This article was originally presented as a d’var Torah called “Healing our relationship, as Jewish Canadians, with Ukraine and Ukrainians.” It was delivered at Or Shalom Synagogue on Shabbat, 14th of Tevet, 5783; Jan. 7, 2023. It is intended as a beginning of a conversation about how we, as Canadian Jews, can heal our relationship with Ukrainians and Ukraine.
When many of us Canadian Jews think about Jewish experience on Ukrainian territory, we think of antisemitic violence. We think of pogroms, of rape, of plunder. And, ultimately, of either escape or death. For those of us with personal ancestral history in the territory of Ukraine, this pairing of the land with violence is particularly acute. One Or Shalom member told me, with raw emotion, about his father’s experiences at the hands of brutal Ukrainian guards in various Nazi concentration camps. My Uncle Leo referred to Easter as pogrom season in the town of Yavorov, the town presently in western Ukraine, called Yavariv in Ukrainian, where he lived until the age of 11. He spoke to me of his childhood as a past from which he had, thankfully, escaped.
It is not uncommon for individuals to seek escape from a painful childhood past. However, we are learning from contemporary trauma theory that, as much as we may want to leave the past behind us, it lives on within us. Ukraine lives on in the deep psychic life of many of us and in the psychic life of the Canadian Jewish community with its extensive roots on Ukrainian territory.
As we are all aware, the Ukrainian people are heroically resisting a brutal assault by Russian forces. As well as eliciting fear, horror and outrage, this situation presents us with an invitation to move beyond our feelings of separation from our history on Ukrainian soil and from the Ukrainian people. The war provides us with the opportunity to claim our own legacy and place in the new, complex, multiethnic, multiracial, democratic Ukraine, with all its triumphs, challenges and contradictions. This is an opportunity for healing.
I want to share some of what I have learned that has helped me on this healing path.
If we look at the historic record of Jewish life on Ukrainian territory, we see that Jewish-Ukrainian coexistence was deep, complex and multi-dimensional. Demographically, Ukrainian territory was one of the main centres of Jewish life for more than 400 years. On the eve of the Holocaust, there were more than two-and-a-half million Jews in that area.
There were periods of horrific violence and crippling antisemitism against Jews on Ukrainian territory, as well as periods of ongoing systematic prejudice. These realities must not be overlooked or minimized. But we also see many examples of interconnection between Ukrainian Jews and ethnic Ukrainians. We see many examples of shared music with similar melodies and even bilingual songs; of similar folk stories; and of similar folk remedies and folk healing practices, with Jewish Ukrainian and ethnic Ukrainian folk healers sharing their remedies with each other and tending to both populations.
And there is considerable similarity in those quintessential Jewish activities – food preparation and consumption. This past summer, I made pickles with my Ukrainian-Canadian friend Beverly Dobrinsky, using an old family recipe of hers. The next day, I discovered the exact same recipe, grain of salt per grain of salt, in my own disordered family recipe collection.
Looking at literary translation, one of my passions, we find many examples of the translation of works between Yiddish and Ukrainian and between Ukrainian and Yiddish. In the late 1920s, Ukrainian writer Yuriy Budiak wrote two bird-themed children’s books that have been described as delightful and playful. Shortly thereafter, the books were published in Yiddish translation and enjoyed by Yiddish-speaking Jewish children. These books were recently published by Naydus Press in the United States in a trilingual edition – Ukrainian, Yiddish and English – to raise funds for the Ukrainian war effort.
During the 1930s, both Yiddish and Ukrainian writers experienced repression by the Stalinist Soviet government and experienced difficulty publishing their own writing. In response, they began translating one another’s work and the work of Soviet-sanctioned writers from one another’s cultures. The esteemed Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn translated the work of Taras Shevchenko, known as “the national bard of Ukraine.” The Yiddish writer Leib Kvitko taught Yiddish to the Ukrainian writer Pavlo Tychyna, who went on to translate a number of Yiddish writers into Ukrainian.
As Prof. David Fishman from the Jewish Theological Centre in New York points out, all these similarities and interconnections‚“only happen with close contact.”
Moving into the present, by focusing solely or predominantly on past violence and persecution, we fail to take into account the cataclysmic changes Ukraine has undergone, notably since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the country’s emergence in 1991 as an independent nation with a sizable contemporary Jewish population. David Klion estimated, in Jewish Currents, that the Jewish population of Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion in February of 2022 was more than 100,000 people.
Since independence, Ukrainians have been redefining what it means to be Ukrainian, moving from an ethnic category of belonging based on ethnic and religious identity to a civic category based on citizenship. This is an important issue for all Ukrainians, but particularly for the many individuals, including Jews, who are not ethnically Ukrainian.
Last April, I had the enormous privilege of hearing a Zoom talk organized by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and given by Dr. Magda Havryshko, a Ukrainian academic. Havryshko spoke of two different national narratives in Ukraine, an ethnocentric narrative focusing on the country as the homeland of the Ukrainian people, and a multiethnic narrative “that priorizes examining Ukraine’s difficult history in relation to Jews.” Havryshko shared information about several inspiring initiatives undertaken in Ukraine in relation to its Jewish population. I will outline three of these initiatives here: during the celebration of Ukrainian independence in 2021, Holocaust history and memory was central; the history of the Holocaust on Ukrainian territory is now taught in all schools beginning at the elementary level; and, lastly, President Volodymir Zelensky and his government have set out a definition of antisemitism, introducing legal punishments for antisemitic acts.
Prof. Amelia Glaser, who studies and teaches comparative literature and translation, has spoken about a desire among contemporary Ukrainian writers to “look very closely at past moments of history and of ethnic violence as Ukrainian tragedies‚” rather than solely as Jewish tragedies. The book-length poem “Babyn Yar in Voices‚” by Marianna Kiyanovska, a non-Jewish Ukrainian, about the 1941 slaughter of Jews in a ravine outside Kyiv, was recently published in English translation by Oksana Maksymshuk. Further, several works by Ukrainian Yiddish writers have been recently translated into Ukrainian, including the fabulous avant-garde Yiddish poetry of Debora Vogel and Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, which many of you know as Fiddler on the Roof. By the way, Sholem Aleichem lived most of his adult life in Kyiv, a city that he loved.
Without in any way discounting the violence and antisemitism against Jews on Ukrainian territory, I hope I have provided a little forshpayz, an appetizer, about areas of cooperation and interconnection between Ukrainian Jews and ethnic Ukrainians. I have focused on translation and literature, two of my passions, but I encourage you to look for examples of interconnection in the areas of your own interest.
When I think about healing my relationship with Ukraine, it helps me to think about the complexity of my own identity and experience. I am the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who fled poverty and persecution in different parts of the former Russian Empire, including Ukrainian territory, at the beginning of the 20th century. My maternal grandparents settled in Montreal; my paternal grandparents, in New York. It is telling that I do not know the specific history of the Indigenous nations in the areas in which my grandparents settled but I think I can assume that the lands had been forcibly taken from the Indigenous inhabitants. Two generations later, I continue to live on unceded (that is – stolen) territory, that of the Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), Tsleil-Waututh (səlilwətaɬ), Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) and Kwikwetlem (kʷikʷəƛ̓əm) First Nations.
Canadian society is involved in a collective process of teshuvah, of redefining the relationship between us settlers and the Indigenous peoples on this land. Like all settlers, as Canadian Jews, we are challenged to take responsibility for our active involvement or silent complicity in the ongoing Canadian genocidal project against our country’s Indigenous inhabitants. Can we see our commonality with Ukrainians as we both address our brutal oppression of “the other”? Are we, as Canadian Jews, willing to embrace the complexity of our lived experience, to look both at our privilege, especially when it is experienced at the expense of others, as well as at our own painful experience of victimization? Can we hold both at once with integrity?
I finish by sharing the wisdom spoken by an Indigenous man, whose name I unfortunately did not get, at Grandview Park at this past year’s Orange Shirt Day. “When you take a step to heal, you also heal the ancestors. You heal the ones behind and the ones ahead.”
I welcome ongoing dialogue on the issues raised in this talk. Thank you for your kind and open attention.
Helen Mintz’s translation of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016) garnered three literary awards, and her translation of Janusz Korczak: Teacher and Child Advocate by Zalmen Wassertzug is under consideration by the University of Poznan Press. Mintz’s translations have appeared in In Geveb, Jewishfiction.net and Pakn Treger, and her writings about translation in Words without Borders and BC Studies. Her website is helenmintz.net.