MOGILEV-PODOLSKY, Ukraine (JTA) – On a sweltering summer day, the researchers fan out in this city’s historical center, its walls lined with photos of local Jews who went through the Holocaust.
The visiting scholars from St. Petersburg aren’t here to dwell on Jewish demise, however. They have come to document Jewish life in what expedition leader Valery Dymshits calls “the last Jewish city in the Soviet Union,” Mogilev-Podolsky.
As recently as the early 1990’s — before an exodus to the United States, Israel and Germany depleted the community — Yiddish was widely spoken on the streets here. Despite the community’s rapid contraction, the Jewish presence here perseveres.
With this rare continuity, Dymshits and his team of scholars have staked a claim as the first and only team in 70 years to conduct field research into the region’s Jewish folklore, recording scores of interviews along the way.
In one corner of the historical center, a St. Petersburg researcher asks an older woman about Jewish song; she responds by softly singing a melody.
When a rail-thin, 85-year-old Jewish man enters to beg for pocket change and cigarettes, scholar Anna Kushkova offers him a cigarette, and the two step outside.
The man starts talking about how he thinks he’s Lenin, Kushkova said, “but then he described his Yiddish school before the war, and how he was graded. Those were valuable details.”
It’s these nuggets, say Kushkova and others from the Petersburg Judaica Center of St. Petersburg’s European University, that make Mogilev-Podolsky the treasure trove it is for those trying to assemble pieces of a Jewish puzzle.
While the Jews in this otherwise provincial backwater on Ukraine’s southwest border with Moldova may not be as exotic as others in the former Soviet Union — such as, say, the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, or the Bukharian Jews along the old Silk Road in Uzbekistan — the community of Mogilev-Podolsky has a unique story to tell.
While Nazi mobile-killing units known as SS Einsatzgruppen and their local collaborators were decimating Jewish life across the Pale of Settlement, one exception was the historic region of Podolia, including Mogilev-Podolsky.
Podolia was under Romanian control. Though plenty cruel and bloody, especially for the hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews deported into the region, the Romanians were less methodical in destroying Podolian Jewry itself.
That enabled both Jewish communal infrastructure and spirit to survive.
“It’s natural that if you discover an island in the ocean, you try to investigate it,” says Dymshits, director of the Petersburg Judaica Center.
In leaving no stone unturned, the scholars acknowledge they’re following in the footsteps of another Jewish explorer: S. Ansky, the father of Jewish ethnography. Best known for writing “The Dybbuk,” Ansky — born Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport — became a passionate voice for Jewish folklore and nostalgia for traditional Jewish life.
In 1908, Ansky co-founded the Historical-Ethnographic Society of St. Petersburg in part to help reconnect the acculturated Jews of his adopted city, Petersburg — who mostly traced their roots to the shtetls of present-day Belarus — with their folkloric past, according to Prof. David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
From 1911 to 1914, Ansky led expeditions through Ukraine’s shtetls, capturing hundreds of wax cylinder recordings — the earliest form of phonograph record — of Jewish folk songs and folklore, plus manuscripts, books, photographs and Judaica.
Though in the early years under Soviet rule Yiddish culture flourished, an increasingly repressive regime turned against any movements that deviated from strict Communist Party ideology. Ethnic identification became taboo and Jewish folkloric studies ceased.
But in Podolia, the Jews were able to maintain their traditions, especially in Mogilev-Podolsky.
Thus, during the Soviet thaw of the late 1980s, Dymshits and some colleagues hit upon a field of virgin terrain, with some pockets of Jewish life preserved as if in amber. Seizing Ansky’s ethnographic mantle, they plunged into Podolia in 1989.
These scholars, though, were not quite detached observers. As Jews, they had roots of their own in both the Pale of Settlement and St. Petersburg. In countless expeditions, they measured and documented the size and appearance of every synagogue, cemetery and Jewish home — any material fragment of Jewish culture that remained.
Later they expanded their activities from Ukraine to Moldova, Belarus, the Baltic States, Central Asia, Caucasus and Romania.
For these so-called “Kulturniks,” as Roskies wrote in The Forward in February 2006, it was a “circuitous route home, back to the sources of their own culture.” Their work also has helped revive the appeal of secular Jewish culture in St. Petersburg itself.
Alla Sokolova, an expert on shtetl architecture and senior researcher at the Judaica Center, says, “It would be wrong to say these are heavily urbanized Jews who lost their culture and roots over the course of many years and are now desperately trying to reclaim both by making repeated visits into the field.”
“It is an attempt to restore in our minds a world that we thought no longer existed, but isn’t lost any more,” Sokolova says.
The researchers found that the Yiddish-speaking world of largely Jewish towns and shtetls had not vanished; Jewish memory and knowledge had endured.
The center has expanded and deepened its research in recent years. In the summer of 2005, scholars from the center explored the Podolian city of Tulchin. Last summer, they went to Balta. This year they arrived at the motherlode of Jewish ethnography in the region: Mogilev-Podolsky.
Even in the 1970s and 80s, the population of Mogilev, as it’s called here — not to be confused with the eponymous city in Belarus —was roughly one-quarter Jewish, with Jews heavily concentrated in the city center.
It was the largest ratio of any city in the former Soviet Union, Dymshits says.
“In Mogilev,” he says, “any Ukrainian will tell you about the Jewish classmates, the Jewish neighbors, the Yiddish on the streets, being invited to their weddings. This means Mogilev was a Jewish town. Not just for the Jews, but for the whole town. It was impossible to imagine Mogilev without Jews even 20 years ago.”
Yet from a peak prewar population of some 34,000, the Mogilev Jewish population shrunk to 9,000 two decades ago and to just 350 people today.
Nevertheless, Dymshits says “the taste of Jewish life is strong until now.”
On this summer’s two-week visit to Mogilev, he led a team of two-dozen researchers, mostly from Petersburg, with a few from Moscow and North America.
One of the researchers, Nikolai Glagolev, 26, said he was drawn both to the taboo history of Jewish folkloric studies and its present-day romanticized image. “I have always dreamt of visiting the Pale of Settlement, to see with my own eyes what it looks like today,” he said.
Researchers visited places as varied as a Jewish-owned bakery and the local library, where they asked about Jewish reading habits. In some cases, they were invited into private homes.
Kushkova said she found one couple, both around 70, who traced their family yichus, or lineage, to affluent local merchants in the early 1800s. The couple had a megillah on parchment, silver Kiddush goblets and a demeanor that bespoke their noble ancestry. “They knew they were of high origin,” Kushkova said.
The researchers also shared in some of the community’s own Jewish practices, with a handful joining community members for a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the city’s lone remaining synagogue.
The gabbai led the group in prayers spoken mostly in Russian; few can speak or understand Hebrew here. The service wasn’t just for show; men convene in the shul every night for prayers.
It’s this palpable sense of community, locals say, that encourages many in the Mogilev diaspora to return almost yearly for visits to their hometown, whether the émigrés now live in metropolitan Tel Aviv, New York or Hanover, Germany.
It’s also this spirit that has the Judaica Center scholars returning next summer for another two weeks of research — finances permitting.
“It’s like reading a huge book without a beginning and an end, and you’re somewhere in the middle, trying to figure it out,” Dymshits says.