Vadim Feldman, 58, is a Jew from Kiev who is not joining the majority of his friends leaving the Soviet Union for the promise of a better life in Israel.
Further west in Lvov, Alexander Lizen, editor and publisher of the Jewish newspaper Shofar has chosen to stay behind so that he can lead the rebirth of Jewish culture, now experiencing a revival in the Ukraine for the first time in decades.
Likewise, Boris Dobrivker, a young Jew from Odessa, is hoping that his plans to remain will galvanize the Jewish community to renew the traditions that thrived in the city before the Communist Revolution, when there were 52 synagogues, as opposed to the lone active synagogue that exists today.
These men, and others like them, are choosing to remain in the Ukraine due at least in part to the efforts of the Ukrainian democratic independence movement known as Rukh, an umbrella group for a host of distinct political, human rights and environmental associations.
Since Rukh's inception two years ago, the organization has spearheaded a drive to establish a foundation of trust and support for the Jewish community and other minority ethnic groups in the republic.
"To leave now would be to miss a golden opportunity to help Rukh achieve the national reawakening, not just for Jews, but for Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, and everyone with a national consciousness," said Lizen. With a nod toward the continuing exodus of Jews from the Ukraine, he adds: "If I don't take action now, who will be left to do it?"
According to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 58,528 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel last year--a record. The 1989 official Soviet census listed a total of 486,326 Jews in the Ukraine--a drop of 23.3% compared with the 1979 census.
Given the history of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine, Rukh faces a formidable task. Hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in World War II concentration camps in various cities in the Ukraine, which was also the site of the czarist ghettos and the pogrom of 1905, among other atrocities.
At its founding congress, Rukh issued a resolution that beckons "all politically conscious citizens of Ukraine . . . to speak out against all forms of national disunity and anti-Semitism. We must stand up for our integrity and the honor of the Jewish nation, its culture, education, religion."
The organization has also taken pains to disassociate itself from Pamyat, a Russian extremist nationalist organization whose philosophy clashes with Rukh's proclaimed principles of democracy and "multi-culturalism." Pamyat was banned from the Ukraine when leaders of the organization tried last year to establish headquarters in some of the larger cities of the republic.
According to David Roskies, a literature teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, evidence of Rukh's disdain for Pamyat was seen in Moscow one year ago when he and other delegates to the first All Russian Conference of Jewish Organizations emerged from their meeting only to see that a group of Ukrainian men, donning armbands made of the distinctive yellow and blue Ukrainian national colors, were there to shield them from the anti-Semitic provocations of the Pamyat movement. The men had traveled all the way from Lvov to demonstrate group solidarity, Roskies reported.
With its denouncing of anti-Semitism, Rukh has gradually been winning Jewish support; some Jewish organizations in the Ukraine have even urged Jews to join Rukh.
"The only way Jews and other minority groups in the Ukraine will be guaranteed safety is if Rukh achieves its goal of independence," said Jewish activist Alexander Burakovsky, co-chairman of the Kiev Shalom Aleichem Cultural and Education Society and chairman of Rukh's council of nationalities.
"The Ukraine is currently the one republic where Jews can live in peace," Burakovsky added. "This is not to say that anti-Semitism doesn't exist here, or that some people don't advocate Pamyat's slogans."
Rukh's support has helped a revival of Jewish culture in the Ukraine seen in a burst of new organizations and the reopening of centers that had been closed down under former Soviet leaders Josef Stalin and Leonid I. Brezhnev. Within the last three years, Kiev has become home to two Jewish newspapers, a Jewish library, a Jewish theater, a Jewish dance troupe, a Jewish choir, an Israeli video library, and a school that offers instruction in Hebrew. Plans are under way to open a department of Hebrew Culture at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev and a Jewish elementary school in the fall of 1991.
Last year, Rukh played a pivotal role in preventing government demolition of a building in Rovno, a city west of Kiev. After extensive lobbying, the building was turned over to the Jewish community, where it now sports Israeli and Ukrainian flags. Also last year, the Kiev Jewish Cultural Society demonstrated its support for Rukh by making a commitment to raise funds to help build a monument commemorating the Great Famine of 1932-33, where an estimated 7 million to 10 million people of various ethnic groups in the Ukraine died of starvation as a result of Stalin's forced collectivization drive.
Lvov is the site of the first joint Ukrainian-Israeli organization, the Ukraina/Israel Society, which is overseeing plans to erect a monument commemorating the 136,000 Jews who died in a Lvov ghetto. A model has already been designed. Members of the organization were instrumental in founding a Jewish newspaper in Lvov recently, and they pushed for and won the right to reopen a synagogue last year. In Odessa, where most Jews are not religious and live at various ends of a bustling port city that is absent a Jewish quarter, two Jewish cultural associations were formed in 1989.
Last year, a monument at Babi Yar, where more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev were executed by the Nazis in 1941, was supplemented with a plaque in Yiddish. Critics complain, however, that no reference is made of the fact that up to 50% or more of these people were Jews. The Kiev Jewish Cultural society is in the process of gathering material for a book commemorating the tragedy.
As the continuing flood of emigres suggests, there remains some suspicion among Ukrainian Jews.
Kiev activist Burakovsky contends that the main motivations of those still leaving are "loosening of emigration laws in the Soviet Union combined with political uncertainty, depressed economic conditions, and a worsening ecology problem (related to lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster)."
A number of Ukrainian Jews interviewed for this article said that while they trust Rukh, it is the prosti liudy, or simple people, of whom they cannot be sure. Moreover, those who are planning to emigrate point out that although there has been no evidence of anti-Semitism in some of the larger cities of the Ukraine, those cities are not representative of the republic as a whole.
According to Andriy Kulikov, editor of the English-language News From the Ukraine--a weekly publication of the Assn. for Cultural Relations with Ukrainians Abroad--other Jews suspect Rukh of trying to make a coalition of political convenience, adopting a pro-Jewish platform as a ploy to help it gain power. These skeptics feel that "once the goal of independence is achieved, the situation will once again worsen for Jews," Kulikov said.
Rukh leaders say they've had to work hard to prove their support for the republic's Jewish population. But they contend that their efforts have been hindered by what they describe as an aggressive campaign to tarnish their credibility. They claim that pogrom rumors were spread in the Ukraine last year in part to discredit Rukh and drive a wedge between it and those Jews who have been drawn to its cause.
Leonid Chuhunov, an official in Rukh's foreign relations department, said the government denied Rukh access to the official media to rebut February, 1990, leaflets that were distributed throughout Kiev and its surrounding regions warning of pogroms. Instead, Rukh called a news conference. "We said that if pogroms or killings occur, all the guilt will fall on the shoulders of those who didn't allow us to appear on television or to state our position in the central press," Chuhunov recalled.
Not long after the news conference, Jewish and Ukrainian activists staged a rally to demonstrate their solidarity and to condemn those promoting pogrom rumors.
Many Jews and Ukrainians suspect the KGB security police and other government agencies of initiating provocations. "Anti-Semitism is useful to some people 'upstai" said one Kiev legislator, in reference to the pogrom rumors. "Such things as anti-Semitic meetings or the dissemination of anti-Jewish letters are inspired and supported by the conservative elements of the Kremlin leadership, because the party has lost all its traditional sources of legitimacy and has been impelled to pander to the people's basest fears."
Many worry that however well intentioned Rukh may be toward Jews, it may yet lose the struggle for power in the Ukraine. As Simon Gluzman, a Jewish dissident who spent 10 years in prison declared: "I don't believe Rukh has enough force to win over the Communist system. The Kremlin apparatus is doing everything in their power imaginable to destroy Rukh and other such independence movements in the (Soviet Union)."
New Support for Jews in the Ukraine
Rukh, a democratic independence movement, has pushed the drive to establish a new level of trust and support for the Jewish community and other minority ethnic groups in the Ukraine. This drive has helped persuade many Jews to forgo emigration to Israel and stay in the region.