Jews against Putin
Jacob Siniakov does not walk with half measures. He is a teacher of Torah and martial arts, a man of peace with a Kalashnikov at home. Anyone who believes the fallacy about the preponderance of Nazism in the Ukraine, which the Kremlin uses to justify the invasion, should talk to him or to any other Jew.
“What is happening to us is surreal,” he says. We, the Jews of the Ukraine, fighting against an army that comes to save us from the Nazis. Unthinkable. We don’t want to be saved. We’re fine, better than ever.”
Dnipro, the Jewish capital of Ukraine, calls on Israel to do more to defeat Russia
Dnipro is the Jewish capital of Ukraine, and Siniakov is proud that the Menora center we speak at is “the largest in the world.” Its seven towers include a hotel, a gym, a museum, shops, offices, restaurants, schools, and the Golden Rose synagogue, a name inherited from the old Lviv synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1942.
“Those really were Nazis,” historian Isaac Kirshenbaum says half-jokingly, half-seriously. “The Soviets were also anti-Semites. Stalin was, and now he inspires Putin in this new expansive war to colonize Ukraine.”
Jews were second-class citizens in the Soviet Union. They could not go to university, speak Hebrew, or travel abroad. Judaism was an ethnic group, but not a religion.
Before World War II, there were 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine, and when the Soviet Union fell apart, Kirshenbaum estimates there were still half a million. Many had not wanted to admit it to the Soviet authorities so as not to condemn themselves to a harder life than they already had, but also because the trauma of the Shoah and Soviet anti-Semitism prevented them from seeing themselves as Jews.
In 1989, some 100,000 Jews lived in Dnipro, but once their freedom was regained, most preferred to emigrate to Israel, the US, Germany and other countries. Only 13,700 remained. “There were no opportunities –tercia Siniakov–, the economy had sunk”.
Since then everything has been better. Ukraine returned the confiscated properties and Dnipro recovered its community – today there are more than 60,000 – and its main synagogue. “We couldn’t salvage anything from the old building,” Kirshenbaum recalls. The Soviets turned it into the social premises of a textile factory and destroyed it.”
Money from the diaspora, from many Israeli friends, helped build Menora. That is why Siniakov regrets that Israel “does not do more to help Ukraine”. “You cannot be neutral in this war,” he insists. He must realize that Putin is a cancer that threatens all Jews, us and the rest of the world.”
Israel has 1.3 million citizens of Russian origin (15% of the population), a minority with decisive political weight. Russia is also fighting in Syria against Islamist groups that also threaten Israel. “Yes, yes, I know,” Siniakov interrupts, “but here they are killing us. Geopolitics does not paint anything. There are Jews in the Ukrainian army, on the front line, giving their lives against an enemy who wants to exterminate us. I know that Israel suffers for us, but it must get more involved.”
Israel has 1.3 million citizens of Russian origin.
The war has returned to the lands that expelled the Jews. Not only in Dnipro, but also in Kharkiv, Odessa and Lviv there were important Jewish communities that fought against the Nazis and the Soviets in a very complex time.
Defeated the Nazis, the Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, in addition to massacring each other, killed the Jews.
Ultra-Catholic Poland, however, today hosts more than three million Ukrainian refugees, and Ukraine has had a Jewish president since 1989.
Kirshenbaum confesses that “no Jew in the Soviet Union could have imagined, not even in the wildest of his fantasies, that a Jew would preside over an independent Ukraine.”
The USSR denied the Jews their status as victims of Nazism. There where they were exterminated nothing remembered them as Jews. Holocaust memorials emerged in Ukraine only after the end of communism.
Anti-Semitism continues in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, occupied by Russia since 2014.
At the same time, Ukrainian ultranationalism has a neo-Nazi edge. The Azov battalion, for example, now trapped in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks, has its origins in a far-right paramilitary group. In 2014, however, he joined the National Guard, which purged the most radical members.
“Neo-Nazism is residual,” says Siniakov. You have to watch it, but I’m not worried. Unlike other European countries, here it does not even have parliamentary representation. There is no anti-Semitism in Dnipro. I can walk around in my yarmulke much more calmly than in Paris.”
Siniakov does not feel that he is chained by the past, nor that he should seek in it any key to understand the present. Those who were enemies before are now allies, and this is enough to encourage his optimism. Even so, like so many Ukrainians with whom we have spoken these days, he affirms that, if necessary, he will take up the weapon. He does not want to be a vassal of a Russia that he continues to see as anti-Semitic.