by Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya –

January 27th marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel we observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, according to the Jewish calendar, on the 27th of Nisan, a week after Pesach and eight days before Israel Independence Day. In some ways choosing the 27th of Nisan as a date is arbitrary. But it is also a political or historical statement in choosing a date that is so close to Israeli Independence Day. It supports the argument that Israel wouldn’t exist without the Holocaust and that this tragedy can never happen again while we have our own country.

In Israel on January 27th we saw a parade of the world leaders attending commemoration events. Each leader came with his/her own story and urgent questions. We are witnesses to a bevy of narratives around WWII: were Soviets responsible for the beginning of the war? Who won the war? Who liberated Europe? Were Poles and/or Ukrainians mostly collaborators, or victims? These questions are not rhetorical; they cause real pain and a highly emotional reaction.

On the same day, as world leaders convened in Jerusalem, educators and lay leaders of the Masoret community in Kiev met Vasyl Nazarenko, one of the Righteous among the Nations, to hear his story and to tell him #WEREMEMBER. Vasyl Nazarenko was born in 1931. During WWII he lived with his parents and his two older sisters in the village Voitovtsi, not far from Vinnitsa. The family was hiding Anyuta, the only Jewish woman in this small village, in their house. Once the kids heard Anyuta was crying at night. Anyuta told the kids that her daughter Betya was taken to a ghetto in Nemirov and she was worried about her health and safety. The kids traveled eighteen kilometers on foot to the ghetto and found Betya doing road construction work together with other Jews. Vasilii’s sisters managed to convince the Ukrainians guards to release Betya. The family hid Anyuta and Betya for the duration of the whole war. When Nazis started to enter houses searching for Jews and partisans, Anyuta and Betya hid outside in a haystack and the kids brought them food and water every few days. Eventually, Anyuta and Betya returned to Nazarenko’s house and stayed there until the end of the occupation. In 1995 Vasyl, his parents and his two sisters were recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Anyuta and Betya were saved, but 35,000 Jews of Vinnitsa, one of the key cities of Podolia, a Jewish area full of Jewish history and Hasidic stories, were less fortunate. Among those 35,000 Jews killed were my great-grandmother, Rosa, my great-grandfather Yakov, and their 10-year-old son, Israel.

My paternal grandmother survived the war in Leningrad, a city that was besieged from September 8th, 1941 till January 27th, 1944. The Siege trapped the city’s residents in their hometown with barely any food stocks, hardly any heat, and very limited water supply. Over a million people died. The lifting of the Siege of Leningrad was also commemorated in Jerusalem on January 27th, 2020. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose older brother died in the besieged city as a child, dedicated a monument in Jerusalem in memory of the Siege’s victims.

Our personal stories and national history are intertwined. Personal stories are sometimes borrowed to serve someone’s truth, someone’s statement. Politics intersect with history and sometimes also with our personal memories. That is why it is so important to listen to first-person accounts, to ask our own vital questions and to build our consciousness as people. And in the words of Torah:

Remember the days of old; consider the years long past. Ask your father, and he will tell you, your elders, and they will inform you (Deut. 32:7).

זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ

Thanks to the generous support of The Pincus Fund for Jewish Education, communities in Ukraine are afforded the opportunity to learn online and in person with a great group of Jewish educators. They search for their own identity, deepen their knowledge of Jewish history and are able to pass this knowledge on to others. During the past academic year, The Pincus Fund partnered with The Schechter Institutes in creating a program of distance-learning courses. During my recent visits to Ukraine I was amazed to see teachers implementing their newfound knowledge. Learning about Jewish liturgy allowed the prayer of Kol Nidre be heard in Chernovtsi for the first time in our community. Educators from Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and Berdichev benefitted from classes in biblical history, biblical literature, Hebrew and Jewish prayer. I am looking  forward to much more new learning, and to deeper exploration of Judaism together with our program participants.

The writer is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. She works at the Schechter Institute directing Midreshet Schechter, a program offering bet midrash study to the general public in Israel and Midreshet Yerushalayim, a network of Jewish educational programs, camps and communities in Ukraine.