Commentary Magazine


Ukranians and Jews

To the Editor:

In “‘There Go Our Little Jews’” [April], David G. Roskies mentions the Ukrainian, nationalists who came to Moscow in order to provide extra security for the All-Russian Conference of Jewish Organizations. I was present at the conference and can testify to the effective service rendered by those young volunteers.

Not only was the anti-Semitic Pamyat group heckling an attempting to block entry into the conference hall, but on one day a group of Palestinian students, masked to prevent identification, did likewise. Several efforts were made to gain entry to the hall by these groups and the Ukrainians forcibly kept them out.

I talked with one of the young Ukrainians (aged twenty-four), who said he was glad to be able to provide some security for a national group which, like his own, was striving for its own identity and freedom. As he spoke “American” English without accent, I inquired where he had acquired this ability. He replied, “in school,” and then after a pause and with a slight smile added, “and in two semesters at Albany College of the State University of New York.” He told me he hoped to remain in Moscow and be employed as an interpreter for one of the foreign businesses which he said were going to establish joint ventures in the USSR.

Three months have passed since then, and I can only speculate about the possibility of that young man’s change of residence and vocation. The rapidity of changes in the USSR makes his aspiration more than a forlorn hope.

Richard Maass
White Plains, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . When the local Ukrainian censor, as described by David G. Roskies, expunges a representation of “the notorious 17th-century pogromist,” Bogdan Chmielnitsky, from a poster, it is sad. But when Mr. Roskies himself omits or fails to make an obvious connection, it is painful. I refer to two such omissions.

First, after referring to the “infamous blood-libel trial of Mendel Beilis,” Mr. Roskies bemoans the Russian Jews’ lack of knowledge of Jewish customs, specifically those customs having to do with the Passover seder. The one custom remembered (because an actor had once played a rabbi in a play) was the opening of the door for Elijah. Mr. Roskies might well have pointed out that this custom is connected with, and may have originated because of, the blood libel. During the seder, Jews would often open their doors in order to make certain that their “friendly” neighbors were not depositing any “evidence” that might give rise to the blood libel. Pointing out that connection would have been an . . . effective teaching tool at the seder Mr. Roskies describes in the capital of the Ukraine.

Second, I find it interesting that although Mr. Roskies writes, “There has not been nor will there ever be a moral reckoning for the Jewish blood spilled by Ukrainian hands,” he himself never reckons with the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Jews who were slaughtered by the Ukrainian henchmen and allies of the Nazis during the Holocaust. My mother and father, whose Galician relatives had numbered in the hundreds before the war and were all killed save one, were informed by that sole survivor that the murderers of our family were those same so-very-willing at the time and now so “friendly” Ukrainians.

I find it hard to understand why that connection from Chmielnitsky in the 17th century to the Holocaust in the 20th century was not made. I would find it even harder to be in the Ukraine without remembering the Ukrainians’ guilt. Their awful complicity needs to be acknowledged and atoned for before I would blithely bring Sholem Aleichem back to the Ukraine.

Benjamin Hirsch
New York City

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To the Editor:

I very much doubt that David G. Roskies has ever—let alone, “often”—read the Communist slogan, “national in form, cosmopolitan in content.” The incantation’s canonical form is “national in form, socialist in content.” What makes this slip tragicomic is that “cosmopolitan” has long been a Soviet euphemism for “Jew bastard.”

Maurice Friedberg
University of Illinois
Urbana, Illinois

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David G. Roskies writes:

As the letters of Richard Maass and Benjamin Hirsch testify, the two poles of Jewish-Ukrainian relations cannot be reconciled. The unrequited grief over the Jewish dead is hardly mitigated by the outpouring of good will on the part of Ukrainian nationalists. And that is precisely what I experienced as well. If I did not specify whether Chmielnitsky, or Gonta, or Petlura, or Ivan the Terrible was responsible for the “Jewish blood spilled by Ukrainian hands,” it was because the readers of COMMENTARY do not need me to instruct them on Ukrainian complicity with the Nazis (as dramatized by the Demjanjuk trial, for instance), or on the civil war of 1918-19 that claimed untold numbers of Jewish civilian lives. But since writing my article, I had occasion to hear Ivan Dziuba, a high-ranking member of the Ukrainian Rukh movement, tell a New York audience that the time had come to unveil the darker side of Ukrainian-Jewish history. This confirms Richard Maass’s eyewitness account and goes beyond anything said to me in the Ukraine proper. Perhaps this was propaganda meant for Western ears alone. My own feeling is that Dziuba spoke sincerely.

As stated in the essay, I was inspired by Esther Rosenthal-Schneiderman’s memoir-lament on the Yiddish cultural revival in the Soviet Union. In Volume 3 of Oyf vegn un umvegn (Tel Aviv, 1982), she quotes the Bolshevik formula, “national only in form, but absolutely internatsyonalistish in content.” I realize now that “cosmopolitan” was an infelicitous translation and thank Maurice Friedberg for his correction.

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