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For Ukrainian Jews, the Past Weighs Heavily on the Present

In last month’s presidential ballot in Ukraine, Raisa Likhter from Kiev voted for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. It wasn’t because she supported Yanukovich’s political or economic programs over those of his opponent, opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko, but because of a fear of anti-Semitism.

“As a Jew, how could I vote otherwise?” the 81-year-old woman asked, echoing concerns shared today by many elderly and middle-aged Jews in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s controversial presidential contest, which appears to be headed toward a second ballot, highlights unresolved issues that have marred Ukrainian-Jewish relations for decades, mostly beneath the surface.

Unlike Yanukovich, who is seen as pro-Russian and associated with corruption, Yuschenko is considered to be pro-Western and democratic. But he’s also associated with a phenomenon that doesn’t correspond with democracy or tolerance — Ukrainian nationalism.

Pro-nationalist sentiments have deeper roots in western Ukraine, in part because of the region’s shorter history under communism.

“I’ve been to western Ukraine many times, and I’ve seen leaflets calling to do away with Russians and Jews. I cannot vote for this,” Likhter said.

Yuschenko has never made statements viewed as anti-Semitic or xenophobic, but his political ties to some radical nationalists — and the fact that Ukraine’s West overwhelmingly supports him — has given him a controversial image in the eyes of some Jews.

Jewish fears of anti-Semitism emanating from Western Ukraine are difficult to back up today, as Jewish leaders say cases of anti-Semitism are even less frequent there than in other regions.

But in a land where anti-Semitism often has reared its ugly head — and where a 1648 uprising led by a Ukrainian nationalist hero, Bogdan Khmelnitski, is remembered by Jews for its destruction of Jewish communities — memories die hard.

More recently, many elderly Jews remember how, during and after World War II, some Ukrainians took revenge on Russians and Jews in western areas for their alleged or actual role in bringing communism to this part of Ukraine, which was annexed by the Soviet Union during war era.

Ukrainian Jewish leaders say such fears were stoked for political gain: Ukraine’s current regime made a special effort during this year’s presidential campaign to paint the opposition as hard-line xenophobes and anti-Semites, and as heirs to World War II-era Ukrainian nationalists.

“This deep-seated fear of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is beneath the surface, and it takes a long time to get rid of it,” said Yakov Dov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine.

“When a Jew sees a street recently renamed after Stepan Bandera — who fought against both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis during and after World War II, and whose name has become synonymous with contemporary Ukrainian nationalism — he is scared, and wants it changed back to Lenin Street,” said Bleich.

For many Jews, Bandera also is associated with anti-Semitic crimes.

Yet Jewish leaders say they don’t believe the level of anti-Semitism is likely to increase even if Yuschenko becomes president.

“The question is not if there are anti-Semites in his entourage,” said Josef Zissels, a Yuschenko supporter. “The question is whether these people will have the right to speak on behalf of the state during his presidency. I want to believe this will not be the case.”

On several occasions, Yuschenko has tried to dispel the fears of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and other minority groups, who make up about one-fifth of Ukraine’s population of 52 million.

In a meeting in Kiev’s Independence Square on Saturday night, Yuschenko told tens of thousands of supporters that his father, an ethnic Ukrainian who fought in the Red Army against the Nazis, survived Auschwitz as a prisoner of war.

Yuschenko said he remembers the number his father had at Auschwitz.

A Kiev woman whose parents were killed in the Holocaust said she trusts Yuschenko.

“The Nazis killed my parents, but I don’t have any fear today,” said Elena Leschinskaya, 68, a retired printing house manager. “This is a new generation of people coming to power today. What many Jews fear is based on their old perceptions.”

Others, like Likhter, aren’t so sure.

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