Commentary: The Jews of kyiv, persecuted under the Polish-Lithuanian, Russian, Nazi and Soviet regimes, now face an onslaught from Putin’s forces

As hundreds of Jews leave Kyiv amid Russian attacks, many more, led by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of Jewish descent, remain to defend the country.
Jews have always been part of the long history of kyiv, which was ruled for a thousand years by Slavic princes, Normans, Tatars, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Ukrainians. A popular song from 1977 declared that without the Jewish quarter of Podil, kyiv would be like Saint Vladimir without its cross. Jews made up 26% of the city’s residents before World War II. Before the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, approximately 18,000 Jews lived in Kyiv, less than 1% of the total population.
Jews first came to Kyiv from the medieval Khazar state, which was located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, in the 10th century and settled in the state of Kyivan Rus. As Jews built and developed Kyiv, the city also shaped and developed the identity of Kyiv Jews. Jewish businessmen provided funds for the construction of universities, schools, hospitals, markets, research institutes, public transport and cinemas. Kyiv would be a whole different city if not for Jewish businesses and Jewish humor, Jewish doctors and lawyers, who had a reputation as some of the best in the city.
As a scholar who wrote a book about the Jews of kyiv, I know that there were many times when Jews were forced to flee the city – but they always came back.
The Jewish community of kyiv and its contributions
The rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian state and the Russian Empire expelled Jews from kyiv several times from the 15th to the 19th century. The evictions hurt the city economically, so each time the authorities allowed the Jews to return, and they had to restart their Jewish community from scratch.
From 1835 until the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Kyiv was legally outside of, but surrounded by, the Jewish settlement area, the 15 western provinces of the Russian Empire where most Jews were allowed to live. Only certain categories of Jews were allowed to live in kyiv: the wealthiest merchants, Jews with higher education, retired soldiers and several categories of craftsmen. This situation created the special structure of the Jewish community in kyiv. At the turn of the 20th century, lawyers, doctors, writers and journalists made up 13% of the Jewish population.
Kyiv became one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the Russian Empire, with considerable influence. The Brodskys and the Margolins were prominent Jewish families who made significant contributions to the development of the town and local industry. Kyiv has always been attractive to Jews as a major economic and cultural center, despite open hostility from authorities and some residents.
This hostility caused pogroms in kyiv in 1881 and 1905. In the pogrom of 1905, 100 Jews were killed and several hundred injured. Russian authorities also staged what became known as the “Beilis affair” when a Jew, Menahem Mendel Beilis, was falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy in kyiv.
Opportunities in the Ukrainian People’s Republic
After the collapse of the Russian monarchy, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which lasted from 1918 to 1920, was established. During these years of Ukrainian independence, important innovations occurred in Jewish cultural life.
On January 9, 1918, the Central Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, passed a law guaranteeing the national and cultural autonomy of minorities. This law opened up many opportunities for Ukrainian Jews for cultural development, such as the establishment of Jewish organizations and educational institutions that they had never had in the Russian Empire.
Unfortunately, the civil war of 1918-1920, which was accompanied by anti-Jewish pogroms and widespread lawlessness in Ukraine, soon overwhelmed many of these positive initiatives.
In 1920 the Bolsheviks conquered Ukraine and incorporated it into the newly established Soviet Union in 1922.
Imprisonment under Soviet rule and the Holocaust
kyiv was one of the two largest centers of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union – the other was Minsk. Several Jewish state scholarly institutions operated in Kyiv in the 1920s and 1930s. These included the Jewish Historical and Archaeological Commission, the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture, and the Department of Jewish Culture.
Many Yiddish writers and poets lived and worked in Kyiv in the 1920s and 1930s. There were several Yiddish periodicals, three Jewish theaters, and many Jewish schools and clubs.
In the mid-1930s, Soviet policy towards all national minorities, including Jews, suddenly changed. Instead of encouraging the development of the different national cultures of the multinational population of the Soviet Union, the authorities decided to promote the dominant Russian culture and suppress all others.
Most Jewish organizations and institutions were closed in Kyiv and throughout the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1930s. Many scholars who worked in these organizations and institutions were imprisoned and some were executed.
During World War II, kyiv was under Nazi occupation for more than two years. Most of the Kyiv Jews who remained in the city were massacred by the Nazis at the Babi Yar ravine over two days in September 1941. According to the source, the number of Jews murdered could range from 33,771 to 100,000.
Jews who fought at the front or survived by evacuating to the Ural Mountains, Siberia and Central Asia returned to kyiv after the war.
Due to the state policy of anti-Semitism, all Jewish institutions and organizations were closed in Kyiv and throughout the Soviet Union from the late 1940s until the collapse of communism.
The Soviet authorities, for many years after the war, refused to admit that most of the victims of Babi Yar were Jewish and did not build any monuments at the site. When the monument was finally built in 1976, it simply stated that the “Soviet people” had been killed there.
Life in independent Ukraine
Jewish life was revived in Kyiv after the collapse of communism and the establishment of the independent Ukrainian state in 1991. Several Jewish cultural and community organizations and schools were established in Kyiv, and synagogues and the kosher store were reopened .
In the 1990s, many Jews emigrated from Kyiv and Ukraine to Israel and other countries due to difficult economic conditions. Today, kyiv Jews freely celebrate their religious holidays and participate in Jewish cultural and community life. They have strong emotional attachments to the city.
The economic, cultural and personal ties that Jews have had for centuries, I believe, will compel many to return to Kyiv as soon as the political situation permits. As a fifth-generation kyiv Jew who emigrated to the United States, I am well aware of these close ties that have brought me back to my beautiful hometown many times.
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James C. Tibbs