While much of the world expresses its solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their admiration for Jewish president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the general public receives little context for the country’s rich but often horrifying Jewish history. To address that imbalance Kolot Mayim Reform Temple presents the eminent scholar of Eastern European Jewish history, Professor Elissa Bemporad in her talk entitled “History is Not Destiny: Thoughts about the Russian War against Ukraine and the Jewish Past in the Region.”
From her extensive research, Professor Bemporad is ”intimately familiar with some of the darkest pages in the history of the Jewish communities of Ukraine.” She has written extensively about the murder of more than 100,000 Jews during the brutal pogroms of the Russian civil war, as well as the many examples of earlier anti-Jewish violence. The culmination of the darkness came during World War II, with the events of the Holocaust remaining the most somber page in the history of the Jews in the Ukraine. Bemporad balances this harsh history with what she describes as “some of the greatest chapters in the history of Eastern European Jewish life” where Jews achieved “a grandeur and originality in the spheres of culture, religious life, and politics, ranging from Hasidism and Hebrew poetry to Yiddish literature and Socialist Zionism.”
To Bemporad, the current war against Ukraine triggered the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and affects the approximately 100,000 Jews living in Ukraine today. In becoming a democracy, Ukraine has inaugurated a new chapter in the Jewish history of the region, reminding us that history evolves and should not always be written through the spectre of past violence. Bemporad asserts that “Siding with Ukraine today does not entail dismissing or forgetting the dark pages of anti- Jewish violence in the region. It is rather a reminder that we can start turning those pages and writing new ones in the book of the Jews of Ukraine.”
Elissa Bemporad, is Professor of History and Ungar Chair in East European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center. She is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award. She is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk, and Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets. Elissa is the co-editor of two volumes: Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators; and Pogroms: A Documentary History. She is currently working on a biography of Esther Frumkin.