Originally published in Ukrainian on the website of Dukhovnyi Front Ukraïny (Spiritual Front of Ukraine)
Meylakh Sheykhet: “My challenge to Russian propaganda is providing food to Ukrainian refugees.”
In his interview with Ukrinform, the Hasidic Rabbi Meylakh Sheykhet, the Lviv-based director of the American Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) Representation to Ukraine, spoke about his friendship with Ukrainian nationalists, Jews who cooperated with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), assistance to Ukrainian refugees, and the Babyn Yar Memorial.
You are a Hasid who is smashing stereotypes to a certain degree. You live in Lviv, you’re friends with Ukrainian nationalists, and you are invited to conferences about the national liberation movement. How is this possible? Are you an exception to the rule?
I am not an exception to the rule. I am recovering the momentous and positive pages in the history of our relations, which existed prior to the communist onslaught and Nazism. After all, life in Ukraine was a tasty soup in which every ingredient added flavor.
Our relations with Ukrainians in Galicia were always harmonious. For example, on Saturday, on Shabbat, we are not allowed to light a fire. So, in wintertime our Christian neighbors would come to light the fire, so that it would be warm in the house or the synagogue.
In our turn, on Christian holidays we could work and do something for the Christians. According to Jewish tradition, if someone does something for you, you should return the favor. This is ethics. Jews treated Christians to tasty morsels that they prepared for their own holidays, especially for the Sabbath. When I began my civic and enlightening activities, I met Christians who said that to this day they remember the taste of those dishes and drinks to which they had been treated. As they recalled these things, smiles and joy appeared on the faces of people who, in their old age, had lost the gleam in their eyes. These are the flavors of childhood and recollections about our cohabitation.
We grew up in the communist system, we (various ethnicities) were contaminated by the ideology of superiority and the humiliation of identity. But we continued to overcome this because Jewish tradition does not consider people according to their faith but by their humanness.
But there was so much talk of the Soviet Union’s wonderful internationalism.
The internationalism of the communist system was merely declarative but it actually stratified people. And we, both believers and non-believers, sensed this. We saw that this is not the truth, that, as they claimed, you are a Ukrainian, you are a Jew, and he is a Roma, and that supposedly everyone is equal.
We knew that there was an admission quota for Jews enrolling in institutes. We also knew that in schools there was all-out disinformation about the Ukrainian liberation movement and about events that took place during the war. So, when I began my civic activities, I set myself the goal of understanding the level and causes of the differences between us. In childhood, it was very difficult to understand this, what with all those [red] ties, Pioneers, and Little Octobrists. At the time, everything was built around the idea that [national] identity was relegated to the margins, leaving just a single Soviet people.
Thus, my own intellectual and spiritual quest contributed to my drawing closer to Ukrainian patriots. I understand the nationalists. They are not bloodsuckers, although every community has some bad apples. And I am breaking stereotypes that have no right to exist. Ukrainian nationalists are close to my heart because I, too, am a nationalist in the most positive sense of this word. Because, just as the revival of Jewish traditions in Ukraine is important to me, their goal is to restore the identity of the Ukrainian people.
As a matter of fact, close cooperation always existed. After all, there were Jewish doctors in the UPA.
Your opponents say that Jews went into the UPA because they were saving themselves from the Nazis.
Well, if the UPA had been the same as the Nazis and Jews would not have had a lifeline there, they would not have joined its ranks. The UPA did not have the same goal as the Nazis. For the UPA, it was a struggle for liberty, for independence. I grew up in Galicia. In connection with the resistance of certain citizens, I studied the fate and life path of Roman Shukhevych and his shortlived agreement with the Nazis. After the Red terror and the Soviet army’s retreat from the western lands, the Germans promised them training to build their own state. But in order to gain favor with the Ukrainians, the Nazis promised them independence. On this basis, Shukhevych, keeping in mind the promise that Ukrainians would gain their independence as well as a Ukrainian army, opted for brief cooperation. But when he realized that they had duped the Ukrainian liberation movement, he pulled out of this arrangement in 1942, thereby risking a death sentence from the Germans. Unfortunately, this narrative did not spread throughout all of Ukraine, and that is why in some regions all those old stereotypes produced by the Soviet propaganda machine persist to this day.
Every country should be indistinguishable from its people, its ethnicity. Thus, in order for us to be able to call ourselves “free Ukrainian Jews,” we must know both our own traditions and Ukrainian history and culture. I personally was aware of all this because I grew up in a religious
family. Religiosity is purity that opens the eyes and, in this regard, the older I got the wiser I became.
Actually, when you ask me about my friendly relations with nationalists, I recall my late Dad. He was a very religious person. In order to be able to follow the traditions, live a religious life, and do the occasional maneuvering so as to maintain the rites of our faith, he worked as an ordinary laborer. He was very respected by Ukrainians. Do you know why? Because he always comforted them by saying that the Soviet Union would fall apart soon, like a rotten apple.
How did he know this?
The distinguished Jewish thinker and rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim, made a prediction in his famous work. When the Soviet revolutionary coup happened, he declared that this godless regime would last seventy years. And my Dad, who was a very religious man, he believed this prophecy. Contrary to stereotypes, the destinies and relations between Ukrainians and Jews are closely interwoven.
The famous professor of archaeology Larysa Krushelnytska, who was at one time the director of the Lviv National Scientific Library of Ukraine, wrote in her memoirs that when the Soviet occupiers arrived in Lviv, she was standing next to a Hasid. They were marching along the streets of Lviv, shouting that they were liberators, and some locals thought that they were truly liberators. But the Hasid said: “Yes, they have come to ‘liberate’ us from everything that is good.” In other words, he viewed them as occupiers. There is beauty in living next to each other in tolerance and understanding, but there is also a very potent force that spurs me on and one which I learned from my parents and from the environment with which I allied myself as a result of the [Soviet] collapse, with distinguished and decent people in the Jewish world.
My relationships are not a case of playing up to the nationalists because they are of some benefit to me. It is understanding their sense of life for the sake of their people. I don’t attend every conference. I have been invited to events about which I predicted that they are ruining our mutual relations, even from the standpoint of approaches. For example, one time I was invited to a conference on Ukrainian-Polish-Jewish relations, which was financed by Germany. Incidentally, did you know that in Cracow before the Second World War the Nazis created entire centers or offices for writers and journalists who produced hatred targeting Jews? In other words, they were spurring the population into a loyal attitude to the Holocaust or the pogroms. So, I declined to attend that conference because I knew in advance that nothing good would come out of there. Later I saw who had attended such conferences: former communists or odious civic figures. I was not there.
During the Soviet era there was a joke that goes like this: “There are two problems: Where can I get something, and how can I lose weight.” In other words, everyone seemed to live well, stuff themselves well, but there was no spirituality of any kind. And that is why I am friendly with Ukrainian nationalists. During Soviet rule, they and we resisted Sovietness, even if not
demonstratively, and we understood each other as humans. You know that during the Soviet period I was a lecturer and, even though everyone lectured in Russian because our technical college was of all-Union importance, I taught in Ukrainian because all the kids were from the countryside. I knew that these kids had grown up with the Ukrainian language, and on the one hand I wanted to teach them better, explaining in their native language; on the other, so that they would not forget the language. So, in order to teach them well, I taught in their language and spoke it.
Where did you teach?
I taught a course called Automatic Telephone Stations at a technical college of communications, as well as higher engineering courses of the so-called Soviet Union. They were in Lviv; I taught Advanced Telephone and Multi-Channel Communications Systems.
You’re saying that this type of Ukrainian terminology existed at the time? I’m simply curious to know how you taught the kids these complex disciplines in Ukrainian.
There was no terminology, of course, you’re right. But terminology plays a very small insignificant role in explanations. Anyway, the terminology is almost exclusively English with Ukrainian pronunciation.
Your organization feeds refugees? How is this work taking place right now?
Yes, between 150 and 200 people visit us every day. We take care of them the way we take care of ourselves. When I was starting this work, my mentor, a distinguished rabbi from London, said: “Meylakh, you’re taking on that job; is is very creditworthy. But remember that you must feed them the way you feed the Jewish community—with the same quality.”
That was my attitude as well, even though this was difficult for me, especially during Passover, when we had to feed them Passover food, to which they were not accustomed, but there is a certain limitation. We gave them ordinary food but it was kosher, just like for the Passover holiday. And bread was forbidden that day, so we gave matzah.
For us, Passover is the cleansing of all dirt, everything that is sour [a symbol of sin—Trans.], everything that destroys the purity of the soul and the value of morals. That is why we clean the house of everything sour so that our souls do not become sour. We clean our clothing, turn out our pockets; everything—even dishes—has to be free of sourness. Even pots in which something sour has been cooked are scalded with boiling water. In Israel, in Jerusalem, huge vats of boiling water over a hundred degrees stand on streets, so that everyone can use this boiling water to scald their pots, their dishes, and bring them to their spick-and-span house, so that during Passover they can eat clean food, so that it will not contain the slightest traces of sourness.
I cannot convey how difficult it was to organize, to monitor when people came to our premises. I warned them: Do not bring bread with you, so that there would be no bread in their bags. And they listened to me; I explained things to them. We fed them the Passover food that we ourselves
ate. It was a very nerve-wracking time. In those days there was no matzah. With what could we replace bread? I am getting nervous. But a few hours before the start of the holiday G-d sent us matzah; the Jewish community in the UK supplied the Jews of Ukraine with matzah. At that point we were thinking that, if there is no bread, then we will feed people with tasty roast potatoes.
How do people find out about you—the way I did, walking along the street and coming inside?
To this day there are announcements on the street saying that people can eat at our place. Later they tell one another. Right now these are people from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Sievierodonetsk.
Do you think that they are beginning to comprehend the Ukrainian idea when they are with you?
They have accepted little gifts joyfully; they are comprehending. On Independence Day we made blue-and-yellow cookies, and every one liked them very much. Those who love Ukraine are remaining here. They’re not leaving. Right now it is possible to leave easily but they’re not leaving.
Which day of the war was the most difficult one for you?
The most difficult day was when we woke up and learned that Russia had indeed attacked. Because we had believed that some common sense might prevail over there. It was such a disillusionment…. People began thinking about how to go on living. The best thing was when contact with the management of my organization was established, and we began thinking about how to help Ukraine. We started to raise money right away. At this time the Russians were saying that the masses were being deceived, that Ukrainians are supposedly nationalists who must be purged. Well, I decided to create this challenge because I believed that the most peaceful method is to give anti-Ukrainian propagandists a slap in the face and to expose their lies (one day they will choke on these lies): to offer food to everyone without exception. So that refugees dressed in the clothing in which they had fled their homes would come to Lviv and sense goodness here. That is why we started a refugee food program. It took about a week to raise the funds. We began working in March. It was difficult—you see that we don’t have a big space.
Is the inertia behind the perception of our country as antisemitic changing in the West?
It is changing because a lot is being done. First of all, the unification of pro-Ukrainian forces in the West has taken place. I have given numerous interviews to the Western media: CNN, Fox News, аs well as the Italian, British, and Israeli media. Since the beginning of the war, this has been my constant and uninterrupted dialogue with the world through the media. Our life is full of these questions.
It is not true that Ukrainian nationalists pose a danger. There are indeed nationalists, I say, but they are extraordinarily oriented toward peace and harmony. I have no conflicts with them because I, too, am a nationalist. After all, can someone forbid a person to revive his or her identity? This is their right. Who has the right to deny this? On the contrary, we should help them with this. People ask: “But aren’t you afraid of walking on the street?” I say: “No. I walk on the street like a traditionally garbed Jew, and passersby greet me with the word “Shalom.” Аnd before the Sabbath they say “Shabbat-Shalom.” People already know a lot about Jewish traditions. Many of them have been in Israel; they have worked there, visited relatives. There are no more Soviet stereotypes here. It was the Soviet authorities who caused quarrels between us because they needed us to be in conflict so that they could dominate
Still, little is being done to counter propaganda. I personally have complaints against historians because all scholarly conferences take place against the background of distorting [our] relations, for the purpose of demonstrating that there is some bone of contention. There is a website, it’s called academia.edu, which examines historical narratives in an extraordinarily narrow fashion.
This is a very well-known academic website.
There are hundreds of articles on this website featuring stereotypes in which concealed anti-Ukrainian interests are discernible, owing to the inadequate study of questions. But one must understand this; it is necessary to work in this sphere. Incidentally, all the authors live abroad, not in Ukraine. After I posted a few comments, there was a surge of requests asking me to write articles. There are not enough hours in the day. But I have tried to speak with historians. Unfortunately, there is a great lack of documented research. Why? Because, as a rule, grants are awarded abroad precisely for these kinds of insufficiently researched articles. No fund has been created to foster accurate knowledge about Ukrainian-Jewish relations, how they were formed throughout history. Even when the massacre in Uman took place, it happened because this was a Polish-Russian conflict in 1648, in which not just Jews but Ukrainians and Poles lost their lives. In other words, Jews were not an end in itself where the local population was concerned. It was the result of an organized, external political conflict between Poland and Russia above and beyond purely Ukrainian interests. History cannot exist outside of context. But to this day the notion that only Ukrainians were to blame—they are bloodsuckers, they allegedly massacred 50,000 Jews—is still being discussed. The holy man, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov [Ukr. Bratslav], is buried in Uman. He gave instructions to be buried among the victims of that pogrom. So, it is not a cemetery where he is buried; in fact, it is a large mass grave that was plundered by the Soviet authorities and which is not being very well taken care of today by the municipal government.
The anniversary of Babyn Yar is approaching. I think that, despite the war, a prayer for the dead will be said at the memorial. Before the war this was a very profound problem and conflict in society. Which of the projects do you yourself favor—the state one or the private one?
Owing to the fact that the Holocaust in Ukraine is extremely important for arriving at a correct assessment of the past and a peaceful future, I consider this an extraordinarily important project. And in view of today’s war, when Russian propaganda has disseminated so many stereotypes against Ukraine that do not correspond to reality, this is confirmation of the fact that all the concerns and fears about the proposed Babyn Yar memorial were justified. Because right now we see manifestations. These fears could have come to pass. We were afraid—I personally was afraid—that, because of the distortion of the causes and effects of the Holocaust, this project would become a source of conflict between our peoples. And that is not good. This was a crime against humanity. And if not for Nazi ideology, Babyn Yar and the tragedy of the Holocaust in Ukraine would never have happened because there were no motives that could in any way have led to such a human tragedy. Therefore, the museum was supposed to provide knowledge about what happened and to provide an answer to the questions of why this happened and what the consequences are. It is also essential to explain that if this had not happened, the world would have been better than it is, because by means of the Holocaust and the war the Nazis destroyed unique humans. The museum is a source of knowledge; it is a source of education. The museum has a very great humanitarian function and onus. And, so, yes, it should be a state museum under the full control of both the state and the public, so that it does not serve anti-Ukrainian, anti-state interests. The truth heals and is an inspiration for a just future. That is why, first and foremost, our organization would do everything in order to adjust the location of the museum by allocating the land on which the adjacent Jewish cemetery stands. So that, after due diligence, a program would be created for the museum, which would become a source of understanding and unification. We experienced the Holocaust together, not in order to point the finger at each other, like our enemies want, but in order to reach the understanding that this should never happen again in the land of Ukraine. Because it would never have happened in the first place if not for foreign interests! At the present time, this project is illegitimate and in violation of the laws and will of the Ukrainian public. It materialized because certain personalities who were gathered from all over the world are concerned more about their own image than about the image of the idea of unifying our peoples in the face of the destructive forces that are demoralizing public life and continuing to do so to this day.
In your opinion, what can a religious person offer society?
A believer should be a carrier of life-giving currents of harmony in public life. This is who a believer is if s/he is truly a religious person. After all, religious tradition is aimed only at harmony and concord. This is what the Creator, He who creates this beautiful world in which we all live, wants. A believer is a model that one wants to emulate or at least to learn from it. A believer should heal the wounds of public life and of every single person—and turn this world into a Garden of Faith.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk