Why Chernobyl’s Jewish History Still Matters — 31 Years After The Accident
My aunt recently reminded me that everything changed on April 26, 1986. I knew this, of course, but it wasn’t often that my family talked about the accident or the evacuation.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my grandfather Mikhail spoke proudly of his work at a nuclear power plant, as well as of the house he built in the town in which he grew up, where he met and married my grandmother Mira, and where my father Slava and aunt Lena were born.
As a child, I didn’t realize many things from my grandfather’s stories: that he worked at the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, including on the night of the accident; what it meant for my grandparents to call Chernobyl home long before the plant was opened in 1977; that the house my grandfather built was no longer there.
It was impossible to know, the way he spoke about that house. I grew up not understanding why my grandfather left a place he seemed to long for – and questioning if perhaps my family came from two cities, only one of which sparked anguished memories of hunger, war, and anti-Semitism.
When I became an adult, Chernobyl haunted me. I ruminated over the discrepancy between what I knew from my grandfather — sandy streets along which it was best to walk barefoot; the beautiful synagogue in which he celebrated Purim as a child; Babushka Odarka, who at any time of year schlepped barefoot along the streets looking for work; a small town, a shtetl my grandfather once called it, inhabited by poor Ukrainians and Jews with colorful characters and customs – and what I read in the news – Chernobyl as the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, the Exclusion Zone as an environmental anomaly, nearby Pripyat as a ghost town.
I don’t remember when I became aware of April 26th as the day everything changed, but now, every year on this date, I read about the accident, how a flawed design and late night safety test at the fourth reactor led to a steam explosion and chemical fire, sending massive amounts of nuclear waste into the atmosphere. I read about the heroic work and tragic fate of the liquidators who put out the flames and cleaned radioactive materials from the reactor as well surrounding cities and villages.
There is seldom any mention of the real Chernobyl, the nearby town and regional center after which the plant was named, whose written history dates back to 1193.
As a child, I believed that my grandfather’s memories — his description of Chernobyl’s location at the confluence of two rivers, the Uzh and Pripyat, and his dreams of its beaches, forests, and flowers, the smell of grass and Lilies of the Valley with the first sign of spring – would one day become my own. I didn’t know then that those who were evacuated could only return on one specific day a year, and that even if I wanted only to visit the cemetery in which my ancestors are buried, I would have to do so on a tour.
My first visit to Chernobyl, in August of 2015, was taken with one of numerous travel agencies that began taking tourists to the Exclusion Zone in 2011 (although less publicized tours started in 1999 or 2000). These group tours usually pass briefly through Chernobyl, stopping at a memorial in the city center (the construction of which required demolishing Jewish houses in time for the 25th anniversary of the accident) and for lunch at a new hotel not far from where my family had lived, then onto the plant and Pripyat, which housed plant workers and their families starting in 1970.
I had found a travel agency sympathetic to my background and inability to afford a private tour, so my group made additional stops at the Jewish cemetery and to the site of my family’s house.
My guide Serhiy managed to find one of four ancestors that I was searching for, and, along with three strangers, I stood in front of my great grandmother’s grave, which I recognized instantly by the Lily of the Valley engraved by my grandfather on the tombstone.
Serhiy later asked me if I was okay, after he led me down Ostroskogo Street, as I struggled to connect what I was seeing — white houses with red roofs, blue fences, the dusty streets my grandfather wrote about – to memories of sepia-toned photographs.
Was I okay if Chernobyl, over the next year and a half, kept pulling me back, breaking me down as I walked in circles on the plot of land where the house had stood, looking for traces of its existence, for anything that my family might have left behind when they were evacuated in May of 1986?
Was I okay if I moved back to Kyiv on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the accident, which occurred three years before I born, to learn about a place I didn’t know and mourn memories that weren’t my own?
Six months after I moved to Kyiv, I met a Fulbright student researcher who was fascinated by my connection to Chernobyl. “You know it has a long Jewish history, right?” he asked me.
Actually, even though I had been to Chernobyl two more times by then, and was seeking to organize a Jewish cemetery cleanup (an effort that proved unsuccessful), I had very little idea.
How could I have known, given the relatively small size of Chernobyl’s deteriorating Jewish cemetery — another one had been cleared in the 1930s, I later learned, to make room for a Ukrainian school; tombstones were used to build the foundation — that Jews made up a significant portion of Chernobyl’s population prior to World War II?
Although there has slowly been an increase in both English and Ukrainian-language resources about Chernobyl’s Jewish history – thanks largely to public archives, archeological excavations that began in the Exclusion Zone in 2004, and, mostly, the efforts of Chernobylans themselves, including Mordechai and Yitz Twersky, descendants of the founder of Chernobyl’s Hasidic movement in the 1700s — major news publications rarely pay attention to the fact that Chernobyl, as well as many other towns in the Exclusion Zone, were traditionally Jewish.
All I knew then was that my Soviet birth certificate identifies my mother as Ukrainian and my father as Jewish; that, in the late 1970s and ‘80s, my aunt was the only Jewish student in her class; and that my family, like other Jewish families who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, arrived in the U.S. as refugees, driven from Ukraine by a history of persecution and institutional discrimination.
I recalled these facts, markers of a Jewish-Ukrainian heritage I didn’t always feel connected to, when I returned to Chernobyl for the second time, in May of 2016.
As I wandered around the Jewish part of the cemetery by myself — stumbling through overgrown grass, desperate to find three more graves, I unknowingly crossed into the Orthodox Christian section. I was suddenly surrounded by more recent tombstones, tended to by seemingly happy families with sandwiches and bottles of wine. A painful reminder that the majority of Jews did not return to Chernobyl after the war — by the time of the evacuation, sources estimate, only about fifty Jewish families remained — and perhaps a subtle suggestion of why Jews like my family left Ukraine.
A stark contrast to the nearby mass grave – lonesome, with a few fresh flowers that visitors like me had left – that holds the remains of 400 Jews, those who did not evacuate, who were gathered near the synagogue, marched to a ditch by the Jewish cemetery, undressed, and shot on November 19, 1941, three months after the Nazis occupied Chernobyl. The remains of my murdered great, great grandfather Barukh Faktorovich lie in that mass grave. It seems likely that other relatives are buried there as well; every family friend I spoke with listed multiple relatives or entire families who were killed.
It should be noted that it is not possible to confirm that there were only 400 victims at this time. Although 400 is what’s generally accepted, it could be as high as 700. Non-Jews (Red Army officers, suspected communists, and army dissenters) were likely killed as well, although they presumably were not led to believe that they were being deported beforehand.
“The years are unkind to Jews,” my grandfather wrote of the post-war years, when he and his mother returned from evacuation in modern-day Russia, but the demise of Chernobyl’s Jewish community, which thrived throughout the 19th century, likely began with the Russian revolution of 1905, after which at least two pogroms took place in Chernobyl.
The rabbinic Twersky dynasty escaped from Chernobyl during the civil war that followed the 1917 October Revolution, which ended in most Ukrainian territories becoming a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During that time, more pogroms took place, a massive fire destroyed over 100 Jewish homes, and the Jewish population drastically declined.
Every day, somebody posts to the private Chernobyl and Chernobylans Facebook group: old as well as recent photographs, memories, recollections of birthdays and anniversaries, plans for May 9th.
For Chernobylans, their native city is not a symbol of the accident.
For older generations, life seems to be divided between “before” and “after” the war, and May 9th, Victory Day, which commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, holds more significance than April 26th — even as Ukraine moves away from officially recognizing the traditionally Russian holiday.
In Ukraine, there are designated memorial days that fall about a week after Orthodox Easter during which everybody visits the cemetery. Long before the accident, families spent both memorial days and May 9th honoring the memory of those who perished in World War II, as well as other family members who had passed away.
On May 9th, the city hosted a parade, and veterans wore their best suits, proudly displaying their medals. Throughout Soviet Ukraine, including in Chernobyl, monuments paying tribute to fallen soldiers were erected, and citizens visited central parks, cemeteries, and sites of mass murder to commemorate the dead. University students who left Chernobyl for Kyiv, Moscow, and other large cities often returned home to partake in these traditions.
The year following the accident and evacuation, the post-Easter memorial day and May 9th coincided, and the day took on a new special meaning and tradition: it became the one day of the year when those who were evacuated are allowed to return. And many do, waiting for hours at the checkpoint to enter the Zone. Now, however, people visit both the homes and the graves they had to leave behind, along with the park, their school, their lake Pripyat.
As I walked around Chernobyl last May 9th, somebody said to me, “I like that people are walking around like there wasn’t a tragedy.” Indeed, amidst the sadness, as Chernobylans catch up with classmates around the old Russian school, the day seems to have preserved the festive and patriotic feel of the past.
Throughout the past year, I often asked myself why, in a world full of ongoing identity-based discrimination and violence, sectarian conflict, and famine, Chernobyl still matters
The historical significance of April 26, 1986 goes far beyond the accident. After April 26th, Soviet officials closed off a 30 kilometer area around the fourth reactor — what is now referred to as the Exclusion Zone. Hundreds of thousands of people in both Ukraine and Belarus were eventually evacuated from their towns. Environmental refugees.
Those who were evacuated did not want to leave — the words “Forgive me and farewell, my home” are written across multiple houses in Chernobyl — and still long to return, the feelings of displacement palpable, inherited by their descendants.
For many, particularly those Jewish families like my own who emigrated to the U.S. or Israel, visiting even for one day is too painful, so they choose not to return at all, preserving untarnished their childhood memories.
In the context of Ukraine’s war in the East, which has displaced well over a million Ukrainians since 2014, as well as the the global refugee crisis — the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people throughout the world at the end of 2015 — Chernobyl reminds us that Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees do not leave by choice, and teaches us that the psychological effects of being torn from one’s home can last for generations.
Last month, on my fourth visit to Chernobyl, I found a foundational beam in the spot where my family’s house once stood. I sat on it and wept.
Thirty-one years after the accident, there’s nowhere to return, but Chernobyl’s history and legacy flourish for the families who were displaced.
Author’s note: Chernobylans Lena Khandros, Sofia Mazor, Alexander and Abram Khabensky, Natalia Mazur, and Nikolai Khripkov, all of whom answered many painful questions, as well as Fulbright student researcher in Ukraine Ben Cohen and journalist Mordechai I. Twersky, were exceedingly helpful in the creation of this article.
Anna Khandros works for American Councils for International Education in Kyiv, Ukraine. Previously, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco and Fulbright grantee in Tajikistan. She will begin studying international development, focusing on refugee issues and humanitarian emergencies, at Georgetown University in the fall.