THE BLOG
12/25/2014 07:16 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2015

Poland Embracing Multi-Ethnic Past, So What's Wrong With Ukraine?

Despite its less than stellar attitude towards the Jews, Poland seems intent on coming to terms with its wartime past. Take for example the case of the provincial Polish town of Kutno, which stages impressive concerts of Jewish music. According to a recent report in the BBC, all of the performers in the concert are local children, who sing old hits in fluent Yiddish and Hebrew no less. The event, which tops off an ambitious festival of Jewish culture, is all the more remarkable when one considers that not a sole resident within the town of Kutno is actually Jewish. Rather, the event underscores Poland's historic yearning to revive and pay respect to its lost Jewish culture.

During World War II, Kutno's entire Jewish population -- 8,000 people -- was marched off to the Chelmno death camp. With the elimination of its Jewish population, Kutno lost an entire sub-culture full of local "beggars, traders, butchers, rabbis, prostitutes and assorted schemers and dreamers." To this day, Polish attitudes towards the Jewish past remain "complex." In the words of the BBC, "There's plenty of lingering anti-Semitism, a kind of kitsch theme park nostalgia, pride in Poles who saved Jews during the war, and guilt about those who collaborated."

Nevertheless, Kutno is to be commended for its celebration of the past. For more than two decades, the town has held its festival featuring a local Jewish dance band, theater performances and even a literary competition on a Jewish theme. The renaissance of Jewish culture in Kutno underscores a wider national trend in Poland. In Warsaw, Poles stroll through Jewish cemetery memorials and the city hosts a "world-class" museum housed in the former Jewish quarter. Made out of glass, the museum "tells the bittersweet story of the Jews' long love affair with Poland with clear-eyed honesty and real flair."

Kutno's Jewish renaissance has sought to revive the memory of Sholem Asch, a native son who born in 1880. Later, Asch moved to Warsaw, and then on to Paris and New York, eventually becoming one of the most well known Jewish writers of the early 20th century. Today, many are rediscovering Asch and translating his work into Polish. Indeed, Kutno's literary festival has been named after Asch, and his play God of Vengeance, which takes place in a Polish brothel, has been performed in Yiddish in Warsaw.

A Forgotten Past

Just across the Polish border, another country is seeking to define its own national identity: Ukraine. Like Poland, Kiev has not had the brightest record when it comes to the local Jewish population. Though anti-Semitism has been over-hyped and exaggerated in the country, and far right nationalist political parties have fared poorly in recent elections, Ukraine has much to answer for. Indeed, at one stage of World War II, some Ukrainian nationalists cooperated with the Germans and joined Nazi Einsatzgruppen in carrying out pogroms against the Jews.

Today, there is still a substantial 100,000 Jewish minority in Ukraine, though many seem to be unaware of the country's Jewish heritage. In Kiev, the Podil neighborhood stands as a lasting legacy to Ukraine's forgotten past. A former Jewish trading quarter, the area is full of picturesque shops and architecture. However, with the exception of a local kitschy Jewish restaurant, there isn't much of a tangible sign of Kiev's Jewish history. A couple blocks from Podil's main street, Cyril Danilchenko of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress reflects on the position of the Jews within modern day Ukrainian society. Danilchenko, who isn't Jewish himself, remarks that when he tells other Ukrainians that he works for a Jewish organization they express curiosity. "They don't know much about Jewish culture," he says.

The Other Sholem

Expressing mild curiosity is one thing, yet overall Ukraine seems much less interested than Poland in resuscitating its Jewish past. Such attitudes are all the more perplexing given Ukraine's larger than life historic contribution to Jewish culture. Take Pereyaslav, a town located some 60 miles south of Kiev. Pereyaslav was home to none other than Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), a giant of Yiddish literature. Indeed, the stage and film musical Fiddler on the Roof was based on Aleichem's stories about humble Jewish shtetl life.

Pereyaslav deserves to be on the cultural map at least as much as Kutno, home to the other Sholem Asch. Yet the local Sholem Aleichem museum is a decidedly modest affair, and the Jewish community has dwindled to a low of about 35 people, most of whom do not speak Yiddish. During a recent Rosh Hashanah ceremony, the Jews of Pereyaslav celebrated Aleichem in a humble community center. Tsylya Meirovna Gechtman, a local historian, says the Germans executed members of her family during World War II, and even before the outbreak of hostilities many Jews had fled the town seeking greater economic opportunity and political freedoms.

The Sholem Aleichem museum is a recreation of the Yiddish writer's original house. The interior, including décor and furniture, are all original, says Iryna Kucherenko, the museum's director. On one wall hangs Aleichem's college diploma, certifying that the writer had pursued studies from 1873-1876. When asked whether she thought Aleichem had received his just due in Ukrainian society, Kucherenko responds, "we are trying to get some attention from the Ministry of Culture, but Shalom must be raised higher because the recognition is inadequate." Historically, she adds, the museum suffered from a policy of neglect and the premises had even been closed for a time.

Building a Multi-Ethnic Society

Today, Ukraine is indeed a multi-ethnic society, yet there are indications that the newly independent nation hasn't inculcated a fully pluralistic mentality. Rather than celebrating difference like Poland, Kiev has a somewhat monolithic and static view of history. So says Denis Pilash, a left-wing political activist based in Kiev. Ukrainian history, he remarks, "is just based on the view of one ethnic group and nation building. It's all about Ukrainians, hardly anything about Jews and Crimean Tartars, Poles and Armenians."

To be sure, Ukraine hasn't always displayed such a sterling record when it comes to the Jews. Nevertheless, Gechtman says that Jews and Ukrainians lived in peace and harmony during Aleichem's day. There was no ghetto in Pereyaslav, and many native Ukrainians spoke Yiddish with their neighbors. Indeed, adds Kucherenko, Jewish and Ukrainian life was "intertwined" and mixed marriages were encouraged. Moreover, though Pereyaslav was hardly free of political and social strife, Jews were mostly middle class in the town and Aleichem's family wasn't poor.

Perhaps, Kucherenko and others will help to put Pereyaslav on the map and thereby elicit more historical interest in long forgotten shtetl life. Kucherenko says the Shalom Aleichem museum has recently become more popular, and she hopes this will spur a Yiddish revival. "I myself am learning Yiddish at the moment," she adds enthusiastically. Currently Poland seems to be headed on a decidedly western trajectory by embracing its past. Time will tell whether Ukraine will follow.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based author and journalist who recently conducted a research trip to Kiev. For a full archive of his pieces dealing with Ukraine, click here.