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The Synagogue: Destruction and Reconstruction

By: Paul Beesley

Following Heroes of Kharkiv Street, southwest to the edge of Kharkiv, you find a checkpoint and what appears to be a tangled mass of large, black pipes. It is the remains of a Russian-shell torn Menorah.

Beside it runs a gully or "Yar," which gives the place its name - Dobritsky Yar. Here in the midwinter of '41 to '42, all the remaining Jews of the city who were able to walk were either shot or thrown out to live outside for the cold to finish. The infirm were left to freeze at the old "Soldier's" Synagogue, on what is now Grazdanska St.

The history of the Shoah (The Holocaust,) is well known. What is not often considered is what happened after.

Kharkiv's Choral Synagogue, on Pushkinska St, was built in 1913, at the very end of Czarist Russia. The Jewish populations easily ran into six figures. After the revolution, it was turned into a sports hall (like Odessa's Mary of the Assumption - restored after independence and with the altar piece brought back all the way from Havana.) With the Second War, the Jewish population was over 110,000. Most survived by simply fleeing east - central Asia, or even Siberia. The 15 or 20 thousand who could not or would not, died.

Talking to Andrei, a youthful 50-something, I learned that his family had moved to Kharkiv, in '31 to work in the new industries, had fled in '41 and returned in '47. After the war, there were no synagogues, no rabbis, no (official) Jewish schools.

"There is no policy of anti-Semitism in Russia. It is just custom." he said.

Even so, fear of standing out, or of official sanction, kept any formal religious or cultural expression underground. In fact, Andrei's father was a genuine Communist, and he himself was a Komsomol. However, in 1990, Gorbachev, gifted the Synagogue back to the Jewish people. By then there were about 50,000. Many promptly emigrated. The Synagogue, however, was developed as a religious, cultural and social centre, until a bad fire in '98.

It was restored, largely with foreign donations, and a new "missionary rabbi," the current Chief Rabbi, Moshe Moshkewitz, was sent from the U.S.

By 2022, the Jewish population stood at around 25,000 and a second synagogue was built.

Then came the invasion.

Andrei, like many in the city, did not think it would happen. He was woken at 06:00, on 24th February by a telephone call from a friend in Poland. "I looked out of the window, and I saw cars heading west, and people and police." Soon, the shops were emptying, the streets were littered, and buildings damaged or destroyed.

After a week, he moved into the Synagogue, where Moshkewitz, was organising food supplies, a kitchen and even an evacuation shuttle - not just for the congregation (who suddenly remembered their faith,) but for any in need. Two years later, the Jewish population is down to about 10,000, with few children, and schools are either shut or bomb-damaged.

"This is a Russian-speaking city, we speak Russian, we think Russian, but after the first explosion, we were anti-Russian."

Now, Andrei, a former trader, is unemployed and with many friends abroad, is wondering whether he should go. His asthma exempts him from conscription, but he would fight if called. He does not fear a new attempt on the city. Like many I gave spoken to, he thinks the task is beyond Putin. The city is too big, it's just a matter of more rockets and more bombs.

The Chief Rabbi thinks that the main hindrance to renewal of the city is proximity to Russia. Andrei thinks the problem is the loss of industry and educational institutions, as well a lack of cross-border trade. If peace is declared, scapegoats may be wanted.

"And who do you suppose they traditionally pick?" he said ominously.

Rabbi, Moshkewitze, is more sanguine, but then as a man of faith he believes that, ultimately, God will take care of His people.


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