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Putting aside historical slogans, protesting for a better Ukraine

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KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) — As I stood as one of the few Americans among the masses of protesters at Kiev’s Independence Square, the frigid cold reminded me that this was my fourth year trying to survive a harsh Ukrainian winter.

The crowd seemed to be warming up thanks to the incessant chants — and hot breath — that kept emerging from the hundreds of thousands of throats on hand: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!”

I wasn’t sure whether to join in. This chant has a history. It’s the rallying cry of Ukrainian nationalists and was popularized by Ukrainian militias during World War II who fought the Russians and collaborated in Nazi atrocities against Jews. But now it was being used to protest a corrupt Ukrainian government drifting away from the West and into Russia’s orbit.

Standing there with a kippah hidden under my warm winter hat and my tzitzit well tucked in, I could tell my Jewish Ukrainian friends and I were struggling with the same question. How do you express patriotism when the nationalism associated with your country has such a horrible history? Did our presence demand that we chant a slogan once anathema to our grandparents?

We were there to show our love for Ukraine, a country that molded me into the man and Jew that I have become. And the protests, which began as pro-Western demonstrations, have come to symbolize the desire for dignity in a country where the aristocracy rules and cracks in the social safety net could swallow whole villages.

When I first told my friends and family that I was going to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, they were less than enthusiastic. It wasn’t exactly a conventional path for a Jewish day school graduate from New Jersey.

Some of my relatives painted pictures of pogroms chasing me around every bend and begged me not to go. But I wanted to do something different, and my deep shtetl nostalgia led me to the former Pale of Settlement.

On my first night in my village of Boyarka, in June 2010, Mikolya, the barrel-chested farmer that lived next door and principal of the local school, asked me if I wanted to go to church on Sunday. I hesitated. No, I told him, I will not go to church because I am a Jew.

“Oh,” he replied. “We don’t have any of them here.”

It was months before Mikolya would begin to open up to me about the forgotten Jewish history in our village. He showed me the old cemetery, largely destroyed and abandoned. He showed me where synagogues once stood and where the vanished shtetl had laid its foundations. We collected interviews and artifacts, spent time in the archives and discovered together a past that had long been lost. The history we learned wasn’t always pleasant.

The Jewish community of Boyarka was destroyed by 1920. Three pogroms by three different groups slaughtered more than 100 of its inhabitants. The descendants of these pogromniks were my neighbors, my students and my friends. How much responsibility does wonderful, precocious, 9-year-old Yana bear for the crimes of her great-great-grandfather? When do I tell Yana — who came to study English with me three days a week, who despite her absent father and alcoholic mother always has a smile on her face, who wants to be a translator and see the world — about these horrible deeds?

And what do I say to Mikolya when he stumbles into my home drunk one night asking me why all Jews are either angels or demons?

How do I react to Zavalski, whose grandfather was Jewish and was killed by the Nazis, when he comes over and takes the kippah off my head and puts it on his own. How do I prevent myself from crying when he tells me that I am the first Jew he ever met in his life who was proud of who he was, and that this makes him proud, too?

And what do I say to all the wonderful Jewish friends I made in Kiev who are shocked that I speak Ukrainian, the language of Boyarka, such a peasants’ tongue, rather than the much more cosmopolitan Russian? How do I explain to them that these village folk aren’t simpleminded, that they are beautiful and complex?

These protests, like most things in Ukraine, are not so black and white. Here we were, out on the square, Jews protesting alongside Ukrainian nationalists, joined in opposition to a regime ruled by an elite that seems to care little for the common man, that does nothing when universities charge bribes for admission, that allows the country’s main highways to resemble backwoods paths?

We stood there, shoulder to shoulder, because the protest isn’t about the historical meaning of some slogan. It’s about people who feel helpless to do anything but stand in the cold and demand change. It is a protest about creating a fair and just society where children like Yana have a chance to succeed. And it is also about creating a better future, where very dark moments of history can be explored and where reconciliation can begin.

For now, we stand, Jews with Ukrainians, young with old, because we don’t know what else to do. It is not yet clear that there is a solution to Ukraine’s problems.

As the speaker shouts “Glory to Ukraine!” I think not of anti-Semites and fascists and murderers but of universities and jobs and freedom. And when I choose to be silent with my friends, to support them in their decision not to join in with “Glory to its heroes!” I recall all the amazing people I have met, members of every tribe, who may yet lead this country to salvation.

(Jeremy Borovitz spent 3 1/2 years in Ukraine working as a Peace Corps volunteer as well as with the Jewish community in Kiev. He currently lives in Jerusalem, where he is studying at the Pardes Institute.)

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