What I've Learned About Eastern European Jewry After Two Weeks

October 11, 2012

Today, I went to the Holocaust museum in Kharkov, Ukraine. The Jewish population here, before the war, was about 150,000. Now, the highest estimate of people with a Jewish grandparent is 50,000. Jews were moved to a ghetto in 1941 but believed they were going to live. They brought with them everyday materials; cutlery, plates, prayer shawls but were eventually slaughtered at a ravine called Drobitsky Yar just within the city limits.

But this is not a story of the Shoah that I want to share. No, this is not even a story of death and dying or of a community that is no longer with us. This is a story about perseverance, life and living.

I’ve heard so often throughout my life about how after being at the brink of annihilation Jews have rebuilt themselves to become a new nation. We’ve created new institutions throughout the world, moved old ones, and re-found our essence in the establishment of the State of Israel. But many of us have forgotten about Jews who remain in Eastern Europe. More and more Jews every year go through the concentration camps, and visit the horrors of the Shoah. There are more trips to Eastern Europe through Jewish organizations then one could have fathomed just a short fifteen to twenty years ago. We take pictures of monuments that memorialize those Jews that perished. We enter synagogues that have not felt the presence of Jews since the Aktzia that gathered them together before they were burned, shot or sent to an extermination camp. Rarely do we ponder, are there Jews left in these places? What do they do? Do they live actively Jewish lives? Are they proud of their heritage?

I’ve only been here for two weeks but this is not the Ukraine or the Eastern Europe your bubbe and zaide remember. Jewish life exists here. In Kharkov, there are two Jewish Community Centers, an active synagogue, two Jewish day schools, a vibrant Hillel, Jewish youth clubs, an Israeli cultural center and much more. They are centered at reviving Jewish life, giving options for how to live Jewishly, offering assistance to the needy, and programming of all varieties to Jews of all ages. Jews are in business running some of the most successful restaurants and stores, in education working hard to ensure continued Jewish pride, and in politics like the mayor of Kharkov.

When studying Eastern European Jewry it is impossible to ignore the six brutally painful years of the Shoah, but we so often forget about how Jews lived in this region for hundreds of years, had good times, and had some not so good times. They celebrated the beginning of life, and each milestone they reached, and sadly mourned the deaths of loves ones too. Just like Jews lived here then, they are living here now. Next time you think about or travel to Eastern Europe do not only think of the Shoah, but think about and say hi to your cousins that are here and are actively proud Jews. 

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October 16, 2012 at 10:59 AM




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