American funds, Yiddishization, and repressions: The history of one family against the backdrop of the first decades of the USSR

The historian Iryna Radchenko discusses Dnipro[petrovsk] during the interwar period, Stalinist repressions, and the denunciation of the Jewish physician Boris Khanis. 

In the hundred years between the second half of the nineteenth century and the postwar period, a provincial town was transformed into one of the largest cities in Ukraine and was given a new name. The daily life and image of the city also changed. Katerynoslav was affected by the Industrial Revolution from the very beginning. This city was the destination of the Jewish businessman Moisei Karpas, who would change the civic life of Katerynoslav. For example, he funded the construction of a building to house the Society for Assistance to Poor Jews, where the operations of the largest Jewish charitable organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were based. Karpas did not live to see various events that took place during this period; he died in the spring of 1917 when the revolution was just beginning.

But the following year, another person arrived in the city who would work in Dnipropetrovsk, where he would become the head of the Jewish community and help the city during the period when famine raged in these lands. Both these stories concern the contemporary city of Dnipro. You may have heard about Moisei Karpas last time on our show. Iryna Radchenko, a scholarly associate of the Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies, told us about the physician Boris Khanis and where his family ended up after the Stalinist repressions.

Iryna Radchenko:  In the turmoil that emerged during the Civil War, as it is known in Soviet historiography, the Jews looked for a better place to live. Perhaps Katerynoslav was not the best place in this case, but for a few months, the community lived in peace. This was followed by another stage, during which Petliurites, Makhnovists, and other forces arrived here. At this precise moment, Boris Khanis had to choose whom to support. So he chose the Bolsheviks.

Andriy Kobalia:  If I understand correctly, he took part in Jewish self-defense? The years 1918–1919 are associated with pogroms. The centenary of the anti-Jewish pogrom in Proskuriv, now called Khmelnytsky, passed recently. Why did Khanis choose the Bolsheviks?

Iryna Radchenko:  We can assume that he opted for the Bolsheviks because there was greater support for this force in his milieu and generally throughout the district in which he resided.

Andriy Kobalia:  OK, he accepted the Soviet power. The Soviet state arose in 1922, and from the beginning, it was damaged because of earlier conflicts and the war; in our case, this was the UNR and the Skoropadsky state. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was supposed to restore these lands. What was this organization and how was Khanis connected with it?

Iryna Radchenko:  Before becoming the Joint representative in Ukraine, especially in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Khanis was the representative of the American Relief Administration, which actively helped Jews and others who had suffered during the famine of 1921–1923. As a representative of this organization and a physician, he was the director of several hospitals in the city; in other words, he was a key figure at the dawning of Jewish healthcare. Later these hospitals cared for everyone, regardless of nationality. However, a new stage begins in 1924, when the Agro-Joint [American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation] appeared. This was a branch of Joint, the international charitable Jewish organization that was founded in the U.S. in 1914. The organization’s goal at the time was to provide help to all poverty-stricken Jews. The Agro-Joint was a branch of this corporation because in the early 1920s, the USSR decided to provide assistance to Jewish national districts and collective farms.

Andriy Kobalia:  All this was happening against the backdrop of the policy of indigenization

Iryna Radchenko:  Yes. This global project of settling Jews from various regions of the USSR in certain territories was launched. Khanis became the authorized representative of this organization in 1929, after his arrest.

Andriy Kobalia:  What did the Joint do in Dnipro? Was Boris chosen because of his experience?

Iryna Radchenko:  He was chosen especially because he also had a medical education. These organizations had already crossed paths with Khanis during the famine of the early 1920s; he had caught their eye in those days. In the Dnipropetrovsk region, the Agro-Joint distributed all the funds that were sent to Jews living in these national districts. The Stalindorf district was situated in the lands of our oblast. It was precisely in this district that the lives of the Jews were reorganized. They were able to work in agriculture, for which they received funds and technology from the U.S. The Agro-Joint played a main role in this. Social life was organized in keeping with the vision of the organization’s representatives.

Andriy Kobalia:  In 1929, Khanis was arrested by the Bolsheviks, the very people whom he had supported ten years earlier. What was this case all about? This is not the period of the late 1930s or the start of mass repressions. What was he accused of?

Iryna Radchenko:  The year 1929 marked the termination of the Jewish cultural project and the end of Yiddishization. There is no longer any special treatment of Jews.

Andriy Kobalia:  In other words, so-called “Judaeophilism” and the loyal attitude of the 1920s came to an end.

Iryna Radchenko:  The late 1920s were an attempt to ferret out nonexistent spies and the beginning of the first trials. Let us recall the Shakhty Trial. At this time, Khanis is accused of espionage; he supposedly worked with American structures. Nothing was proved at the time. This was an attempt to find grounds for further persecution.

Andriy Kobalia:  Are any documents indicating that Boris Khanis did such-and-such extant?

Iryna Radchenko:  The thing is that these documents are not in our archive. Some of them are in the Central Archive of the FSB of Russia. In other words, there are still many unknown pages concerning the Stalinist repressions, especially in 1929. But we know that he was transported to a camp in Karelia, where he spent less than a year. But we don’t know how he returned here.

Andriy Kobalia:  The historian Iryna Radchenko recounted what Dnipro was like in the bloody 1930s.

Iryna Radchenko:  Khanis’s activities as the Joint representative in the region developed in the 1930s. He took part in efforts to finance social projects, but not just in Stalindorf District because, during this period, Khanis headed the Dopomoha Society, the professional doctors’ association.

Andriy Kobalia:  What kind of help did it provide?

Iryna Radchenko:  These were various hospitals and preventoriums. In the 1920s, a dermatological and venereal dispensary was created, and a system of hospitals for children and a network of pharmacies were established. At first, all these institutions were created for Jews, but we know that later all this was used by everyone. In other words, besides his work for the Joint, Khanis also worked in this field.

But there is also an aspect of his activities that is closely connected with his arrest in 1937. After the Nazi regime was established in 1933, many Jews emigrated from Germany to wherever they were accepted. Such a system existed in the USSR, too. Because of the policy of indigenization, many Jews regarded this state as a place where they would be accepted for all time. So, Khanis made contact with German doctors and even helped two dozen to move to the USSR.

Andriy Kobalia:  And during the repressions, they were accused of being spies?

Iryna Radchenko:  Yes, espionage and working for the Gestapo. This was the main article of his sentence. The verdict culminated in execution and confiscation of property. However, he was not the only one accused. The repressions also affected his wife. And his older son, Oleksandr, a fourth-year student at the Transport Institute, was accused of threatening revenge after his father’s arrest.

Andriy Kobalia:  OK, Khanis was involved in helping to resettle these Germans in the USSR. Most of the verdicts and cases in 1937–1938 were ridiculous, but we don’t have any proof that these people were linked to spies? Because the Reich considered the USSR as its enemy, but it also cooperated with it within the framework of training, specifically in the 1930s.

Iryna Radchenko:  Yes, indeed. In 1934–1935 close cooperation took place between the USSR and Germany. That is why the emigration from Germany was viewed as being part of this close cooperation. But the 1937 case was not just about this activity of Khanis’s but also a Trotskyite plot. This was the typical article in those years.

Andriy Kobalia:  I have seen a copy of the case against the son. It states that Oleksandr, who was born in 1917, meaning that he was a little over twenty years old, said in a conversation with friends that he wanted to take revenge for the repressions against his father. And some people named Grinberg and Slobidska figured in the case. They are the ones who betrayed him. Do we know who they were?

Iryna Radchenko:  These were families who were known to him. Roza Slobidska was not a close friend of the family; she was simply an acquaintance. In other words, this was an ordinary denunciation. We do not know the motives. But we can assume that all this happened because of the system that was created in the 1930s when everyone wrote denunciations against their neighbors and friends. However, there may have been other motives as well.

Andriy Kobalia:  So, Oleksandr was shot, and the other son, Yurii, who was born in 1924, was sent to an orphanage because he was a minor. And [Khanis’s’] wife, Sima, was sent to the camps. But she was rehabilitated in 1956 within the framework of Khrushchev’s liberalization. What do we know about the fate of Sima and the younger son?

Iryna Radchenko:  Sima Solomonivna was sent to the Akmolensk camp for wives of traitors of the fatherland, which was known as “Algeria,” where she spent more than eight years. For a long time, she practiced medicine in Uzbekistan, because she also had medical training, and her specialty was bacteriology. In 1953 she requested rehabilitation for herself and her family. This is exactly what happened after Stalin’s death. Then all trace of her vanished. We know that she died in 1956, right after she was rehabilitated.

The Khanises’ close relatives took in the younger son, Yurii. But we don’t know who they were exactly; someone from the Rohinskys, a branch of Sima Solomonivna’s family. We also know that he fought in the Second World War and was wounded. Then all trace of him vanished. But in the early 2000s, my colleagues from Tkuma found the address of some relatives of the Khanises. We were told that he was alive. In 2004–2005 we were able to contact him. He sent us unique photographs of his family. Right now, we don’t know if he’s still alive. At the time, he had a family of his own. In his conversations, he always emphasized that he very much wanted his family and his family in general not to be forgotten.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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