«Jewish Observer»
June 2002
5762 Tammuz

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- How do You, as a secular Jewish leader, understand the notion "Jewish community"?

- What is a Jew in general? Is this only the one who puts on a kipa and goes to church? Like hundreds of thousands of other Jews I do not do it, but who can say I am not a Jew? At times somebody says he is proud to be a Jew. How can you be proud of something you have not contributed to? I am proud of achievements of my people.

- And still, you will not escape giving definitions. If there are Jewish organizations, note, hundreds of them, there should exist a Jewish life. What is this very life personally for You?

- Many people profit by telling everybody what a Jewish life is. But I don't know. And I want to make up nothing. What is a Japanese life? For instance, Ukrainians are unable to explain a Ukrainian national idea in ethnic sense to me. I know what a Ukrainian idea of statehood is - this is uniting all peoples in Ukraine into one Ukrainian people, prosperity of the country, growth of well-being. If this is the case, all nationalities of the country will necessarily benefit from this. I would like Jews to oftener recall there are other, beside them, peoples who have also had to suffer a lot: they escaped Holocaust, but they were exiled, driven away from their homes, arrested, killed. That's why, in my opinion, it is not quite ethical to establish one's exclusive priority on a national tragedy. We are to learn to consider not only our grief, but a grief of others, too.

- Over centuries Jews lived for problems and fates of surrounding peoples - it is difficult to accuse us namely of listlessness. Holocaust is truly a unique in scale phenomenon, though in recent years it has undergone numerous speculations.

- Yes, it is unique, but Gypsies used to be totally exterminated, there were 1,5 million slaughtered Armenians and three million tortured Cambodians (by those very Cambodians - M. G.). There was an opposition between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and an Indian-Pakistani conflict. We don't want to think about this. Why do we burden everybody with our problems and want the entire world to sympathize with us as we do ourselves? My first priority goes to common human values, second - to being a citizen of Ukraine and only third - to my nationality, to realizing myself a Jew. Are we permanently conscious of our nationality? We lead a normal life with its feasts, national music, memory of nearest's graves - this is ours, Jewish! In my opinion, this is the very national life, whereas the rest is a common life of peoples of the country. I will allow myself a deviation. Once a Jew comes to our office and declares, "I see few our people here". I ask him, "What do you mean by "our'? - "Well, Jews". "Come, - I say, - to work to us for 150 hryvnas a month, we'll have one Jew more. Will you come?" There was no continuation. Among our staff non-Jews thrice exceed Jews in number, but they live our life: observe Jewish holidays, learn our history. You should hear how respectfully they speak to our old people, how they answer the old on the phone. I wish we received such answers when we call to other Jewish organizations.

- Let's continue our theme of speculations. Struggle against anti-Semitism is a profitable theme for a multitude of Jewish public figures, journalists, functionaries of all kinds.

- Anti-Semites shall always exist - they are a shadow of the Jewish people. Something slavish has formed within us over centuries. We continually expect troubles, fear a likely offense. Recently a respectable person, war veteran, has visited me. "Somebody has drawn a swastika, - he says - on my balcony, write about it in your newspaper". "Wipe it off", - I answered.

We are not alone. Russian center in Lvov has several time underground pogroms, Orthodox cemeteries are profaned, crosses are broken. We shouldn't look for anti - Semites in every case. We always have a pretext - intrigues of anti-Semites: if somebody has failed to enter an institute, then he has been blocked after "line five". At the same time we have the highest ratio of persons with higher education. Though we were blocked, and anti-Semitism was of a state level. In every concrete case much depended on a person himself - on a Jew and his surrounding. This is an eternal Jewish question, "Do they love us?". Why should they love us? Should we hear something unpleasant to ourselves, we immediately declare it anti-Semitism. Kuprin is anti-Semite, Chekhov - too, because he depicted in "Steppe" a rather unpleasant image of a tavern-keeper. But what if the tavern-keeper was exactly such person? As a matter of fact,this is a live image. How can Chekhov be anti-Semite? He proposed to a Jewish girl, made friends with Levitan. Saying nothing about Kuprin with his "Sulafim" and "Gambrinus". But we obstinately extract out of his personal letter a line about almost all journalists' being Jews. Whereas this is true, I can show a book "Russian journalism at the beginning of the century": merely 90% of journalists in Russia of those years were Jews.

I wouldn't fan the problem of anti-Semitism. A committee for protection of Soviet Jews has been created in America. Let them protect themselves. According to their own data, there annually were over 1,600 anti-Semitic acts in America, whereas in our Ukraine - about 40. Naturally, this is profitable - to create an organization, collect money for the struggle against anti-Semitism. But who has achieved anything in this struggle over centuries? What century is devoid of it? To my mind, we waste our energy. We do should struggle, but differently. We should remove charges which follow us for centuries, show worthy Jews. We are a heroic people.

- Have you encountered state anti-Semitism in days of old yourself?

- I have always dealt with state anti-Semitism. It equally concerned all Jews, including me. Should everything had been that simple... During 8 years my school was the best in the Union in physical training, I received lots of knowledge and rewards. After our class had won American tests in physical culture, we got an invitation from president Reagan. My classmates went there, but I was not allowed to. There also were other cases of anti-Semitism. Though I have never felt it at work, in the army. I didn't curse the Soviet power. I treated it as a mother who is always loved - be her a streetwalker or drunkard, she is loved. The country for me was not Kremlin and government, but something different, what we call Motherland: people, nature, those very "birch - trees", if you want.

- Figuratively speaking, you are a 'stick-to-the-soil' person among Jewish leaders of Ukraine. Don't You think laying emphasis on renaissance of Yiddish culture is Utopia in many a respect? Yiddish, to our regret, has passed away together with our grandfathers, it can be learnt, taught, but it is dead without speakers. Who needs a Yiddish theatre if no one understands its plays or a newspaper in Yiddish?

- We ourselves do not wish to speak it. If we are to go USA - we learn English, to Germany - German, to Israel - Hebrew. What about those who stay in Ukraine? We ourselves are not eager to learn Yiddish. I consider learning of Yiddish at Jewish schools an obligatory subject. We observe an Israelization of Jewish culture. This is good. But Yiddish is forgotten. There is a subject "Ridna mova" ("Native language"). Which "Ridna mova" do me have? During half a year we edited a newspaper in Yiddish, but a typesetter left and we had to close it down. Russian girls did type- setting of the "Einikait" magazine in Moscow and would find mistakes made by Jewish writers.

We should save Yiddish, but I don't rely on Jews' awareness in this issue. My son does not know Yiddish, which I am to blame for. The only solution today I see in a Jewish school. At home children will invariably speak Russian but they will learn Yiddish. The same situation is observed in Ukrainian schools: Ukrainian - at school, Russian - at home.

- You are president of Jewish Council of Ukraine. What, in your opinion, are its priorities?

- 13 years ago, when we created our society, I defined its several main tasks - to collect, as far as possible, a complete information about Babiy Yar, to prove Jews were a fighting nation and to remove an accusation of anti-Semitism from the Ukrainian people.

- I have another question in connection with this. You were among the first in Ukraine to start collecting materials on Holocaust. Can you say a few words about a project of Community center in Babiy Yar - isn't there a danger of its flouting the memory of those whose bones are scattered in this terrible place?

- First, rumors about the Center to be built on bones are no more than rumors. I know every inch of this territory. Moreover, before constructing the "Dorogozhichy" metro station the mayor of Kiev ordered to create a special commission which member I became. We studied different maps, including German ones, checked everything lots of times and calculated to within 5 meters the place of shootings. We interviewed residents of the Babiy Yar street (now the Olzhich street). Truly, Center will be located not far fro Babiy Yar - 250 meters away from a nearest shooting place. Uniformed people state shootings occurred here, too. Why does nobody get indignant at football playing 60 meters away from "Menorah"? Is it a policy?

By the way, we have long been busy with a project of Babiy Yar's museum. At one time the Jewish council received to this end a building of the Frunze club in the region of the autostation. For three years not a single Jew has donated a kopeck to restore this building (though, the same concerns a monument to children-Babiy Yar's victims or monument to Sholom-Aleikheim). Finally, when our debt for rent reached 40,000 hryvnas, the mayor said outwardly," Ilya Mikhailovich, if you reconstruct nothing, return the building to the city and we will clear off the debt". He was right, and we returned the building... 1,060 meters were allotted under the museum...

As for a new Center, there will be no dance classes and entertainment there. We are perfectly aware this is inadmissible.

- But what will a reaction be of the sponsor who has allocated money for a dance class?

- They are normal people, they have understood us and agreed to our suggestion.

- Once we have touched upon a problem sponsors, can you dwell on foreign investments owing to which, actually, the majority of charitable projects are alive?

- We would like those who render us help trust us more. We know our needs better than others. "Joint" assists and trusts us. Jews have a custom that help should be nameless. Whereas at present - somebody gives 100 hryvnas for a holiday and immediately demands an article be published in a newspaper - thank you, dear. Talking about a community, it doesn't, on a big account, exist in our national form. Jewish community is a unity of people each of whom sacrifices 10% of his profit for social needs. This concerns both a millionaire and a vagrant who, figuratively speaking, should give away one of ten picked up bottles. This is so for there is always somebody living yet worse. But what unites our community? Nothing! We are fond of reiterating all Jews are responsible for one another. Where is this responsibility then if our compassion is deaf?

In Denmark I met a 17-year old guy who makes his annual donations only because he is willing to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. He thinks about this at the age of 17! Young secular people there attend synagogues on Saturdays, learn traditions. Their meals, believe me, are rather modest, unlike ours when tens of champaign bottles are left after a party.

I myself help several people as far as I can. They do not know where this help comes from. Why can't a normal well-to-do person buy a monthly food parcel for an old woman? We do not approach Jewishness, but only pretend to do so.

I remember my grandfather laid a huge table in our yard on Jewish festivities and on Saturdays, invited neighbors, sometimes even passers-by. He was a simple Jew who worked hard - a blacksmith. Every Saturday 5-6 persons came to him to dinner. Are many of us capable of that today? We like to declare we are children of one people. But where is the "responsibility for one another"? We only await help from outside, turn ourselves into a begging community. Do Jews pay for tickets for concerts in Palace "Ukraine", or for a newspaper, or for Matzos? Some of them, decorated in gold, arrive by cars and... stand in queues to get a kilo of meat, sugar, a bottle of vegetable oil.

- What is, to Your mind, a way out of the situation?

- To stop charitable distribution based only on national belonging (only for being a Jew). We should help only those in need, not certain categories. If a person is active - give him money; he will buy himself what he needs. How often old women complain, "Oh, it's so slippery, I can't get to the canteen" or "I can't stand this barley porridge". Is it normal to humiliate people with a plate of soup and then to make a report photo of an old woman carrying a spoon to the mouth with a trembling hand? We have also been demanded to do this - we refused. One more thing... I intend to address all international organizations, " Declare a three-year moratorium on holding conferences, presentations, seminars and direct this money at bringing all Jewish cemeteries and communal graves in order".

We shall show through this we are really children of one people. Bones are washed out of graves in spring, whereas we argue whether there is any future for Jews in Ukraine and what is to be done with assimilation".

Nowadays, hundreds of people tour seminars where they are told where and how many Jews were killed, and concrete Jews, meanwhile, lie in nameless graves. Tens of thousands of dollars is the cost of a seminar on Holocaust in Israel, where the same people go each time to hear how Jews were exterminated here in Ukraine. We know it better.

Jewishness has become a speciality. A petty book is published - a table is laid, presentation is organized. This is not fair... and not after God. We should, first, take care of those who will never take care of themselves. This is my duty. I myself look after several unattended graves.

- You support a rather peculiar for a Jewish leader point of view on the problem of assimilation, in which you see nothing bad. What do You, then, work for? For the sake of memory? But who will keep this national memory if a community gets dissolved amidst the native nation?

- I treat it as a solar eclipse: I may not want it, but I can't cancel it. Well, I shall reiterate I am against assimilation, so what of it? Let's consider a child a Jew if only his father is a Jew. Hitler also shot those whose grandparents were Jews. Did he know better who was a Jew? This will help us bring back part of our people. There are so many children from mixed marriages who rush to Jewish schools, but they are not let in. We ourselves push them away from Jewry.

- What is you forecast for the Jewish community in Ukraine in the coming 10-20 years?

- Nobody knows how many Jews will stay here. There are communities of 20 people where everybody feels himself a Jew. Most important is the state respond to our initiatives.

It's time we changed our mentality. Everybody should impart his tenth of profit for the community. Then the latter will not depend on an outside help, we shall be more independent. We simply must have Jews-sponsors. There are quite a few rather well- to-do businessmen in our country. Lonely old women have sent per 5 hryvnas for a monument in Babiy Yar, but none of businessmen has sent a kopeck. Recall prophet Isaiah, saying, "I don't care whether you go to Temple and put a kipa on, I care how you live". That's who a Jew is. First of all, he should be a human being. I understand struggle against anti-Semitism in this way.

Interview by Mikhail Gold

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