An associate of mine recently returned >from Ukraine. Following are some of
his observations, and while they are not genealogical in nature, they may
be of interest to many.
From: Mark D Singer [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, January 02, 2001 11:43 AM
Subject: Re: Ukraine
Please feel free to post or share the essay with anyone.
Thanks for your interest.
MIRACLE IN THE UKRAINE?
by Mark Singer (12-29-00)
This Hanukkah we celebrated the victory of the Jewish religion and the
miracle of the olive oil. Commonly, people argue that miracles no longer
occur. I cannot confirm with certainty whether this claim is true;
however, this Hanukkah I found additional evidence supporting the
possibility that miracles, in fact, continue to exist.
I just returned >from a 10 day trip to the Ukraine, a republic of the
former Soviet Union that gained independence in 1991. In various
Ukrainian cities, I participated in a Hanukkah celebration program along
with 7 other American students and our Ukrainian student counterparts.
Logistically, the program was designed to align the American and
Ukrainian students for the purpose of conducting Hanukkah celebrations in
various venues, including Jewish homes and community centers. I
emphasize, without hesitation, that the experience of those who
participated was valueless and beyond words; nonetheless, I wanted to
share brief segments of the story.
Arriving at the Kiev airport, we were warmly greeted by the Ukrainian
students and Hillel director. >from that time until the moment that they
personally returned us to the airport for departure, the Ukrainian
students treated us generously and kindly. We traveled in a small bus to
a nearby campground, which ironically one of the American Ukrainian
students, Polina, had attended as a child before emigrating to the United
States. Polina, upon realizing this, became the first of many people to
cry with joy over the next 10 days. What had once been used as a camp
for Communist indoctrination was about to be used by over 20 Jewish
students for a Hanukkah celebration preparation! I met my Ukrainian
roommate, Vlad, who proudly wore a large Star of David and spoke in
broken English of his passion for Israel. Vlad is an active member of
the Hillel and also regularly volunteers at Chesed, a respectable Jewish
community center and soup kitchen for the elderly.
Over the course of the next two days we toured Kiev and trained for the
Hanukkah program. On the tour, we visited the two remaining synagogues
in Kiev (there were as many as 70 before the Communists and Nazis
confiscated or lay to rubble all but two). In fact, the two old
synagogues had just been reactivated over the past few years after being
desecrated as puppet theaters and horse stables for the Communists and
Nazis. The Rabbi at one of these synagogues, Rabbi Bleich, is an
American who has served the community for over 5 years. He said that he
was only supposed to be in Kiev for 3 weeks, but would now "stay there
until he left." I met two of his well-spoken and eloquent sons, both
under the age of 12, and was impressed with the work that the family was
doing, including running a thriving Jewish day school for close to 200
children, a mikvah, the synagogue, and summer camps. Just over 9 years
ago, all of these activities were illegal and non-existent. We witnessed
a sparkle of hope >from a pile of rubble.
Sadly, we also visited "Babiy Yar." About 2.5 million Jews lived within
the borders of contemporary Ukraine in 1939. German forces invaded the
country in June 1941 and soon occupied every kilometer of land. Together
with local Ukrainian forces, they murdered about 1,850,000 Jews who lived
in the country at the time. In Ukraine, most Jews were force-marched to
pits or ravines and shot. "Babiy Yar" in Kiev is the best known of such
places. We conducted a poignant candle memorial service at "Babiy Yar"
in front of a monumental menorah that overlooked a tree forest grown with
the burnt ashes of Holocaust victims who had once lead a thriving,
educated, and cultured Jewish civilization. Here we stood, small Jewish
remnants of a lost world, with Nazis and Communists nowhere to be found.
Following the first two days, the students were divided into smaller
teams. Each team was given an itinerary for different cities and would
be on there own for the next 6 days. My team included three Ukrainian
students, Luba, Anton, and Yasia. While each of them was intelligent,
kind, hardworking, and caring, Luba had an especially beautiful singing
voice, Anton had a wonderful sense of humor, and Yasia had the face of an
adorable doll. The two other American students were Savva and Stacy.
Savva is an 18 year old student originally >from Moscow who showed great
wisdom, knowledge and charisma for his age. He was able to move with
ease between the Ukrainian and American worlds and often served as my
personal interpreter. Stacy is also a particularly special woman. She
is passionate, energetic, and a lot of fun. Our group would spend almost
every moment with each other over the next six days in a city called
"Zhytomyr." We were also accompanied by our driver and a personal
security guard that Stacy nicknamed "Commando."
Each day we would travel to Jewish homes and community centers to conduct
Hanukkah programs. Many of the visitations were called "home visits,"
constituting us and the one elderly Jewish person living there. Other
visits were called "warm houses," consisting of a family and 12-15
"shtetl" (neighborhood) friends. Upon our arrival, we could see tears
settle in many of their eyes. We were often welcomed with kisses and
hugs. Many of these survivors told us that "the egg was teaching the
hen," meaning that the young students were teaching the older generation
about Judaism and Hanukkah. These heroes and heroines survived communism
and the holocaust. They shared their stories of survival and hope. One
man survived the Holocaust by being hidden by a Ukrainian family, one
woman explained that when she was a child her mother forced her to stop
speaking yiddish because it was dangerous to be discovered a Jew, others
explained how it used to be considered shameful to be a Jew under
communism, and almost all of them told of children or grandchildren who
had formed new lives in Eretz Israel. Despite the suppression of Judaism
for an entire generation, these people still know who they are and are
proud to be Jews.
One of the most moving experiences was at a warm house of older people,
but there was also a young girl named Jana. She is a beautiful eight
year old child who lit up the entire room. Although we were there to
conduct the Hanukkah program, she was the real star. She sang to us in
Yiddish, performed a Hanukkah dance, and counted in Hebrew for us. Here
she stood before us as the future of the Jewish people. For those of us
in the room, we knew that the future is grand. In another amazing
moment, an 83 year old man stood up at the dinner table and sang "Oh
Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" to us in Yiddish >from his heart. He sang with
pride. It's quite possible that he hadn't sang that song out loud for
many, many years.
While in "Zhytomyr" we also visited the local synagogue. The Lubavitcher
Rabbi, Moshe, was >from Israel and lived in "Zhytomyr" with his wife and
five children for the past 6 years. Amazingly, he ran the synagogue and
full time Jewish day school. As his wife said, "they could have lived a
more comfortable life elsewhere, but they couldn't be any happier." The
pinnacle of my experience with the congregation was following Havdalah
services. We all traveled to a town square to light a menorah that
proudly stood 40-50 feet in the air. With close to 200 old and young
Jews singing and dancing to Chasidic melodies, the Rabbi, in somewhat
Biblical proportions, was elevated by a bright yellow crane into the cold
sky to light aglow the Hanukkiah. Again, we stood in a public Ukrainian
square in awe of this moment. Who could have ever imagined over 9 years
ago that Jews would be celebrating Hanukkah in public with the Ukrainian
police standing by--standing by for realistically unneeded protection.
Now, the Ukrainian Jews celebrated publicly, proudly and with joy. The
Jews stood free and the Nazis and Communists lay vanquished! Young
children and old people celebrated, danced and sang. Do miracles still
Fortunately, I could continue to share many more vibrant moments.
However, for the purposes of this letter, I simply wanted to communicate
the overall purpose, depth, and meaning of my Ukrainian Hanukkah
experience. As we departed >from the Kiev airport I couldn't help but be
amazed by what the American and Ukrainian students were doing in the
middle of the airport. We stood in a circle, hand in hand, and together
we sang "Am Yisroal Chai" (The Jewish People Live). Yes, we did in fact
Old Ukrainian Jews, Ukrainian Jewish university students, and Ukrainian
Jewish children--How is it possible that I and 7 other American Jewish
students were able to celebrate Hanukkah with all of them in the Ukraine?
Certainly the all powerful and former Soviet Union wouldn't have
permitted it; Certainly the Nazi murder machine tried to exterminate the
practice altogether. As we celebrated Hanukkah, commemorating the
survival of Judaism and the miracle of the olive oil, we made history and
these powerful forces were history.
Do miracles still exist?
By Mark Singer
December 29, 2000