history of the Jews in Ukraine

BEGINNINGS

Jewish history in Ukraine long predates the recorded history of the region, with archeological evidence suggesting that Jews arrived to the area with Greek traders before the common era.

Between 650-968, the Khazar Kingdom reached the eastern part of Ukraine. Many Khazars converted to Judaism, likely to oppose the growing Christian and Muslim influence of other empires. That said, today’s Ukrainian Jews are not descended from the Khazars, as the Khazars were exterminated during the Tatar invasions in the 13th century (which debunks the antisemitic “Khazar Theory” that claims today’s Jews are not Indigenous to Israel-Palestine). Nevertheless, the Khazar-Jewish influence on the city of Kyiv left its mark, leaving a Jewish gate and a Jewish quarter dating to the 11th century.

The Ukrainian Jewish community today is descended from Ashkenazi Jews that migrated eastward following a massive wave of pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) in Central and Western Europe between the 1400s-1500s. At first, the Jewish community flourished, reaching an estimated 40,000 people by the 17th century. Jews were often employed by the nobility to collect taxes, which led to resentment between Jewish moneylenders and gentiles. Jews were also given the exclusive right to sell alcohol.

 

EARLY ANTISEMITISM

By the mid-1600s, conflict between Catholic Poles and Christian Orthodox Ukrainians culminated in violence and several revolts. As is often the case, Jews were caught in the violence. The Cossack army, in its quest to end Polish domination of the region, ended up massacring the Jewish community. It’s estimated that up to half of the Jewish community was exterminated between 1648-1649. Periodic anti-Jewish massacres continued well into the 1700s.

Most significantly, in 1768, Jews, Poles, and Ukrainian Catholics were killed in an event known as the Massacre of Uman. Initially the Jews and Poles fought together, but ultimately, the Poles abandoned the Jews to fend for themselves. 3000 Jews fled to the synagogue for shelter but in the end were all killed by canon fire. Jews still commemorate this event with fast and prayer on the 5th of the Jewish month of Tammuz.

 

PALE OF SETTLEMENT

At the end of the 18th century, much of Ukraine came under the control of the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire confined its Jews to a region known as the “Pale of Settlement,” an area encompassing Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, much of Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Latvia. However, Jews were forbidden from residing in Kyiv, even though it was located within the Pale of Settlement. Even so, many Jews fled to the city illegally.

Though tensions between the Jewish and gentile Ukrainian community still existed, this period was also a period of cultural cross-fertilisation (in other words: there are influences of Ukrainian culture in Ukrainian Jewish culture, and vice versa).

During this time, Hasidism flourished in Ukraine, as did the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Both movements ideologically clashed with each other, each envisioning the future of Ukrainian (and worldwide) Jewry differently.

 

POGROMS & HOLODOMOR

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a massive wave of anti-Jewish massacres ravaged the Pale of Settlement. In 1881, after Alexander II was murdered, rumors spread that Alexander III had legally granted people the right to “beat the Jews.” Between 1881-1884, 100 Jews were murdered in pogroms. In response, many Jews turned to the Zionist movement, seeking sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Others became members of the socialist anti-Zionist Bund, which accused Jewish refugees to Palestine of “escapism.” Others became socialist Zionists. Finally, many decided to flee to the Americas.

During World War II, demoralised Ukrainian soldiers turned on the Jewish population, resulting in more pogroms. Between 1918-1920, Ukraine briefly became an independent nation, and the new Ukrainian government passed a law condemning antisemitism. Even so, 30,000-100,000 Jews were massacred at the hands of Ukrainian peasants, townspeople, and soldiers. Historians describe these pogroms as genocidal.

In 1922, Ukraine became a republic of the Soviet Union. In 1932-1933, a man-made genocidal famine known as the Holodomor ravaged the Ukrainian people, killing between 3.5 and 12 million people (because the Soviets buried their crimes, there is no good record-keeping). The Holodomor had far-reaching implications for the Jews of Ukraine that remain to this day (I have an upcoming post in this).

 

HOLOCAUST

The Holodomor and Soviet oppression of the Ukrainian people had a catastrophic impact on the Holocaust in Ukraine (I have an upcoming post that will go into this in more detail). Many Ukrainians — particularly in Western Ukraine — came to see the Nazis as their liberators from Soviet oppression (noteworthy that even so, millions of Ukrainians signed up to the Red Army to fight the Nazis). Because of the conspiracy theory of Jewish Bolshevism, others wrongfully blamed Jews for the Holodomor. Unfortunately, in many cases, these attitudes resulted in widespread collaboration.

Historians argue that the Holocaust officially began in Ukraine. Hitler himself considered Soviet Jews to be the “most dangerous” of all Jews. In 1941, the Nazis began mass murdering Jews by killing squad. Most notably, the Nazis and the (Nazi-created) Ukrainian Auxiliary Police massacred 33,771 Jews over a two day period in September of 1941 in an event known as the Babyn Yar massacre. In total, 1.2-1.6 million Ukrainian Jews perished during the Holocaust and though it’s hard to calculate the exact numbers, thousands of Roma, particularly in Western Ukraine, were murdered.

In June and July of 1941, a serious wave of anti-Jewish massacres occurred in the city of Lviv, now in Western Ukraine, perpetrated by the Nazis, Ukrainian nationalists, and other onlookers*. Thousands of Jews were murdered.

*today, Putin erroneously conflates these Ukrainian nationalists with ALL Ukrainian nationalism, something that he uses as justification to attack Ukraine. This is not true. The Ukrainian fight for self-determination is neither antisemitic nor “Nazi.” The Ukrainian president is Jewish and Ukraine has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, and they overwhelmingly support Ukraine.

 

SOVIET PERIOD

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviet regime began denying the antisemitic nature of the Holocaust, instead depicting the Nazi genocide as a war against the Soviet people as a whole. Because antisemitism became associated with Nazism, Stalin, who had a long record of antisemitism, enforced a massive “anti-Zionist” campaign. As part of this campaign, Jewish culture was severely suppressed. For example, studying Hebrew became punishable by law. While many Jews defiantly maintained their Jewish identity in secret, others unfortunately were stripped from their heritage.

The Doctors’ Plot was an antisemitic campaign between 1951-1953, when Stalin alleged that Jewish doctors from Moscow had conspired to assassinate Soviet leaders. In “response,” Jewish doctors were dismissed from their jobs, arrested, and tortured. A propaganda campaign warned of the dangers of “Zionism.” People with Jewish last names were condemned. Many historians now argue that the Doctor’s Plot was only the beginning to a larger plan of Jewish ethnic cleansing and possible genocide. Thankfully, because of Stalin’s sudden death, it never came to fruition.

In response to repressive conditions, particularly the Soviet antisemitism that succeeded the 1967 Six-Day War, thousands of Jews attempted to flee the USSR. The Soviets denied them emigration visas and punished them by stripping them from their jobs, among other things. However, in the mid to late 1970s, in response to international pressure, 250,000 Jews were finally allowed to leave the USSR.

 

TODAY

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, ~266,300 Ukrainian Jews made aliyah to Israel in the 1990s. In 2007, 700 Torah scrolls that were confiscated during the Soviet period were returned to the Jewish community in Ukraine. In 2008, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee was founded with the aim of protecting the rights of the Ukrainian Jewish community.

In response to Russian aggression in 2014, some 1000+ Ukrainian Jews left for Israel.

Antisemitism and neo-Nazism are still a problem in Ukraine, with periodic violence targeting the Jewish community. According to the ADL Global Antisemitism Index, 38% of Ukrainians harbor antisemitic attitudes, which is about average for Eastern Europe. That said, in 2019, Ukraine elected its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, is also Jewish.

As of 2014, about ~360,000 Jews lived in Ukraine, including thousands of Holocaust survivors.

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