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‘He Had A Vision And Was Always Right’: The Life Of A Ukrainian Jewish Leader

Shmist in his workshop making a memorial gravestone in 1992. (Photo courtesy of the Shmist family.)

Shmist in his workshop making a memorial gravestone in 1992. (Photo courtesy of the Shmist family.)

Rabbi Kaminetsky describes how Shmist also led a march on Yom Ha’atzmaut while still under Soviet rule, “He was the only one who wasn’t afraid. He was such a big Zionist, and even though everyone was scared, he would constantly say, ‘Be proud to be Jewish!’ ” Such defiance was evident when his supervisor at work told him to cut his beard or he will be fired. His daughter Leah says he replied, “Marx, Friedrich, Lenin all had beards! Would you fire them?” Leah explains, “At that point, if she said anything, she would have gone to the great wasteland of Siberia so she relented on her threat.”

In addition to being a cardiologist, Shmist was a historian and skilled sculptor and began making stone monuments to erect at Jewish memorial sites. The communal grave where the majority of Jews were killed over two days in 1941 had merely a plaque that said, “Here were killed Soviet citizens.” Shmist demanded the plaque include the fact that these victims were Jewish. Later on, when the government initiated plans to build a stadium at the mass grave site, Shmist quit his job as a physician, and began an eight year long campaign to protect the land as hallow ground.

Consequently, Shmist developed the reputation of being the “protector of graves,” and Ukrainians would constantly come to his house to tell him Jews were killed in their yards, whereupon he would examine the site and record the witness testimony. Shmist believed his life’s mission was to memorialize Jewish life in Ukraine before WWII so that it would be known how much Jewish life had been lost. Kaminetsky says, “There are many mass graves in the whole Dnepropetrovsk region and Arkady would always say, ‘The least we can do is remember their names.’ ”

Dr. Baruch Natapov, a New York dentist whose parents regularly celebrated Jewish holidays with the Shmist family, says, “Dr. Shmist understood that if Judaism is going to thrive, you can’t just focus on history, but on young children who hold the future.” Natapov describes Shmist as a “child prodigy and genius” and tells how Shmist conceived a daring plan together with his wife to request that the Soviet authorities recognize and fund a Jewish day school. “Most told him not to hold his breath, so there was no surprise when the mayor, who was a communist, kicked him out of his office,” Natapov says.

However, despite the doubt and derision, Shmist didn’t give up and traveled to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, where he sat in the waiting room of the ministry of education until the minister agreed to meet with him. “Shmist was very smart and really believed he was put on earth in order to preserve Yiddishkeit,” Natapov says, “so he wouldn’t give up.” Eventually, to the surprise of most of the Jews who lived in Ukraine, permission was finally granted and the government agreed to give Shmist the funds to rent space, pay teachers salaries, and buy books.

Once permission for the Jewish school was granted by the government, Rabbi Kaminetsky built the school (which currently has an enrollment of 600 children) and made Shmist’s dream, a reality. The school opened in 1991, and Dnepropetrovsk had now set a precedent for all Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union who were now requesting that their Jewish schools also be funded by the government just as in Dnepropetrovsk.

Being an ardent Zionist, Shmist moved his family to Ashdod in Israel, where he would regularly commute. Rabbi Kaminetsky says, “I never met anyone like him, a real tzaddik who was totally selfless, who had mesiras nefesh for the tzibur, who believed his sole mission in life was to rebuild the Jewish community in Ukraine.” Rabbi Kaminetsky tells how the physician was also a musician and composer and regularly gathered people together in concerts to sing the Jewish-inspired songs he composed. “A rabbi or a director can be replaced but not Arkady,” he says. “If you never met him, you just can’t understand who he was and what he was capable of. We never argued with him over any of his ideas because he had vision and was always right.”

In the humble apartment in Ashdod overlooking the sea, Leah says, “My father was especially taken by the story of the Prophet Jonah who was sent as a messenger to influence the entire community of Ninveh to do teshuvah.” She explains how her father wanted to establish a large memorial for Prophet Jonah on the small hill in Ashdod, where Jonah is buried.

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