What Is Happening to the Jews of Donetsk, Ukraine?

4 years ago

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins at sundown on Sunday, April 27. According to the Memorial de la Shoah, up to 1.5 million Jews were murdered in Ukraine between 1941 and 1944. The genocide of Ukrainian Jews is known as the "Holocaust by bullets," because the Nazis did not bother to gather and deport people to concentration camps or death camps. They just dug large pits in the forests or countryside and shot people, one by one, until they killed entire towns, villages, and communities.

Jews digging their own graves in Storow, Ukraine, 1941. (Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

It is therefore particularly chilling to read the conflicting media accounts about Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that is currently seeing demonstrations by a pro-Russian separatist faction and pro-Ukraine rallies as control of the region lies in balance.

After YNet, an Israeli news site, posted a very alarming story about the distribution of leaflets with Russian and Donetsk government letterhead telling the Jewish community that they must register and pay a fee or risk deportation, USAToday also picked up the story, including a quote from Secretary of State John Kerry:

"In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable — it's grotesque," he said. "And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities — from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of — there is no place for that."

From there, the posts on Twitter flew:

Back and forth: is it real, or a hoax, or a hoax that is also real? I didn't know what to think. The whole problem with Ukraine is that so little media coming out of it is reliable. I didn't want to ignore it and assume it was propaganda—because what if it wasn't? Isn't that how so much of the Holocaust was able to happen in the first place? The reports were too horrible, too mixed with other propaganda, too easily dismissed.

What if this is real?

April 17, 2014: A pro-Ukraine protest is protected by the police in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Image: © Strand Mats/Aftonbladet/IBL/ZUMAPRESS.com)

I wanted to throw up. I have spent the last six years attempting to write a book about my grandfather, who survived the Holocaust by fleeing Poland to Russia. My bubbe survived the Holocaust when the Soviet government evacuated her city in Belarus when the Germans attacked. Neither Poland or Belarus, obviously, is Ukraine, but it still strikes me too close. Could it be happening again? It had to be propaganda. Right?

A few hours later, I received an email from the JDC, a nonprofit organization that provides social services to impoverished Jewish people around the world. The email's subject was "Passover in Ukraine." Oh shit, I thought before clicking on it. This must be about how Jews celebrating Passover—the holiday in which we celebrate our liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt—are being forced to register and things are scary and terrible and I need to send aid immediately. I opened the email. The story was about how Jews around the Ukraine celebrated Passover thanks to 53,000 boxes of donated matzah.

Oh. Not exactly the crisis appeal I expected. I started to feel better. Maybe there would be no repeat of history, no mobs rampaging through the streets, no old-fashioned pogrom after all. The Jewish community in Donetsk isn't freaking out about it. At least not yet.

Yom HaShoah is approaching. I can't help but think of all of those fields and forest clearings, though. Those who have been there say that the earth has never fully settled.

Suzanne also blogs at CUSS and Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.