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A short drive across Kiev from Bessarabian Square, not far from Babi Yar, the infamous ravine where more than 30,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in 1941, is the grave of schoolboy Andrei Yushchinsky.
Yushchinsky was stabbed to death in Kiev in 1911, sparking the arrest of Mendel Beilis and one of the greatest blood libel trials of modern history. Beilis, a Jewish brickworks supervisor, was held in prison for two years on charges that he murdered the Christian boy and drained his blood to make Passover matzo. After Beilis was acquitted at trial in 1913, he moved to Palestine and then to America. When he died in New York, in 1934, more than 4,000 people attended his funeral.
Today, Beilis is largely forgotten. But Yushchinsky’s grave has become a shrine for Ukrainian nationalists. The day I visited, fresh flowers lay on the tombstone, which was inscribed with an excerpt from Beilis’s trial transcript and the information that Yushchinsky’s body was found “in the building of the Jewish independent hospital.” The head of Ukraine’s Reform Jewish community, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, whom I met a few days later, said the Jewish reference on the grave was actually an improvement. It “used to have a sign that said, ’Killed by a kike,’” he said.
“Yes, there are people who hate Jewish people,” Dukhovny added. “It’s still in their blood.” But he said it is simplistic to assume that anti-Semitism is rife in Ukraine. Even during the Beilis trial, Dukhovny pointed out, Ukrainian Christians, including Orthodox priests, spoke out in Beilis’s defense.
Indeed, the Beilis trial was more a manifestation of Russian than Ukrainian anti-Semitism. The trial was orchestrated by a czarist administration and supported chiefly by the Black Hundreds, a Russian nationalist group that fiercely opposed Ukrainian independence. In Beilis’s 1925 autobiography, first published in Yiddish, the accused man stressed that many ordinary Russians and Ukrainians sprang to his defense. “There was real heroism, real sacrifice,” Beilis wrote according to the latest English translation, published in 2011.
As with other Central and Eastern European countries, Ukraine’s bloody history as a nation subjugated by surrounding countries complicates the problem of how it views its own history of anti-Semitism. Ukraine’s great 17th-century Cossack leader and hero, Bogdan Khmelnytsky, was responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews. Maryna Bezdenezhnykh, 27, told me that the Jewish experience in Ukrainian history is routinely misrepresented in schools. Students don’t learn about the Holocaust, Bezdenezhnykh said. Meanwhile, she said, Khmelnytsky is seen as a hero, “whereas to Ukrainian Jews he is seen as a second Hitler.”
Several leaders of Kiev’s Jewish community, in separate interviews, drew distinctions between state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, which they say no longer exists in Ukraine, and anti-Semitism at a local level. “In [the] past, all leaders of Ukraine were anti-Semitic,” Levin said. He included in that list former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, whose Orange Revolution, hailed by Western leaders, was fueled by nationalism. Yushchenko’s rule coincided with the rehabilitation of such Nazi collaborators as Stepan Bandera and with the rise of MAUP (the Ukrainian acronym for the Interregional Academy of Personal Management), a private university that published a slew of anti-Semitic tracts. These included a booklet resurrecting the claim that Yushchinsky was killed to make matzo.
Many Kiev Jews said anti-Semitism persists. Iolanta Veksler, 28, said that when she returns to her hometown of Belaya Tserkov, which has 3,000 Jews out of a population of about 200,000, she is sometimes stared at in the park and called “Yid.” Natella Andriushchenko, principal of Mitsva-613, a Jewish school in Belaya Tserkov, said, “Anyone who says there is no anti-Semitism [in Ukraine] is living with their eyes closed or rarely moves in non-Jewish circles.”