Sunday, February 27, 2022

My Ukrainian Migraine

 My friend Milton, a 96-year-old World War II veteran whose self-portrait hangs in my living room (for decades Milton was my art director on Chain Store Age), wants me to write about the disaster unfolding in Ukraine. 

Trust me, I know no more about the inner demons dementing Vladimir Putin and his plans for a reconstituted Russian empire than any of the well-paid, more widely publicized experts trolling the airwaves, blogosphere and print publications.

What I do know is that death in Ukraine—death of living creatures human and animal, death of legitimate democratically elected government, death of cities and infrastructure, death of hope and opportunity—is not pleasant to read about or watch.

For centuries Ukraine has been a killing field, a killing field turned red with Jewish blood.

Killing Jews in Ukraine has a long history. According to Wikipedia, “The Ukrainian Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky led a Cossack uprising, known as Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648–1657), under the premise that the Poles had sold them as slaves ‘into the hands of the accursed Jews.’ At that time it is estimated that the Jewish population in Ukraine numbered 51,325. An army of Cossacks and Crimean Tatars massacred and took into captivity numerous Jews, Roman Catholics and Uniates in 1648–49.

“Recent estimates range from fifteen thousand to thirty thousand Jews killed or taken captive, and 300 Jewish communities totally destroyed.”

If you google “pogroms in Ukraine” one of the first citations will include the following from Nokhem Shtif’s book, “The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust:”

“Between 1918 and 1921 an estimated 100,000 Jewish people were killed, maimed or tortured in pogroms in Ukraine. Hundreds of Jewish communities were burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and destitute, including orphaned children.”

Babi Yar. It’s a ravine northwest of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital now assaulted by Russian forces. Over two days, September 29-30, 1941, at Babi Yar, Nazi Germany and Ukrainian confederates slaughtered 33,771 Jewish residents of Kyiv. During the next two years another 100,000-150,000 Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, Romanis and Ukrainian nationalists were massacred at Babi Yar.

In October 1941, more than 50,000 Jews were killed in Odessa.

How ironic, then, that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. Members of his family were exterminated during the Holocaust. He rightfully expressed indignation after Putin justified the Russian invasion as a means of “deNazifying” Ukraine (

It is no secret many Ukrainians disliked life under Soviet Russia before the Second World War. They welcomed Hitler’s conquest of their land. Many joined paramilitary groups that aided in the killing of their neighbors—Jews—and Soviet soldiers.  

When my Uncle Willy, the sole survivor of my father’s family, hid for two years in the area around his hometown of Ottynia, now in western Ukraine but part of Poland at the beginning of the war, he had to stay away from Ukrainian neighbors lest they betray him to the Nazis. He received food and shelter from Polish neighbors. 

After the Russians liberated his area, he was drafted into their army, sent to Siberia for training, and was to be shipped out to fight the Germans when he and several other Jewish soldiers made an unusual request of their commander. They asked for a transfer to a different battalion. Why? Because their original unit was composed of Ukrainian soldiers. As Jews, they feared being shot by them more than fighting the Germans. Their request was granted.

I know it’s not right to ascribe guilt to today’s Ukrainians for sins of their ancestors. After all, much of Europe and many Arabian countries have anti-Semitic actions and killings marinated in their history, yet Israel has or wants constructive relations with them. 

Still, I feel a certain ambivalence toward Ukrainians. I know it is not rational to blame subsequent generations (as long as they do not perpetuate their forefathers’ evil). I’m not a deity that exacts punishment to the third or fourth generation. 

My cousin Laura in France has a more refined perspective. She posted about her Jewish grandmother who lived near Ottynia. She “viscerally” hated Ukrainians for their “ultra violent anti-Semitism.”

“Her hatred, she passed it to us unintentionally, by force to tell, by force to remember,” wrote Laura.

“Where I find that the unconscious is something great, is that I only realized that today, I wholeheartedly support these same Ukrainians of 2022, and that somewhere, I have roots in Ukraine TOO. 

“If my grandmother was still around I think I’d tell her that everyone can change, not just Ukrainians, but also us, actually.”

I’m not sure this posting is what Milton wanted of me. But it works for me.