Jews and Ukraini­ans: A Mil­len­ni­um of Co-Existence

Paul Robert Magoc­si and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

  • Review
By – May 9, 2017

An amaz­ing explo­ration of the rela­tion­ship between two mar­gin­al­ized peo­ples, Paul Robert Magoc­si and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s nar­ra­tive is accom­pa­nied by 335 col­or illus­tra­tions and 29 maps in a well-designed over­sized page format.

After an intro­duc­tion that focus­es on the stereo­types and mis­per­cep­tions that Jews and Ukraini­ans have had about either oth­er over the cen­turies, the authors of this inter­dis­ci­pli­nary work lay out twelve chap­ters, at once acces­si­ble and com­plex, cov­er­ing a wide range of top­ics. One explores phys­i­cal and human geog­ra­phy, anoth­er explores his­to­ry, while oth­ers exam­ine eco­nom­ic life, tra­di­tion­al cul­ture, reli­gion, lan­guage and pub­li­ca­tions, mate­r­i­al and artis­tic cul­ture, and dias­po­ra life as defined and expe­ri­enced by Ukraini­ans and Jews. Lat­ter chap­ters focus on the con­tem­po­rary situation.

The struc­ture of each chap­ter is such that the sec­tion fea­tur­ing some aspect of the Jew­ish sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine is framed by the nec­es­sar­i­ly much larg­er treat­ment of the Ukrain­ian expe­ri­ence and sit­u­a­tion. This pat­tern often becomes com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that the Jew­ish sit­u­a­tion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly uni­form through­out Ukraine and because the sto­ry of Ukraine is a sto­ry of flux. Jews of Gali­cia, Bukov­ina, and Tran­scarpathia require treat­ment dis­tinct from that of Jews who live — or once lived — else­where in Ukraine.

Thus there are such subtopics as Jews dur­ing Ukraine’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary era,” Pub­lish­ing indus­try and Jew­ish soci­ety,” Eco­nom­ic life and inter­ac­tion with Jews,” and Jew­ish orches­tral and oper­at­ic music.” One tan­ta­liz­ing subtopic, Jew­ish-Ukrain­ian lit­er­ary cross-fer­til­iza­tion,” is in the ser­vice of help­ing read­ers under­stand that affini­ties between the two peo­ples were far from mere­ly lit­er­ary.” How­ev­er, the book makes clear that for the most part the chances for sym­pa­thet­ic under­stand­ing were typ­i­cal­ly squan­dered rather than sought out and nourished.

Nev­er­the­less, the effort made in this gor­geous, abun­dant­ly detailed, and adven­tur­ous study is heart­warm­ing. It is an attempt for the peo­ples to get to know one anoth­er in a way that has nev­er been pos­si­ble before. They need to know about the con­tri­bu­tions that each group has made, if only by prox­im­i­ty, to the oth­er. For exam­ple, that Jews helped urban­ize Ukraine and devel­op its mar­ket econ­o­my. That Ukraine was the home­land of great Jew­ish writ­ers, such as Sholem Ale­ichem, and thinkers who shaped sem­i­nal con­cepts that guide Jew­ish life today. That Nazi Germany’s occu­pa­tion led to the death of 4,000,000 Ukrain­ian civil­ians and 1.4 mil­lion Ukraini­ans in uniform.

Jew­ish read­ers will be tempt­ed to do what I have done in prepar­ing this review — which is to seek out the gems of infor­ma­tion about Jews in Ukraine and skim over the larg­er, com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry of the Ukraini­ans them­selves. This would be a mis­take. Col­o­nized and mar­gin­al­ized, eth­nic Ukraini­ans were often in a cer­tain sense peo­ple with­out a coun­try — that is, peo­ple with­out pow­er. Jews and Ukraini­ans were often pit­ted against one anoth­er by those who held pow­er as a means of retain­ing it.

And the Ukrain­ian sto­ry is an impor­tant one, now more than ever. This brave book give read­ers the knowl­edge that they need to open their minds, to move for­ward, and to gain respect and appre­ci­a­tion for the other.”

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions