In Uman, Ukraine, a grave stands as a testament to Ukrainian Jewish life, the grave of the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He brought us a new Hasidic movement, a joyous Judaism seeking hope in impossible difficulty. His teachings are so widely recognised that you will find him in virtually any siddur (prayer book). Centuries on, Jews from all around the world come to visit and pray at his gravesite.
Jewish history is one of immense suffering, yet Jewish tradition has always offered avenues of hope. The site of the Massacre of Uman, a vicious pogrom, resulted in the murder of thousands of Jewish citizens. Occupied by the Soviet Union and subjected to the Shoah, the greatest evils of Europe came for Jewish people. However, the Jewish and Ukrainian people live and persevere.
If we stop here, we find a candle shining in incredible bleakness. Of a Jewish people contributing to the great nation of Ukraine as scholars, artists, scientists, authors, and in every field and discipline imaginable. The home to Sholem Aleichem, one of the greatest authors of Europe. The birthplace of one of the founding prime ministers of Israel, Golda Meir. Of a people who knew their past but still believed in Ukraine’s future. A country where even the grandson of a Shoah survivor, Zelenskyy, could make it to the presidency.
Today, that candle of hope flickers in uncertainty again. Uman is a city under missile strikes, and its Jewish citizens and thousands of Jewish visitors find themselves trapped. Russia is deploying cluster bombs on residential areas, inflicting immense human tragedy. We see the deployment of thermobaric weapons, which rip oxygen from the air and ignite a dangerous gas killing large numbers in a single attack. These evils represent the callousness of a dictator indifferent to the light of humanity.
Over three million refugees have fled, including thousands of Jewish refugees. Yet, we still find those fleeing unimaginable horror turned back by the Home Office at our borders. Schemes such as Homes for Ukraine are welcome but do not go far enough. Both the government and the opposition should offer more. We have an obligation to the stranger; we are responsible for welcoming all who run to Britain’s door. Our government must expand visas and ensure that families are accepted and not separated or deported.
Putin claims a project of “denazification”, a sinister code for his current efforts to pursue destruction and evacuation of Jewish communities across Ukraine. He sees no contradiction about talking in such terms when he attacks Jewish synagogues, schools, communities, graves and memorials. These are innocent Ukrainians murdered in their homes and streets, whose only crime was to exist as a people.
We must remember the history of how antisemitism frames Jewish people as the enemy, the “cosmopolitan”, the “wanderer”, the “usurper” that is disloyal to their nation. What we see instead, as ever, is many courageous people doing what they can to defend their country. A Jewish president, Zelenskyy, stands firm that he will protect his people, the Ukrainian people. Jewish people embody the shared aspirations and fears of all Ukrainians. Ukraine is a democracy, home to one of the largest Jewish communities globally, a country that has come far from its days of Soviet rule. Putin knows he must conceal this truth to pursue the dehumanisation that has ended in some of the worst horrors of our history.
There are signs of hope. Rabbi Bleich, one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine, has raised milions of dollars to establish a Jewish refugee camp for Kyiv. Communal organisations are offering humanitarian assistance; Jewish Americans, British Jews and Israelis have raised millions for philanthropic efforts in Ukraine. Many of us have a shared history of migration and persecution and understand that we must support those who face the same today. The crisis of Ukraine is a spiritual and communal loss that demands our collaboration.
The story of those who visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman is the story of a people’s perseverance against all odds. It is the story of people who survived inhospitable odds, who carry the memories of our past and yet still journey on. It is the story of Europe that remains possible. We must stand with Ukraine, so the candle of hope can keep glowing.
You can find out more and help support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine at World Jewish Relief.