The Order of Chernobyl’s Fate
Walking through the streets of Chernobyl today, man has no other feeling of a dead city as in Pripyat. There is something strange in the air but it cannot be understood without knowing the background of the accident at the nearby power plant…
The first mention of Chernobyl was in 1193 when it belonged to Kievian Rus. It was encompassed in the 13th century by Lithuania's Grand Duchy that formed a Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth with the Polish Kingdom in 1569. According to the Union of Lublin that established the confederate arrangement between these two states, the area on the right bank of the Dnepr in nowadays Western Ukraine, including Chernobyl, became a part of Poland. Chernobyl was given three years earlier as a fiefdom to Filon Kmita (1530-1587) who ever since then was known as Filon of Chernobyl (Filon Kmita Czarnobylski).
Chernobyl Church (chernobylwel.com)
Polish presence led to a campaign of colonisation where people were forced to convert from Eastern Orthodoxy to Greek Catholicism. The number of Jews grew considerably in this period, particularly as Filon brought many of them to Chernobyl and placed them as trustees of his estates. It was also a time of counter-reformation and the Dominican church and monastery were built at its height.
Jews Synagogue - today (Google Street View)
Jews Synagogue after WWII (2)
Tensions and Conflicts
The Ukrainian peasants did not favour the polish landlords and were supported by their enemies – the Russians. The situation in the region worsened in the middle of the17th century during the uprising led by Cossack Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648-1657). A novella from Nikolai W. Gogol ‘Taras Bulba’ let’s us picture the situation of that time and place. Taras Bulba was a Cossack who killed his son as he switched sides for Poland (though allegedly under the influence of love to a Polish girl) and fought against Poles, Tartars, Jews, Catholics - all enemies of Russia - in merciless battles. ‘Children were stabbed on lances and together with women thrown into the burning houses’(1). It is left to our fantasy whether the cruelty depicted in the novella occurred also in Chernobyl during the uprising and Russ-Polish war (1654-1667) that followed. Russia strengthened it’s position in the region assigning the land on the East bank of the Dnepr to it’s own territory but Chernobyl remained in Poland. There is a story connected to Khmelnytsky's uprising that continues even now. He was supported by Alexei I, a king of Russia and the Pereyaslav Council in 1654 sealed the alliance between them. 300 years later, in order to celebrate such an anniversary properly, the Crimean Peninsula was donated by Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine with the epilogue in 2014.
The situation was by no means calm or stable after the end of Russ-Polish war, as was demonstrated by the pogrom in 1691. A Cossack gang led by Colonel Iskricky killed many Jews in Chernobyl and pillaged their properties (2). The Jewish community, however, continued to exist and Judaism got unexpected support in this region. A new movement that developed into a new branch of Judaism known as Hasidism arose in the middle of the 18th century in another Ukrainian town, Medzhybizh. Its founder Baal Shem Tov employed such unorthodox practices as mysticism or worshiping with joy, irritating many contemporary Judaistic leaders. Hasidism invented many customs that have become part of a common religious repertoire and ironically, represents today an ‘arguably largest single demographic orthodoxy element in the world of Judaism’(3). Was it somehow related to Chernobyl? Yes, and very strongly: a disciple of Hasidism's founder, Menachem Nachum Twersky, founded a Hasidic dynasty in Chernobyl and published one of the first Hasidic books, ‘Maor Ejnajim’ (The Light of the Eyes). The whole movement has undoubtedly had a large impact on Jewish communities in later years despite the turbulent circumstances around.
Baal Shem Tov (Source)
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth declined in the first half of the18th century and three neighbouring powers - Germany (Prussia), Austria and Russia - began it’s partitioning between them. In 1793 the area including Chernobyl was annexed by Russia and two years later the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist. Was this partitioning just a prelude for another and diabolic one 150 years later? A decree of Katharina II (1791) created a region in Western Russia on the former land of Poland called Pale of Settlement. The main influence of the decree was that Jews were allowed to reside only in this region while to permanently stay outside of it was generally prohibited. Consequently, the number of Jews in Chernobyl, that was also located in Pale of Settlement, increased dramatically. Sources are not unified in an exact number, but there were about 3,500 people in the Jewish community in the middle of the 19th century and the Jewish proportion of the Chernobyl population reached 60% in the end. But Chernobyl was not extraordinary in this sense as the majority of cities in Pale of Settlement had such large Jewish populations; the whole region accommodated about 40% of all the Jews in the world; the second largest Jewish community in Russia counted around 80% of the population in Berdychew. So, if the wave of anti-Semitic animosity rose up it would hit the Jews in many places. So it was in 1905 when pogroms spread out from Kiev to broader areas reaching Chernobyl in April and May.
Partitions of Poland (animated gif from wiki)
First world and Civil wars
The Eastern front of the First World War did not reach Chernobyl but it’s turmoil was strongly present and forced many people, among them mostly Jews, to leave the city for places in the East that were safer in those days. Regrettably, not only people who left Chernobyl were about to soon experience that ‘safeness’ might be of very relative value. The Soviet Revolution in 1917 installed new orders and caused turbulences throughout the whole world. First Germany occupied the region and German soldiers arrived for the first time in Chernobyl –still cultured in contrast to the German soldiers who came 25 years later. Then the white Tsarist Russians fought against red Bolshevik Russians in a civil war. Allegiance to either of the sides could be fatal. The land was practically left with no control and many Jews were killed during another pogrom in 1919. ‘Armed murderers burst into the houses, shooting, killing.... any Jews they catch, they see as communists and kill them.... The Russians have marked their own homes with crosses and written 'here lives a Christian.' ‘(4) The next year the Polish-Soviets war began (1920-1921). The Polish soldiers succeeded in pushing the Russians behind the river Dnepr and Chernobyl was, although just for a short time, Polish again. However, the Russians finally won after a successful counter offensive and Chernobyl became part of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic.
Ukrainians, either as nationalist or another-religionist were not considered by Soviets as trustworthy. No speaking about Jews, whose proportion in Chernobyl dropped to 40% (1926) and who were seen as enemies by definition. Moreover, a lot of people still owned their land that was not in line with Bolshevik doctrine. So the Soviet government set out to revise the situation forcing owners to give over their land under the administration of collective farms (Kolkhoz). People resisting collectivisation were designated as Kulaks and considered as most dangerous enemies – and it was said that they should be eliminated as a class. Many of them were immediately deported to remote parts of Russia (1929/1930) and food rations for them were drastically decreased. Then a death penalty was introduced for ‘stealing from the Kolkhoz’, meaning to hide products so the government could not take them. Finally, a twist of fate contributed to decreasing agricultural production when a bad harvest in 1932-1933 completed an opus of destruction. People were severely starving, suffering from diseases; those who wanted to escape from the region to save their lives were forced to stay. Several millions of people died and uncoiling scenes were like from an inferno. ‘Many become insane. ... Those insanes have portioned up dead bodies and boiled and killed their own children and eaten them. The human beings became animals inside. I have seen one woman... with a face of a man but the eyes of a wolf....’(5) ‘A hunger became in a short time, an obsessive all ruling protagonist. Cannibalism was wide spread.’ ‘I have played with children.... they died, one after another. When it happened we all knew... there was no funeral, nothing similar. The house was locked and a bit later one could see smoke rising from the chimney’. (6) Was it like that also in Chernobyl? We cannot answer to avoid a memory of such unprecedented dehumanisation.
Second World War
Unfortunately, it was not the last war to take place in the region. The German Wehrmacht occupied Chernobyl on 25.8.1941. One day after the occupation of Kiev, on 20.9.1941, an announcement could be read: ‘Jews, Communist, Commissars and Partisans shall be liquidated. Again, whole ethnic groups were simply outlawed without any basic human rights. Accomplishment did not take long. Two months later on 19.11.1941, about 400 Jews were gathered near the Chernobyl Synagogue (Spasskaya Str.) and were shot on the same day in the Jewish cemetery (from another source the Jews were killed in the anti-tank trench near the forge). As already with so many events connected to this city, tragedy like this echoed all around many times, most horrifically in Babi Yar ending the lives of almost 34 thousand people.
Chernobyl Jewish Cemetery
Years after the war there was finally a kind of normalisation. Be surprised or not, there were still about 600 Jews in Chernobyl in the 1970’s. The building of the nearby power plant that bears the name of Chernobyl, brought even a time of prosperity. But it was not about to last long as the disaster at the power plant drastically and apodictically changed the course of history. Although the tragedy was seeded in this case, in one single place, some divine providence wanted again, it to be shared by other cities and places as in the past. People from 100 cities and villages had to be evacuated, including also the last 50 Jewish families from Chernobyl. As the aftermath of the catastrophe settled down, some people returned to their abandoned houses of Chernobyl but no Jews did. How does it sound, that the city which witnessed so many liquidations, provided liquidators to liquidate the radioactive rest after the explosion and 1233 liquidators of Chernobyl accident lived in Israel in 2009?
So walking through the streets of Chernobyl today, man has no other feeling of a dead city as in Pripyat. There is something strange in the air that cannot be understood without knowing the background of the accident at the nearby power plant… How about now with knowing the historical background? Perhaps a stunning and chilling idea comes into mind that the inhabitants of Chernobyl, coming from so many ethnicities and religions, did not win any war, despite such horrible sacrifices and numerous victims. They did not even win some historical battle like the soldiers of Sparta who overwhelmed the Persians in the battle of Thermopylae and have been honoured for eternity by the famous writing:
‘Stranger passing by, tell the Lakedaimonians: Here we lie, having obeyed their orders.’
But there is something so appealing... that people of Chernobyl, as well as those of all the other cities, villages and settlements around, who have been struggling and dying without purpose, are also to be honored for eternity:
‘Stranger passing by, tell the World: Here we lie, having obeyed the fate's orders.’
Pogrom - violent action of common people against disliked ethnic or religious groups; particularly against Jews (Link)
Babi Jar - ravine in Kiev, just about 7 km from city center, were the brutal mass executions of thousands accomplished by German troops took place (Link)
Kolkhoz - form of ownership in communism where the farms were owned by collective of people and not by individuals (private property was prohibited in communism). Another form of ownership was state ownership: for farms known as Sovkhoz for production know as just State Entertainer
1. Francesco M. Cataluccio, Die ausradierte Stadt: Tschernobyls Katastrophen, Paul Zsolnay Verlag 2012 ISBN 3552055819 2. History of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, Chernobyl, web 3. Dr. Henry Abramson, Jewish History Lecture, Who Was The Ba'al Shem Tov? Founder of Hasidism, youtube 4. Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union, University of Nebraska Press 2013 ASIN B00QAX4M0U 5. Wassili Grossman, Alles fließt, Ullstein Hardcover 2010 ISBN 3550087950 6. Igort, Berichte aus der Ukraine, Reprodukt 2011 ISBN 3941099612