Cultural life in the shtetl, persecution under two totalitarian regimes and revival in a free Ukraine before Putin's invasion: A new exhibition revives a century of Ukrainian Jewish life.
A black-and-white photo (see image above) shows an idyllic-looking scene of a Jewish family standing in front of their house in the small town of Boryslav in western Ukraine in the early 20th century.
Part of an exhibition on Ukrainian Jewish life from the 1920s to the present, this scene is endlessly transformed: From the unspeakable suffering of the Holocaust through antisemitic Soviet politics to the rebirth of Jewish life in independent Ukraine.
This often tragic history is brought to life through the exhibition, “Voices: A Mosaic of Ukrainian-Jewish Life,” now on show at the Jewish Museum Augsburg Swabia.
The curators aim to give voice to Ukrainian Jews who have variously spoken Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish over the last century.
It begins with insights into the intercultural relations and community life in the pre-war shtetl — the Yiddish word for small towns in Eastern Europe with a large Jewish population — before reflecting on the near-destruction of this community under two totalitarian regimes.
Contempary voices also speak to Ukrainian Jewish emigration abroad from the 1990s through to the current Ukraine war — 50% of today’s Jewish community in Augsburg, for example, has Ukrainian roots.
Jewish Museum Augsburg Swabia director Carmen Reichert already had the idea to showcase diverse Ukrainian Jewish voices across the last century before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The curator then sought to shed light on the lives of Ukrainian Jews in the midst of war by adding two Ukrainian historians to the exhibition team, Daria Reznyk and Andrii Shestaliuk.
Both are familiar with contemporary Ukraine, as well as the history of local Jewish communities, through their work at Territory of Terror: Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes in Lviv in western Ukraine. 
With the Jewish Museum in Augsburg unable to transport exhibits from Ukraine due to the war, the museum then decided to include more oral histories from contemporary witnesses — including survivors of the Shoah — that were conducted by Reznyk and Shestaliuk. 
Also helping collate material for the exhibt is the Lviv-based organization “After Silence”, which archives the testimony of victims of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, as well as the Babyn Jar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev that looks back at a massacre of Jewish people in the Ukrainian capital.
Reznyk and Shestaliuk collected video recordings that were later supplemented with interviews by the curators. Among the 16 people telling their very personal stories are Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to Germany. Photographs taken across the last century complement the multimedia exhibits. 
“Our family had a small shop right in the house where we lived. We weren’t rich, but we lived well,” Aaron Weiss recalled in one video interview.
Born in 1926 in Boryslav, a part of western Ukraine that once belonged to Poland, Weiss came from a time when traditional Jewish families devoted themselves to crafts or trades and observed religious traditions while also integrating into Ukrainian and Polish cultural life.
“I went to a Polish school and squeezed in with Polish classmates,” says Weiss of his childhood. “The Jewish children waited for Christmas, then you went from house to house, sang Christmas carols and got presents.”
“The Polish children waited for the Jewish holidays Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah or Passover, which all our neighbours, both Polish and Ukrainian, treated with respect — just as we respected their holidays,” he added.
This experience of “preserv[ing] our values” of living as Poles and Ukrainians “together and separately at the same time,” he pointed out, ceased very suddenly.
“All that ended with the beginning of the war on September 1, 1939,” Weiss said, referring to the German invasion of Poland.
An interactive map of Ukraine at the exhibition entrance shows how censuses recorded a fast-declining population. 
In 1941, about 2.7 million Jews lived in Ukraine, more than in any other European country.
But the horror of the Second World War and the Holocaust almost completely wiped out Jewish life in the country. According to various sources, between 1.5 and 1.9 million Ukrainian Jews fell victim to the Holocaust, about 70% of the Jewish population.
However, this tragedy was kept silent as the Jewish persecution was not considered part of Socialist ideals and the definition of a “Soviet people.”
Jews were discriminated against during the following four decades, with Jewish religion and culture repressed in the Soviet Union.
Sofia Taubina from Kherson, who now lives in Augsburg, reports that her family could not bury her father according to Jewish tradition. Instead, they had to secretly place the tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, in his coffin.
When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Jewish life was able to develop freely again. People remembered their cultural roots, synagogues were opened, Jewish educational organizations reemerged.
“People were absolutely proud to be Jewish,” recalls Yevhen Kotliar from Kharkiv in eastern Ukriane and a professor at the local Academy of Art and Design. He created the stained glass windows of the large Kharkiv Choral Synagogue, which was restored in the 1990s.
But this flowering has again been threatened by war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
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One of the photos in the exhibit shows the Drobyzkyj Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kharkiv, which was damaged during shelling by Russian troops.
Another documents how residents of Kharkiv took refuge from Russian bombing in the metro.
“For the first time in my life, I was confronted with something like this,” said Kotliar.
When the air raids began, he fled along with with his family to the safer west of the country through small villages in the Cherkassy region where Jewish shtetls once stood.
“For Jews, these are sacred places,” he explained, as they became part of an unintended “pilgrimage” through Ukrainian Jewish heritage.
Remaining Ukrainian Holocaust survivors also fled when the war began, including to Germany.  
During a guided tour of the exhibition, curator Andrii Shestaliuk was once asked which of the many stories was for him most important.
“Every story is important,” he emphasized. “Each story is part of a mosaic that makes up a huge picture.”
The exhibition in the building of the former Kriegshaber Synagogue in Augsburg will run until February 26, 2023.
The organizers are currently working on a digital version and hope that the film interviews and other materials will be available on the museum’s website in Spring 2023.
This article was translated from the Russian original.


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