Since April 14, Jews around the world began celebrating Passover or Pesach, in commemoration of their nation’s escape more than 3,000 years ago from slavery into freedom. Many of Crimea’s approximately 12,000 Jews will be celebrating too, with help this year from a new direction: Russia.
Anatoly Gendin, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organisations and Communities in Crimea, is expecting a rabbi and students from Moscow to support Passover celebrations at the Reform Ner-Tamid synagogue in Simferopol, as well as in Kerch, Yevpatoria and Feodosia.
“Right now we have lots of different representatives here from many Jewish organisations in Russia,” said Gendin. “Some are coming to help the Jews of Crimea survive these very difficult economic and political realities. Others are here to win over Crimea and Jewish organisations.”
Recent events, from the EuroMaidan Revolution to the Russian annexation of Crimea, have split Ukraine’s Jewish community.
Crimean Jews like Gendin on the pro-Russian side are isolated from most of their fellows in Ukraine, and even from their three rabbis who all left congregations in Simferopol and Sevastopol when the first armed pro-Russian forces appeared in Crimea, and went to mainland Ukraine or to the United States.
Meanwhile three rabbis from Russia came to visit and sign cooperation agreements well before the March 16 referendum when Crimeans could vote to join the Russian Federation.
“As we say: one Jew, two opinions,” said Gendin. “The opinion of Jews in Ukraine is divided. Our colleagues from Kyiv don’t understand my position and why I’m pro-Russian, and I don’t understand them. Or maybe I understand; but they live in that environment, they’re used to it. It’s a bit different here in Crimea.”
The promise of higher pensions played a role in persuading Gendin, 69, and many of his fellow Jews to back the Russian takeover. But the Russian government justified its annexation of Crimea in March by claiming it had a duty to protect the rights of the majority Russian speakers and other groups, including Jews, who were threatened by far-right and anti-Semitic elements in the Kyiv EuroMaidan movement and the new Ukrainian government.
Krymchak Nina Bakshi outside the house from which her relatives were taken to be shot in 1941. There are now just 200 Krymchaks left in Crimea.
In response, leading Ukrainian Jews sent an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Хуйло, denying that anti-Semitism was on the rise in Ukraine or that Russian speakers were being repressed. “The Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are not being humiliated or discriminated against, their civil rights have not been limited,” the letter said. “Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts.”
Gendin however, a native Russian speaker from Crimea, thinks the threat from nationalist groups like Pravy Sektor and the nationalist Svoboda Party, who played a role in EuroMaidan events, is real. “I started to worry about those events in Kyiv, and that such people like [Svoboda leader Oleh] Tianhybok would start to appear here,” he said. “They are terrible nationalists.”
Anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas were sprayed on the doors of the Ner-Tamid synagogue in Simferopol (where Gendin also has an office) on the night of Feb. 27-28 – the same night that Russian-backed gunmen took over the Crimean parliament building, starting a process that two weeks later led to Russian annexation. It was the first such graffiti to appear on Jewish buildings in Crimea since 2011, and on that particular synagogue in twenty years.
Most of the Ukrainian Jewish community has described this and other recent, apparently anti-Semitic incidents as provocations, aimed at destabilizing the country and providing justification for Russian interference. Gendin has a different view. “In hard times you have to show who is guilty. Look what this graffiti says: ‘death to the yids’. So it’s saying the Jews are guilty and should be shot against the wall,” he said. “But next day I got lots of phone calls from people asking how they could help… So in fact the reaction was the opposite to that expected by whoever did it.”
The incident, in which a lone person in a hood climbs over the gate to spray the graffiti, was clearly captured on CCTV which Gendin turned over to the militia. No one has been charged.
Gendin thought it was the work of “some underground extremist organisation that pops up every now and again.” Since Feb. 27 a few similar, isolated pieces of graffiti have appeared around Crimea, directed not against Jews but against Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group. Most recently in the village of Malorechinskoye on April 9 swastikas were sprayed on the office windows of the school’s Crimean Tatar headteacher.
As Gendin prepares to welcome visitors from Moscow to celebrate his nation’s historic liberation from slavery, he believes Russia will protect not just Jews but all of Crimea’s ethnic minorities. Many of them, he claims, have suffered from repression and ‘Ukrainianization’ ever since Crimea became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.
“Crimea has more than 120 nationalities, and on this little peninsula, the main language of communication has always been Russian,” he said. “For 60 years we’ve been in moral and spiritual deportation. Now we have been liberated.”
Not far from the Ner-Tamid synagogue is the ethnographic museum of another Crimean Jewish group, the Krymchaks. It is situated in the grounds of a former kindergarten where, according to museum guide Nina Bakshi, Krymchak children in the 1930s learned Russian, which most then did not speak.
Of Crimea’s 120 nationalities, the Krymchaks have one of the longest histories on the peninsular, and one of the most tragic. Their culture and language is Turkic, but they adopted Judaism celebrated with a distinct Krymchak form of ritual. Always a small and closed community, the Krymchaks, along with thousands of Jews, were practically wiped out during the Nazi occupation of Crimea in the Second World War: there are now only about 200 left in Crimea.
Volunteers cleaning anti-Semitic graffiti from the Ner-Tamid Synagogue in Simferopol on Feb. 28.
Caught between stronger, related cultural and ethnic groups in Crimea – Jewish, Russian, Crimean Tatar – which have offered help but threatened assimilation, the few remaining Krymchaks have worked hard to preserve their history and identity.
For Bakshi, that means not taking sides over recent events. “Since our people were destroyed, we don’t mix in politics,” she said. “Now our country has avoided war. No one has been beaten or killed, no houses have been destroyed, no children or old people have died. I welcome both sides, for not allowing that to happen.”
Bakshi’s grandmother and mother were on the last Soviet destroyer that evacuated civilians from Sevastopol in 1942, before the city fell to the Nazis. They returned to Crimea in 1946, and Bakshi was born in the Simferopol house from which the rest of her relatives had been taken away to be killed five years earlier. The scarf her mother wore when she was evacuated is one of the exhibits in the Krymchak museum, as are dresses, belongings and photographs of the thousands who did not survive.
Now for Bakshi the most important thing is not language rights or higher pensions, but that the museum survives the change of regime in Crimea.
“This museum isn’t Ukrainian or Russian, it’s Krymchak; it was founded by the Krymchak people who brought their things here,” she said. “We asked the government we had then to give us this building for the museum. I don’t think the new government will take it away, will it?”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.