Jewish Ukraine (Єврейська Україна)

Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv, Copyright Nick Grapsy

There has been a Jewish community in Ukraine since ancient times, starting with people from Hellenized Asia Minor and the Bosporus. Archaeological excavations show evidence dating back to at least the fourth century BCE. Many were traders.

During the Kyivan Rus era (879–1240), communities developed in Kyiv, the Crimea, and the Ukrainian area of the Caucasus. More people arrived as refugees from murderous Crusaders in other parts of Europe. A community in Galicia, in western Ukraine, was first mentioned in 1030.

Because antisemitism is the world’s oldest hatred, there were several violent pogroms in the 12th century. Reportedly, we were kicked out of Kyiv during the reign of Grand Prince Vladimir II, though no documentary evidence survives.

Former Karaite synagogue in Kyiv, Copyright Posterrr

Former synagogue of Kamyanets-Podilskyy, Copyright Neovitaha777

Due to antisemitism, there were many restrictions on employment, residence, finances, housing, land ownership, movement, etc. Trade, handicrafts, and usury were among the few jobs open to us.

The Jewish Ukrainian community suffered equally alongside Christian Ukrainians during the endless reign of terror by the Crimean Tatars. Many were sold into slavery.

Though antisemitism was unfortunately unavoidable, the areas of Ukraine controlled by the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth grew to be one of the world’s largest, most vibrant Jewish communities.

Former synagogue of Vinnytsya, Copyright ЯдвигаВереск (Yadvyha Veresk)

Great Synagogue of Lutsk, Copyright Robert Niedźwiedzki

By the time of the Khmelnytskyy Uprising began in 1648, there were over 50,000 Jews in Ukraine. Though the Cossacks first and foremost wanted to liberate their land from foreign rulers (Tatars, Poles, Lithuanians), they also went on antisemitic rampages during these uprisings. Tens of thousands of Jews, possibly up to 100,000, were murdered, and 300 communities were destroyed.

To avoid attracting antisemitic attention, public merrymaking was banned, and stories about pogroms swept through Europe and created a climate of fear. This gave rise to the Messianic cult of Shabatai Tzvi, and an increased interest in mysticism.

Former synagogue of Hrymayliv, Copyright Влад Гуменюк (Vlad Humenyuk)

The 1649 Treaty of Zboriv forbade Jews to live in Cossack-controlled areas. These cruel restrictions were later upheld by Khmelnytskyy’s son Yuriy and in the first Cossack constitution of 1710.

More pogroms followed during the many other Cossack uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Though most Ukrainian Christians have always viewed Cossacks as great national heroes, the Jewish community feels much differently about them.

Yegiye Kapay Synagogue in Yevpatoriya, Copyright Eugenmakh

Merchant Synagogue in Yevpatoriya, Copyright Mitte27

The Second and Third Partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795 brought a large number of Jews into the Russian Empire. Because she didn’t want us living in her empire, Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement, which included all of Ukraine.

Due to many antisemitic restrictions, most people in the Pale were poor, and they were subjected to constant pogroms, esp. after Tsar Aleksandr III came to the throne in 1881. Only conversion to Russian Orthodoxy would end this mistreatment. As a result, a lot of people immigrated to the U.S., pre-State Israel, Canada, and Western Europe.

Entrance gate to former Karaite synagogues in Yevpatoriya, Copyright A.Savin (WikiCommons)

Another unending anguish was, under Tsar Nicholas I, compulsory military service. Many boys were brutally kidnapped, forced to serve in the army for over 20 years, force-converted, made to eat unkosher food, and forbidden contact with their families.

Despite this difficult life, robust social welfare and educational systems arose. Chasidic life also flourished, with many dynasties all across Ukraine.

Tempel Synagogue of Ivano-Frankivsk, Copyright Folkerman

Former Great Synagogue of Sharhorod, Copyright Михайло Потупчик (Mykhaylo Potupchyk)

Pogroms continued under the rule of the inept Nicholas II, in cities including Kishinev (1903 and 1905), Kyiv (1905), and Odesa (1905). These orgies of murder, violence, and rape were led by the Russian ultranationalist Black Hundreds movement. In October 1905 alone, 690 pogroms were carried out.

There were also blood libel cases, most famously the Menahem Mendel Beilis case of 1911–13. Miraculously, Mr. Beilis was acquitted.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community of Galicia, part of Austria–Hungary, fared much more happily during the same period. Though antisemitism still existed, they had legal emancipation and weren’t forced to live in poverty in isolated towns.

Jewish cemetery and funeral chapel in Chernivtsi, Copyright Alfred Löhr

During the Russian Civil War of 1917–21 and its spinoff wars, up to 250,000 Jews in the Russian Empire were murdered, including at least 100,000 in Ukraine. Most of these pogroms were carried out by the radical Directorate, whose ranks included the infamous Symon Petlyura (another historical figure regarded much differently by Jewish and Christian Ukrainians). Many miscellaneous bands also went on violent sprees, as well as the White Army and Red Army.

A different kind of oppression arose during the Soviet era, as all religion was outlawed, and even secular Jewish culture was only allowed for tokenistic reasons and in very limited amounts. Hundreds of thousands of people immigrated to Poland in 1921.

Mikvah of Mikolayiv, Copyright LXNDR

Ukraine lost 70% of her Jewish population, up to 1.6 million people, during the Shoah. Most were murdered by Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, and never saw the inside of a camp. As in all Nazi-occupied nations, there were local collaborators (like the infamous John Demjanjuk). Some were motivated by antisemitism, while others were coerced, just wanted money to feed their families, or saw the Nazis as liberators after living under Soviet rule for so long.

However, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (4.5 million) fought against the Nazis, in both the Red Army and as partisans, and as of 1 January 2021, Yad Vashem has recognized 2,673 Ukrainians as Righteous Among the Nations. Ukraine is #4 among most-represented countries.

Memorial park in Khmilnyk, Copyright Posterrr

After WWII, border changes added Galicia and Carpathian Rus to Ukraine’s territory. In 1959, the Jewish population was 840,000, down from 2.7 million in 1941. The population steadily shrank during the Cold War, coupled with continued religious persecution.

Today there are an estimated 200,000 Jews in Ukraine, and centuries of difficult interfaith relations have finally begun to improve. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jewish life has undergone a huge renaissance in Ukraine. The country also has a Jewish president who was elected with 73% of the vote and now has over 90% approval ratings.

WeWriWa—Arriving at Beth Kehillah


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

The book formerly known as The Very First released last week in e-book format. The print version, which has a different cover, will be ready for release by next Sunday.

It’s now the first Sabbath in Atlantic City for the family of Katharina Brandt, now called Katherine Small and nicknamed Sparky. At this time, August 1938, Atlantic City had a huge, vibrant Jewish community, nothing like its shrunken state today. But, as the Smalls are soon to discover, they don’t fit in with these second-generation Americans.


Though there were over a dozen synagogues in Atlantic City, there were relatively few Conservative ones. Most of the others were either Reform or Orthodox, frequently offshoots of the city’s two original synagogues representing those denominations. For their first service in Atlantic City, Mr. and Mrs. Small had chosen Beth Kehillah on 901 Pacific Avenue, a somewhat large building with several different types of bricks on the façade, stained glass windows, and two columns in front of the entryway.

“I hope no one thinks we’re rude for not coming last night,” Sparky said as the building came more sharply into view. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re the kind of people who only go to one Sabbath service instead of both.”

“We’ll go to both next week,” Mr. Small promised. “I doubt anyone will look badly upon us for wanting a quiet Friday night our first Sabbath in our new home. If America is anything like Germany and The Netherlands, you and your mother will also be among the few regular female attendees.”

Sparky held back from the large crowd milling about outside. There were a lot of young people among this crowd, all dressed like proper Americans.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow:

The adults also dressed in modern American fashions, and held themselves with such confidence. These weren’t people who needed to worry about impressing potential new friends, since they were already secure, established members of the community. They took their American status for granted.

Twentieth Arrondissement and Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze



St. Gabriel Church and Hélène-Boucher Lycée, Copyright Sigoise

The 20th Arrondissement of Paris (a.k.a. Arrondissement de Ménilmontant) is on the Right Bank. It’s bordered on the north by the 19th Arrondissement, on the west by the 11th Arrondissement, and on the south by the 12th Arrondissement. Probably its most famous attraction and landmark is Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Historically, the higher the number of the arrondissement, the more working-class and poor folks (many of them immigrants). This isn’t the wealthy, stereotypically “cultured” population which flocked to the arrondissements with very low numbers. As a proud proletarian, it’s right up my alley!


Town Hall, 1908


Town Hall, 2009, Copyright besopha, Source FlickrMairie

Its population peak and most concentrated density was 1936, with 208,115 residents, 34,779 per square kilometer. It was annexed to Paris in 1859, and formed from the towns of Belleville and Ménilmontant, the municipality of Saint-Mande, and the commune of Charonne. As of 2012, the population was 198,678.



Besides Père Lachaise, other landmarks include Belleville Cemetery, St. Germain Church of Charonne, Charonne Cemetery, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Ménilmontant, Pavillon Carré de Baudouin, Tenon Hospital, Hospital de la Croix Saint-Simon, and many schools and parks. The 20th Arrondissement also has the next-largest Chinatown in Paris.


Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, Copyright Zantastik


Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, sometime between 1863–70

My characters are resettled in a cheap apartment in the 20th Arrondissement upon their return from Nantes in December 1945. Wolfram, who’s since left Le Meurice, has the apartment across the hall, and made the arrangements for them to live there for possibly less than the time of a normal lease.

He’s also bought them mattresses and secondhand furniture, put all their tableware and cookware in the cupboards, and moved in all their extra luggage and Caterina’s recovered small furniture. Wolfram insists he doesn’t need to be repaid, and tells them to consider it a belated Chanukah present.

Their apartments are on Rue des Pyrénées, which forms the eastern border of Père Lachaise.


Église Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, 1900

Everyone but Wolfram goes for a walk through Père Lachaise on Csilla’s 18th birthday, 21 December, before starting their planned walk to Al Syete, a Sephardic synagogue in the 11th Arrondissement. The walk ends in terror and horrific flashbacks for everyone but Imre and Júlia, as they have an up-close and personal encounter with the crematorium.

The moment they realise what the building and smell are, they start going into hysterics, which attracts a lot of negative attention. Marie is so badly affected, she passes out, and Imre has to run back to the apartment to get Csilla’s recovered sled. The boys are shaking too badly to carry her, and Imre only has one good arm, since he broke his left hand last month.


The monument Marie passes out by, in memory of the victims of a fire at an 1897 showing of Lumière Brothers’ films, Copyright Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0


Crematorium (chimneys not visible), Copyright Christopher Lancaster, Source Flickr

Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was built thanks to David Levi, late president of the Florentine Jewish community, bequeathing his entire estate for the building of a new synagogue. Architects Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini, and Prof. Vicente Micheli combined Italian traditions with Moorish style.

Giacomo del Medici designed the great arch, and artist Giovanni Panti provided the beautiful frescoes and mosaics for the interior. Every square inch is covered in coloured designs with Moorish patterns. The copper roof was oxidised green to stand out in the Florentine skyline.

The cornerstone, sent from Jerusalem, was laid 30 June 1874. Inauguration was 24 October 1882.


Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas


During WWII, the occupying Germans used the synagogue as a storehouse. There are still bayonet blows visible on the doors of the ark.

In August 1944, the Italian people once again showed their righteousness by rescuing the synagogue from planned German destruction. The retreating Nazis and their foul fascist collaborators filled the building with explosives, but brave resistance fighters were able to defuse almost all of the explosives. Very little damage was done, and it was restored after the war.

During the terrible 1966 flood of the Arno, the synagogue was damaged, but once again restored.


Copyright sailko


Copyright sailko

My characters stay by a vacation apartment overlooking the synagogue when they’re in Florence in November–December 1945. The green dome dominates the Florentine skyline, and it’s just a short walk away.

On the eighth day of Chanukah, before Saturday morning services have started, Imre gives Csilla a three-pearl ring in the synagogue. He reassures her it’s not an engagement ring, but just a promise ring. He wants them to have a serious, committed relationship before they’re in a position to discuss marriage, and also wants to mark his territory so other men know she’s off-limits.


Copyright sailko

Dohány Utca Synagogue



Copyright Maciej Podstolski

The Great Synagogue of Dohány Utca in Budapest is Europe’s largest synagogue, and one of the largest in the world. It seats 3,000 people, split about evenly between the women’s galleries and the ground floor. Its denomination is Neolog, a unique Hungarian denomination often misleadingly described as similar to Reform Judaism. It’s more like liberal Modern Orthodoxy.


Copyright Aktron

The synagogue is in District VII (Erzsébetváros [Elizabeth Town]), the historic Jewish quarter. It was built from 1854–59, in Moorish Revival style, by Viennese architect Ludwig Förster. The decoration was based upon the Islamic Moorish style of Medieval Spain and North Africa. It also was inspired by Byzantine, Gothic, and Romantic style.

The interior was designed by Frigyes Feszl, the fifth of fourteen children in a family of German origin. Many Budapesti buildings were designed by him, though his name is all but unknown in the West. Geometric frescoes prominently feature among the interior design. Originally, the synagogue had a 5,000-pipe organ which was played by the great Franz Liszt.


Copyright BáthoryPéter

From 1930–31, the Jewish Museum was created in a new adjoining building, on a piece of land where Theodor Herzl’s house used to stand. The museum has a lot of Judaica on display, as well as historical exhibitions and travelling artwork. Its architectural style matches the synagogue.

Another 1931 addition was the Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 and is today used for services in winter and on weekdays. It was designed by László Vágó and Ferenc Faragó, as a memorial to those Hungarian Jews who gave their lives in the First World War.


Jewish Museum, Copyright Thaler


Heroes’ Temple, Copyright Varius

Under the German occupation of 1944–45, the synagogue was part of the Budapest Ghetto. It was located within the large ghetto, for people without protective papers enabling them to live in the Yellow Star Houses. Since so many people died during those brutal final months of the occupation, there was no choice but to bury them in the synagogue courtyard. It’s very unusual for a synagogue to have a cemetery right on the property.

After the war, a number of the bodies were transferred to Kozma Utca Cemetery, but about 2,000 people remained buried in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue. Architect Imre Varga created a weeping willow sculpture to commemorate all the dead, in the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park behind the synagogue.


Copyright Varius

On 3 February 1939, the fascist Arrow Cross bombed the synagogue. During the ensuing war, it was used as a stable and a base for German Radio. More aerial raids followed, this time from the Germans. During the Siege and Battle of Budapest, it particularly suffered, but wasn’t entirely destroyed.

Before the deportations stopped in early July 1944, Eichmann had his office in the women’s gallery, right behind the rose window. He requested reassignment, and in late August was assigned head of a commando squad rescuing Volksdeutsche on the Hungarian–Romanian border, in the way of the approaching Red Army. He returned to Budapest in the autumn, and arranged for brutal forced labour marches to Vienna. On Christmas Eve, he fled before the Soviets had completed their encirclement of the city.


Copyright Osendi Cadenas

After the war, Budapest became the centre of Jewish life in Hungary (though there were also several thousand people in next-largest city Debrecen). Many of the survivors who were repatriated found no one and nothing in their hometowns, and so moved to Budapest. Though all the major synagogues had suffered damages, the community nevertheless used them for services.

Not too many years later, when the Soviets had completely taken over, it was boarded up and abandoned. Only in 1990 was it reopened for worship and restored.


Copyright Neer Ildikó


Weeping willow sculpture, Copyright Ian Pitchford

My characters spend the 1945 High Holidays by Dohány Utca Synagogue, since the native Hungarians among them all come from Neolog backgrounds. It’s also not a far walk from the survivors’ house they’re living in. After they move across the Danube to the Buda side in October, they begin going to the Óbuda Synagogue.


Copyright Gabor Dvornik

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