Yakov Dov Bleich

Bleich

Biography

Yakov Dov Bleich – Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine for Orthodox Judaism.  President of the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine.  In 1989, moved to Ukraine from the US, where he served as the rabbi in Kyiv’s main choral synagogue.  In 1990, appointed Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine.  At the end of 1992, founded the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine. Since 2001, Vice President of the European Council of Jewish Communities and Vice President of the European Jewish Congress.

About interview

Interviewer Sara Sievers
Date June 3, 1996
Location Sinagogue in Podil, Kyiv

Download:  

 
Types: Top

Tape 1 Касета 1

(00:01:00) Okay, We are here at the beginning of June with Rabbi Bleich who is the chief Rabbi in Ukraine. Thank you very much for spending time with us.

Could you start off by explaining how you first came to Ukraine and what you saw when you got here?

 

I first came to Ukraine in 1989, 1988 actually, as a tourist.  What I found when I got here was the shambles of a Jewish community. We came through Moscow. Moscow was one feeling and Kiev was a totally different feeling. Basically, the only people that we met at that time were members of the Jewish communities in Kiev.  We went around to a lot of different Jewish cemeteries to see the graves of many different people.  We met with Jews here in the city.  Actually what I saw was a population that was starving for something, starving for news (00:02:00) of the outside world, starving for news of the Jewish world, since it was Jews we were meeting with.  They were not only starving for news, but they also wanted to reconnect.   And that caused me to make my second visit, not only as a tourist, but as a rabbi in ‘89.

 

At that time I traveled and met with Jews in a number of cities including Vinnitsia and Kiev.  And, I spent a little more time meeting people and less time traveling to graves at that time.

 

When I got back from that visit, I was offered a job to come here to work, to become the Rabbi of Kiev.  So I moved here with my family. We arrived on January 4, 1990.  And again, like I said, we were in very close contact with Moscow then.  For everything we needed we would travel to Moscow (00:03:00), like if you were in a grocery store in the states, you would go to Moscow to buy Pampers.  You know what I mean?  The difference in the atmosphere for Moscow -Perestroika, freedom, political freedom- you were able to see it, feel it.  Religious freedom, you were able to see it, feel it.  In Kiev, it was only in the papers, as they say.  It was nothing really that you were able to do there openly and freely.  People were still afraid and they had a lot to be afraid of in those days. We got here and started working with the Jewish community.  We opened a Sunday school.  We started trying to educate Jews.  That is what our job was.  That’s what our mandate was, to liven up the community.  Give people something to look forward to, to hope for and to start educating them.

 

Can you describe the Jewish community before you started working with it?  How organized was it?  What was its size?  What were its priorities? Relationship with the government?  If possible, the different (00:04:00) forces at that point, the nationalist forces?

 

The Jewish community wasn’t really organized when I got here.  The only thing that was organized was the synagogue, which had been open since ‘46, immediately after the war.  The synagogue was built in 1896. During the war, of course, everything was closed.  In ‘46 this synagogue was opened.  In the 60s, besides the synagogue here, people would gather in homes in private prayer meetings, Minions as they are called. The only way I know this, really, is from archives that we’ve found.  Archival material of the Communist Party and the reports of the Ubolnomochiye Po Delam Religii (Committee for Religious Affairs) and everything else that we see that they have, all of these these, know exactly what the situation was.  We know in 1962 there were 15,000 Jews in the synagogue on Yom Kippur the day of atonement, and 6,000 on Roshashana, the Jewish New Year.  We know it from them, not from us.

 

In any case, the (00:05:00) only thing that was organized were these cultural societies called the Societies for Jewish Culture.  They weren’t Jewish, per se. They were usually dominated by communists, Jewish communists, and if not communists just people singing the tune.  They didn’t have anything Jewish going on.  The most Jewish that they got was that they would learn Yiddish (laughter).  That was the most. So when we came there was really nothing to talk about.

 

Now what political force are you talking about?  In 1988, 1989 and 1990 what political force was there besides the communists?  None.  The Rukh wasn’t considered a political force.  It was considered a troublemaker in those days.  And I remember distinctly, it’s so funny that you mention that, Babyi Yar in 1990. Close to 10,000 people came to Babyi Yar (00:06:00) September 29, 1990.  And I remember Drach, Ivan Drach speaking at Babyi Yar and cursing out the Fascists and  those that came after them, the Communists.  And I remember some famous Jew getting up and saying, “Let’s not say anything bad about the communists.  If not for the communist party and the Red Army, we would have never defeated the Germans.”  This was the type of rhetoric that you would hear in those days.  And that was basically from official Jews.  You know the official Jews as we called them Karmannyi Yevrey (poket Jews) (laughter).  That was basically the situation at that time.  Nobody thought of anything other than that.

 

On the other hand, there was a very… I would say brotherly relationship with the nationalists to a certain extent, in that, we as Jews understood them, and they as Ukrainian nationalists (00:07:00) thought we were a good example for them, with Israel and independence, and Israel as a young state and everything else.  There was a certain relationship, I’d even say friendship, between the Jewish community and the nationalist community.  Besides the fact that many dissidents, many of the Ukrainian nationalists who sat in jail, sat in jail equally long as did the Jewish dissidents.

 

During this period the developing leadership amongst the Jews was very often dissidents.  And the developing leadership amongst the Ukrainians were dissidents.  And very often they they had been together in prison. They had been “brothers in arms” so to speak in their repression and persecution in the communist days.  As a matter of fact, Joseph Zesels who was the leader of the (00:08:00) Ukrainian Va was in jail for Ukrainian nationalism (laughter). He was very friendly with many of the Ukrainian dissidents from those days.

 

That is very interesting in many ways because Ukrainian Nationalism or nationalism in Ukraine isn’t something one associates with a close relationship with the Jews.

 

**the following four paragraphs make no sense to me at all….

 

A lot of that was Soviet propaganda that people associate, because the Soviets wanted to say everything bad about the Ukrainian nationalists.   So, of course, they  heaped upon them anti-Semitism and everything else.  Now, there were, of course,  Ukrainian nationalists that were anti-Semites and there were Ukrainian nationalists that weren’t anti-Semites.  But I think, I’m not sure about this, this is very hard for me to say, I mean 100% sure, but I think that a great part the association between Ukrainian nationalists and anti-Semitism was done by the Soviets.  A great part was also done (00:09:00) actually with Ukrainian nationalists themselves that were anti-Semites of course.  Because there were groups of Ukrainian nationalists that collaborated with the Nazis because they thought that we would get to a Ukrainian independent state.  There was a movement like that.  It’s very hard for Jews to differentiate today that those Fascists or SSFC were bad and these SSFC were good.  In any Jew’s mind, all SSFC were bad.  No matter what or when or where.  So that causes a lot of this overlapping.

 

And then the fact that the Ukrainian heroes that fought for independence of Ukraine are Khmelnitsky, Petlura and Bandera.  These were three people who stand out, for sure.  They definitely stand out in the (00:10:00) Jewish mind,  because Khmelnitsky was known in Jewish history as the leader of Pogroms in 1648 and 1649.  That period has a special name in Jewish history called “Packerpahat” which means the years according to the creation of the Jewish calendar of 5408 and 5409 which corresponds to 1648 and 1649.  In synagogues throughout the world, a special prayer was added after that period in memory of all of the Jewish communities that were wiped out during the Pogroms.  It was a prayer that had been written during the Crusades, when many Jewish communities were destroyed, but it was then only said twice a year. (00:11:00).  After 1648, 1649 it was instituted to be said every week, because of Khmelnitsky and the Pogroms.

 

And, I’ll just a little bit maybe go off on a tangent, because it’s interesting, the Ukrainian reaction when I say this or whenever anyone says this.  Kaganovich and Trotsky were also Jews, and the difference is that Jews don’t see Trotsky and Kaganovich as Jewish heroes.  They don’t respect them for anything, as a matter of fact.  I think that any Jew anywhere in the world will have no problem saying that Kaganovich was a bad guy and that Jews suffered from him at least as much maybe even sometimes more than Ukrainians suffered from him and the same goes for Trotsky and all of the Jewish section of the Communist Party.  They were the ones that basically destroyed Jewish life in this country.  On the other hand, Ukrainians choose Petlura and Khmelnitsky as their heroes, so that’s the difference.  Even though, I think it’s quite obvious that Petlura and Khmelnitsky aren’t heroes because they (00:12:00) killed Jews.  I think that their heroism is fighting for Ukrainian independence.  But on the other hand, in the Jewish mind … psychological anti-Semitism, I call it.  What’s anti-Semitic about calling the street Petlura street or putting up a statue of  B. Khmelnitsky?   But on the other hand, you know, the psychology works:  if he’s becoming a hero, what’s next.  So psychological anti-Semitism, I always say that it’s similar to the psychological effect of Chernobyl, which was a lot worse than the physical effect.  I mean, you can count how many people got sick or died from Chernobyl, but you can’t [count] how many people were affected psychologically when they wake up in the morning and their head hurts.  They say “What is it?  It’s Chernobyl”.  When he falls and breaks his arm and says “It’s Chernobyl.”  So to a certain extent, you can appreciate that very often the psychological wounds are a lot harder to heal than physical wounds.

 

You can talk about today that the head of (00:13:00) the Ukrainian-Israel Society is, what’s her name from Lvov, the woman, Larysa Skoryk, that was very active in Rukh.  And, there was a Jew on the presidium of Rukh, Gabriel Buriakovsky, who was in charge of national minorities for Rukh.   A different question is what Rukh is doing for themselves,  on today,  how they missed the boat.  That’s a different question, that’s not today’s question, but, there is a lot to be learned from each other from Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish nationalists.

 

I don’t think that nationalism is a dirty word.  I think nationalism is a very, very positive force if it is directed positively, similar  as to fire.  Fire can destroy and burn or fire can cook and warm and help and heat and everything else.  I think that in Ukraine definitely in 1990 and (00:14:00) 1991, all of the nationalism was positive.  I think all of the forces were out there to try and build Ukraine.  I think that was really commendable.

 

One issue that was brought up in a previous interview was the question of what the priority for developing Ukraine should have been.  Should it have been nationalism and independence or should it have been the creation of a civil society or an open society?  Should it have been economic and political openness and freedom, and the promotion of these values, or should it have been, as many people believe it was, sort of primary on the agenda, getting independence, securing independence.  Many people believe this was a key towards  achieving some of these other goals.   You’ve been here for a long time, watching with keen interest. Do you have any sense about how you would approach that issue?

 

Let me tell you something, I wasn’t, and am not, and never will be, the President of Ukraine. (00:15:00) I don’t envy him at all, especially Kravchuk in his day.  Like you say, he had all of these things to deal with.  He had independence to deal with, really securing independence.  He had economic policy and civil society to deal with.  In my opinion all these three things could have and should have been done at the same time.  I don’t think that they are at all in contradiction to one another.  I think that civil society should have been an open society  both politically and economically.  Since we weren’t secure with our independence at that time, it was very hard to open your doors and just let foreign investors come in.  Especially, since one of the first investors would have been (00:16:00) Russia, which even today is a problem since they can buy up key elements of the economy and then use their imperialistic and chauvinistic attitude toward Ukraine. They were doing it with the gas, oil and everything.  So just imagine if we had given them more opportunity to do that.  I think that they really would have brought Ukraine down on its knees, as the saying goes in Russia.

 

I used to visit Russia quite often, and that was the feeling of the street and of the cab drivers.  I always say that cab drivers are a nation for themselves.  If you want to get the mood of the society, you speak to the cab drivers.  And that was their thing.  They would say, “Listen, we know that Ukraine is going to come down begging on their knees sooner or later,” and it would make me, an American Jew living in the Ukraine, become a Ukrainian nationalist.  I think, because of the Russians more than because of Ukraine.  It was just sickening to me to hear the way they spoke and (00:17:00) their attitude towards Ukraine.

 

I think it was important to gain independence.  And I think that the world did not look at Ukraine in the proper perspective.  Ukraine had a job that no other central Eastern European country had.  I mean, Poland for instance was a country.  Poland had foreign economic relations, Poland had a foreign ministry, Poland had embassies all over.  Poland had everything they needed, they had to change their hats.  Russia had anything they needed, they had to change thei hats.  Hungary had everything that they needed.  Ukraine was a banana republic of the former Soviet Union.  It didn’t have all of the institutions they needed.  And it needed that time to get itself together.  And as everyone was screaming, “economic reforms, economic reforms, economic reforms”,  they weren’t looking at the civil society that was being built, they (00:18:00) weren’t looking at the democratic reforms that were being instituted in Ukraine.  So to speak, as an American again, as an American Jew living here, and a leader in the Jewish community, I don’t think there is a country anywhere in the world that had a growth of its Jewish community organized community such as Ukraine had anywhere in history.  You’re talking about 5 years, you talking about 400% of growth of religious communities, probably 300% of growth in cultural organizations.  We’re talking about a 1500% growth in Jewish schools. We’re talking about amazing numbers here. And if there wasn’t that democratic society being built there at that time, if there weren’t those people that were actually allowing it to happen  …

 

I wouldn’t say that they were building.  I’m not a communist.  I don’t think the government has to build for us.  I think the government has to create an atmosphere for a society where we can build.  And if (00:19:00) they weren’t creating that society, we would have never been able to build it.  So again, there’s a lot that could have been said, and there’s a lot of criticism being thrown at Ukraine for economic reform.  I think that Kravchuk did an excellent job, and I think Kuchma has done an even better job. I don’t think that Kuchma could have done what Kravchuk was able to do and I don’t think Kravchuk was able to do what Kuchma is doing.  So each one came at their proper time.  And I think that each one should becommended for what they have done, and what they are doing.

 

I really think that Kravchuk is a great guy for going back to Parliament after being President and not causing a rupture in society.  I think he really deserves a lot of credit for the transition.  In the United States a transition like that would have never happened as quickly and as smoothly as it did here.  And I think that Kuchma (00:20:00) should be commended for being able to work with people that were in the opposition.  I think that he has a certain amount of idealism that allows him to work with people that don’t always think the way he does because he thinks of what’s best for Ukraine.  I think there’s still a lot of nationalism in Ukraine, not enough, but there’s still a lot of it.  And I think that it’s great.  So always to judge on what they did at that time, if it was proper or not, I think it’s not right really [the right way?] to judge them.  I do think that they did a great job at building the civic society that is being built still today.  I think that laying the foundation, that a democracy, human rights.  There wasn’t another republic anywhere near Ukraine that had a human rights record until 1991.  Every single refusenik got his visa to go to Israel… (00:21:00)

 

I’m sorry, could you elaborate on that?

 

Yes, Shcherbak was appointed Ambassador to Israel and I met with him in May of 1991, and he said, “I want a list of every single refusenik.” And he got that list and every single one of those refuseniks got permission to go to Israel.

 

How long did it take?

 

A few months, but it was serious business. I mean it was, and it was serious work.  There are refuseniks today.  I mean, we don’t talk about it, but there are refuseniks today as well.

 

In Ukraine?

 

In Ukraine.  There are people that still serve state secrets and this one guy that served in the Russian army.  Ukrainian citizen, demobilized and moved to Ukraine and applied for an exit visa.  And he was told, ok, no problem, come get your passport.  And he came (00:22:00) back to get his passport, they said, sorry, they made a mistake.  Later when we checked it out, we found out it was the Russian army that was pressuring them not to give him his visa.  So there are, you know, there are still refuseniks even today.

 

Okay.  Are there, I hate to say, legitimate reasons, or I mean what you would consider valid security reasons for that or is it difficult to judge?

 

Very difficult to judge.  I mean some of them are obviously not valid.  This one guy who worked in a Ukrainian factory and he still wasn’t allowed because he used to be the Politruk that gave the permission for people to leave the country and for some reason he’s just not giving him permission.  I mean, you probably have foreigners crawling all over the factory (laughter) but …

 

Can go back to when you came over and really (00:23:00) started organizing the Jewish community:  can you describe how you did it? What support you got from various people and what difficulties you may have encountered? You were pretty early on and my suspicion is there was still some heavy security involvement in your activities (laughs).

 

Yeah, and we got here in January of 1990, started working in January of 1990, and we actually started with the Sunday school like I mentioned.  And it was the week, our first amendment was education.  We got the synagogue organized immediately.  Just to get ten Jews to come in the morning and evening for prayer services.  But the main thing was to attract people to understand what Judaism is all about, that it was not just a nationality like they were taught to think in all the years.

 

Our first visit was on this Thursday night.  The funny thing that happened was when we got to Kiev (00:24:00) we didn’t have visas.  Today you can laugh about it and say “oh, you don’t have a visa.”, but in those days there was no such animal.  I mean, I still cannot figure out how in God’s name we got to Kiev without visas.  Our visas were only for Moscow.  At that time there was a really nice guy working in the [  ] This was a Soviet guy.  A guy by the name of Sasha Karnavalov.  He is no longer here.  He died or was killed.  He died in a terrible car accident in 1990 I think or 1991.  The end of 1990 I think it was, or the beginning of 1991.  Now, what had happened was that he had sent us our visas.  He had a very close connection with the Jewish community, the rural Jewish community.  His job was foreign relations in the {  }.  And it was no problem, we got our visas. But he was only able to get us visas to Moscow.  And he thought we would come to Moscow and then get the visas to Kiev.  In the meantime from when we got our too friendly with the Jews.

 

Really, that was the reason?

 

Oh yeah, that was very obviously the reason.  Because, he couldn’t do anything for us (00:25:00) afterwards when we arrived.  He said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do anything,  My hands are tied”.  But anyway, we got to Kiev and I didn’t know how to read Russian or anything.  I had no idea.  But somehow on the plane flying into Kiev, I told my wife, you know  “I think this says Moskva and it doesn’t say Kiev here and I think that that is a problem,” but let’s see what happens when we cross the border.  We come into border patrol, passport control, nobody say anything.  We come into Kiev, somebody had rented an apartment for us here.  In those days it was a no-no.  And we were staying in this apartment.  And we didn’t register of course, we had no visa and we are sitting here. Two or three weeks go by. We are giving this class to our teachers.  The teachers to our Sunday School were people that spoke English.  We would teach them in English and they would teach the kids on Sunday in Russian.  So anyway, Thursday night, there was a knock on the door.  In those days, we didn’t get unexpected guests.  You know, now it is nothing.  I tell my wife, “Who would be coming?”  So I go to the door and sure enough he have our local UVYR police,  and one guy (00:26:00) without a uniform.  But we obviously know who he is, we know who he works for.  And they say so “Okay, were are your passports and your visas.”

 

And I say, “ We sent them to Moscow to get them registered or changed or whatever”,

 

“Okay, who owns this apartment and where is the hazyayka?”  (lady of the house)

 

I say, “She’s not here”.

 

“Where is she?”

 

“She’s by her children, she’s gone.”

 

In any case, that’s the way it started,  And then we had a big, big problem.  They would not allow us to get visas. And they didn’t want to let us get visas and we would travel to Moscow by train because we couldn’t go by plane because we didn’t have visas.  So we would travel by train on Sunday night to Moscow and come back Thursday night to be here for Saturday and Sunday school.  Then go back, back and forth and back and forth.  It was like a month to get this taken care of in Moscow.

 

There was one fellow in Moscow that helped us a lot.  He had very, very good connections in all different places.  I don’t know where he took me to all different buildings and offices.  And finally he came back (00:27:00) and said, ”Okay, here are your passports and your visas.  Everything is ok, you can go back. “  We had to pay a 30 ruble fine (Sara Sievers laughs) for being here and not being registered.  And that’s it.  Otherwise, we had visits in those days.  I had visits in the synagogue from obviously people in the KGB that were keeping track of what was going on here.  But it wasn’t in those days, you know, it wasn’t hostile visits.  They wanted to know what, they wanted to be kept abreast of everything that was happening.

 

But, you didn’t feel threatened?

 

Only one time they tried to threatened me and I told them that you know  …  What had happened was there was a guy that was working for me here, that left the country.  And he didn’t even get a chance to get Belgium where he was going, and I get a call, a visit from this fellow.  He tells me, “Listen” he says, “your employee was caught smuggling contraband out of the country.”

 

I said “Say what?”

 

He says “contraband.”

 

I said, “What kind of contraband?”

 

He says “Gold”.

 

I say “What kind of gold?”

 

He says, “Jewelry”.

 

I said, “You mean his wife took his jewelry out and it wasn’t declared.”

 

(00:28:00) He says, “Yea, well I guess so.”

 

I said, “What kind of contraband?”

 

He says, ”We have reason to believe that” …this that and the other and everything else and “If your employees, people that come here to work for you to teach Judaism are smuggling, there would be a good chance they will ask you to leave the country and what would you do then?”

 

I said, ”I probably would pack my bags and leave.”

 

He says, “Yea, but what would that do to your career.”

 

I said, “Believe me, there could be nothing better on my résumé than being thrown out of the Soviet Union’’.  But in any case I told him that “I’m not interested in talking to you in those tones and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk to me again like that.”  We never had any … I never felt threatened by that. Even though I knew that they, I know that they are now and I knew then that they were then listening to conversations, telephone conversations and offices and everything, and today they still do it, I mean, lets not kid ourselves, they’re still keeping track of foreigners and everything that’s going on (00:29:00) in this country.   I’m not afraid, nothing to be ashamed of.

 

Were there organizational difficulties that you runinto trying to get buildings, trying to get permission to have …  I mean there used to be some laws about permission, gathering, and freedom of assemblies, and things like that?

 

We never asked, and we never had any problem.

 

Okay that was all right, what was going on politically here?

 

Do you mean to say, do I know what was going on?

 

And how much were you consulted with …

 

The question is by who, who to consult in those days.  I meet with Kravchuk before the elections. Though that was kind of late in time so to speak.    I think it was Iukhnovsky that gathered us also before elections for president.

 

As part of the campaign effort?

 

(00:30:00) Yes, as part of the campaign effort to try to get people to vote for the independence of Ukraine.  To try and get them to vote, they wanted to get them, I think there was political maneuvering an that went like this…

 

We met with Kravchuk, that was obvious.  We met with Iukhnovsky.  He had five resolutions that he wanted all of the religious organizations to sign on to.  One was to close the Palomalomaledhi, another was to vote for the independence of Ukraine and I don’t remember what the rest of them were, whatever but …  I just remember these because, to me they constituted a little bit of …   First of all, I said I’m not going to say anything about the Ubolnomochenyi Po Delam Religii because we had a good relationship with them in those days.  I understood that in the past they persecuted Jews as well.  It happened to be the fellow that was the head of the Ubolnomochenyi Po Delmam (00:31:00) Religii, Colest Govalonasovych, was a very nice guy, a very nice guy.  He understood the different religious problems, problems of religious organizations.  Just to give you an example, after they fired him  all of the problems started in the Orthodox church.  I can almost guarantee it would  have never happened if he would have stayed on.  He was a very, very decent fellow.  He understood very well the politics of religion.  He knew all of the religious leaders  and he knew what was going on in the religious organization.  He was an old fellow, he’s no longer with us, but he was a nice guy, you were able talk to him. And he would tell you, in those days, the mood was already changing.  He would tell me what things I couldn’t do within the law, what things were not allowed to be done and ways to get around them and stuff like that.  You were able to talk to the fellow.

 

What do you mean the mood was changing?

 

They understood that religious freedom was on the horizon.  Perestroika was starting to filter down to Kiev.

 

And when was this, 19..?

 

(00:32:00) In 1990, in the end of 1990, and throughout 1991 this was all that type of time.

 

Okay.

 

And I just wasn’t going to sign anything against the {}, I just didn’t think it was proper to do.  And as far as Ukrainian independence, I said that, I said is it right for us religious leaders to tell people how to vote.  To vote for this candidate or that candidate, for independence or against it.  I told them that I personally, I’m for independence, I think that it’s a great thing and I think most of the Jews are as well.

 

But I don’t know how proper it would be at this point to come out and tell everybody to vote like this, vote like that.  I just thought that religious leaders shouldn’t get involved in politics.    So, I had my own way of getting my message out to the people to vote for independence of Ukraine, but I just didn’t think that it should be done openly, that all the religious leaders should vote. I don’t think it’s a problem, now that we just (00:33:00) signed, all of the religious leaders signed a thing, this {verdinyer} for the constitution.  The constitution should be accepted.  I don’t think it’s any problem to say you can’t live without a constitution, we all know that and I don’t think it’s political to accept a constitution.  I think that it’s necessary.  It’s inevitable It is something that needs to be done sooner than later.  So I signed that paper about the constitution.  But I would never endorse one candidate over another.  I don’t think that it is proper for a religious leader to do.

 

As an observer of the political process now, putting on your American in Kiev hat, what were some of the events that were striking to you and when did you first realize that Ukraine could  possibly  become independent?

 

Well, the All Union Treaty was something that everyone followed with interest.  and (00:34:00) basically we all knew that Ukraine was going to make it or break it.  It was obvious at that date in age. I see the turning point, August 21 was it? you know at the end of the Coup.  I think forever embedded in my mind was that day, and I think that that day really meant the end of Gorbachev.  I don’t think it was very nice of  Yelstin the way he did it, but I think that was basically the end of Gorbachev as a political force and in a certain extent, it was the end of the Soviet Union.  I mean, August 24 was it when Ukraine declares independence I think that, I think that at that point it was already basically more or less obvious that it was going to happen.  (00:34:53)


Tape 2 Касета 2

 

(00:35:48) If we could go back to the summer of 1990, the student strikes in the square were unusual for Kiev.  I think it was the first time they had had strikes like that in years, and years, and years.  Do you remember…?

 

(00:36:00) Let me just tell you, the first time any strike in Kiev.  It was the funniest thing.  I didn’t know what the word “zabastovka” meant.  (Sara Sievers laughs).  Anyway, I come to the Synagogue and everyone is happy and smiling.  and they say, there’s no tram ways and I say “Why not”?,  No trams because of the zabastovka.  And I think the zabastovka is some sort of holiday, (Sara Sievers laughs) and everybody is celebrating it.  “What is a “zabastovka.”  They tell me that it is a strike.  “So what is everyone so excited about?”

 

And they say, “It is the first time there is a strike here, can’t you understand”?  This is 1990.  It took me a long time to understand this mentality.  I really thought that the “zabastovka” was a holiday and everybody was celebrating.   Everybody was celebrating the strike.  They were celebrating along with the tramways or whatever was the transportation.

 

Was it the novelty of having a strike?

 

No.  It was like “Wow, a strike, it was so great. Wow, we grew up, we had our first strike.”  Let me tell you, I don’t remember very well the student strikes. I (00:37:00) just remember that it was something wild, it was something out of the ordinary.  I can’t really tell you too much about it.  I mean I remember it, I remember reading about it, hearing about it, seeing it of course, but I don’t remember too much about it.

 

Do you remember much about when you first saw Rukh as a powerful force, or when it first came up on the radar scene as relevant?

 

My radar screen?

 

Yes.

 

Well, I meet with Rukh people quite often, different functions and things like that.  It’s hard for me to say, you know, to really put a point down and say when I saw them.  Obviously in 91 that’s when I felt it, in ‘91, but to say exactly how and when is hard to recall.  But I do recall speaking with people in Rukh in broken English rather that (00:38:00) speaking Russian  (Sara Sievers laughs)  They wouldn’t speak in Russian to me, they said they’d only speak in English.  And I remembered thinking about it and saying, I admired them for that, they had a sense of pride.  Let me just tell you that, I grew up in the United States, got a very good education, traveled twice to the Soviet Union, and did not know there was a language called Ukrainian.  I didn’t know of such a thing.  I remember when I heard it the first time.

 

You can’t interrupt now, in another half hour. (outsider interrupts interview).

 

It was funny for me you know, to think to myself. I met with an American woman in the hotel, and she was speaking English to me and all of a sudden she turned around to the bar maid, whoever it was, you know those Soviet bars where they sold 7-Up and she (00:39:00) starts speaking in this funny language very similar to Russian.  I said, “Hey, what language is that?”

 

She said, “Ukrainian”.

 

I said “Hey that’s so cool, what’s that?”  That was the first time I knew there was Ukrainian, but that was in 1989.  Meeting with Rukh, it was obvious that they were a force.  They had people, they had intelligentsia, as they say here, they had a lot to offer.  They also had, an euphoria [that] they were able to build on that unfortunately wasn’t utilized to its full extent as it could have been.

 

One of the questions we’ve been asking is why from your perspective do you think that Rukh and nationalistic forces were allowed to develop in Ukraine.  Why were they not repressed, when the very same people years before had been repressed for pursuing much more benign activities probably than what they were doing in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

 

(00:40:00) I think that Rukh, of course, was repressed.  I don’t think that it wasn’t repressed,  I think that that’s what gave it growth,  but let’s not forget Gorbachev was losing control.  He didn’t dismantle the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union dismantled him.  And it’s just a certain amount of repression that you can repress people.  And in those days, don’t forget the 80’s or Perestroika days.  Perestroika was happening in Moscow.  There were a lot of  journalists, there were a lot of things going on, a lot of connections were being made with the West and the former Soviet Union …  I don’t think the Soviet Union had the power in those days to repress any more to a certain extent.  Especially, they knew already that they were going (00:41:00) to need help from the West.  and they knew the West was going to look badly on these things.  You can ask a better question, I think, that based on what they were trying to do in the Baltics with the war still repressing, and there was still repressing very violently, why weren’t they repressing over here.  And I think the Ukrainian nationalism wasn’t violent, it was on an intelligent and political level and I don’t think they felt they had the power in those days to repress ideology as much as you know they were able to repress violence in the Baltics.  It was obvious that was a problem, they were breaking away and they wanted independence.  That was something they could feel it hurt them but I don’t think they felt the hurt at that time any more than the Ukrainian nationalists.

 

(00:42:00) They didn’t see,  they didn’t see it as a threat?

 

I don’t think they saw it as much of a threat, I don’t know, It’s just my own conjecture.

Sure, sure, sure.

 

It could be I’m totally wrong.  I really don’t even know.  In my opinion judging from the mood in those days.   They didn’t do anything to us and we had a Sunday School going on.  We had 250 kids every Sunday.  And this was totally illegal in that day, totally illegal.

 

How was that illegal under Soviet constitution?

 

Under Soviet law, Soviet constitution, Soviet law, call it what you want.  We had kids coming to learn, we had adults. In 1990 we started a day school on a boat on the Dnieper river.  Because even the administration of the synagogue wouldn’t allow it to be here because they were afraid.  They said, “No that’s really taking things too far. We’re afraid we are going to get in trouble.”  We rented a boat and had it parked on the Dnieper river and would bus the kids from here, the parents would bring the kids here and we would bus them over to the boat everyday.  I mean, think of doing that in the 1980’s, 1985, 86, (00:43:00) 87, 88.  You are talking about the wildest things that were going on.  I think that at that time they just couldn’t really fight the ideological independence.  I think that they were really looking more for other things.  And think of it that they were at that time still shooting people in the Baltics. They were breaking up demonstrations violently in the Baltics, at the same time in 1990 or ‘91.  So it’s obvious that they didn’t lose their touch.  (Sara Sievers laughs)  The other thing that I think could have been possible was that I think that maybe political leaders in the Ukraine were looking to the future.  More than say, political leaders in the Baltics, you still had a lot of Russians in positions of power.  I think that in Ukraine you had people that already were themselves (00:44:00) starting to think like Ukrainians and looking that maybe somehow, someday, somewhere Ukraine might get independence and it’ll be good.  I think that people were already thinking about that.  And we know that they were thinking about it in western Ukraine and it was moving over to eastern Ukraine, and not eastern Ukraine, but central to Kiev.  I think that a lot of this stuff was moving ahead already. And don’t forget that when all of these fellows quit the party, Saliy?, the big Ukrainian nationalist who was a big Ukrainian communist and then became a big Ukrainian nationalist.  I mean where was he?  He had his run in with the party, if you recall the party had wanted him taken down and they kept him.  And you know, there were a lot of things going on and the communists were shaky in certain things.

 

Let’s talk about the Bush visit.  You (00:45:00) were one of a handful of  Americans (laughs) who was here at the time, watching it and from a position of authority.

 

The Bush visit, let me tell you, the Bush visit was a one in the hand is worth two in the bush you know.  The Bush visit, I was sitting, I’d heard his chicken Kiev speeches while..

 

You were in the Parliament?

 

No, I wasn’t in the Parliament, I was outside of the Parliament.  I heard his speeches.  I was before the Parliament, at the state dinner, then I was at Babi Yar. So I heard two speeches.  and I was sitting next to Americans, so I said “Look how he is counting his words. “  And you know, “the Ukraine”, it was all of these things and I was analyzing every word already and “the Soviet Union” and everything else he was saying. He said it in every single speech.  I mean, the one in the Parliament might be the most famous one,  but in every speech he mentioned the same stupidities.  And it was (00:46:00) obvious that people weren’t very happy with what he was saying.

 

On the other hand, I had written him a letter, President Bush.  And I was promised that it would be handed to him as soon as he arrived in Ukraine, and it was handed to him after he came to Ukraine.  Basically, I was praising Ukraine for the atmosphere that it had built, democratic society that it was allowing to be built, democracy it was allowing [to be built],  [the] Jewish community that was allowing to be built.  And I was asking him to please support Ukraine as an independent state, to support in Ukraine in its course for independence and to understand the great sacrifice that Ukraine was making for democracy.  And I asked him to please recognize Ukraine in that they were celebrating 50 years of Babyi Yar.  At that time Ukraine was not independent yet, or were planning it, but after independence it had, it was the first major international event (00:47:00) that was hosted by Ukraine as, after a declaration of independence was September of 1991, 50th anniversary of Babyi Yar, where Kravchuk hosted Yakovlev from Moscow as a representative from Gorbachev.  You have the minister of education from Israel, you have the speaker of Bundestag from Germany here.  It was a major event, and I’d written him a letter asking him to please say, of course, I got, I made history, I have to find it somewhere.  I am stupid, I should have kept it.  I made history because I was answered this letter somewhere later in October or November.  And I received it after Ukraine was independent.  The letter was written by Brent Scowcroft [and] was still talking about the Soviet Union.  It must have been written in October, maybe I got it in October and it must have been written in September, but it was really border, bordering here and there.  I must find this letter somewhere amongst my papers because I (00:48:00) think it is very, very historical.  President Bush’s visit for me meant a lot because I was and American citizen and I got to shake the hands of my president.  And I even got to host him, Babyi Yar, we hosted him.  But just to give you an idea of what was going on in the Ukraine.  It [Ukraine] was trying to do this on its own; there was no money to buy chairs to put down in Babyi Yar.  We had offered the government to buy the chairs if they found the place that they would buy them and then we’d take them to the synagogue  There was no money for buses to get the people to Babyi Yar.  There was no money.  The government had no money to pay for it.  The synagogue ended up paying for the buses.  Not only for synagogue people, there were all kinds of guests that came to Babyi Yar and since the place was cordoned off we had our special buses.  We paid for the buses.  Whereas Ukraine didn’t have really an independent budget at that time, and here they are hosting the President of the United States.  It was a very, very sad situation.  (00:49:00)

 

Maybe the government of Ukraine did have it, but definitely the people that needed it didn’t have it.  So I think it was a very, very great thing.  So at the end of his visit at Babi Yar, somebody called down to him, “Mr. President” it was an American who was helping to prepare for the 50th anniversary of Babyi Yar, he said, “Mr. President will you send a high level delegation for the 50th anniversary of Babyi Yar  since you’ve been here and everything else.” And he said, “Oh, we’ll see.  We’ll definitely have to take that into consideration.” (Sara Sievers laughs).

 

Did they send..?

 

He sent his brother.

 

They sent his brother?

 

John Bush.  He sent other people you know.  The head of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Lerman, and a few other fellows.  I mean, to compare his visit to Babyi Yar with Clinton’s visit to Babyi Yar.

 

How would you compare?

 

Come on, I mean.

 

You realize I’m biased because I [Sara Sievers] wrote his [Clinton’s] speech?

 

Yea, okay yea, forget about his speech only.  I’m not only talking about his speech.  But (00:50:00) the whole visit was different.  The speech was very nice as well.  He went to the menorah.

 

Bush went to the menorah as well right?

 

Bush didn’t go to the menorah, I don’t think it was up, or I think it was just being put up.  But, Clinton recognized that it was a place were Jews were killed.  Bush you know, gave a speech.  I had a general problem for Babiy Yar.  I always thought Babiy Yar was being abused as a political platform and I didn’t like that.

 

By the United States?

 

By everybody, by everyone. Even by the Ukrainians, by the Jews, by everybody.   That’s why I initiated a special service on the Jewish anniversary to Babiy Yar that we don’t invite any journalists to and we don’t invite any politicians to.  It’s just a service, a memorial service.  Whoever wants to come can come, but we just don’t invite anyone.  It’s open for everybody.  But we do it on the (00:51:00) Jewish calendar, the Jewish anniversary every year.

 

Yom Kippur?

 

Well, it’s right before Yom Kippur, two days before Yom Kippur.  That was the Bush visit.  (laughter).  It’s great.  the kids from camp, our summer camp.

 

We ran summer camps, starting in 1990 and we got the kids from the summer camp.  Since we were holding [the event] we got 100 places so we brought like 150 kids from the summer camp and the counselors, American counselors obviously who were drawing who was going to be able to go and see Bush.  And they made this tremendous sign in English that you know “Welcome President Bush.”  It was great.  It was a lot of fun for us.

 

Can you describe the Jewish communities as it was at that point and stands now, population wise.  Do people talk a lot about immigration?

 

There was a lot of immigration.  We always consider the Jewish community in Kiev as 100,000 and Ukraine a half million.  Even though we know that 100,000 of Jews are left (00:52:00),  we still consider it half a million and 100,000 because there are many Jews that are not registered as Jews. There are many Jews that are not officially Jewish on their passport.  So the Jewish community at that time, the act of Jews were basically those who were planning to emigrate. Those who would come to the synagogue, those who would come to the schools and those who would participate in everything were people on their way out.  I think in 1992, ‘93 we started getting a more stable crowd, so to speak.  You know, people that thought they might have a future, even if it’s only 4  or 5 years and will still be here.

 

Do you see lots of emigration in the horizon as well?

 

It’s slowing up.  There’s still emigration going on and until the Ukraine becomes economically strong, until this becomes an economic force, until people will be sure of the economic stability.  I don’t think that political stability is as much of a factor here as it (00:53:00) is in Russia today.  I think economic stability is more of the question.   So I think that people will be emigrating because of economics.

 

Okay, back to the Coup.

 

The Coup was one of the more exciting days of my life.  I spent the day of the Coup in the city called Borshif which is near Ternopil, with an American Jewish group.  There was the opening of a monument for Jew’s killed during the war in Borshiff and I had a summer camp going during the time in Mervenutz.  So I had my wife, my kids, my one child actually at that time, 35 American boys and girls and 250 Kiev boys and girls at a summer camp in Mervenutz and it was August 19.  The camp supposed to end August 20th (00:54:00).  And here I am in the morning, I got up, my driver comes to take me to the airport.  I was flying to Ternopil from there I would go to Borshoff.  And he says,”Guess what, there was a coup.”

 

I said,” What does that mean?”

 

“Not much,  just means that everything will, there will be less crime again (Sara  Sievers laughs).  There will be more order in the courtroom. You know, I think that these people are not going to get up and howl against it.  People will just be happy, they’ll say oh well, we tried it didn’t work out.”

 

I said “Come on, it can’t be that way.  People are going to get up and scream.”

He said, “No they’re not.  I said I couldn’t believe it, I said.  Anyway, I flew to Termopil and I was hosted at the usmets (?), and I was met and brought to the head of the Obil Sperfoniv and this man was like running around like a chicken without a head.  I mean, you can’t imagine, this guy was a wreck!

 

(00:55:00) I said, “What’s going on”.

 

He say’s “I don’t know.  I can’t get any answers from Kiev, nothing whatsoever.  I can’t get through to Moscow.  I have no idea what’s going on.

 

So I said, “You know something, I’m going to have to go back in a hurry to get back to Poltava. ” So what I did was, from his office I chartered a plane.  From Kiev, I called Kiev and I had connections there to charter a plane for me, that took me  from Ternopil directly back to Poltava, to get there.  He said he was very sorry he was supposed to have come with us to the memorial.  He can’t come, obviously, he can’t leave his office.  He has to be there, he says he has no idea what is going to be or what is going to happen.  He’s nervous.  It meant a lot to me, it showed me, it gave me an impression what was going on.  In any case, I was called away from the ceremony.  Tthe airport has to close and the plane has to leave already so I should please get back there. I went back to Ternopil, flew into (00:56:00) Poltava.  Drove over to Mervenat gorod? the night of the 19th.  The 20th we closed up camp early.  I sent all of my counselors back to Kiev, I traveled back to Kiev myself and I’m telling my driver, put the radio on let’s hear the news.  He puts the radio on and starts laughing at me. And I said, “Its 3:00, What did they say, what’s the news?”

“Oh, they were saying how much wheat was grown this year in Ukraine and what the yield of the crop was in the Baltics.  I said, “Come on, give me a break, they didn’t say anything about this thing.”

He said, “No they didn’t say anything.”

I said, “How can that be.  What’s going on here?”   We get back to Kiev, and I had it organized the night of the 20th, train tickets for all of my counselors to get to Moscow and to fly from Moscow back home.  Theyir parents all wanted them home immediately.  I said, “People, you are crazy.”  I said, “Kiev is calm as the night.” I said, ”Moscow is like jumping from a frying pan into the fire if anything.”

“No, no they want them home, they want them home.”

 

Via Moscow?

 

Via Moscow.  It was the only way to get home in those days.  There was no other way (00:57:00) to get home in those days.  Pan Am.  I had to get them train tickets to go get to Moscow.  And I sat on the phone until two in the morning trying to get through to Moscow.  I had to get them transferred from the train station to the airport.  I finally get through to this friend of mine in Moscow who lived on Ulitsa Lenina, and I tell him “Listen you have to meet these guys and take them to the airport.”

 

He says, “Rebyanko”,  “I’m watching tanks roll by down Ulitsa Lenina right now. Are you crazy”, he said, “ me get people from the train station to the airport?” He said, Where am I going to get a bus from, if I get a bus, how much is it going to cost and everything else.”

I said, “Don’t look at any money, just get that bus, get the kids onto that bus and get them over that plane.”

“Okay”’ he says, he’s going to try and do it.  He says you know, he’s not going to be able to drive through this part of the city and that part of the city. But in any case the kids got onto the plane.  And, I called Pan Am and they said that everybody made the plane.  And here I am in Kiev with my wife, my son and the head counselor who was also an American (00:58:00) with his wife and his kids and he didn’t go. He was supposed to have stayed on a week afterwards to do some traveling.   In any case, he was the one that I said,  I said, “Lets go down to were the soldiers are always, the strikes, the demonstrations.” I say, “I’m sure there will be something nice to see when we go by there.”  Nobody in sight, not one soldier, no truck, nothing.  I said, “Wow, that’s so funny” I said ”Let’s go call”,   We went over to the American consulate at that point, who was there, an American consulate with three people in this level three in this apartment.  And we went over there and they said they think the Coup is over. It was the 21st in the afternoon that we got there.  That’s were we got the news from St. Petersburg they got the news that it was all over.  And all of this time it was almost impossible to call out, to be called from  the outside.  But we did get to make like, a few calls and people asked us to sit tight.  It didn’t look like anything would materialize, to (00:59:00) develop in Kiev.  That’s how it was.  Then we watched on television of course, along with the rest of the world how Gorbachov flew back to Moscow and the next day how he spoke and everything else.

 

But things seemed calm to you?

 

In Kiev, for sure, too calm as a matter of fact.  I’m very serious, too calm.  It was very, very frightening.  Things were so calm that means that either people were willing to appease and just live with it which was very frightening, or that people didn’t give a damn which was even more frightening.  In other words, that’s it.  I remember everywhere I went I asked people, “Okay, what will be, what will be?”

They said, ”Nothing, We’ll go back.  We lived like that for so many years, we’ll live again like that.  There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing.”

Everybody that I spoke to.  And I’m talking about Ukrainian, Russians, Jews, anybody.  I got the same answer from everybody.  That really made me, as an American you know, it made your blood boil.  You people were given a chance at democracy why don’t you try (01:00:00) to utilize it until the end.  They just couldn’t care less, they said “We’ll go back”.

 

(laughs) That’s a surprising reaction.

 

I don’t know, in your interviews did you here it from anybody else that this type of feeling and reactions?

 

Well, clearly within Rukh, they came out very early and supported Gorbachov and were willing to fight.  But that is a specialized group.

 

That was Rukh.  I am saying, but did you here from anybody that this, what I am saying, this observation that things were too quiet?

 

Things were calm.

 

Too calm.

 

People didn’t say too, but they said calm and quiet.

 

I think it was too calm. I mean if you think about it why was there calm.  Why weren’t people out in the street demonstrating?  And then the million dollar question that everybody wants to ask.  Where was Kravchuk?  Nobody knew where he was…

 

(laughter) Well, we knew physically where he was.

 

No, but I’m saying we didn’t come up with any statements one way or the other.

 

Eventually he did.  I mean he had a press conference on the 21st.

 

(01:01:00) The 21st.  I could also give a press conference in that time.

 

Yes, it’s the million dollar question you’re exactly right. What was going on there and what pressure was he under from which sides.  But  the lack of public reaction in a sense.

 

It was very, again to me it was frightening, being here as an American the lack of public reaction was very frightening.

 

So there were a number of events after that, were they predictable to you?

 

After that was the Declaration of Independence which was very predictable. It was December 1st.   It was the referendum, which everybody knew how it would go. I mean there weren’t any questions then.  And then there was the breakup of the Soviet Union which was an obvious, I mean it came as a direct result of the referendum of Ukraine. Obviously, right?

 

Well, we would think so, but we would would have to go to Moscow to double check.

 

Who wouldn’t think so?  Well, it was obvious that if Ukraine would have said, “Ok, (01:02:00) we’re staying with the Soviet Union” nobody would have broken that up.  There’s no need.

 

Why do you consider it obvious?

 

I mean Ukraine was basically the power at that time.  The Soviet Union is today Russia.  It still exists in the form of Russia.  I mean, it didn’t make too much of a difference in the lives of any Russians, Soviet Union or Russia.   The people to whom it made the difference to, the largest group of people was Ukraine. And there was not obviously going to be a Soviet Union without Ukraine.  Right?  As they say that, you know they say it about Odessa even though it’s not the first, but it’s also not the second.  I think that Ukraine might not be the first, but it is definitely not the second.  I think that here they really were the decisive part.

 

Is there anything that I have failed to ask you that you think is important or relevant to have recorded?  We’ve been pretty thorough I think(laughs) in some questions.

 

I think that it’s basically it, I mean as far as these issues are concerned.  You’re talking (01:03:00) about the Coup, about the independence.  I must tell you again, I must reiterate that I think that what’s very important was that, what struck me what made me Ukrainian nationalist in those days was the positive forces of nationalism in those days, how it was really being used to rebuild Ukraine.  I think that, if people would have kept up with that euphoria a little bit, the positive nationalism, we’d even be further today than we are.  I think that it’s still necessary and I think that the fact that Rukh is not a force today is hurting Ukraine.  I don’t think it’s helping it any.  I think that there has to be an ideology  for people to be willing to suffer through anything.  And, it’s not easy to build a country.  There’s a lot of hardship but people have to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  And the light at the end of the tunnel has to bean ideal.  And that ideal should be (01:04:00) independence toward Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, an economic force within Europe. Ukraine has all of the potential for this still.  It just has to be expressed more strongly and I think more frequently.  And that was Ruhk’s mandate.  That is what they were here to do.  And I think that they still should be doing it.

 

(1:04:22)Well, thank you very much for your  time.