Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

A horrendous acrid odor emanated from the apartment of two elderly sisters. One seemed deranged, and the other was so ill-tempered that several paraprofessional home visitors from the Jewish welfare system had refused to service the unit. Hard of hearing, the two women shouted at Rabbi Charach who responded in kind; however, the high decibel level could not belie the relationship of trust that existed between the two troubled old ladies and the young rabbi.

Racked by pain, a man in a third apartment showed the stump of an amputated leg and the badly discolored foot of the remaining leg. He feared imminent amputation of the second leg. Local physicians had been unable to identify the underlying problem, and sufficiently strong painkillers were impossible to obtain. The man had a primitive wheelchair, but had not left his apartment in some time.

The welfare program is supported by JDC, Yad Yisroel, and a support group in Strasbourg, France, that sends containers of food and dry goods. Rabbi Charach readily acknowledges JDC assistance, but also notes that the JDC bureaucracy can be formidable and frustrating, often requiring months to respond to simple requests.

58. A synagogue is located within walking distance of the Center. It consists only of a sanctuary because the attached hall and auxiliary facilities have been used as training quarters by a local sports organization for some years; attempts to recover the entire building have been fruitless to date. Rabbi Charach estimates that basic repairs to the aging sanctuary alone would cost $20,000, but he is reluctant to expend such funds because “there is no future for Jews here.” The sanctuary is used for worship only.

59. Rabbi Charach said that relations between the Jewish community and city authorities are very good. Local antisemitism is quite strong, but it is ‘street’ antisemitism and is not endorsed by the authorities.
60. Few rabbinic families in the successor states are as absorbed personally in the lives of local Jews as are Rabbi Charach, his wife Esti, and their two children. On almost every Shabbat, the Charachs open their home, which is of very modest size, to a dozen or more local people for each of the three Shabbat meals. They have hosted as many as 60 individuals for Pesach sedarim, although it is difficult to imagine how the seder tables are arranged in such confined quarters. The Charachs believe that celebration of Jewish holidays is far more meaningful in a Jewish home than in the banal premises of a rented public hall.

61. From Khmelnitsky, the writer visited the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of hasidism, which is located a short distance away in Medzhibozh. A small structure surrounds the tomb. The site is visited by numerous hasidim from Israel and other countries, many of whom travel in special bus tours to various sites associated with hasidic history throughout Ukraine.


62. Immediately to the west of Khmelnitsky oblast is Ternopol (Ternopil) oblast. The city of Ternopol, whose population is about 350,000, is the adminstrative center of the oblast.

63. With only 35O Jews remaining in the city and perhaps another 150 elsewhere in the oblast, no rabbi resides in the city. Ternopol Jews look to Rabbi Mordechai Bald of nearby Lvov for rabbinic leadership.

64. Perhaps 20,000 Jews were killed in Ternopol during the Holocaust. With the aid of survivors in Israel and the United States, Ternopol Jews have built memorial monuments at several massacre sites.

65. The major Jewish communal organization in the oblast is the Jewish Cultural Society ‘Alef’, which is led by Natan Paren, a local resident. In a lengthy meeting,46 Mr. Paren described the major activities of the society. The first responsibility, he said, is restoration and maintenance of memorials to the Holocaust, cemeteries, and synagogues. Local authorities provide no assistance to the community in this endeavor.

The second major task is assistance to needy Jews, principally the elderly. Approximately 250 Jewish pensioners, all of them ill, require some help; many are impoverished and/or lonely. One 94-year old woman lives with an invalid daughter, and each woman alone require more assistance than the society can provide. The organization also cares for one child invalid. Local Jews volunteer to serve as home visitors to assist the needy in cleaning, cooking, and other tasks. JDC had helped to organize two “warm houses” serving 11 people, but had provided no other welfare assistance in over a year.47 Some funds had been received from Magen Avot, the national Jewish welfare organization associated with Yosef Zissels. In response to a question, Mr. Paren said that it was almost impossible to raise funds locally because Ternopol Jews were poorly paid physicians, engineers, and teachers rather than businessmen. Some working-age Jews had lost their jobs in the deteriorating local economy, exacerbating the welfare situation.

Third, the ‘Alef’ organization tries to hold community events and commemorate holidays. This task is extremely difficult because local antisemitism, which is pervasive, and high costs make rental of communal premises impractical. They did manage to hold three seders attracting a total of 130 people; JDC had provided $400 for this purpose and had sent Hillel students from Kiev to conduct the seders.

Fourth, Alef operates a Sunday school that usually attracts 20 to 33 children and 30 to 40 adults. These groups meet in a public school building. “Jewish life [in Ternopol] revolves around the Sunday school.”

66. Antisemitism was a serious problem, encouraged by many antisemitic articles in local newspapers. Mr. Paren and colleagues visit newspaper editors after each bigoted article appears, but the editors simply listen and do nothing.

67. Despite antisemitism, many local people are interested in Judaic subjects, in part because Nobel prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon was a native of the area. Several conferences devoted to his work had been held locally. The Ukrainian Cultural Fund helps to support these meetings.

68. In response to a question, Mr. Paren said that no Jews would remain in Ternopol ten years from now except for some elderly people and those who are so assimilated that they do not identify as Jews.


69. A city of approximately one million people, Lvov (Lviv) city is the administrative center of Lvov oblast. Its architecture is strongly central European in appearance, reflecting its long Polish history.48 Its population today is overwhelmingly Ukrainian.

70. On the eve of World War II in 1939, the Jewish population of the city was nearly 110,000, approximately one-third of the total number of residents. By the time of the German occupation in mid-1941, the Jewish population had expanded to 150,000 as Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled western Poland fled eastward into Soviet territory. Large numbers of Lvov Jews were deported to the Belzec extermination camp and others were murdered in the Lvov ghetto or in the Janowska Road camp on the outskirts of Lvov, which served both as a transit camp en route to Belzec and as a separate extermination camp. Only a few thousand Jews remained alive when Soviet forces re-entered the city in mid-1944.

71. The Jewish population of contemporary Lvov is believed to be between 7,000 and 9,000.

72. It is acknowledged within Lvov and elsewhere in Ukraine that Lvov is the most antisemitic city in all of Ukraine. Local antisemitism is generated by several forces, particularly Ukrainian nationalism in a city that is 98 percent Ukrainian and very conscious of a history of governance that is Polish, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet, i.e., not Ukrainian. So bitter are local Ukrainians against the postwar Soviet (that is, Russian) occupation that many observers consider anti-Russian sentiment a more potent force than antisemitism. However, anti-Russian prejudice fortifies local antisemitism because Ukrainian Jews, even those in western Ukraine, are strongly russified. Most Jews in Ukraine speak only Russian and identify strongly with Russian culture. Ukrainian nationalism is expressed in several local newspapers, the activities of the strongly Ukrainian nationalist UNA-UNSO, and on the street.49

Prolonged exposure to Polish custom and popular antisemitism is also thought to be a critical element in the intense antisemitism of western Ukraine. Finally, diaspora Ukrainian populations, principally in Canada but also in several Latin American countries and in Poland, are reported to promote and abet antisemitism in western Ukraine. (Emigration from western Ukraine to Canada and several South American countries has been significant.) The bitterness of many Ukrainian emigres toward Jews is said to be acute because the emigres consider themselves displaced by Russian-speaking elements, including russified Jews.

46.  The meeting occurred in Mr. Paren’s eighth-floor apartment, which was accessible only by foot. Mr. Paren apologized for the lengthy climb, explaining that thieves had stolen the elevator motor some three months previously. No entity would accept responsibility for replacing it and, if a new motor would be installed, Mr. Paren said, thieves would probably steal it as well.
47.  The “warm house” program identifies and supports a woman who can provide nutritious meals in her own residence for a half dozen or so elderly neighbors. The designated seniors meet there for a daily meal and socializing.
48.  Lvov (Lviv in Ukrainian, Lwow in Polish, Lemberg in German) was founded in 1256 by a Ukrainian prince and captured by Poles in 1340. A great trading center in medieval Europe, it came under Austrian control after the first partition of Poland in 1772 and was named the capital of Galicia. Between 1919 and 1939, Lvov was an important city in independent Poland. In the 1939 partition of Poland between Germany and the USSR, Lvov became part of Soviet Ukraine. It was occupied by German troops in July 1941 and retaken by the USSR in July 1944.
49.  The leading antisemitic newspaper is Za Vilnu Ukrainu (For a Free Ukraine). UNA-UNSO is an acronym for the Lvov-based Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self-Defense Organization; the latter is the paramilitary wing of the former.

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