Mogilev-Podolsky, Ukraine - On a sweltering summer day, researchers fan out in this city’s historical center, its walls lined with photos of local Jews who went through the Holocaust.
The visiting scholars from St. Petersburg, however, aren’t here to dwell on Jewish demise. They have come to document Jewish life in what expedition leader Valery Dymshits calls “the last Jewish city in the Soviet Union,” Mogilev-Podolsky.
As recently as the early 1990s — before an exodus to the United States, Israel and Germany depleted the community — Yiddish was widely spoken on the streets here. Despite the community’s rapid contraction, the Jewish presence here perseveres.
With this rare continuity, Dymshits and his team of scholars have staked a claim as the first and only team in 70 years to conduct field research into the region’s Jewish folklore, recording scores of interviews along the way.
In one corner of the historical center, a St. Petersburg researcher asks an older woman about Jewish song; she responds by softly singing a melody.
It’s nuggets like this, say researchers from the Petersburg Judaica Center of St. Petersburg’s European University, that make Mogilev-Podolsky the treasure trove it is for those trying to assemble pieces of a Jewish puzzle.
While the Jews in this otherwise provincial backwater on Ukraine’s southwest border with Moldova may not be as exotic as others in the former Soviet Union — such as, say, the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, or the Bukharian Jews along the old Silk Road in Uzbekistan — the community of Mogilev-Podolsky has a unique story to tell.
While Nazi mobile-killing units and their local collaborators were decimating Jewish life across the Pale of Settlement, one exception was the historic region of Podolia, including Mogilev-Podolsky.
Podolia was under Romanian control. Though plenty cruel and bloody, especially for the hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews deported into the region, the Romanians were less methodical in destroying Podolian Jewry itself.
That enabled both Jewish communal infrastructure and spirit to survive.
“It’s natural that if you discover an island in the ocean, you try to investigate it,” said Dymshits, director of the Petersburg Judaica Center.
Even in the 1970s and ’80s, the population of Mogilev, as it’s called here — not to be confused with the eponymous city in Belarus — was roughly one-quarter Jewish, with Jews heavily concentrated in the city center.
During the Soviet thaw of the late 1980s, Dymshits and some colleagues hit upon a field of virgin terrain, with some pockets of Jewish life preserved as if in amber. Seizing S. Ansky’s ethnographic mantle, they plunged into Podolia in 1989.
It was the largest ratio of any city in the former Soviet Union, Dymshits says.
“In Mogilev,” he said, “any Ukrainian will tell you about the Jewish classmates, the Jewish neighbors, the Yiddish on the streets, being invited to their weddings.”
Yet from a peak prewar population of some 34,000, the Mogilev Jewish population shrank to 9,000 two decades ago and to just 350 people today.
That has not stopped the center from expanding and deepening its research in recent years. In the summer of 2005, scholars from the center explored the Podolian city of Tulchin. Last summer they went to Balta. This year they arrived at the motherlode of Jewish ethnography in the region: Mogilev-Podolsky.
On this past summer’s two-week visit to Mogilev, Dymshits led a team of two-dozen researchers who were mostly from St. Petersburg, with a few from Moscow and North America.
Researchers visited places as varied as a Jewish-owned bakery and the local library, where they asked about Jewish reading habits. In some cases, they were invited into private homes.
The researchers also shared in some of the community’s own Jewish practices, with a handful joining community members for a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the city’s lone remaining synagogue.
The gabbai led the group in prayers spoken mostly in Russian; few can speak or understand Hebrew here. The service wasn’t just for show; men convene in the synagogue every night for prayers.