The New York Times ran this dispatch from the Ukrainian city of Donetsk: “Worshippers at the Bet Menakhem-Mendl synagogue … confronted a horrifying scene as they left a Passover service this week: masked men on a sidewalk handing out leaflets demanding that Jews register and pay a fine or leave the area, witnesses said.”
Pinchas Vishedski, chief rabbi of Donetsk’s 15,000 Jews, later told Reuters that the leaflets were fake, “a crude provocation” aimed at stirring resentment against the pro-Russian militants who have taken over the city.
The source of the notices remains obscure. But that’s not the point. The “horrifying scene” sent a sharp stab of pain and memory through Jews who trace their roots to Eastern Europe. Steve is one of them.
Anti-Semitism is an endemic element of life in that part of the world. Harassing Jews is as much a part of Russian culture as drinking vodka. That’s why so many Jewish families like Steve’s fled the Russian Empire during the early part of the 20th century and emigrated westward.
Still, on the eve of World War II, Ukraine had 2.7 million Jews: a vibrant community that produced such luminaries as Golda Meir, later the prime minister of Israel, and Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer who created Tevye the milkman, the central character in the popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The Holocaust decimated Ukraine’s Jewish population, and most of the survivors moved to Israel. Today there are only about 70,000 Jews left in the country, but even in such diminished numbers, they are easy objects of political scorn and scapegoating.
After the leaflet incident, Rabbi Vishedski pleaded, “I’m asking those behind this not to make us tools in this game.”
But both sides in the Ukrainian power struggle — pro-nationalists and pro-Russians — have shown a willingness to use Jews as “tools” when it suits their purpose.
“Anti-Semitism remains a feature of militant nationalism in both Ukraine and Russia,” Reuters reported from Donetsk. “During unrest that saw the overthrow of Kiev’s Kremlin-backed president in February, several attacks on Jews and synagogues were blamed on Ukrainian far-right groups.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation league, explained the historic origins of this impulse in USA Today: “Both classical political anti-Semitism and the manufactured manipulative version rely on a common assumption, that a significant number of Ukrainian citizens do not consider their Jewish compatriots to be truly part of the Ukrainian nation.”
That has been true for centuries in just about every nation in Eastern Europe. Until World War I, the whole region was known as the “pale of settlement” — the area on the western edge of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live. But their situation was always precarious, just like the metaphorical “fiddler on the roof.”
That’s why the denizens of Anatevka, the mythical Russian village inhabited by Tevye and his family, voice the fervent prayer, “May God bless and keep the czar — far away from us.”
As Steve’s family attests, however, that was never easy. One grandfather, Harry Schanbam, was born in Grodno, in what’s now western Belarus, less than 200 miles from the Ukrainian border.
“Fiddler” is set in 1905, and just about that time, Grandpa Harry got in trouble with the local Cossacks — a para-military band known for their animosity toward Jews — for his leftist political leanings. Family legend has it that after the Cossacks rode through his house on horseback for the third time, searching for him, his mother sent Harry away.
Steve’s other grandfather, Avram Rogowsky, was born in what’s now eastern Poland. As a young man he became an ardent Zionist and moved to Palestine. But if you didn’t show up for the draft it could be very hard on your family, so he returned home a few years later to await his conscription notice.
During this time, he met Steve’s grandmother Miriam and they hatched a plan. After his induction, he would escape from the army, make his way through Ukraine to the port of Odessa, return to Palestine and send for her.
Once he got back to Palestine, however, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. Not a great place for a new bride. So Grandpa Abe sent Miriam a note, “Change of plan. Meet me in Brooklyn.”
He wanted a country where he and his descendants could be “truly part” of its character and culture. He found it here in America, where he arrived exactly 100 years ago this month.
But the fiddler? He’s still on the roof.
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Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.