Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Visit To Jewish Communities In Ukraine And Moldova
April-May, 1994

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86. Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network (GJARN) was founded by Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Avtson, a Chabad hasid and seminary classmate of Rabbi Kaminetzky, after the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in 1986. Among the principal donors to GJARN has been the United States government, which has supplied surplus stocks of food for distribution in several post-Soviet successor states. Because it acquires government commodities and also works collaboratively with various secular philanthropies, many GJARN programs extend far beyond the Jewish community. However, it does exert special efforts to reach Jews in need. It has provided weekly deliveries of milk and bread to about one hundred isolated elderly Jews in Dnepropetrovsk. In 1993, GJARN distributed 1,360,000 tons of surplus U.S. butter to 1.2 million Jews and non-Jews as well as numerous institutions throughout Ukraine; a consultant to the U.S. government has issued a favorable report on the GJARN effort and Rabbi Avtson expects to receive another five to six hundred tons of butter for distribution in the near future. He also hopes to win a U.S. government contract for a vaccination program in eastern Ukraine. Rabbi Avtson has been very helpful in the Boston-Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community sister-city effort, carrying artwork by Jewish children in the two cities across the ocean, providing space in GJARN containers for medicine and other humanitarian aid sent from Boston to Dnepropetrovsk, and assisting Boston Jewry in sending an entire container of humanitarian aid (food, medicine, personal care items, clothing, educational materials and supplies, toys, etc.) to Dnepropetrovsk Jewry in April 1994. The GJARN office in Dnepropetrovsk employs eight individuals, including one paraprofessional social worker. Its local director is Mikhail Samoilovich Goldenberg. In addition to providing direct welfare assistance, the office has co-sponsored (with the U.S. Peace Corps, the local Union of Chernobyl Victims, and the Red Cross) several carefully planned and well-attended seminars on the management of voluntary organizations.

Representatives of some other international welfare organizations question the ability of Rabbi Avtson’s staff to supervise his extensive operations. One individual stationed in Ukraine referred to the butter distribution as “scandalous,” asserting that it lacked sufficient structure to assure that all butter reached only legitimate recipients. Others have noted that Rabbi Avtson has unlawfully included the personal property of certain Chabad workers in U.S. government-sponsored containers authorized only for shipment of humanitarian aid, a charge that Rabbi Avtson acknowledges is valid.

87. In mid-May 1994, an exhibition entitled “Jews in Dnepropetrovsk: Pages from History” was mounted at the Dnepropetrovsk Museum of History. According to a Ukrainian-language poster advertising the display, the sponsors were: the Museum of History, the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Religious Assembly [the governing board of the synagogue], the Main Archive of Dnepropetrovsk Oblast [region], the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast (Office) of the Directorate of Security Services of Ukraine, and the International Organization “Joint”.44 The exhibit included: manuscripts, journals, communal records, and photographs of Jewish life during the tsarist period, including documentation of pogroms; copies of orders for arrests of Jewish leaders and confiscation of Jewish communal property during the 1920s and 1930s; and documentation related to the Holocaust, including Nazi orders for the confinement of Jews within ghettoes and photographic evidence of mass murder. Some of the archival material was compared with (and validated by) related research in Israel.

Almost without exception, foreigners who have seen the exhibition have described it as “surreal,” many acknowledging their disbelief, even as they view the evidence, that the successors to the KGB are displaying such material.45  Local organizers of the exhibition, especially those affiliated with the SBU, readily acknowledge their desire that it be mounted in the West.

88. In a discussion with Betsy Gidwitz shortly before her departure from the area, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky listed his priorities for the near future. These are: (1) promote Jewish life in surrounding cities; (2) establish a teachers seminary -- in affiliation with a local pedagogical institute -- for the training of Judaica instructors; (3) open four more Jewish preschools in Dnepropetrovsk, each in a different district of the city; and (4) develop the recently returned choral synagogue into a multi-purpose Jewish community center. (See Section #67 above.)46

Pavlograd

89. Pavlograd is located about forty miles east of Dnepropetrovsk, across the Dnepr River but within Dnepropetrovsk oblast. Its general population is approximately 135,000. The economy of the area is based on coal mining, chemicals, foundry machinery for smelting and casting, and brick-making.

According to the 1993 Jewish Agency demographic study, the Jewish population of the city is 500. An official of the local Jewish Cultural Society (see below) said that 630 Jews lived in the city.

90. Betsy Gidwitz visited the city on May 4, meeting with a group from the Pavlograd Jewish Cultural Society.47 Its chairman is Yaakov Lvovich Zats, and its vice-chairman is Raisa Abramovna Pomashnikova. Ms. Pomashnikova appeared to be more active than Mr. Zats. A group of ten Jews had assembled in the Society’s office; among them were six elderly people, two middle aged people (the two leaders), a woman in her mid-twenties, and a youth of about sixteen. The age distribution of the ‘delegation’ probably parallels that of the Jewish population at large.

The office consisted of two rooms, of which the largest is approximately ten feet by twelve feet. Both were unfinished, unfurnished, unheated, and unlit. A chair and small writing table had been acquired for Betsy Gidwitz and thoughtfully placed near the window in the larger room to catch the light of a dreary afternoon. Someone managed to find three additional chairs for the most frail of the elderly. A few people sat on stacks of literature obtained from the Israel Cultural Center and JDC office in Dnepropetrovsk. The teenage boy sprawled on the floor, and everyone else remained standing, some leaning against a wall. All wore coats throughout the hour-long meeting.

Ms. Pomashnikova greeted Betsy Gidwitz warmly and apologized for the condition of the premises. She said that the Jewish Cultural Society was established in 1992 to serve the 630 Jews of the city, the majority of whom are elderly. Many younger Jews have emigrated, most to Israel. They would like a larger meeting place, a center where Jewish activities could be held for children and various groups could meet for classes. They know of an ideal facility, but they cannot afford the rent. It is difficult to pay even for these small rooms; although everyone is poor, everyone “sacrifices” to pay something toward the rent. Their first priority for these rooms is to obtain some chairs. Wiring exists for electrical connections. Someday they would get a telephone.

After a pause, Ms. Pomashnikova continued: “Help us!” They cannot depend on volunteers alone. Working adults are exhausted at the end of the day. Pensioners lack the energy to organize activities. They have registered fifty pensioners over seventy years of age who need the support of an organization—and they are certain that their list is incomplete. Some people have gone to the Israel Cultural Center in Dnepropetrovsk for Hebrew classes, JDC has given them a Russian-language Judaica library,48 and they hold occasional holiday celebrations. However, other than the books and some butter [probably from GJARN], people in Dnepropetrovsk “forget about us.” Ilya Levitas from the Ukrainian Jewish Council (in Kiev) sent them a questionnaire about their community; they filled it out, including the section about their needs, and returned it—but nothing has happened. They have heard that summer camps are operated in Ukraine for Jewish children, but no Jewish child from Pavlograd has ever been invited to a Jewish summer camp.

An older person interjected, saying that even the Jewish cemetery is inaccessible. It has not been maintained and graves cannot be visited because it is surrounded by grazing cows. No space remains in the cemetery for additional burials.

As many as 20,000 Jews lived in Pavlograd before World War II.49 They had a synagogue and also participated in Jewish cultural programs offered by a nearby Jewish agricultural settlement, Freiheit.50 In response to a question about World War II, no one was able to offer any details about the massacre of local Jews during the Holocaust.

Discussion returned to the needs of the current Jewish population. Most of all, they would like ongoing Jewish educational opportunities, especially for children. If they had a larger facility, they could organize Jewish programs for youngsters. There is nothing for children and young people to do here and no one to organize them.51 Many young Jews leave the city as soon as soon as they finish school.

Betsy Gidwitz asked the one teenager present what type of Jewish activities he would like. Surprised and uncomfortable at being asked to state his views, he hesitated to answer. After a minute or two with everyone looking at him in expectation of a response, he said he would like a Maccabee sports club and the opportunity to go to a Jewish summer camp.52

The Jewish Cultural Society asked the Open Jewish University in Dnepropetrovsk to offer a course in Pavlograd for local Jewish adults, but that institution said it was unable to do so. The woman in her mid-twenties said that Jews in Pavlograd felt very isolated from other Jews everywhere.

 



44. The Ukrainian title of the Dnepropetrovsk office of the Ukrainian security service is Dnipropetrovs’ke oblasne Upravlinnya sluzhbi bezpeki Ukraini. It is known by its Ukrainian initials, SBU, although many persist in referring to it as the KGB. The last named sponsor refers to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
45. The exhibit, however remarkable, does not include documentation from postwar decades.

A small group from Boston Action for Post-Soviet Jewry saw much of this archival material in October 1993. Betsy Gidwitz viewed the exhibits in early May 1994 just before they were mounted, and a small group from the Boston JCRC attended the opening of the exhibition in mid-May 1994.

46. Although it may be unfair to question Rabbi Kaminetzky’s sincerity, it should be noted that the discussion about his priorities occurred shortly after Betsy Gidwitz expressed to him her concern about the situation in Pavlograd and asked him to undertake certain actions to address problems there. Pavlograd is discussed below.
47. The Russian name is Pavlogradskoye Obshchestvo Evreiskoi Kul’tury.
48. Some or all of the volumes in a JDC library may have been in a few cartons in the back of the larger room.
49. This number may be somewhat high.
50. It is possible that Freiheit had been an agricultural colony established by Agro-Joint, a JDC entity established in 1924 with Soviet suppport to settle Jews on the land. It is also possible that the Jewish cemetery (now surrounded by cows) mentioned earlier is located on or adjacent to the former Jewish settlement that is now a farm under different management.
51. Before leaving, Betsy Gidwitz gave Ms. Pomashnikova some art supplies for children (crayons, felt-tipped pens, construction paper, paste, etc.) as well as some candy. Ms. Pomashnikova said the children had never had such supplies before. She would organize a party for them to make some “Jewish art.” Several elderly in the group seemed very interested in the plastic bag that contained the art supplies and candy. From Israel Book Shop in Brookline, MA, the printing on the bag shows a menorah and some Hebrew words such as sefarim and matanot.
52. Obviously, the boy had heard of Maccabee sports clubs. A small Maccabee group exists in Dnepropetrovsk.

 
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