The King David Hotel was partially obscured by a temporary security barrier as part of the preparations that were carried out in Jerusalem for the arrival of leaders from more than 45 countries for in the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, which took place at Yad Vashem this week, and marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. (photo from Ashernet)
Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. That date, Jan. 27, has been set aside annually to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Scores of officials from around the world were to descend on Jerusalem this week to attend a ceremony at Yad Vashem and a forum on the Holocaust. Expected guests include Canada’s Governor-General Julie Payette, Prince Charles, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emanuel Macron, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and a long list of royalty, heads of government and others from around the world, especially from Europe.
Among the more attention-grabbing guests is Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine. Zelensky is a particularly interesting man in a particular role at an interesting time. He will be in Jerusalem alongside Pence and other world leaders at the very moments when the U.S. president is undergoing an impeachment trial initiated as a result of a phone call with Zelensky, probably the only reason most North Americans know his name. But that is among the least remarkable things about the leader.
A political neophyte (aside from playing the Ukrainian president in a satirical TV series), Zelensky was elected on an anti-corruption platform. In advance of his visit to Israel for the commemoration events this week, he engaged in a lengthy and witty interview with the Times of Israel about his family’s history – some relatives live in Israel and he has visited and performed comedy there many times – and his reflections on Jewishness, Israel and contemporary politics.
It caused some curiosity when Zelensky was elected because he has, in his words, “Jewish blood.” It is a common term, perhaps especially in formerly Soviet societies where religion was officially negated and so identities are defined obliquely, but the phrase “Jewish blood” is unfortunate in the context of Ukrainian history.
Among the considerations facing the country at present is the complicity of its citizens in the Holocaust, including in the massacres at Babi Yar, a ravine in the capital of Kyiv, where an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 individuals were murdered during the Nazi occupation, including more than 33,000 Jews on one day in September 1941.
In 1976, Soviet officials erected a monument marking the site and the cataclysm – ignoring the Jewish particularity of the mass murder and lamenting the deaths of Soviet victims of Nazism. It is undeniably true that victims at Babi Yar also included Roma, communists, Ukrainian nationalists and prisoners of war, all of whom deserve to be commemorated and mourned. But the omission of the Jewish identities of most of the victims at the site has been a point of pain and conflict for decades.
Zelensky’s government is remedying this. Begun by civic officials and Jewish leaders and endorsed by Zelensky’s predecessors, a Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre is being constructed, with anticipated completion in 2023. The government is also undertaking a more transparent assessment of the country’s role and its citizens’ collaboration during the Second World War, outpacing most of their eastern European neighbours in addressing this dark past.
Still, some red flags remain. Zelensky claims that there is no antisemitism in Ukraine, an unequivocal statement that bewilders. It would be careless for any leader to ascribe complete innocence of bigotry to their entire citizenry, more so the leader of a country with a history like Ukraine’s.
He is, in some ways, between a rock and a hard place. While making blanket denials of Ukrainian antisemitism, he is also attempting to move his society away from the glorification of nationalist – meaning, among other things, inevitably antisemitic – historical figures. He points to the fact that he, a novice politician with “Jewish blood,” was elected to the country’s top post as evidence of tolerance in Ukrainian society. It does seem encouraging.
Also encouraging is the extensive list of world leaders arriving at Yad Vashem not only for a commemoration but for an educational forum, titled Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has said the purpose of the meeting is “to think about how to pass on Holocaust remembrance to generations who will live in a world without survivors, and what steps we must take to ensure the safety and security of Jews, all around the world.”
Seventy-five years after that terrible epoch, the topic remains timely.
Left to right: Lucien, Grisha, Carole, Leanne and Svetlana at the airport in Kiev, Ukraine. (photo from Carole Lieberman)
My husband Lucien, our daughter Leanne and I recently traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, to meet Lucien’s first cousin and his family for the first time.
History has an interesting way of unfolding. Lucien’s father was one of 10 children born in Russia. The oldest daughter Sophie immigrated to Canada in 1912, to marry a farmer living in Rumsey, Alta. In 1923, Lucien’s grandparents, along with four of their children, including Lucien’s father Leo, made the cross-Atlantic journey from Russia to Alberta. Sadly, in 1927, their daughter Lucy, for whom Lucien was named, ended her life there at age 25 and, in another tragedy, their daughter Sophie, mother of five young children, was widowed.
Shortly after these tragedies, their daughter Manya chose to return to Russia on her own. And, in 1928, the grandparents were determined to return to Russia. And so, in November of that year, two brothers – Leo Lieberman, 33, and Sam Lieberman, 29 – embraced at the Calgary CPR station. Sam was escorting their parents back to Russia. Since their parents were in their 60s and were considered elderly, they could not manage the trip on their own. Sam expected to return to Canada once their parents were settled in Kharkov, but he never did. The brothers’ last words were about Leo’s new winter coat. “Leo, I like your coat. Where I am going you can’t find such a coat.” So, the brothers exchanged garments. They did not meet again until 1966, when Leo and his wife Clara went to the Soviet Union to try and find family.
Lucien grew up in Calgary aware that his parents had both left large families in the Soviet Union and that the Second World War had devastated those families. Sam’s story was tragic. He worked in Moscow in the 1930s as a translator. When the war came, he was taken into the army and survived four years in combat roles. He was wounded and, in 1946, he was arrested, charged and tried for the offence of being “anti-social to the regime” and sent to the Gulag, where he laboured for 10 years in a camp beyond the Arctic Circle. After Stalin’s death, Sam was discharged and allowed to return to his city of last residence, Chernivtsi in the Ukraine. There, at the age of 57, Sam married a younger woman and fathered a son, Gregory (Grisha).
The next generation of family in Canada always knew about Uncle Sam and Cousin Grisha. We had heard that Grisha lived in Madagan, which is closer to Anchorage than to Moscow. Decades passed without any contact but finally, in 2016, we learned that Grisha, his wife Svetlana and their two children were living in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. We met our new cousins on Skype in 2017 and began to catch up on decades of this lost connection.
Grisha and Svetlana’s son, Stanislaus Lieberman, is married to Natasha, has a 2-year-old daughter and is a lawyer in Kiev. Their daughter,
Tatiana Lieberman, affectionately called Tinotchka, is known throughout Ukraine as Tina Karol (tinakarol.com). Tina is a renowned singer who represented Ukraine in the 2006 Eurovision competition at age 21. She is the “face of Ukraine,” with billboard ads throughout Kiev for Huawei and many cosmetic companies, and has the largest fan club in all of Ukraine. Her 10-year-old son Veniamin attends school in England and returns to Kiev frequently. Tragically, Tina’s husband, Eugeny Ogir, who was her manager, died in 2013 at the age of 33, shortly after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
Grisha speaks a reasonable amount of English and, thanks to Google Translate, we communicated well. We came to feel very close to our cousins after many Skype visits and plans were made to visit. There was no discussion – they insisted that we stay with them in their apartment so we would really get to know one another. It certainly was not our custom to stay with people we had never met in their two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom apartment for eight nights but the visit was incredibly memorable and very special. Days before our arrival, Svetlana wrote that “they were trembling with anticipation.” We felt the same.
Our daughter Leanne, a teacher and a published author, met us at the airport in Kiev. We were welcomed at the airport with a “Lieberman” sign and the warmest hugs and happiest tears. Throughout the visit and several times every day, Grisha would grab Lucien, hug and kiss him, saying, “You are my dear cousin.” Despite the 18-year age difference, there was a very strong cousin connection between the two men, cemented further by the traditional home-cooked Ukrainian food that we were so generously fed each day. We awoke to the smell of kreplach, borscht, haluptsi, cheese latkes and potato pancakes prepared by Svetlana and we enjoyed eating delicacies such as forshmuk, a chopped white fish salad. It was food that was so reminiscent of what Lucien’s mother had prepared for him when he was growing up in Calgary. We all laughed together when we were offered barbecued “kitchen.”
Our entire week was planned in advance and included not only family visits and meals, but a visit to a wonderful Ukrainian folk dance show at a huge auditorium where we were seated in the president’s box, welcomed with a champagne reception and presented with traditional Ukrainian outfits for Vishivanka, all arranged by Tina. Tina’s driver took us to a 26-acre monastery for a private tour and we were taught how to make varenikes in a private master class at lunch.
We gained a good sense of Tina’s personal life when we visited her stunning home and gardens, complete with a 24-hour armed security guard. Tina’s fans adore her and swarm her when they see her out in public.
Kiev is a stunning city, with the Dneiper River running from north to south. The climate is warm in spring and the air is often beautifully fragrant with the scent of acacia trees, stronger in the morning and in the evening when we all strolled along the river. It has beautiful kashtana (chestnut) and lilac trees and a number of impressive bridges and lookouts. There are many parks, huge squares and an excellent subway system, accessed with the longest imaginable escalators. Like so many cities, it has far too much traffic (propka).
Tina arranged a private guided tour of Babi Yar for us with an English-speaking local woman. Babi Yar is now a beautiful treed park approximately a kilometre square in the northwest outskirts of Kiev. On Sept. 29, 1941, Nazi troops rounded up Kiev’s 34,000 strong Jewish community and massacred them all within 48 hours. Victims were shot and buried in the ravine. The Nazis then rounded up the local Romany people and residents of mental hospitals and extended the killing. During the two-year Nazi occupation, more than 100,000 bodies were dumped into the Babi Yar ravine. When the Red Army recaptured the city in 1943, there were only 80,000 people in Kiev, one-tenth of its former population.
Today, there is little evidence of a deep ravine, only undulating terrain. There are numerous monuments, some remembering the many children killed, several with Hebrew inscriptions, and a beautiful bronze wagon, which depicts a typical Roma caravan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government invited the state of Israel to erect a monument, which was done in the form of a large menorah. Babi Yar is possibly the most prominent site representing the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union.
During the week that we were in Kiev, a new president was sworn in. With Svetlana, we watched the televised inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old former comedian and the first Ukrainian president with a Jewish background, and we loved seeing Svetlana proudly sing the national anthem, in tears.
We visited Maidan, the central square of the city, saw the parliament buildings and surrounding Marinsky Park. We toured a fascinating military museum, visited an old synagogue and were taken to the famous opera house, where we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the ballet.
Every day was full of memorable moments. We spent several evenings sharing family photos – it was fascinating to see photos of us from the 1970s and ’80s, which were mailed to them by my in-laws and other relatives before we lost contact. We laughed, hugged, cried and shared stories, always with “Grishinke” grabbing and kissing “Lucienke” and proudly saying, “you are my cousin.” Together Grisha and Lucien enjoyed shemiskes, aka sunflower seeds, that only people who were raised by siblings would enjoy the same way.
We celebrated our last night together at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the river and marveled that the restaurant, like many other quality restaurants, had an excellent playroom where Stanislaus’s daughter Vesta played while we dined.
When we finally hugged everyone goodbye and thanked them for a visit that exceeded every expectation, Grisha responded, “I am the son of Sam.”
In 1951, after spending five years in the Gulag, a fellow prisoner was released and Sam asked him to please send a letter to his brother Leo informing him that he was still alive, giving him the address – Leo Lieberman, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. When the man was able to mail the letter, he omitted “Calgary” and the letter ended up in the Edmonton post office. The letter was sent to a Mr. Lieberman in Edmonton by a caring employee and was subsequently forwarded to Leo Lieberman in Calgary.
Carole Lieberman, a longtime Vancouver resident, is originally from Montreal. She is a mother of three, grandmother of four, and has enjoyed selling Vancouver real estate for almost 30 years.
A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the national educational tour about the Holodomor began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far. (photo by Pat Johnson)
What constitutes a genocide? How many Ukrainians were murdered by Josef Stalin’s human-created famine in the 1930s? Would you stand up in a situation where lives were at risk – even if it meant you might become targeted?
These were some of the questions confronted by Grade 12 students of King David High School last week. A national educational tour about the Holodomor – the mass murder of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime – pulled into Vancouver, opening the eyes of young people to this chapter of history.
Beginning in 1932, the Soviet government under Stalin began a calculated, systematic famine in Ukraine, seizing all food sources, cutting off escapes for people fleeing starvation and implementing summary execution for the crime of stealing the smallest piece of sustenance. Farming was collectivized, creating catastrophic conditions. Political and intellectual elites were murdered.
Some details, including the number of Ukrainians killed, remain cloaked in uncertainty because, from the start, the Holodomor was deliberately hidden from the outside world through a comprehensive system of censorship and misinformation, as well as the complicity of media and other countries. Estimates of the number of dead range from seven million to 14 million.
Holodomor is a portmanteau made up of holod, starvation, and mor, death, meaning “death by starvation.”
The Holodomor National Awareness Tour consists of a bus-sized repurposed former recreational vehicle. Rather than a static exhibition through which participants walk, the vehicle has been retrofitted with a 30-foot screen down one interior wall and 30 theatre-style seats down the other, with interactive tablets that invite students to study and discuss in small groups before reconvening to share what they’ve learned with the larger group. A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the tour began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far.
The Holodomor was not an endeavour to kill an enemy, but an effort to restructure society, a form of social engineering at its most extreme. In September 1932, Stalin wrote to one of his lieutenants that Ukraine was restive. The Soviets perceived Ukrainians as being profoundly religious, individualistic, believers in private property and attached to their plots of land, making them unsuitable for building communism. Addressing these perceived flaws would require, according to Soviet leaders, an action so extreme that a word had not yet been invented to describe the intent.
The entire agricultural sector was upended by collectivization and resisters were murdered or sent to gulags, Soviet concentration camps. At first, remaining supplies of food sustained the Ukrainian people, but those reserves were soon depleted, while the Soviets extracted ever-increasing quotas of grain and Soviet wheat exports to the West grew. As the Holodomor proceeded, NKVD secret police were sent to search for and confiscate any remaining food sources. While those caught stealing or concealing food were executed, for millions more, fate was less sudden.
“Most of the victims died slowly, at home,” according to the narrator of one of the interactive films viewed by students. “Special NKVD units raided people’s homes to collect the dead bodies. They received 200 grams of bread for every dead body they delivered.”
Students examined the forces that allowed the Soviet Union to hide the reality from the world. For the Soviets’ part, there was censorship and the threat of retaliation for those who shared the truth. But their crimes were abetted by Western figures, including New York Times correspondent Walter Durante, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the USSR, even as he misrepresented the Holodomor. In one article, titled “Hungry, not starving,” Durante wrote that there is no actual starvation or death from starvation, though he acknowledged there was widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.
Leading journalism figures from the time are brought to life through reenactments. British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, reporting for the Manchester Guardian, reflected on being raised in a socialist household and how he was enthusiastic about traveling to the Soviet Union to report on the utopia being created there. When he saw the reality, he evaded Soviet censors by sending his dispatches home via the British embassy’s consular pouch.
One of the heroic figures of the story is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who risked his life to bring the truth from Ukraine. He convened a press conference in Berlin, on March 29, 1933. But the timing was terrible. The Soviets were about to launch a show trial against six U.K. citizens, accusing them of espionage in what would become known as the Metro-Vickers Affair.
In order to remain in the USSR and report on what promised to be a trial of global importance, journalists had to stay on good terms with the authorities.
“It would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine then,” one reenactor remarked. “So, none of us supported Jones.”
Lauren Shore is a student in King David’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 course. The class, created by teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal, is delivered during lunch hour and, while students receive credit, they take the course in addition to their full complement of other classes. A province-wide genocide studies elective course is part of the new B.C. curriculum and will be offered next year at schools that opt-in.
Shore, with a partner, did a project on the Holodomor.
“Since there is a lot of debate on whether it’s a genocide or not, and how it was planned, we decided to focus on that,” she said. “We were focusing on the different steps of genocide [and] people were debating whether it was a genocide or not, since it wasn’t necessarily planned as exactly as other genocides were. As we looked into it, we found that it was planned just as much as the other genocides, just in other, more subtle ways.”
Solly Khalifa, also in Grade 12, was impressed with the interactivity of the Holodomor tour.
“I was astonished at how innovative it is,” he said. “They really get everybody participating and it’s very interesting and an easy way to participate also.”
Classmate Noah McNamara saw parallels between the Holodomor and the Holocaust.
“All genocides are kind of similar, in that it’s a governing body that takes advantage of their power to push a goal,” he said. “In the Holocaust, [it was] the Aryan race that they wanted to push. In this case, it was communism that they wanted to push. I think it’s important for us now to be aware of aggressive governments and governments that are trying to radically push things, because that’s definitely a precursor to genocide.”
Ava Katz, who worked with Shore on their Holodomor project this year, noted that studies of the Holocaust enforce the dictum “never again.”
“But I feel like sometimes that’s overlooked with other genocides,” she said. “Not a lot of people will say that. But when you really study other genocides in-depth and see how severe they are, it’s important that we never let any of them happen again.”
The cross-country tour operates with a shoestring staff. Alexi Marchel leads students though the experience. Kevin Viaene drives the bus and supports the program.
Masha Shumatskaya’s visit here was part of an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee tour of North American cities. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
All Masha Shumatskaya wants is for the fighting to stop so she can go home. The 24-year-old Jewish Ukrainian English teacher was living and working happily in the city of Donetsk until April 2014, when pro-Russian separatists arrived two hours north of her hometown and declared their intention to form a people’s republic.
Until that moment, her life had been quite ordinary. Shumatskaya, a slender beauty with gentle eyes, was one of some 15,000 Jews in Donetsk, a city that boasts a Jewish community centre, a Chabad-run synagogue, a kosher café and various Jewish youth and cultural groups. “I never once experienced antisemitism growing up there,” she said. “I was never afraid to say I was a Jew.”
By May 2014, the pro-Russian separatists had moved into Donetsk and were threatening the safety of civilians. They bombed the Donetsk airport and the violence forced the closure of many schools and business offices in the city. Shumatskaya and her friends began making plans to move to other cities in Ukraine, such as Kiev, Odessa and Kharkov. She chose Kharkov, five hours’ drive from Donetsk, leaving her parents behind.
But Shumatskaya is one of the lucky ones. There are some 7,000 Jews still living in the war zone in Ukraine, many of them elderly. They’re dependent on the Joint Distribution Committee’s aid for food, medical support, rental subsidies and basic necessities.
Shumatskaya was in Vancouver recently as a guest of JDC, where she met with Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver representatives and media to tell her story. With her was Michael Novick, executive director of the American Jewish JDC in Bellevue, Wash. “The situation in Ukraine has become a high priority for the JDC,” he said. “It’s not just the Jews, mostly elderly, still living in the conflict zone, but also the 2,500 Jews who’ve fled and need assistance, and another 60,000 Jews we’ve been helping all along with basic humanitarian supplies.” The JDC estimates the cost of its monthly relief for these Jews to be more than $387,000 US.
The political unrest has had widespread effect. The Ukrainian economy has plummeted, the purchasing power of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has dropped more than 50 percent and inflation is between 25 and 30 percent. “A year ago, the average pension of an elderly person we were assisting was equivalent to $150 US. Today, that same pension is only worth $50 US,” Novick said. “People have lost their jobs, their businesses, and Jews who could previously take care of their own families are now coming to the JDC’s Hesed welfare centres.”
The JDC has 32 Hesed welfare centres in Ukraine, and 160 of them across the former Soviet Union. Among those Jews requiring their services in Ukraine, Novick said they represent “the poorest Jews on earth, living in really dire conditions. For them, the lifeline provided by Hesed in terms of supplemental, basic humanitarian assistance, is vital.”
He added that the emergency funds being supplied by JDC are not part of its budget. “But the situation in Ukraine is so dire that we’re not waiting – we’re simply spending money and hoping that individuals, federations and foundations that meet Masha and hear about this story will come to our assistance.”
Shumatskaya’s 10-day visit to North America included stops in Seattle, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. Last year, JFGV made a $25,000 grant to JDC for its various programs.
As she looked to the future, Shumatskaya was uncertain what it would hold for her. “I feel attached to Ukraine and I feel some responsibility to help with what’s going on there,” she said. “If I had to leave Kharkov I don’t know where I’d go. But I know that I don’t want to become a war refugee again. Once in my life was quite enough.”
Her message to Vancouver’s Jewish community is twofold: a reminder that Jews are responsible for each other, and one of gratitude for the support she and her fellow Ukrainian Jews have all ready received.
“Without that support we literally would not have survived,” she said. “I wish we could finish this need for assistance fast, but it’s out of our hands. We’re praying every day that we can live in a peaceful country without the assistance provided by the JDC.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
At the close of what Western countries call Valentine’s Day, a tenuous ceasefire went into effect in war-torn eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, the days prior to the truce were not what you would call all “hearts and flowers.” Up to the last minute, both sides pushed to make territorial gains. We can be sure that no love has been lost.
Needless to say, tanks, rockets and guns do not tell the whole story of the armed conflict. Beyond the military operations are the civilians whose lives have been affected.
One critical result of the fighting is that the overall health situation in Ukraine has rapidly deteriorated. (Even in peacetime, however, the health situation was not on par with Western medicine.) Recently, the United Nations reported that drug supplies are running out and that the country has seen a rise in the number of tuberculosis diagnoses. As there are not enough shelters for displaced people whatever their health status, some of these individuals are being sent to hospitals. This in turn has created a lack of treatment space for acute medical cases. To date, these are the statistics on the war in Ukraine:
5,486 people killed and 12,972 wounded in eastern Ukraine
5.2 million estimated to be living in the areas of conflict
978,482 internally displaced people, including 119,832 children
600,000 have fled to neighboring countries, two-thirds of whom have gone to Russia
How can we in the West appreciate what is happening to the people living in the conflict zone? One unlikely way is to reconsider Geoffrey Smith’s powerful 2007 documentary The English Surgeon. The film deals with how medicine is practised in Ukraine and puts a personal face on what life (in more promising times, perhaps) is like for Ukrainians.
This film reveals how two dedicated neurosurgeons make do with scarce medical supplies with a goal to improve their patients’ quality of life. In the course of this sophisticated British-produced documentary, viewers become intimately acquainted with the hospital exploits of this medical odd couple: Dr. Henry Marsh, a British neurosurgeon, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dr. Igor Petrovich Kurilets. Smith’s movie is enlightening and viewers can glean much about Marsh’s point of view. In his experience, performing the surgery itself is not the hard part, it’s knowing when to treat that’s complicated.
Early in the film, Marsh talks about the importance for him of helping other people; he questions what we are if we don’t try to help others. When the movie was filmed, Marsh had already been volunteering in Ukraine for 16 years. He tells us that when he first started his project, he found surgical conditions comparable to those that existed in the West 60 years prior. He was appalled at the misdiagnoses he encountered, and by the stories of patients that could have been helped had they received appropriate medical interventions earlier.
The film exudes irony and humor as viewers get to know Marsh. He explains that he always liked working with machines and using his hands. He also enjoys the sensory aspects of working with wood. At one point, he says that surgeons like blood, and he likens surgery to a kind of sport.
Kurilets displays no less of a quirky wit. For instance, he points out a painting hanging on his wall. In the picture are happy Cossacks sitting around a table. Kurilets thinks there are many similarities between Cossacks and surgeons. He comments that in the painting, the Cossacks could be gathered around an operating room table. He appreciates the Cossacks’ aggressiveness. Actually, his own pro-activeness has gotten him into trouble with the authorities; he later reveals that he was unemployed for two years following repeated run-ins with the Soviet system. Ironically, he currently rents rooms from a hospital run by the KGB, his former nemesis.
Kurilets is still a doer today, albeit perhaps slightly more pragmatic than he once was. He has plans to build a new hospital. He underscores his philosophy of life by explaining that the point is not to just make plans – something that happened a lot in the former Soviet Union – but to actually do, to get things done.
In fact, these two individuals are pragmatism personified. Marsh and Kurilets buy brain surgery tools in the local open-air market. Kurilets’ Bosch drill comes from this market. Marsh also regularly donates equipment to Kurilet’s practice. In an understated way, we learn some of the real costs of surgery in this area of the former Soviet Union versus the West: the 80 Sterling drill bits that Marsh’s hospital uses once will be used by Kurilets for 10 years.
Marsh also confronts deeper issues. He struggles with being able to leave patients with hope, even when there is nothing that surgically can be done.
One patient who can be treated is Marian, a young, rural man of limited financial resources. Marian has a brain tumor that could either leave him severely disabled or kill him. The doctors tell him that the only way they can help is by conducting brain surgery, but without anesthesia. Marian agrees.
The operating room in which this incredible procedure takes place is so small that, at one point, a member of the surgical team has to bend down, almost crawling to get to the other side of the room. Even in this incredibly tense scene, Marsh reveals his wry humor by saying that the healthy section of the brain should look “like a good cream cheese,” not rubber. He does not underestimate the tremendous vitality of the organ on which he operates, however. In surgery, he says, “We are the brain.”
Sharing some of the soul-searching he does in his practice, Marsh humbly admits that he has made some big mistakes. He narrates the painful story of one young Ukrainian patient that he brought to England for surgery. Marsh reveals that both of Tanya’s surgeries went terribly wrong. Even today, he can’t put Tanya’s story aside. He tells Kurilets that he thinks about Tanya a lot. Kurilets agrees that there were lessons to be learned from her case. But Marsh doesn’t just contemplate Tanya; he seeks physical contact with this lost patient. In a haunting moment of tremendous honesty and humanity, he pays a visit to her family members. He reveals to Tanya’s family how nervous he was before the visit.
The English Surgeon is a powerful movie, stunning, but frequently heart-wrenching. It displays not just the truth of the situation in Ukraine, but the truth about people.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
A number of organizations are trying to help civilians in Ukraine. Working at opposite ends of the life spectrum are two Jewish charities: the Survivor Mitzvah Project (survivormitzvah.org), which helps elderly Holocaust survivors residing in Ukraine, and Tikva Children’s Home (tikvaodessa.org), whose mission is to care for “the homeless, abandoned and abused Jewish children of Ukraine and neighboring regions of the former Soviet Union.”
While many are probably familiar with Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything Is Illuminated (which was also made into a film in 2005), the Good Reads website has assembled a list of other books dealing with Ukraine (goodreads.com/places/76-ukraine). The list contains fiction and non-fiction books for children and adults.
In Europe, it has often been dangerous for Jews to be Jews. And Easter in particular has led to frenzied antisemitism, as priests commonly riled up parishioners with a selective retelling of the crucifixion story, after which throngs would emerge from churches and attack Jewish fellow residents.
This is a generalization, of course. Many Easters have passed peacefully in many parts of Europe. But Jew-bashing was a common occurrence with formal and informal sanction. Children sometimes came home from school with arts and crafts mallets to be used symbolically to hammer the Jews on Easter weekend. Predictably in such an environment, on many, many occasions, the hammering was not symbolic.
So it was this past weekend, when firebombs were reportedly thrown through the windows of the main synagogue in the Ukrainian city of Nikolayev. Thankfully, prayers were not taking place at the time and no one was injured. But the traumatized and beleaguered community must certainly have heard echoes of the past in this act of contemporary vandalism and hate.
Ukraine, of course, is the centre of global anxieties, verging as it does on something between a civil war among ethnic Russian and Ukrainian citizens and an incipient full-scale invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has already invaded and annexed Crimea.
It may be an unofficial aspect of our tradition to always expect the worst even while hoping for the best, so it may not have come as a complete surprise to some of us that Easter weekend did not pass without an unfortunate incident. Particularly in the aftermath of another chilling incident in the days before the firebombing. A photocopied sheet was spread throughout parts of Ukraine during Passover declaring that Jews over the age of 16 must register at the (Russian-occupied) government building in Donetsk, paying a $50 registration fee and listing all real estate owned. The echoes of the past this poster elicited were obvious and outrage went viral.
From the start, there was uncertainty about the provenance of the sheet and whether it was being distributed on behalf of an official/ government agency. By the weekend, media were reporting that the poster had been “debunked,” that it was not issued by authorities. If true – because the “debunking” report is no more certain than the original belief that it came from whatever counts as a government in the region now – it would be a bit of a relief. But there should be no great celebration. In recent weeks, as Ukraine and Russia have become more and more conflicted, Jewish citizens of Ukraine have found themselves in an historically familiar and dangerously undesirable position. As has been so often the case in Europe, sides in the conflict are either demanding Jewish allegiance or scapegoating Jews.
Ukraine has a small but overt, visible and thriving neo-Nazi movement – with the support of about one in 10 Ukrainians – which is trouble enough. Putin did not help matters when he suggested recently that Russian influence in Ukraine would be good for the Jews because of rampant antisemitism there. There could hardly be a more dangerous position for Ukrainian Jews than to be seen as a justification for Russian incursion (as if Russia or Putin have records worthy of Jewish admiration).
Leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community, which traditionally has been more Russian-speaking than Ukrainian-speaking, stood firm with their Ukrainian fellow citizens against Putin’s assertions that Ukraine is a hotbed of Jew-hatred.
“Your certainty about the growth of antisemitism in Ukraine, which you expressed at your press conference, also does not correspond to the actual facts,” rabbis and other leading figures in the community wrote in an open letter to the Russian president. “Perhaps you got Ukraine confused with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in antisemitic tendencies last year.”
All these decades and centuries later, our coreligionists still struggle to find a place of welcome in their home countries, amid the nationalist and racial conflicts of Europe. Of course, we should not assume this is a far-away problem. The murders at two Jewish institutions in Kansas City last week is proof that antisemitism exists in our own backyards, as well, and we will continue to watch developments in the region and closer to home with wariness and hope, prepared to speak out and act on behalf of Jews – and anyone – who is endangered.