Amid crisis, Ukraine's Jews say 'leave us out of it'

Donetsk, Ukraine - Lyudmila Saprykina’s phone rings nonstop as she fields calls from concerned friends in Israel and members of the local Jewish population asking about the latest apparent anti-Semitic incident in Ukraine’s volatile east.

This time, they are inquiring about a video showing pro-Russia separatists in the nearby industrial city of Slovyansk promising to end “zombie Zionist” broadcasting, now that the separatists have taken over the local television station.

“People are worried. We haven’t had these sorts of problems in a very long time. Ukraine has not had the anti-Semitism that Russia has seen since independence,” Ms. Saprykina says at her downtown office at the Donetsk Oblast Charity Fund Hesed Tsdaka, a Jewish charity.

As Ukrainians in east and west trade accusations of fascism, and as apparent instances of anti-Semitism pop up, the atmosphere is stirring memories within the country’s Jewish population of grimmer times under both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. And although Jewish leaders say they don't believe that either side of Ukraine's conflict has truly embarked on an anti-Jewish campaign, they worry that their community has become a tool in a political crisis that is threatening to divide this country of 46 million.

These incidents are "not a joke at all," says Pinchas Vishedski, the chief rabbi in Donetsk’s only synagogue. “We want them to leave us out of this game.”

Ukraine's Jewry

By most estimates, there are about 250,000 Jews in Ukraine, making it one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. There are an estimated 20,000 Jews now living in the Donetsk region, most of them in the city of Donetsk.

Like other populations of Jews in Eastern Europe, Jewish Ukrainians suffered terribly under Nazi occupation, and millions were killed. In Donetsk, Jews in the city were forced into a ghetto in what is now a central part of the city. In the winter of 1942, the Nazis killed as many as 15,000 Jews by throwing them down a mineshaft in the outskirts of the city. Saprykina said five members of her family died in the mine.

Ukraine has come a long way from the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, when “Jewish” was stamped in her passport under nationality, she said. In school, class rosters included the students’ names and nationality, and Jews were listed as such. Universities had quotas on the number of Jews they could admit, and Saprykina said she was denied entry into medical school in Donetsk because she did not make the quota.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Jews in Ukraine say discrimination has decreased, at least officially: Quotas are gone, and passports no longer list "nationality." And in Ukraine's heavily industrialized eastern Donbas region (which includes Donetsk), they have mixed into the diverse population of laborers coming from across the vast Soviet Union to work in the mines and factories.

As a result, the population became mixed ethnically, too. Statistics are inexact, but it’s extremely common to hear a Ukrainian describe themselves as “Ukrainian, Russian, and some Jewish.” As in Russia, many of Ukraine’s prominent oligarchs are Jewish, including Sergei Taruta and Igor Kolomoisky, the newly appointed governors of Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk, respectively. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also has a mixed background of Ukrainian and Jewish.

Caught between east and west

Despite the improvement in life for Ukraine's Jews in recent years, they remain understandably wary of a resurgence in anti-Semitism, says Yakov Gaissinovitch, an assistant rabbi and doctor in Donetsk. “When we get even a slight smell of it, we can fall into panic, because we are the nation that sacrificed more than 6 million relatives.”

Those memories came back in spades as the country’s political crisis worsened during the past several months. The Russian government, both directly and via its state-owned media that is popular in Russian-speaking homes in Ukraine, has repeatedly accused the interim government in Kiev of being run by neo-Nazi, Western Ukrainian fascists. Supporters of the EuroMaidan movement that ousted Mr. Yanukovych are often referred to as "Banderavites," or followers of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose movement fought against the Soviet Union during World War II.

It is these associations with accused Nazi collaborators that have played into the fears of eastern and southern Ukrainians, who have strong sympathies for Russia and nostalgia for the former Soviet Union, which lost tens of millions of lives during the war with Nazi Germany. Anti-Kiev activists in eastern Ukraine claim that they've come to fight against the “fascist” government now occupying Kiev.

Amid the Nazi rhetoric came incidents like that in Slovyansk and, more prominently, a recent video showing three masked men handing out fliers outside a Donetsk synagogue. The fliers demanded that all Jews older than 16 register with the new leadership of the Donetsk Republic – the loosely organized masked men who have taken over the regional administrative building in the center of the city. They were published on what appeared to be Donetsk Republic letterhead and released on the second day of Passover.

Representatives of the pro-Russia group denied involvement in the letter’s creation and distribution. Ukrainian security services said that they've launched an investigation into who might have created the letter, and local police added officers to patrol the area outside the synagogue during services.

Jewish leaders in Donetsk don't believe that they are truly being targeted. Dr. Gaissinovitch says that the Jewish community has stayed out of politics during the crisis and has not chosen sides. In the Donetsk synagogue, there are “people from both sides of the fence sitting in the same bench” during prayers, he says. "We aren't a political group, so people have their own opinions."

Saprykina agrees that there is something else going on with the anti-Semetic incidents. “My intuition is that this all is just some kind of provocation meant to discredit someone, either the Kiev government or the guys in masks holding the buildings here,” she says.

Still, she adds, it hits a nerve. “After the letter, most people were scared. But we need to be careful and not overreact.“