Jewish Ukraine

By Irma Gurman
This item appears on page 25 of the April 2019 issue.

Podil Synagogue in Kiev. Photos by Irma Gurman

My husband, Sol, and I took a Dnieper River cruise in Ukraine with Viking River Cruises (Woodland Hills, CA; 800/706-1483, in May 2018.

We embarked in Odessa, passed through a few smaller towns and ended in Kiev. One of the optional excursions offered was a visit to Jewish Odessa; another was to Jewish Kiev. We also spent a day in the city of Dnipro, which has one of the largest Jewish community centers in Europe.

• In ODESSA, we visited two synagogues: Beit Chabad and the Main Synagogue. At Beit Chabad, the rabbi's son told us that approximately 350 people attend High Holiday services there. He also was in charge of an orphanage.

The Main Synagogue was turned into a sports hall during the Soviet era but has since been lovingly restored. Our guide told us that we wouldn't be able to visit the Brodsky Synagogue (which was built in 1863), since it is now used for archives and no longer has services.

We also passed by novelist Isaac Babel's home and saw the street where Sholem Aleichem and Ze'ev Jabotinsky had lived.

Odessa once had the third-largest population of Jews in one city in the world (over 200,000), but, due to at least five pogroms and the Holocaust, there were only 600 left after World War II. Most Jewish residents of Odessa who survived moved to Israel or New York, in particular to Brighton Beach (known as "Little Odessa"). Today there are about 45,000 Jews living in and around Odessa.

Golden Rose Synagogue and Menorah Center — Dnipro, Ukraine.

• The city of DNIPRO is home to the Golden Rose Synagogue. Unfortunately, we arrived on Saturday afternoon so were unable to visit, but the huge Menorah Center's door was open, so we went inside. We saw preparations being made for a wedding reception in the courtyard.

This complex was financed by Ihor Kolomoyskyi and contains museums, shopping spaces, a publishing house, art galleries, kosher restaurants, a hotel, a youth hostel and a tourist information center.

The Art Deco sanctuary features a golden rose at its entrance, and a small rotunda between the lobby and the sanctuary is decorated with the first line of the Sh'ma prayer. The first words of the prayer in Hebrew are at the left, and the first words in Russian are at the right. The two versions continue around the rotunda until the last words in Russian and Hebrew meet on the opposite side.

• We took a tour of Jewish sites in KIEV, most of whose Jewish population was exterminated in the Babi Yar massacre or in concentration camps during WWII. (A book, "Babi Yar" by Anatoly Kuznetsov, documents the history of the massacre of 150,000 local Jews and other prisoners.)

We visited Babi Yar and heard its horrific story. There are now a number of memorials in the city, including one erected in 1976 by the Russians at the actual site — a massive sculpture depicting bodies falling.

Beit Chabad synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine.

There is also the Children's Memorial, dedicated to the 30,000 massacred children. A poignant sculpture, it portrays a girl with two bullet holes in her shoulder, a boy whose head is severed and a puppet who is crying because no child will ever be able to play with him again.

We then visited the Podil (Great Choral) Synagogue, whose construction began in 1895. We saw young men studying the Torah and children playing in the yard. The synagogue has a summer camp program run by counselors from Israel.

There are now several active synagogues in Ukraine, and the history of Judaism in the country is now a required subject in public schools.

It is heartening to see that the flame the pogroms, Hitler and the Communists tried to extinguish has been rekindled and that, hopefully, it is burning brightly in Ukraine.

Smithtown, NY

Babi Yar Children's Memorial, Kiev, Ukraine.