KIEV — When the rabbi of Chernobyl, Mordechai Twersky, felt he was dying in 1837, he set out on a long walk from Kiev. He made it about 30 kilometers to the west, where he came upon a rolling green field of wildflowers on the banks of the Irpin River, outside the village of Hnativka. It was there, he decided, that he would be laid to rest, having chosen the pastoral location, according to local lore, “because there is no house of idol worship, and the sound of impure bells won’t disturb my rest in the grave.” A Jewish cemetery for residents of the nearby Jewish villages, known as shtetls, soon sprang up around the cyan mausoleum built to mark his grave. Two decades later, in 1859, the Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem was born nearby, and the cluster of Jewish settlements became the inspiration for his stories about “Tevye the Milkman” — now more commonly known as the Fiddler on the Roof.
That time period was the tail end of what the historian Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern calls the “golden age of the shtetl,” in his 2014 book by that title — the last time a network of Jewish villages, and their distinctive Yiddish-speaking economic, religious, and cultural life, could truly be said to have prospered in Ukraine. The final decades of the 19th century ushered in a period of Russian national expansion that brought with it a series of pogroms and expulsions, and eventually the Jews of Hnativka and neighboring Boyarka — which some say appear in the Tevye stories as “Anatevka” and “Boiberik” — disappeared. Though Twersky’s mausoleum remains, the cemetery surrounding it has been demolished, its tombstones removed to build foundations for nearby homes.
The Ukrainian Jews pushed off their land often migrated to other villages and urban centers, under increasingly strained conditions. The turn of the century made life harder still. More pogroms, far worse than before, swept through Ukrainian cities in 1905, killing hundreds. And as vibrant shtetl culture became a thing of the past, the towns became associated in the public imagination with the villages from Shalom Aleichem’s stories: “dire straits, with … broken-down Jews, wooden huts, rotting shingles.”
Until now. The Anatevka shtetl is being rebuilt, this time as a home for Jewish internally displaced persons fleeing the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. The settlement’s new founders are intent on bringing back a way of life that disappeared from the region long ago.
“I had this idea, to link the past and present,” Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman told me on the steps of the shtetl’s brand-new wooden synagogue, which the resident refugees helped build.
Azman, one of the chief rabbis of Kiev, came up with the idea of rebuilding Anatevka about two years ago, at the height of the war in eastern Ukraine. At the time, thousands were fleeing their homes in Donetsk and Luhansk every day. Many of these refugees were Jewish, and the rabbi and his congregation at Kiev’s Brodsky Synagogue were doing their best to keep up with the influx of displaced people arriving at their door.
Well-acquainted with history, Ukraine’s Jews felt themselves to be in a particularly perilous situation; a Jewish self-defense battalion was formed to defend the community during Kiev’s most violent days, and Azman advised his congregants to leave the city, and if possible the country.
The Jewish community had pulled together funding for a temporary shelter for refugees at a summer camp in the Cherkasy region, away from the fighting, but Azman sought a more permanent solution. He’d bought the land adjacent to Twersky’s grave last year without realizing the Chernobyl rabbi, an early member of a famed Hasidic dynasty, was buried next door. It was only when he arrived in Hnativka in the spring of 2015 to survey his new purchase that he realized he was standing on hallowed land. “It was an accident. But there are no accidents — There are now over a million refugees in Ukraine. It was a miracle that I bought land here,” he said. By June 2015, construction of what is now the Anatevka Jewish Refugee Community had begun.
At their height, in the first half of the 19th century, shtetls were “the unique habitat of some 80 percent of East European Jews, who constituted two-thirds of world Jewry at the time,” Petrovsky-Shtern writes. The late 18th century partitions of Poland brought approximately 900,000 Jews into Russia, where the government immediately confined them to a region in the western part of the Russian empire known as the Pale of Settlement. There, large and small shtetls flourished.
Sequestering the Jewish population to a confined region “had an enormous psychological impact on the development of East European Jewry,” according to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a New York-based organization dedicated to the study of Jewish life, in its encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. “While it would be a great mistake to see the shtetl as an entirely Jewish world, without gentiles, it is nonetheless true that Yiddish reinforced a profound sense of psychological and religious difference from non-Jews.” The shtetls became vibrant economic and religious centers, trading goods, particularly liquor, among themselves, and various Hassidic dynasties used the towns as their centers of Jewish study, until the Russian expansion and other forces began infringing on their way of life.
Even so, a diminished version of shtetl culture endured in a small number of villages until World War II, which wrought devastation upon the Ukrainian Jewish community. “It was the Holocaust that finally destroyed the Soviet shtetl,” YIVO notes. Approximately 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered, accounting for about 60 percent of the prewar population. German forces shot and killed nearly 34,000 Jews in just two days at Babi Yar, just outside Kiev, in one of the worst massacres of the war. Allied victory did not bring an end to anti-Semitism in Ukraine, however, where Soviet leadership discounted crimes against the Jewish people as crimes against Soviet citizens at large. Babi Yar did not receive an official memorial until 1976.
Like many former Soviet nations seeking closer ties with the West, Ukraine has sought to commemorate its Jewish history as part of an effort to document a formative part of its national past, while also disproving Russian accusations of rising fascism. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, for instance, which the country plans to commemorate with the unveiling of a new million-dollar memorial at the site. But the country is also grappling with accusations that a rising wave of patriotism in the wake of the 2014 Russian invasion has brought with it an accompanying swell of anti-Semitism. Nationalist groups have sought to rehabilitate ethnic Ukrainian heroes with less-than-reputable histories when it comes to Jews, for instance, and new decommunization laws mean many of those heroes now have streets named after them. Just a few months ago, in May, vandals were caught burning an Israeli flag at the Babi Yar site, the latest in a long string of anti-Semitic incidents at the site.
At the same time, however, the Jewish community has begun to play an increasingly visible role in Ukrainian politics and culture. The country elected its first Jewish prime minister, Volodymr Groysman, in April. “The fact that no one batted an eye or thought it would politically useful to exploit that is very important,” David Fishman, professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said of Groysman’s appointment. A new museum is being planned for Babi Yar, and a prominent gallery will spend more than half of this year hosting an exhibit entitled “Loss: In Memory of Babi Yar.” Anatevka is part of this revival — Azman and his congregation see it as an act of rebuilding and remembrance entirely in keeping with the nature of its namesake.
Azman hopes that one day five or six hundred people might live on the property, which today houses about 46 refugees of all ages in a two-story wooden barrack-style building. That would just about restore Anatevka back to its former glory — the 1897 census records 926 Jews living in the village. “It just depends on whether we will get enough money and strength from above,” Azman said, sweating through his suited uniform and looking up at the sky. He had just returned from a trip to New York, where he courted investors for the project. “I saw taxi ads for Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway,” he says. “Everyone invited me to go see it, but I didn’t have the time.”
Azman doesn’t just want to rebuild the shtetl as a home for Jewish refugees — he also wants to prove that it can return to being the religious center of its glory days. “We want a physical and spiritual revival. We save people, we help them, feed them,” Rabbi Azman told me. “And spiritually too, we don’t force them but we try to engage.” Living in Anatevka also means living according Hasidic customs, in a practicing Orthodox Jewish community. The communal kitchen is kosher, and the children of Anatevka learn Hebrew in school — boys are educated in the cheder, a religious school on the second-floor of the synagogue. While Yiddish hasn’t completely died out, daily life is conducted in a mix of Russian and Hebrew. Mezuzahs — decorative cases containing verses from the Torah — dot every doorpost, and modest dress is encouraged. Three times a day, a group of men trudge from the refugee cabin to pray in the synagogue.
These expectations create a delicate dynamic in the shtetl, where many refugees are not practicing Jews. Most grew up during the Soviet era, when few synagogues were allowed to operate in the open and practicing Judaism could mean risking one’s livelihood.
Yaakov, one of the elderly refugees living at Anatevka, fled his home in Luhansk with his wife Nadya in August 2014. “I didn’t know anyone. It was incredibly difficult,” Yaakov said over coffee in the small room he and his wife, who is not Jewish, share. “We left amid bombing.” Yaakov reached out to the local synagogue, which brought him to the temporary refugee camp in Chernivtsy. Rabbi Azman soon told the small community gathered there that he had bought a piece of land for them.
“Until 1986 I was an atheist, like a lot of people. But then I had a really difficult operation, and after that I started to believe,” Yaakov says. “For me it’s really interesting, I’m starting to understand a lot of things. But I could never pass for a truly believing Jew.” Since moving to Anatevka, Yaakov has joined the five other refugee men who pray at the synagogue every day. Nadya has been living with him for 50 years, over which time she has learned how to make the food at Passover and other high holidays but hasn’t adopted it as her own. Like all of Anatevka’s new residents, she and Yaakov were promised they’d soon have their own home, and that, rather than religion, is her primary concern.
Sonia Semenenko, 39, lived near the Donetsk airport, where some of the heaviest clashes between separatists and government forces took place. “When the bombs started, we took our things and left — it was May 26 when the first warplanes flew over, and by the 29th we were gone,” she tells me as she pumps her sewing machine in the corridor of the refugee “hotel,” her young daughter Varya looking on. “Everything burned, but by then we were already gone.”
She didn’t go to synagogue in Donetsk, but her father sometimes went. “You know, I’m just starting a new life. So for me, I don’t feel anything yet, I don’t believe. But my life is completely different now,” she said. Life isn’t so bad in Anatevka — Azman and his partners have taken pains to provide for the community there. “There’s a good school, and a kindergarten. You don’t have to go anywhere. We have everything here,” Sonya says. Her son, Yegor, just turned 13 and was bar mitzvahed at the Anatevka synagogue.
Anatevka so far consists of five buildings: the synagogue, the refugee hostel, a carpentry shed, a single-family home that one refugee, Chaim, built for his family, and a large concrete pastel-colored day school, the Mitzvah-613 Lyceum, which admitted its first students in September. There’s also an aspirational town square, dubbed “Goodman Square,” in honor of a family of wealthy donors, which consists of a metal gate, two benches, and a tree-of-life sculpture displaying benefactor names. The village’s website features a blueprint for the modern-day shtetl consisting of 17 buildings, including single-family units, a health care center, and a nursing home, but the community does not yet have the funding to finance all of those projects. All buildings in Anatevka sport commemorative plaques in English and Russian; down the single dirt road that winds through the complex, the foundation of a rehabilitation center for refugees has been laid. Azman hopes that one day there will also be a museum of Hassidic life.
“This is a form of historical justice for this place,” Azman’s wife, Chana, tells me one sweltering Sunday morning in the synagogue, where three small classes of young boys are about to graduate from the cheder for the first time. Most of the boys are not refugees, but their families wanted to enroll them in Azman’s religious school. Every day, a bus drives them from Kiev to Anatevka and back again. On Sunday, dozens of cars from the city lined up in front of the synagogue, the boys’ proud parents greeting the Rabbi on their way inside. “Here in the past Jews were expelled, there were pogroms here,” Chana says. “It’s more evidence that God watches over the Jewish people.”
Reminders of Anatevka’s dark history dot the premises. When they had just purchased the land, Azman’s sons, Shmulik and Yosef, were taking a walk along the outskirts of the property when they came across old Jewish gravestones hidden among rubble on the side of the road. “Anything made of stone in [Anatevka] was clearly not Jewish,” Petrovsky-Shtern writes, “except, of course, the tombstones.”
In his study of Jewish religious figures, Wise Men and Their Tales, Elie Wiesel called the shtetl a “small colorful Jewish kingdom so rich in memories,” a place where life could never be truly extinguished. Enemies might periodically appear to murder the resident Jews, he wrote, but “then as if out of nowhere, a man, a woman, or adolescent appeared,” and “life would once again begin flowing, binding the abandoned survivors into a community. They would rebuild their homes, open schools, arrange weddings and circumcisions, celebrate holidays … all that, while waiting for the next catastrophe.”
Azman hopes Anatevka will help Ukraine move on from its most recent catastrophe. “Rebuilding a town here gives hope to Ukrainian people, too. Very little is being built in Ukraine now,” he said. He hopes that Ukrainians will see him building Anatevka and think, “If the Jews are building, then we have a future.”
Amnon Gutman is a photographer who has been covering the conflict in Ukraine since 2014 and has been following the ongoing development of Anatevka since 2015.
Linda Kinstler is a Marshall Scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London and a contributing writer at Politico Europe. (@lindakinstler)