Remembering Passover and Ukrainian Jews

Melanie Einbund

The Passover story: Over 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh. Moses went to see Pharaoh many times asking him to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refused. Moses told Pharaoh that if the Israelites were not freed, God would make plagues happen to the Egyptians. Pharaoh did not listen, and plagues came. The 10 plagues included the Nile River turning to blood, frogs covering the land, insect infestations, animals dying, Egyptians getting skin diseases, the sun stopped shining, and the last plague was that the first-born child in Egyptian families was killed by an angel. Israelites painted lamb’s blood on their doorposts. This way, the angel knew that Jewish people lived there. The angel passed over that house and did not kill the first-born child. This is the meaning of the name Passover.

Stories and traditions: Passover is a very important holiday to the Jewish people. Personal stories and traditions are part of the holiday and its celebration.

A story worth repeating: The father of one of our members observed Passover in three concentration camps. Among the men in the barracks was a rabbi who planned to celebrate Passover. They knew if they were caught, death would be their punishment. The plan took hold. A bakery worker carried flour in his pants cuffs to the barracks. A munitions worker got some paraffin. Another found string and matches. Another brought a small piece of metal to use as a plate. A candle was made from paraffin and the string was the wick. Some men were guards to warn if the SS was coming. On the night of Passover, Rabbi Gottschalk mixed the flour with water, created dough, and flattened it on the metal plate. The candle was held under the plate and heated the dough, making matzah (unleavened bread). Rabbi Gottschalk said the blessings and shared tiny pieces of matzah with all of the men. This story is shared at the Seder table with our member’s family; from her generation to her children and to their children. May the story continue to be told.

The Jews of Ukraine: The attack on Ukraine hits some of us in our minds and hearts, for we are or are descended from Ukrainian Jews. I, myself, am a great granddaughter of a couple who came from Kyiv to America on their honeymoon, which my mother told me many times.

Among one of the oldest communities living in the Ukraine are Jews. Today the population is about 300,000. The community has seen a resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. No longer denied their religion and practices, they have outwardly moved to celebrate Jewish holidays in the synagogue, observe Shabbat, and keep Jewish customs and traditions. Some have become rabbis. Today there are 70 synagogues in the country (from what once numbered 800) servicing about 260 Jewish religious communities. Organizations that concern themselves with cultural issues, youth development, veteran support, and more, are prevalent. It isn’t just about the religion; it is about the society and the country in which they live. Joseph Zisel, a founder of the Chernivtsi Jewish Civic and Cultural Foundation cites Jewish identity (now allowed) has evolved to include a citizen’s identity as a Ukrainian and a Jew.