“Europe is just a graveyard for me,” my Shabbat host told me. The year was 1980, or about then. David was explaining why he had no desire to visit the continent where, as a boy, he had somehow survived.
We sat in his Jerusalem living room. The shelves held 200 rare books in German, Hungarian and other languages—all that Czechoslovakia’s new Communist government had let him take from his family’s famous Prague bookstore when he left for Israel in 1949. Although he wouldn’t visit Graveyard Europe, he proudly showed me his clan’s place in its culture.
His words resonated in me. My father’s parents came from a shtetl called Obodivko in Ukraine. Very early on May 10, 1919, a gentile neighbor warned my grandmother’s family that there would be trouble for Jews that day. A multi-sided civil war was raging in Ukraine, and most of the sides regularly massacred Jews. At daybreak, my grandmother married her intended and they fled. That day, Ukrainian troops and peasants murdered 300 Jews in Obodivko—among them, four of my grandmother’s brothers and a nephew. As refugees, my grandparents eventually reached America.
I have friends who are entranced by Eastern Europe. Some would love to find the street or shtetl in Ukraine from which their families came.
I never wanted to travel there. For me, Ukraine was a graveyard. This made less sense than my late host David’s feelings. Two generations separated me from catastrophe. My nightmare was as vicarious as others’ shtetl nostalgia.
Then, in February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Quarter-remembered place names appeared in war bulletins. The Jewish past in Ukraine surged into the present. Starkly different tellings of that history are woven into Jewish conversations about the war, perhaps most of all in debates about Israeli policy toward Ukrainian refugees.
In reality, the history doesn’t fit into the simple tellings. More important, though: In what way is the history relevant for today’s policy?
One version of that past speaks of Ukraine as a cradle of Jewish culture. The Baal Shem Tov founded Hasidism there. Sholem Aleichem wrote the life of its shtetls. Ahad Ha’am created his version of Zionism there before leaving for Zion. Isaac Babel portrayed Odessa’s Jewish underworld, before Stalin erased him.
Ukrainians “rescued Jews” during the Holocaust, the country’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in his appeal to the Knesset for Israeli support. Whatever the security challenges of military aid to Ukraine, this version implies, surely Israel must welcome refugees fleeing the war.
A second narrative furiously dismisses the first. It goes back to the massacres of Jews in Ukraine in 1648-49, during the rebellion against Polish rule led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky—who would become a Ukrainian nationalist hero. From there it jumps to the pogroms that led up to the mass slaughter of Ukrainian Jews in 1919, and then to Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
From this, one might draw the implication that Ukrainians should not expect refuge from Israel. Or one could draw an even wider implication: That the world cared little for Jewish lives, that Israel was created to give shelter to Jews and that other nations can provide for non-Jewish refugees.
I can, for a moment, identify with the second, harsh telling of Jewish-Ukrainian history. Then I have to nod slightly to Zelensky and concede that a Ukrainian neighbor’s warning saved my grandparents. And I must acknowledge that history is larger and messier than one family’s story.
Then, finally, I must say: What Ukrainians did to, or for, Jews back then doesn’t matter—not when deciding what to do about families getting off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2022 carrying whatever scraps of their lives they managed to pack before fleeing.
The perpetrators of the Obodivko pogrom are long dead. If there are any Ukrainian collaborators with the SS left, they are 100 years old and few in number. The rescuers, too, are gone.
Guilt is not heritable. Sin, in the Jewish view, cannot stain you at birth. What matters about people fleeing the war isn’t their great-grandparents. It is that they are people needing safety. It’s their humanity.
Jewish history is relevant to Israeli refugee policy, but in an entirely different way. It’s likely that most Israeli Jews are descended from refugees, whether from Eastern Europe or Iraq, Libya or Germany.
To rephrase the oldest Jewish lesson from history: We know the heart of the refugee, for we were refugees. Blessed at last with an independent country, we should welcome the chance to give asylum.
Part of Jewish history in Ukraine is indeed a surfeit of graves. The best we can do with that history today, in the face of a brutal war, is help other people stay alive.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His most recent book is War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East.