04 March 2022

Putin’s choice of words
demeans the sufferings
of the Jews of Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine at ceremony at the monument to Jewish victims of Nazi massacres at Babyn Yar in Kyiv last September

Patrick Comerford

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is in its ninth day, and the country’s entire population is in danger, including the 350,000 Jews who call Ukraine home, and who are in my prayers this Friday evening.

In statements misappropriating the Holocaust and belittling the sufferings of Jewish people in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin claimed his invasion had a goal to ‘denazify’ Ukraine. As the Guardian writer Jason Stanley pointed out last week, this is an outrageous claim by a fascist autocrat who is hailed by the global far right and who jails the leaders of a democratic opposition and human rights campaigners.

He pointed out that President Volodymr Zelensky is Jewish and comes from a family partially wiped out by the Nazis during the Holocaust. During a trip to Jerusalem in 2020, he revealed that three of his great uncles died in the Holocaust during World War II, and his grandfather was the only one of the four brothers to survive.

One of his first actions after winning the election in 2019 was to meet a delegation of the country’s six leading rabbis. Since the Russian invasion, many Jewish commentators have hailed him as a modern-day Maccabee.

But Ukraine has a dark antisemitic past, and during the Holocaust millions of Jews were killed by Nazis with the assistance by local collaborators.

The musical and movie Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905, when Jews in Ukraine had been the targets of pogroms for almost a century. The storyline and the fictional town of Anatevka are based on Tevye and his Daughters by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known by his penname, Sholom Aleichem.

He modelled Anatevka on the town of Boyarka, near his birthplace in central Ukraine. When new arrivals are welcomed in the musical, they tend to have travelled from Kyiv, now the Ukrainian capital, and the presence of Russian soldiers always represents impending danger. In recent days, fact has come to imitate fiction.

In recent years, Ukraine has also become home for hundreds of thousands of Jews whose families lived in its towns and cities for centuries and remained there even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But for many Jews around the world, Ukraine is a region where millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, or it is the place their grandparents or ancestors fled from in the late 1800s or early 1900s, or an area where there has been wave after wave of pogroms over the centuries.

Violent pogroms in the regions of Volhynia and Podolia, west of Kyiv, had long targeted the Jews of what is now Ukraine, including a violent peasant uprising led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-1649, when tens of thousands of Jews were massacred. As a direct result of those attacks, the region became the birthplace of the Chassidic movement.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was born in the region in 1698. His teachings and his movement swept through the region, quickly becoming the dominant stream of Jewish life in the area. He died in 1760 and is buried in the town of Mezhibush (Medzhybizh), about 320 km west of Kyiv.

The Baal Shem Tov was succeeded by Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch, who was known as the Maggid. His students spread out throughout East and Central Europe with the message of a loving God and a joyous Judaism. When he died in 1772, the Maggid was buried in the village of Anipoli (Hanopil) in western Ukraine.

The Maggid’s student and the spiritual ‘grandson’ of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad movement. He was buried in the Ukrainian town of Haditch, in what is today the Poltava region east of Kyiv. The graves of these Chassidic masters have attracted many thousands of pilgrims to Ukraine each year.

But the Russian Empire only became home to a large number of Jews with the First Partition of Poland in 1772, when large tracts of Poland were annexed by its neighbours, including Russia. Catherine II established the Pale of Settlement in 1790. Jews were allowed to live in this territory of 1.2 million sq km that included much of present-day Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.

Jews were not allowed to live east of the regions of Chernigov, Poltava and Yekaterinoslav without a permit. Even within the Pale, Jews could live in certain cities, such as Kyiv and Nikolayev, but only with a special permit. Mendel Beilis became the victim of the infamous blood libel in Kyiv in 1911-1912 because, as the manager of a factory, he was one of the few Jews permitted to live in the area.

During World War I, Jews in Czarist Russia were forced to flee regions close to the frontlines, and the restrictive measures from the 18th century remained in place until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

According to the Soviet census of 1926, 50 per cent of the Soviet Union’s 2.7 million Jews lived in Ukraine, and 87 per cent of them lived in small towns or villages. This situation began to change slowly in the early Soviet period and accelerated in the early 1930s. When forced collectivisation caused increasing hunger, many Jews headed to the cities in search of work and food.

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, ‘Ukraine was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe.’ The Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shmarya Leib Medalia, was arrested and shot by Stalin in 1938. When the Communists were seeking to fill the vacancy in 1943 to appease their Western allies, they briefly considered appointing Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the leading rabbinical figure in Ukraine, before abandoning the idea. He died in exile in Kazakhstan in 1944.

The Nazis, with the help of local collaborators, gathered Ukraine’s Jews in local ghettos. But, for the most part, instead of deporting them to camps, shot them in forests and fields close to home. Such killing fields are found throughout Ukraine, including Babyn Yar outside Kyiv, where 40,000 Jews were murdered.

Scholars are still researching the scale of the Holocaust in Ukraine, but they estimate at least 1.5 million Jews were killed there.

Many surviving Jews returned home after World War II. Traces of the former Pale of Settlement were still visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Small, historically Jewish towns in western Ukraine still had synagogues and significant numbers of native Yiddish speakers, and many older Jews still lived in dozens of smaller Jewish towns.

In recent years, Ukraine has seen the development of a thriving Jewish infrastructure that includes synagogues, mikvahs, a matzah bakery, Jewish schools and yeshivahs, and social services organisations.

The largest Jewish centre in the world is in Dnipro (Dnepropetrovsk), there is a Jewish university in Odessa, and there are kosher restaurants throughout Ukraine. There are Jewish orphanages too in Odessa and Dnipro, and children from the Jewish orphanage in Zhitomir were evacuated farther west this week.

Dnipro is home to the Menorah Centre, at 500,000 sq ft the largest Jewish centre in the world. The centre stands beside the Golden Rose synagogue, and includes the two-storey Holocaust Museum, kosher restaurants, a kosher supermarket, a Judaica shop, a florist and other shops. Here too are hotels, a concert hall, convention halls and offices. The other Jewish facilities in Dnipro include the Beit Baruch old age home and an educational campus.

In a televised meeting with his security council yesterday (3 March), Putin once again described the invasion of Ukraine as a fight against ‘neo-Nazis.’ Yet there is no evidence to suggest widespread support in Ukraine’s government, military or electorate for extreme-right nationalism.

Earlier this week, a Russian missile attack targeted the Holocaust memorial park in Kyiv commemorating the mass murder of Jews at Babyn Yar by the Nazis during World War II.

Thankfully, for the moment, the most iconic memorials at Babyn Yar are unscathed, including a large menorah, a newly-built synagogue and a monument honouring the Soviet citizens and prisoners of war who died during World War II. But a museum building that was not yet in use caught fire, and there was damage across the 140-acre site.

Speaking directly after the missile attack, President Zelensky said it was ‘beyond humanity.’

‘What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating …’ he tweeted.

Shabbat Shalom

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
4 March 2022 (Psalms 7, 8, 9)

‘You have set your glory above the heavens’ (Psalm 8: 1) … on the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Lent began this week on Ash Wednesday (2 March 2022). Before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 7:

Psalm 7 is also known by its opening words in Latin, Domine Deus meus in te speravi.

The superscription reads, ‘A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjaminite. The Hebrew word shiggayon is of unknown meaning, although it may indicate an emotional song.

Psalm 7 is traditionally assigned to King David. The message in the psalm is that the righteous may seem weak, but ultimately will prevail against the wicked.

Psalm 7 is one of the Lamentations of an individual. A possible outline the psalm is:

Verse 2f: calling on God for help
Verse 4-6: protestation of innocence
Verse 7-10: achieving desires of the Last Judgment over his enemies
Verse 11f: comforting certainty to God
Verse 13-17: comparison of the wicked enemy the world court
Verse 18: Vows.

Psalm 8:

Psalm 8 provides a picture in which God is praised for his glory (verses 1a and 9), reflected in his creation. God fashions creation, and is greater than all creation.

Once again, we have images of infants and children (verse 2). God is also a craftsman (compare ‘the work of your fingers’ in verse 4 with the master craftsman or worker in Proverbs 8: 30).

This psalm recalls the first creation story. God has given us a share in his power by conferring on us authority over the rest of all that he has created.

Psalm 9:

In Psalm 9, we are reminded that God hears the cry of the poor and promises justice for the oppressed and those in trouble.

Psalm 9 is known in earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer by its opening words in Latin, Confitebor tibi, ‘I will give thanks to you, Lord.’ This psalm is a reminder that the success of evil is only temporary, and in the end, the righteous will endure.

Psalm 10 is considered part of Psalm 9 in the Greek Septuagint and in most pre-Reformation Bibles. These two consecutive psalms have the form of a single acrostic Hebrew poem. The Psalm is an acrostic Hebrew poem, and with Psalm 10 forms a single combined work. This is the first of the acrostic Psalms, covering half of the Hebrew alphabet, with Psalm 10 covering the rest of the alphabet.

There is some tension between psalms 9 and 10. Psalm 9 expresses thanksgiving; Psalm 10 laments that deviants from God’s ways, who hold God in contempt, pursue those devoted to God.

Psalm 9 has a tone of victory over evil and its ancient Chaldean title suggests that it was written to celebrate David’s victory over Goliath. Then, as the acrostic continues into Psalm 10, the tone becomes a lament: God seemingly stands afar off. Victory over evil may be ‘here and not yet.’

In Psalm 9, we are told that those who know God (verse 10) will trust in him, for he is faithful to those who seek him. God is the avenger of blood (verse 12) and will remember the pleas of those hurt by the wicked.

God is asked to show his mercy, and to save the petitioner from the ‘gates of death’ (verse 13), so that he may praise God in the Temple (verse 14).

Verses 15-18 express his renewed confidence: others may fall into a trap of their own making, but God is just. God will remember the needy and give hope to the poor, while the nations shall be judged for their oppression.

Psalm 7 (NRSVA):

A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.

1 O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,
2 or like a lion they will tear me apart;
they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.

3 O Lord my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
4 if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
5 then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my soul in the dust.

6 Rise up, O Lord, in your anger;
lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgement.
7 Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you,
and over it take your seat on high.
8 The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.

9 O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous,
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God.
10 God is my shield,
who saves the upright in heart.
11 God is a righteous judge,
and a God who has indignation every day.

12 If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow;
13 he has prepared his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
14 See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief,
and bring forth lies.
15 They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.
16 Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.

17 I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

Psalm 8 (NRSVA):

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

1 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, br /> to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 9 (NRSVA):

To the leader: according to Muth-labben. A Psalm of David.

1 I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
2 I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

3 When my enemies turned back,
they stumbled and perished before you.
4 For you have maintained my just cause;
you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgement.

5 You have rebuked the nations, you have destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name for ever and ever.
6 The enemies have vanished in everlasting ruins;
their cities you have rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished.

7 But the Lord sits enthroned for ever,
he has established his throne for judgement.
8 He judges the world with righteousness;
he judges the peoples with equity.

9 The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
10 And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

11 Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples.
12 For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

13 Be gracious to me, O Lord.
See what I suffer from those who hate me;
you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death,
14 so that I may recount all your praises,
and, in the gates of daughter Zion,
rejoice in your deliverance.

15 The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught.
16 The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgement;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
Higgaion. Selah

17 The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.

18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.

19 Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail;
let the nations be judged before you.
20 Put them in fear, O Lord;
let the nations know that they are only human.

Today’s Prayer:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (4 March 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for victim and survivors of gender-based violence, and organisations around the world working to reduce gender-based violence.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘He does not forget the cry of the afflicted’ (Psalm 9: 12) … Christian prisoners in an Ottoman jail depicted in a sculpture on the Charles Bridge in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org