In 1905, the writer Sholem Aleichem fled his native Ukraine after witnessing a brutal pogrom in Kiev.
In 1997, that city erected a monument to him. He eventually found his way to America, but he wrote of his homeland for the rest of his life.
And this past weekend, unknown vandals painted bright red swastikas on that monument.
A monument of the famous Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem in Kyiv was vandalized with Nazi swastikas. pic.twitter.com/40w03YdjGw— Eduard Dolinsky (@edolinsky) November 25, 2019
Sholem Aleichem, most famous for his stories about the fictional character of Tevye the Dairyman — stories that formed the basis for the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof” — is widely considered the most popular Yiddish writer of all time. In a 2016 article for the Forward reflecting on his 100th yahrtzeit, Ezra Glinter wrote that Sholem Aleichem “was more than the sum of his stories; he had become a symbol of the Jewish people itself.”
Responses to the vandalism, currently under investigation by Ukrainian police, affirmed that sentiment. While reports of anti-Semitic vandalism have spiked in recent years, the sight of swastikas splashed on the Kiev statue raised particular ire. Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League called the vandalism “absolutely shameful,” and the American Jewish Committee pointed out that Sholem Aleichem’s name “literally means ‘May peace be with you.’”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. Zelensky took office this past May; his administration has, in its early months, been overshadowed by the impeachment investigation into President Trump, who is alleged to have withheld military aid from Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Zelensky into announcing investigations into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. While Zelensky is quite popular, his election has raised fears in the Ukrainian Jewish community of a potential backlash. Earlier this month, JTA’s Cnaan Lipshitz reported on a Ukrainian Limmud event where one participant expressed the feeling that “When Zelensky fails, they will think of him as the Jew and take revenge against the Jews.” Only last week, a global survey by the ADL reported that rates of anti-Semitic attitudes in Ukraine are among the highest in the world, matched only in Poland, Hungary and South Africa.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Vadym Prystaiko, decried news of the vandalism. “The anti-Semitic act on the Sholom-Aleichem monument in Kyiv is disgusting, appalling and in need of prompt investigation,” he wrote on Twitter. “The perpetrator(s) must be brought to justice.
While the vandalism of the statue has raised concern, Sholem Aleichem himself would have likely advocated a wry take on the crime. “This is an ugly and mean world, and only to spite it we mustn’t weep,” he once wrote to a friend. “If you want to know, this is the constant source of my good spirit, of my humor. Not to cry, out of spite, only to laugh out of spite, only to laugh.”
Sholem Aleichem Defaced With Swastikas In Ukraine