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Jewish identity grew in Eastern Europe after World War II and the Holocaust

A tolerant new Ukraine has allowed thousands of potentially assimilating Jews to develop their identity as Jews.

A plea for assistance in eastern Ukraine. Credit: JDC.
A plea for assistance in eastern Ukraine. Credit: JDC.
Pamela Braun Cohen
Pamela Braun Cohen

Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust cannot be denied or absolved. That history cannot be ameliorated. Unquestionably, Jewish-Ukrainian history has been fraught with centuries of pogroms and hatred, but the events of the last 30 years have left their mark on the fate of Ukraine and its Jews. In those decades, Jewish emigration and human-rights activists helped alter the face of Ukraine.

Under the USSR’s repressive regime, dissidents and Jewish refuseniks—those who were denied exit visas—vigorously campaigned for the basic rights denied by the Kremlin and its Soviet Ukrainian apparatus. These activists demanded freedom of speech, their right to demonstrate, to move across borders, to observe the religion and cultures of minorities. For their activity, many were condemned to prison and hard labor in Siberia. Some, like refusenik Vladimir Kislik, the Kiev physicist, were forcibly disposed of in psychiatric institutions, where they were given psychotropic drugs to suppress their “psychotic dissidence.”

Dr. Semyon Gluzman, a Kiev psychiatrist, was sentenced to seven years in a hard labor camp and three in exile for protesting Soviet abuse of psychiatry against dissidents. In Kharkov, Alexander Paritsky was a successful scientist until he was fired for his visa application. During the 11 years that he fought to live in Israel, his attempts to create a Jewish “university” for refusenik kids denied a higher education resulted in a three-year labor-camp sentence. Decades later, his efforts, however, may have found fruition in the officially recognized Jewish day school that was recently bombed in his city of Kharkov.

The relentless demand for human-rights guarantees by Jewish refuseniks and their grassroots partners in the West beginning in 1970 struck the first cracks in the Iron Curtain. Twenty years later, the Soviet empire dissolved, bringing independence to Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics.

In 1992, at the request of Ukrainian refuseniks and dissidents, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews—the largest grassroots organization working on behalf of Jewish emigration—launched the Kiev-based Ukrainian-American Bureau of Human Rights. Headed by the former prisoner-of-conscience Dr. Semyon Gluzman, the bureau monitored human-rights abuses, and with the support of Ukraine’s democrats urged the newly independent government to denounce Jew-hatred and protect their Jewish minority.

At the end of the long struggle, the Soviet borders had collapsed, allowing 2 million Jews to emigrate. After the Kremlin’s dissolution, however, thousands of Jews remained in Ukraine, some too elderly or ill to move, some Holocaust survivors. It’s impossible to know the number of Jews who had tried to shelter themselves from Soviet anti-Semitism by hiding their identity, crawling out from beneath the rocks of the collapsed system, seeking their lost Jewish identity.

And in the post-Soviet era, a new brand of activists assumed leadership roles to create safety nets for those Jews who remained. In partnership, the Union of Councils created “Yad L’Yad “to jump-start local communal projects. Elimelech Shoikhet, a Lvov refusenik when I met him in 1989, remained to establish a “Meals-on-Wheels” for the impoverished and elderly and to battle the new government for Jewish property that had been appropriated under communism. Now he’s providing housing, provisions and support to Jewish refugees. Religious organizations helped thousands of Jews without communal or family support. Yad Yisrael established an orphanage and an educational and communal complex in Kiev. Chabad has built shuls and schools. Limmud brought in educators. Israelis pursued commerce.

A tolerant new Ukraine has had a unique climate that has allowed thousands of potentially assimilating Jews to develop their identity as Jews. The process that began with Jewish refusenik activists who had the courage and moral vision to resist is now under attack; Israel is evacuating thousands of remaining Ukrainian Jews; and the Jewish people everywhere are united in their efforts to bring them safely to communities awaiting them.

Volodymyr Zelensky is the legacy of the decades-old Jewish movement that impacted his country. Ukraine’s president stands as a proud Jew who has exerted a moral courage and dignity that has captured the attention and respect of the free world. Tragically, the new Ukraine born out of a struggle for human rights and dignity is gravely at risk.

Pamela Braun Cohen is the former president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and the author of “Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union.” 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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