The Chassidic movement got its start in Ukraine and put on the Jewish map towns such as Medzibuzh, Berdichev, Hanipoli, Chernobyl, Breslov and Uman. Ukraine was also home to one of the founders of Yiddish literature, Shalom Aleichem, the modern Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, and the father of cultural Zionism, Ahad Ha’am.
Yet very few Jews identified themselves as “Ukrainian.” This was partly due to the area’s shifting identity. For instance, a Jew born in Lemberg in 1915 would have been a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After 1918, he became a Polish citizen living in Lwów. After 1939, his hometown was called Lvov and he was a Soviet citizen. If he lived until 1991, his residency in Lviv made him a citizen of Ukraine.
This lack of a Ukrainian identity was also due to the area’s domination by one of its neighbors, Russia, an influence that was both political and cultural – and maybe because of Ukraine’s bloody history throughout much of the last two hundred years. Not only was Ukraine the home of many blood libels – in 1911, for example, Kiev resident Menachem Beilis was accused of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood to bake matzos – the beginning of the 20th century was also a time when a Russian word began to appear all too frequently in the news: pogrom.
The Pale Turns Red
The Pale of Settlement was the brainchild of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. It was her way of solving Russia’s “Jewish Problem.” After the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 1770s, Russia received its eastern lands—Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland—along with the millions of Jews who lived there. To keep the Jews out of the rest of her empire, Catherine forcibly moved all the Jews west, into the Pale. Only highly skilled artisans, soldiers and academics were given an exemption.
The Pale existed from December 1791 until 1917, when the Russian Revolution swept away the old order of the Tsars. By the late 1800s, almost 5 million Jews lived within the confines of the Pale. Over half of them, some 2.7 million Jews, lived in Ukraine.
While this large concentration of Jews in one area helped to develop a rich Jewish life—Shalom Aleichem’s fictional town of Kasrilevke is based upon the Ukrainian town he grew up in, Voronkov—it also made the Jews an easy target whenever there was an economic downturn or political unrest. For instance, anti-Jewish riots broke out in the port city Odessa in 1821 and 1859. But because these riots involved Greeks and not ethnic Russians, many historians don’t consider them to have been pogroms. The first “official” pogrom in Odessa is considered to have take place in Odessa in 1871, which some see as a turning point in Russian Jewish history. Russians joined the Greek mob, and they would continue to do so in the pogroms that occurred in that city in 1881, 1900 and 1905.
The pogroms of 1881-1884 were sparked by the assassination of Alexander II. After the ascension of Alexander III to the throne, a rumor began to spread that the new Tsar had sanctioned the killing of Jews, in retaliation. Although “only” about 100 Ukrainian Jews were killed during the three-year period, the unwillingness on the part of the Russian authorities to stop the attacks—as well as the repressive May Laws of 1882—had a strong impact on all the Jews living in the area. Emigration increased, as did Zionist activity. The BILU movement, which was founded in eastern Ukraine, sent its first settlers to Palestine in 1882.
A major blow to Ukrainian Jewry came in 1903, when a devastating pogrom broke out in Kishinev. Forty-nine Jews were killed and more than 580 were injured. In addition, more than 1,500 Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and pillaged. The violence against the Jews was so savage that the New York Times wrote, in its April 28 report: “The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.”