jewish organizations. Community fears run high. “My grandmother says I should never tell anyone where I work,” says Malyetskaya. When the new office opened in March of this year, some local Jews were upset that their photos appeared in a related newspaper article. “They were very frightened,” Malyetskaya says. “There are other Jews we want to help in town, but they’ll never visit the Hesed office. They are afraid of their neighbors.” The past two years, she says, Jews were followed home after High Holiday services by crowds yelling “Jew” at them. Most of Novocherkassk’s younger Jews have left for Israel or Germany, and a few have gone to the United States. Iasenik says about 20 Jewish children remain in the community. Two Bar Mitzvahs were celebrated this past March, and the first Bat Mitzvah will take place this fall. Iasenik puts on a brave face for visitors, dreaming out loud of the day when Novocherkassk will have its own synagogue. That seems an entirely fanciful vision. Not only is the community getting smaller every year, very few of its members are halachically Jewish. The previous educational director, for example, recently immigrated to Israel after converting to Judaism. The few wealthier Jews in town don’t want to affiliate, or donate, to the Jewish community. “Nobody wants to make trouble with the mayor,” Malyetskaya notes. “It could hurt their business.”