Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

The promotion of Yiddish-language activities is a deterrent to developing an identification with Israel.51 If Yiddish is perceived as a viable language, it is more difficult to persuade people that Hebrew language skills are important -- and participation in Hebrew classes, especially ulpans, attracts people to Zionism and Israel. So estranged are some Jews from their Jewish heritage that they are unable to understand the concept of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Mr. Wernik predicted that aliyah would remain stable or increase slightly during the next two to three years. The rate of departures for Israel depends on social conditions, including the extent to which Jews are affected by Ukrainian nationalism, and economic factors. An image of Israel as dangerous persists among many Jews. Mr. Wernik believes that visits of Israeli artists to the area would convince many local Jews that Israelis are cultured and would improve the perception of Israel. Visits by selected soldiers and officers would demonstrate that the Israeli army is different from the armed forces of other countries.

Mr. Wernik is now traveling to Jewish population centers in small towns in western Ukraine. Many of these Jews are so beaten down that they do not have the strength to emigrate. The high cost of gasoline as well as wear and tear on automobiles makes this sort of outreach very expensive.

Observing that the caliber of local educational institutions has declined since independence, Mr. Wernik said that young people should be able to find attractive educational opportunities in Israel. However, some are so assimilated that it may require an outreach ‘investment’ of three or four year to persuade them that Israel is a desirable destination.

78. The Sholom Aleichem Society is a local secular Jewish organization that sponsors various cultural programs and also teaches both Hebrew and Yiddish. It operates its own welfare service, which is funded in part by the Joint Distribution Committee. Several individuals commented that it is engaged in a ‘power struggle’ with those associated with Yad Yisroel endeavors, i.e., the synagogue, day school, and welfare service operating from the day school. Individuals connected with the latter institutions barely acknowledged the existence of the Sholom Aleichem Society, except to complain that JDC supports it and does not provide regular assistance to Yad Yisroel. The writer did not meet with Sholom Aleichem Society officials.



79. Lutsk is the administrative center of Volyn oblast, which is located in the northwest ‘corner’ of Ukraine; it shares a western border with Poland and a northern border with Belarus. The area was under Polish sovereignty for much of recent history. The population of Lutsk is 214,000.

80. Jews have lived in Lutsk since the tenth century. By 1939, the Jewish population of the city had reached about 20,000. Almost all were killed during the Holocaust, including as many as 17,000 at Polanka hill just outside the city during a four-day period in August 1942.

About 800 Jews are believed to live in Lutsk today. Another 700 Jews live elsewhere in Volyn oblast.

81. Accompanied by Meylakh Sheykhet, the writer visited Lutsk on a Sunday. A long holiday weekend had led to the cancellation of Sunday school classes, but 11 children and about 15 adults had gathered at the customary site of Sunday school classes to meet their visitors.

Thirteen children and adolescents between the ages of nine and 18 usually attend Sunday school instruction, which is held in a spacious room in a local public library. The teacher, who had completed a seminar in Jewish studies at the Steinsaltz Yeshiva in Moscow, taught a “sample” class to the 11 youngsters of mixed ages then in attendance; the lesson included a lecture on the approaching holiday of Shavuot and some very basic Hebrew language skills. The teaching approach was formal and frontal, and pupils entered notes in special notebooks. Learning materials were scarce, consisting of five copies of a Hebrew textbook (supplied by JDC), some maps and posters of Israel, and a portable chalkboard. Some of the youngsters had visited Kiev, where they had met Rabbi Bleich and participated in activities associated with Yad Yisroel.

82. After the lesson, Meylakh Sheykhet, who was known to the community, spoke to the pupils and adults. He invited the older youngsters to enroll at the Lvov Jewish school for the following academic year, explaining that supervised dormitory accommodations were available in the very same building as the school. He described the school curriculum. He also noted the possibility of enrolling in a Karliner-Stoliner school in Jerusalem that had been developed especially for youth from the post-Soviet successor states. Finally, he reminded those assembled about the Yad Yisroel summer camps, i.e., a boys camp near Khmelnitsky and a girls camp near Kiev. Many of the youngsters had already registered for these camps and were clearly excited about their forthcoming summer adventures. Mr. Sheykhet reminded the parents that all of these programs were provided free of charge.

83. Having few opportunities to meet a Jew from abroad, several of the adults present asked questions of the writer. All questions focused on their own situation in Lutsk. They requested assistance in finding and supporting suitable rental premises in which they could conduct a Sunday school, operate a Jewish library, and coordinate their welfare operations. They had written to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in an effort to reclaim one of the 30 buildings that they said belonged to the Jewish community before World War II. They received no response from him. When it was suggested that they contact JDC for assistance in pursuing property restoration matters, they complained bitterly that JDC had “abandoned” them. JDC has sent them only the five Hebrew textbooks, some Russian-language Jewish newspapers, a few “supplies” at Chanukah, and one shipment of food parcels for distribution to local Jewish elderly. Aware that JDC has sent Russian-language Judaic libraries to many communities, they requested such a book collection for Lutsk. However, JDC has not responded.52

84. Several adults spoke about a Holocaust memorial monument that they had erected at a site of mass murder, presumably at Polanka. Because this site now lies within a heavily populated area, they would like to build a fence around the monument, but they lack the $450 necessary for its construction.

85. In response to a question, several people noted that the Jewish community welfare service provides assistance to 26 to 30 elderly people, one of whom is paralyzed and nearly all of whom are lonely. The nature of this assistance was not clear.


86. The city of Rovno (Rivne), which has a population of about 300,000, is the administrative center of Rovno oblast. Rovno oblast lies between Volyn and Zhitomir oblasts. The area was under Polish control until the First Partition of Poland (1793) and between World War I and World War II.

87. About 28,000 Jews lived in Rovno in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet pact divided Poland and the Rovno area was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine. Under Soviet control, the once active Jewish organizational life ceased. However, the Jewish population grew rapidly as Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied western Poland crossed into Ukraine and sought shelter in border-area cities. Rovno itself was occupied by German troops on June 29, 1941. At least 25,500 Rovno Jews were killed in the Holocaust, 18,000 by machine gun at Sosenki, a pine grove, on a single day, November 6, 1941. Another 5,000 were murdered in Kostopol, and 2,000 were slaughtered at Sosnovka. An extraordinary memorial to the lives of all Jewish victims has been constructed at Sosenki.

Most Jews who survived the war emigrated during the chaos of the immediate post-war period, and the community dissolved. Between 800 and 1,000 Jews currently live in Rovno city and another 500 live elsewhere in the oblast. Additionally, about 1,000 people from half-Jewish families live in the city and 500 more live in the oblast. About 80 percent of the entire Jewish population has roots outside the area.

88. Meylakh Sheykhet and I met with a leadership group of three local Jews at the two-storey Jewish communal building in Rovno. Until the Soviet occupation of 1939, the building had been one of four synagogues within several blocks on the same street. After the war, a trade union used it as a library. In 1989, the building was returned to the community. The main hall on the upper floor is used as a synagogue; rooms on the lower floor are used for various communal purposes. The building requires renovation, which the community cannot afford, and heating is very expensive in the winter.

51.  Mr. Wernik may have been referring to the local Sholom Aleichem Society (see #78 in main text) or to some individuals associated with the synagogue.
52.  Lacking their own premises, the assembled Jews might find it very difficult to organize a functional library. In later private correspondence with the writer, JDC acknowledged insufficient attention to western Ukraine, citing budgetary constraints. JDC organized a property reclamation seminar in nearby Lvov in June 1996, i.e., the month following my visit to Lutsk.

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