“Shoah” literally means catastrophe, and massive destruction by fire. As I watch the daily images of horror in today’s war in Ukraine, I am taken back to my visit to Ukraine in 2013. I traveled with a group of rabbis to understand the needs of the Jewish community there.
I invite you to listen to a conversation between two individuals in the Jewish Community Centre in Kyiv. We hear a grandmother, whose family left her behind in Kyiv, and an unrelated teenager learning from the older woman:
Anya tells her story to Sasha:
“ I am 14 years old and I just found out that I am Jewish, and I want you to know how I learned of my origins. We were learning about the war in school and my friends were saying terrible things about the Jews. They said that the war was all the Jews fault and that the problems we face in Ukraine are still due to the Jews. I agreed because there had to be a reason that caused the suffering we experience in our country. At dinner, I repeated this story to my parents and told them how much I hated the Jews. Then the mood changed dramatically. My parents’ faces turned a ghastly green and they looked at one another with a sickly glance. It was my mother who first said the words: ’We have to tell them.’ So they told me and my brother Volodymr that we could never say those words again because we are Jews. This was the first time this was shared with us. Sasha, why do you think my parents kept this from us for so long?”
“I lived in a time in Ukraine when Jews were slaughtered for being Jews. They were taken from their homes and sent away from Kyiv, and they never returned. I was a child at this time and I survived this horror. When we returned to our city, we were told that from that moment on we will hide our Jewishness. Never again would we allow our names to be recorded on a list from fear that what we suffered could happen again. Your family was protecting you from this evil that could destroy the life you live. Since you learned that your family is Jewish, how has that changed you and what have you learned?”
“Well Sasha, I am sitting here with you today in the Jewish Community Center, and I am learning about my Jewish heritage. I am ashamed with the way I allowed myself to revile a people, my people, out of ignorance and baseless hatred. This summer I will go to Israel with a group of my peers and see the beauty of this land that I have learned so much about in my new studies.”
Sasha answers with tears blurring her eyes:
“When you visit there, be sure to share my story and your revelation with all the people you meet. I am too old to go with you. Though the situation in Israel is very different than it was in Ukraine when I was growing up and Israelis are not committing genocide, still there are lessons to be learned. I want to be sure that Israelis and Palestinians do not repeat the hatred and evil that I lived in my lifetime. We must learn to live a life of compassion for each other, for strangers and for all humanity. I know that two peoples can live in the same land without destroying the other. Tell them from me that we cannot justify destroying the other without losing our own humanity. We Jews were singled out and we should never allow ourselves to be abused again and we cannot treat others unjustly and without compassion. All who live in our midst must be treated as equal citizens and as human beings.”
I did not get to hear from Anya after her trip to Israel, and I fear that some of what she shared with Sasha would be heartbreaking to her. We have not learned from our own tragedies to create a society free from the oppression of others. Perhaps Anya did not see the cycle of conflict that erodes the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. It is our duty as Jews to be true to Sasha’s sentiments and assure others that we can live together in that small piece of land and learn the lessons of history. Anya will only understand what it is to be Jewish if she can learn that we Jews demand justice, security, and compassion for our own people and for our neighbors, the Palestinians.