One Year of War in Ukraine

Chicago’s Ukrainian Jewish community reflects on war and troubled history of Soviet past

“It took U.S. experts too much time to realize that the Russian war against Ukraine is our war,” Ukraine-born historian Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern told JNS.

Ukrainian refugees waiting for a bus to take them to safety. Photo by David Isaac.
Ukrainian refugees waiting for a bus to take them to safety. Photo by David Isaac.

Ukrainian Jews who have settled in Illinois since war began in their country a year ago report that the state has been largely pro-Ukraine and that those who seemed initially hesitant to support the country have moved towards denouncing Russia and its continued military onslaught.

Illinois is the second most-requested state in general that Ukrainian refugees request for placement, although far fewer Jewish refugees are immigrating there. That’s according to Gail Rudo, who heads the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago’s local Ukraine response committee, who told JNS that of the $9.5 million JUF has raised, it has allocated $700,000 locally.

In particular, the area that draws them is Chicago and its environs, more commonly referred to as Chicagoland.

“Towards the beginning of the war, there was a major split in our community between the older and younger generations,” Rabbi Naftoly Hershkovich, director of Lubavitch Chabad of Niles-F.R.E.E. in Des Plaines, Ill., told JNS. The congregation of 500 members includes a sizable number of those from former Soviet-bloc countries.

The rabbi explained that those who emigrated before the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s tended to take an anti-Ukrainian stance, invoking bitter historical memories such as Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi Germans during World War II and the Holocaust, and especially the massacre over a two-day period on Sept. 29-30, 1941, when 3,771 Jews were shot, killed and dumped into a ravine at Babi Yar outside Kyiv.

‘The fighting must stop’

But a newer generation of Ukrainian and Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s and the refugees who have come in the last year have more positive memories of Ukraine.

Hershkovich, who has run the Chabad center for 35 years, told JNS that the now one-year-old war has been hard on everyone irrespective of political ideology.

“When you see human suffering, it is very hard,” he said.

Hershkovich would know: “My grandfather and uncle were put in prison for daring to practice Judaism,” he said. “It was not easy to be religious in the Soviet Union.”

The rabbi detailed how his grandfather Nachman, who lived in the city of Uman that draws observant Jews every year at High Holiday time, was widely trusted by his community. When he was not working as a shoemaker, Nachman would organize places for Jews to worship and learn Judaism in secret, recounts his grandson.

“My grandfather would find basements, apartments and rooms for Jews to learn and pray,” said Hershkovich. “This was very dangerous. Anyone who was caught would be sent to Siberia.” Hershkovich described how his grandfather was arrested before the start of World War II after threatening to kill a Russian officer who was harassing a Jewish widow and her six children. Following a 10-year sentence in Siberia, his grandfather would find refuge in the newly proclaimed State of Israel.

Hershkovich’s uncle was a religious Jew who came from Lviv and hosted Jews regularly at his house. From 1946 to 1948, Hershkovich described how his uncle would help procure phony papers from the black market to help Jews escape from the Soviet Union.

“At the time, if you could prove you were a Polish citizen, Russia would allow you to go back to Poland,” explained Hershkovich. However, when the KGB caught one of the smuggled individuals, his uncle was also sentenced to a decade to exile in Siberia.

Bringing the discussion full circle to today, “like everything else, nothing is simple,” said the rabbi. “But everyone now is in agreement that the fighting must stop. Many are also very worried about their friends and relatives back in Ukraine.”

Lubavitch Chabad of Niles-F.R.E.E. in Des Plaines, Ill. Credit: Courtesy.

‘U.S. has to catch up with itself’
Some Jewish Chicagoans of Ukrainian descent blame U.S. military leaders and scholars in think tanks for failing to prevent Russia from invading in the first place.

Professor Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. Credit: Courtesy.

Born and raised in Kyiv, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is a professor of Jewish studies at Northwestern University, where he teaches courses on Eastern European history and culture. Some of his family and friends still remain in Ukraine.

“It took U.S. experts too much time to realize that the Russian war against Ukraine is ‘our’ war, and we have to make serious strategic and economic decisions to accommodate this vision,” he told JNS.

Petrovsky-Shtern studied in Moscow before coming to the United States. He was among the signatories to an open letter signed by many in the Ukrainian Jewish community to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year, urging him to take a tougher stance on Russia amid Berlin’s reluctance to send armaments to Kyiv.

[Russian President Vladimir] Putin would not have invaded Ukraine had he known that the war would trigger the unity of the West, massive sanctions and plummet the Russian economy,” he said. “All of that shows that the meek U.S. feedback to the Russian invasion in Georgia [in 2008] and annexation of Crimea [in 2014] did not help Ukrainians. Now the U.S. has to catch up with itself.”

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