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A BRIEF VISIT TO JEWISH COMMUNITIES IN UKRAINE  

October 30-November 8, 2002

This report is an account of a brief visit by the writer to four Jewish population centers in Ukraine: Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya, Melitopol, and Kyiv.  In none of these cities was the writer able to observe a comprehensive array of local Jewish institutions.

Long under the domination of Russia, earlier as part of the Russian empire and more recently as a republic of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. Sharing a long northern and eastern border with Russia, Ukraine’s other neighbors are Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova.  It has a long coast line upon the Black Sea.   The territorial area covered by Ukraine approximates that of France.  In the 11 years of its independence, Ukraine’s population has de-creased from ap-proximately 53 million in 1991 to just over 48 million in late 2002.(1) Poor health conditions, significant environ-mental degradation, political and economic instability, and emigration of younger individuals account for the troubling demographic trends.(2)


1. An Associated Press dispatch of November 14, 2002, quotes an October announcement of a Ukrainian government office report indicating a mid-October population of 48,069,000. The report states that the current Ukrainian birth rate is 8.0 per 1,000 people and the current death rate is 15.3 per 1,000 people.

2. Demographic trends in Russia are similar, although the most recent population statistics from Russia show some stabilization.

Five cities in Ukraine boast populations of one million or more: Kyiv, the capital, approximately 2.6 million; Kharkiv, 1.5 million; Dnipropetrovsk, 1.1 million; and Donetsk and Odesa, each 1 million.  Zaporizhya is just behind the leaders, home to about 875,000.  Melitopol, located to the south of Zaporizhya, is far smaller, with a population of approximately 170,000.

Until recently, post-Soviet Ukraine has enjoyed a relatively high rate of economic growth.  However, economic growth rates have slipped during the past year, evidence of the reality that such growth has been based on the strengthening of existing capacity rather than the creation of new economic assets.  Investment in new technology and industry is negligible, reflecting, in part, reluctance of business to advance capital in a country with an immature legal system, pervasive corruption, a retreat from full freedom of expression, and an oligarchic  government in ongoing crisis.  

Widespread economic hardship, chronic abuse of the Presidential office, vote-rigging, and increasing press censorship led to mass rallies against President Leonid Kuchma in Kyiv on September 16, 2002, a date chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the disappearance of opposition journalist Hryhoriy Gongadze two years previously.  Mr. Gongadze’s headless corpse was found two months after his disappearance in a field west of Kyiv.  He was one of at least eight Ukrainian journalists to have died under mysterious circumstances since Ukrainian independence.  The most recent, Mykhailo Kolomiyets, was found dead in Belarus in November 2002.

Audio tapes allegedly recorded in Mr. Kuchma’s office strongly suggest Presidential involvement in the silencing of Mr. Gongadze.  The same series of tapes also disclosed Presidential approval of the clandestine sale and shipment of Ukrainian-manufactured radar equipment to Iraq through a Jordanian inter-mediary. 

The $100 million sale of the Kolchuga radar system to Iraq, in flagrant disregard of United Nations sanctions against that country, has led to a severe crisis of confidence between Ukraine and the United States and its allies.  A mobile and compact Soviet-designed system capable of detecting objects that omit radar signals while remaining invisible itself, the Kolchuga radar would complicate American military strikes against Iraq.  The United States suspended U.S. government aid to Ukraine in September 2002, withholding $55 million.

On November 16, Mr. Kuchma dismissed his entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh.  Appointed as new Prime Minister was Viktor Yanukovych, a Soviet-style regional boss from the eastern industrial city of Donetsk, a conservative stronghold of tumultuous politics and business.  Mr. Yanukovych’s ascension to power is perceived to further impede necessary government reforms and to exacerbate existing political tensions.  He is the seventh Ukrainian Prime Minister in eight years.

Western displeasure with Mr. Kuchma was nowhere more evident than at a NATO conference in Prague on November 21-22, 2002.  Informed that his presence would be undesirable, Mr. Kuchma appeared anyway, forcing NATO into an awkward situation that humiliated the Ukrainian leader and made headlines around the world.  Reluctant to utilize the traditional alphabetical seating plan that would have placed the leader of Ukraine next to Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom and just one seat away from President George Bush of the United States, NATO staff employed French, its second official language, for the first time in NATO history, thus placing Ukraine at the end of the row, with only “Turquie” as its neighbor.

Notwithstanding his current difficulties, Mr. Kuchma is expected to remain in office until his term expires in 2004.   The two most prominent rabbis in the country, Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich of Kyiv and Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipropetrovsk, both enjoy good relations with Mr. Kuchma.

The Ukrainian Jewish population, believed to number between 225,000 and 275,000, is concentrated in large cities.  Perhaps 70,000 to 100,000 reside in Kyiv, 30,000 to 35,000 in Dnipropetrovsk, 30,000 in Kharkiv, 28,000 in Odesa, and 10,000 to 15,000 each in Donetsk, Krivyy Rih (Krivoi Rog), and Simferopol.  The Jewish population is aging, its average age close to 60.  The death to birth ratio is far worse than the 2:1 rate for the country as a whole; among Jews, the ratio is believed to be between 10:1 and 13:1.   Younger Jews continue to flee small Jewish population centers, many emigrating to Israel or to Germany, some resettling in larger Ukrainian cities.

Antisemitism appears to be increasing in Ukraine, although the incidence and severity of anti-Jewish attacks is lower than in neighboring Russia. Until recently, anti-Jewish bigotry seemed to be confined to street incidents and commentary in crude small-circulation periodicals and in broadsheets. However, recent months have seen the emergence of antisemitism in mainstream publications and in a slick management monthly, Personal. Obser-vers attribute the rise in such bigotry to Ukrainian and Russian nationalism, skinhead and soccer hooliganism, ‘imported’ antisem-itism from Russia, activity of Arab students at Ukrainian universities and other institutions, and anti-government sentiment. Regarding the latter, several prominent supporters of increasingly discredited President Leonid Kuchma are Ukrainian Jewish oligarchs.

 

 

 

 

The November 4 issue of Telenedelya, a national television weekly carries a crossword puzzle in which a three-letter word for Jew is required. The correct response is zhid, the Russian word for Yid.

Dnipropetrovsk

1. Vyecheslav “Slavik” Brez is the Executive Director (?????????????? ????????) of the Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Community (????????????????? ???? ????????????????? ?????????? ??????), the most advanced Jewish community philanthropic organization in all of the post-Soviet successor states. A native of Dnipropetrovsk, he resides in the city with his wife and two small children.

Mr. Brez estimates the Jewish population of the city to be between 30,000 and 40,000. Perhaps as many as 50,000 Jews live in the Dnipropetrovsk region as a whole, he said.

Mr. Brez noted that the Philanthropic Fund raised $600,000 during the 2001-2002 fiscal year, an amount insufficient to cover new projects under development in the Jewish community. The most pressing problem, he continued, is a $400,000 deficit incurred in construction of the Beit Baruch Assisted Living Facility (see below) when several prospective donors failed to honor significant pledges to the project. Considerable funds must be expended in servicing this debt. On the bright side, however, the Philanthropic Fund continues to attract new donors, including two successful local businessmen under 30 years of age.

In other matters related to the Philanthropic Fund itself, Mr. Brez noted that the Board of the Fund has established a committee to create new approaches to increase support of Israel in its current situation. This committee will address its energies to both the local Jewish population and to the community at large, including meetings with local journalists. The committee might even sponsor trips to Israel for both print and television journalists.

Mr. Brez expressed distress at an increase in antisemitism, both locally and nationally. He noted that the stature of Bogdan Khmelnytsky as a historical figure has been elevated in recent months, without any consideration accorded to his role in 17th century pogroms. The Jewish community, said Mr. Brez, must educate Ukrainians about the Cossack leader’s murderous actions against Jews.

3. The Philanthropic Fund uses the Jewish calendar year for accounting purposes.

4. As the writer was leaving the city, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk, was planning approaches to several major Philanthropic Fund donors for assistance in erasing the debt.

5. See p. 6.

Many Ukrainians view Bogdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657), a Cossack hetman or leader, as a great Ukrainian patriot instrumental in awakening a sense of Ukrainian nationhood in the 17th century. Russians also honor him as a Russian patriot who brought Ukraine under control of the Russian empire. Leading a Cossack and peasant uprising against Polish rule in 1648-49, troops under Khmelnytsky’s command massacred approximately 100,000 Jews and destroyed about

6. 300 Ukrainian Jewish villages. Heroic monuments showing Khmelnytsky astride a charging horse stand in a prominent square in Kyiv and in the city formerly known as Proskurov, renamed Khmelnytsky in 1954. (The name Khmelnytsky is often spelled Chmielnicki in Polish.)

7. See the author’s Jewish Community Life in Eastern Ukraine, April 12-28, 2002, pp. 12-13, for more information on this project. Even without its own building, the Center recently conducted a very successful international conference.

Recent antisemitic actions in the city, continued Mr. Brez, include incidents of “street” antisemitism against local Jews, such as bigoted comments and some physical violence. Rabbi Kaminezki himself was a recent victim of severe verbal abuse as he walked in the city. A large garbage dumpster was dragged into the playground of the community nursery school, tipped over, and emptied of its contents in the area where children play, an event that was antisemitic in its intent, Mr. Brez said. However, he added, as unpleasant as the situation is in Dnipropetrovsk, the level of antisemitism in the city is nowhere near as high as it is in western Europe.

Mr. Brez outlined progress in the development of three community facilities. The new boiler system for the Beit Baruch Assisted Living Facility (see below) is nearing completion. After many delays, renovation of the building for an expanded preschool is underway and will be completed in time for the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year. Viktor Pinchuk, a prominent local industrialist and national political figure, has made the lead gift for this project (see below). Construction of the new Holocaust Scientific-Educational Center seems to be on hold, pending ability of the Joint Distribution Committee to raise necessary funds, which Mr. Brez estimated at $4 to $6 million, for this venture.

The Philanthropic Fund is quite pleased with the summer camp that it rents in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, said Mr. Brez. The camp accommodates a total of 400 youngsters in three-week sessions.

The community is preparing to receive and distribute 5000 tons of United States surplus food commodities to needy people, both Jews and non-Jews, in the region. The distribution, under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food for Progress program, will proceed according to criteria established by the U.S. government.

Through its relationship with the Boston Jewish community, the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community continues to be the beneficiary of various forms of medical assistance which are made available to the larger Dnipropetrovsk population. Most recently, it has received a substantial amount of hepatitis B vaccine, which has been administered to infants and children in the city through polyclinics and schools.

2. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk, is the most effective community rabbi in all of the post-Soviet states, building a community infrastructure of local programs and leadership in Dnipropetrovsk without peer elsewhere. His Chabad colleagues in other post-Soviet locales look to him for advice and, in Ukraine, for assistance in dealing with local authorities.

 
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