The “Invisible City”: Vladyslava Osmak on Jewish Kyiv

Iryna Slavinska: You are listening to Hromadske Radio and Iryna Slavinska is working in the studio. This is a fresh edition of the program that is called Encounters. The broad theme of this program covers the cultural aspects of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. We discuss the historical heritage, the exchange between cultures, and translations between cultures. We will have, so to speak, an audio tour today. We will talk about Kyiv and the Jewish dimensions of Kyiv, and we will do that through the prism of fiction or memoirs. I hope we will also talk about the classics as well as modern texts.

Today’s guest will help us clarify this topic. Our guest is cultural specialist and tour guide Vladyslava Osmak. Good afternoon.

Vladyslava Osmak: Good afternoon.

Iryna Slavinska: Let us start from the very beginning. How much can we talk about Jewish Kyiv? How much is this a topic for conversation?

Vladyslava Osmak

Vladyslava Osmak: This is a tremendous topic for conversation. We will definitely not have enough time to talk about the history, the memories that remain, the texts, and the mutual influences between traditions. But we have to remind ourselves that this topic is very complicated in any aspect of its coverage. When I begin to think about Jewish Kyiv, I start to think about a somewhat strange analogy. The writer Italo Calvino wrote a novel called Invisible Cities. I think Jewish Kyiv is one of these invisible cities.

Iryna Slavinska: I would like to ask more about this metaphor of invisibility. Why is this city invisible? There are houses, memorial plaques…

Vladyslava Osmak: Yes, but how many? What do we know about them? On one hand, many things were lost, and not only the loss of Jewish estates, property, public buildings, people, and memory. This concerns any culture that took part in the creation of Kyiv. Of course, we all had a common history and politics.

This is also relevant to our level of knowledge. You are right. We walk along streets where there are still houses that are connected with the names of very famous figures of Jewish culture or Jewish business, or more correctly, I mean the representatives of Jews in business. We do not know about that however, and the facades do not always have plaques that say that this house was built by so-and-so. And even if there is a plaque, what do we know about this person? And what do we know about the sources of information? The books that talk about this are often scarce and sometimes these books are not inexpensive, and so on. From my own experience I can say that people who have lived here for a long time, or even people who were born here, often do not know what they are supposed to know. This is not their fault. This is a problem stemming from the lack of a stable program that could have been developed in the city and in the country over the years. That is also why I am very grateful for your invitation to take part in this program. This is one more opportunity to talk more about this topic for those who are interested, so that they know what books they should be searching for.

Iryna Slavinska: This is what I wanted to ask next. We have a lack of fixed memories (I mean, plaques and also general knowledge) that a person can acquire, for example, from the school curriculum. There are probably less obvious sources, less direct sources that can be found in fiction or in memoirs. I mean sometimes you read something and then suddenly there emerges a reference, or some interesting fact, some mood of the invisible city—everything that is possible. If we return to our topic—Jewish Kyiv, the Jewish dimension of Kyiv—where do we turn to the book shelves? What texts are you using?

Vladyslava Osmak: First of all I turn not to those texts from where “suddenly something emerges” as you say but to those texts that finally appeared and are specifically dedicated to the Jewish topic. The first name I should mention is the famous researcher on Kyiv Mykhailo Borysovych Kalnytsky, the author of thousands of articles and dozens of books. In 1998, the publisher Dukh i Litera commissioned a map he compiled that is called Jewish Addresses of Kyiv. This is an extremely useful resource on the historic part of the city that indicates the location of prayer houses. Sometimes the building is still there, but the prayer house disappeared perhaps during the period of the Bolshevik revolution. The map also locates synagogues, the homes of famous people, schools, and so on. In addition, the map has short biographies about the most important representatives of Jewish culture in Kyiv. This map was reprinted more than once, but it was not enough and there is still a demand. The publisher should issue another edition of the map. In any event, if our listeners will not be able to find the map, there is a book that is the result of long-term work on the topic. The book is written by the same author—Mykhailo Borysovych Kalnytskyy—and is also called Jewish Addresses of Kyiv. It was published in the Russian language by Dukh i Litera in 2012. This is a great source that gives a very condensed and lively image of the presence of the Jewish community in Kyiv for more than a thousand years. There is a major introductory article where we can get to know about a not very popular version of the founding of Kyiv, and how it is closely connected to Judaism.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s discuss that, if it is possible to summarize.

Vladyslava Osmak: I will try. The most renowned theory concerning the founding of Kyiv refers to the beginnings of our city up to the fifth century by the three brothers Kyi, Shchek, and Khoryv. There are versions of who they were. There are also researchers who think that Kyiv is not that old, and that our city really was founded in the eighth or ninth century, when our land was part of a powerful and great state called the Khazar Khanate. This state was created by people from Iran in the Northern Caucasus region along the coast of the Caspian Sea and up to the Volga River. These are Turkic peoples who upon the decision of their khan adopted Judaism as the state religion. The city of Kyiv was founded, according to some scholars, during this period. Well, at least there is a period in our history when our ancestors paid tribute to the Khazar Khanate.

Then we should, of course, mention one of the very famous, rare, and valuable artifacts—a written source that gives us an understanding of the development of the Jewish community in Kyiv and dates from the first half of the tenth century. This is the so-called Letter from Kyiv or Kyiv Letter. There is also a dramatic and, if seen from today’s point of view, funny story about how one Kyivan Jew named Jacob Benhanuka borrowed some money for his brother from a person who was not Jewish. His brother was killed and this Jacob Benhanuka was considered collateral and imprisoned because he could not pay off the debt. He then wrote a letter to people of his faith outside of Kyiv for help to gather funds to repay the debt and release him from imprisonment. This document was found by the researcher Norman Holb, and for some time it was in a Cairo synagogue, and is now archived and being studied in Cambridge University. Thus, there are written sources that prove that Jews have at least one thousand years of history in Kyiv. This history however was very complicated. It is a huge pendulum that swings back and forth from good to bad.

Iryna Slavinska: And in this context—as there is a thousand years of history, the pendulum, the stories of expulsion, and different relationships with city inhabitants—I would like to ask a geographical question. Was there a Jewish ghetto in Kyiv, as there were in many European cities?

Vladyslava Osmak: I can say that there were parts of Kyiv where Jews lived at different times. For example, let us remember the name that is now rarely used, because not that long ago the Jewish Gates (Zhydivski Vorota) were situated just behind Lviv Square. The word “zhyd” was literary at that time, and I am using it in a historical context without any offensive connotations. Thus, when Prince Yaroslav the Wise built the new city of Kyiv and constructed a system of fortifications around it, one of the gates was called Jewish because they were built close to the area where Kyiv Jews already lived for a long time.

But it would be wrong to say that they were always fine there. If we look back at the tenth century, we can see that Prince Svyatoslav delivered a very serious blow to the Khazar Khanate. Then one more event happened—and it coincided with European history—as the first pogroms in Europe occurred in the twelfth century. There are chronicles from the twelfth century stating that after the death of Prince Svyatopolk Izislavych in 1113, the people in Kiev initiated pogroms against the Jews. In fact, the local citizens simply took advantage of an opportunity in the power vacuum between rulers. They attacked princely palaces and looted everything they could. Only the arrival of Prince Volodymyr Monomakh in Kyiv put a stop to it.

Let us return to the Jewish Gates, where there was a big settlement. However there is no concrete data. It is also not possible to calculate with accuracy the number of people in Kyiv. Some researchers say that Kyiv was almost the biggest city in Europe up to the Mongol invasion in 1240. Some calculate the population from fifty to one hundred thousand inhabitants. To claim that the Jewish community comprised one, two, or ten percent of the population is not possible because there are no written sources. They would appear much later. Thus, this is perhaps the first place to remember when we talk about areas of compact settlement of Kyiv Jews.

After some time this place became Pechersk, even though it might sound strange today. But this was in the eighteenth century. Before that it was Podil of course. This was very complicated history because in 1362 the Kyivan lands became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They governed by the principle that we do not impose our rules, and do not interfere. The Jewish population of Kyiv was thus in a better position. They had the same rights as the rest, and they received a residence permit and permission for different activities—trade, crafts, and so on. In the fifteenth century, King Casimir IV greatly contributed to the emergence of Kyiv Jews. Again, we recall that the area near the old Jewish Gates, near Lviv Square, was called “Kudryavets” in the old chronicles of Kyiv and today it is mentioned under this name. There was a settlement so large, old, and important that quite a few influential teachers emerged from there. These include, for example, Reb Moshe Ben Yakov, who was respected as the man who interpreted and commented on the Talmud, as well as the Old and New Testament. Around 1470 a person named Zacharia, nicknamed ZhydOvyn or ZhydovYn, went to Novgorod with his students to preach Judaism. There appeared a sect that in Russian was therefore called “zhydovstvuyuschaya.”

Later, in 1482, Kyiv was destroyed by a huge catastrophe. The city was burned by the forces of Khan Mengli Giray, and this was actually the end of several hundred years of more or less sustainable life in Kyiv for the Jewish population. At the end of the fifteenth century, Olexander, the nephew of King Casimir IV, actually banned Jews from living in Kyiv and expelled them.

Iryna Slavinska: We have already talked about several important Kyiv addresses, and our talk finished in the fifteenth century. We continue talking about different places in Kyiv where Jews lived. This is probably difficult to call a ghetto because there were several places, and therefore we cannot talk about just one area where Kyiv Jews lived. Thus, from the fifteenth century, where do we travel next? We have finished with the area around Lviv Square. What additional areas and addresses can we remember? And if we were going to recall some other texts, it would be good to talk about them as well.

Vladyslava Osmak: I will try now very briefly to provide the key moments of history and Jewish locales up to the nineteenth century, because at that time there emerged a vast amount of literature that is accessible, as it does not require the knowledge of Hebrew or Yiddish.

Let us return to the fifteenth century for the moment. When people nowadays stroll on Kontraktova Square, there are a lot of monuments and remarkable buildings. The Church of the Assumption, which is called by people Pyrohoshcha (its ancient medieval name), attracts attention. Few people know that across from the Pyrohoshcha there is a rather clumsy building from the Soviet times, maybe from the 1970s, and it stands, according to some sources, right on the very spot where there was a synagogue before Mengli Giray torched Kyiv in 1482. It is interesting that on Prytysko-Mykilska street, which begins from there, you can see the Orthodox nunnery on one side, and on the other side, where there is a military unit where the National Guard is located, there was once a Dominican monastery. This a beautiful metaphor embodied in stone pavement of the intimate coexistence of different cultures and different religions over the centuries in Kyiv.

Iryna Slavinska: So these buildings existed so close to each other simultaneously?

Vladyslava Osmak: This is very tiny street, just one block, and they existed almost at the same time. And people lived there.

I will ruin this chronology myself now. I would like to recall something that the poet and writer Osip Mandelstam, who was closely connected to Kyiv, wrote in his essay “Kyiv”. He studied and worked here and he was also married to a Kyivan woman. In his essay about Kyiv he refers to the “triple deep breath of this Ukrainian-Jewish-Russian city.” I would like to direct your attention to his alignment “Ukrainian-Jewish-Russian.” Without any idealization, this dense coexistence, this tight Kyivan proximity, really exists, and it still noticeable in some places of old Kyiv.

Thus, after the fifteenth century, there comes the sixteenth and then the seventeenth century. There was one more catastrophe because during the liberation war led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky almost nothing was left. But before that there were moments when, as Mykhailo Kalnytskyy writes, based on some sources, there was the initiative of Hetman Konashevych-Sahaidachnyi, who once again asked the Jews of Kyiv to leave because they interfered with the locals and their business. Nothing personal, just business.

Iryna Slavinska: It is interesting that the memorial to Sahaidachnyi is situated in Podil.

Vladyslava Osmak: Where else? He is one of our biggest enlighteners. He took an active part in the founding of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. I am not judging him. History cannot be black or white. A lot depends on what is the position of the observer. The main thing is to use different sources calmly.

In 1655 there were no Jews in Kyiv. They started to appear here again only when Catherine II started to rule, but even then they were here for a limited time. By the way, to those who are interested in English-language literature about Kyiv, I can recommend a book called Kiev: A Portrait by the American researcher Michael Hamm. The book covers our city in the period from 1800 until 1917. This book was published by Princeton University Press. It has a not short chapter about Jewish Kyiv, which appeared much earlier than some local researchers state. There are some statistics there. All of the 97 Jews who lived in Pechersk were counted: the number of cobblers, bakers, moneylenders, and so on.

Brodsky Synagogue. Photo

The ethno-cultural landscape of Kyiv changed greatly in the nineteenth century. With the appearance of the Kontrakt Fair in 1798 in Kyiv, there were economic factors that still, year after year, step-by-step, allowed Jews to seep into the city at first, and then settle here solidly. Clearly, this was not for everybody, because poor people in their percentage compared to business titans such as Brodsky, for example, were still in the majority. This does not only apply to the Jewish community. During the nineteenth century, there was the so-called “Pale of Settlement” for the Jews, and they could only come to Kyiv during the time of the contract fairs or the day before, and a little bit after for just a few weeks, and then they could do business for several months. Later there was a total ban. Then it was removed. There were quotas obtaining higher education.

You know, only yesterday one old man was telling me something. He was a man whose grandfather was a Jew from Podilia who had a business and estate there. His grandfather studied in the first gymnasium where [Mikhail] Bulgakov, [Konstantin] Paustovsky, and many others studied. The parents of this old man, who was a boy at that time, paid for the education of two Orthodox noble boys with their own money. In fact, this distortion, this injustice, contributed to the fact that Kyiv even had a special school. The central building of the Drahamanov National Pedagogical University is located in a building where in 1906 a Commercial Institute was opened—an educational establishment where the quota for non-Orthodox students in higher education was significantly less restrictive or almost did not exist. And that is why two very prominent representatives of Jewish culture studied at the Commercial Institute. They were the author of the famous Odessa Stories Isaac Babel and a person who created the Jewish theater—Solomon Mikhoels.

Other very popular ways for obtaining training were the courses for dentists, massage therapists and masseuses, midwives, and obstetricians. There were even big medical facilities, private clinics of doctors who came out of the Jewish community. But in order to receive a higher education in other departments (because the medical faculty was once a part of St. Vladimir University), members of the Jewish community often had to leave the bosom of their national traditions and their faith. They had to be baptized, and of course this shattered their lives.

However, if you go to the historical center of Kyiv to the area that used to be called the Latin Quarter, and when we look at the yellow building of the university, we can only notice with regret that among the many memorial plaques one is definitely missing. There is still no plaque dedicated to the outstanding virtuoso pianist Volodymyr Horowitz, who studied at this school. There is a plaque on the house where he lived on Kotsiubynskyi Sreet, but there is no plaque on the yellow building, which was the first Kyiv gymnasium. There is also no memorial plaque on the red building of the university for one of the founders of the local Zionist movement, Professor Max Menuel Mendelshtam, who studied and then worked at the medical faculty there. He is not to be confused with the poet Osip Mendelstam who, by the way, gave a speech in the Hotel Continental that was situated on Mykolayivska Street (now Horodetska Street). There are no plaques there as well.

Podil Synagogue. Photo:

Thus, in the first part of the program I talked about the silence of this invisibility, the ephemeral Jewish history of Kyiv. We have three synagogues: one on Shchekavytska Street; one on Shota Rustaveli Street; and even the so-called Galician synagogue, which is located in difficult to reach industrial property near Yevbaz. They are three strong points of reference of our understanding of Jews in Kyiv today.

There are about eighty thousand Jews in Kyiv and the region, but do we see them? Maybe we only see them for Hanukkah. I pleasantly noticed two years ago the huge menorah in the central city park near the National Philharmonic, and Jewish music was heard from there up to Khreshchatyk Street. Nobody is also surprised by the Jewish boys with side locks and dressed in traditional Jewish garb who go to the yeshiva—the school in the synagogue. I also witnessed something amazing on Krontraktova Square near the memorial to Hryhoriy Skovoroda. I heard a strange sound at first, and when I approached it I realized that just behind the synagogue a person was playing the shofar (a musical instrument made of a large and twisted goat or ram’s horn which is used in the synagogue on special holidays). To see this beyond the walls of the synagogue was for me a cultural event. It turned out this was from the “Jews for Christ” community that has been in Ukraine for a long time and has many members. They had this event to advertise themselves in Podil.

Iryna Slavinska: It is interesting to continue with what we can see. Our listeners of course will hear it, but maybe after they hear our talk, they will be able to also see it. Maybe there is a point in naming some of the Kyiv addresses or places where people can go so that this invisible city, this Jewish Kyiv, would become more visible.

Vladyslava Osmak: There is the synagogue on Shchekavytska Street. Also the corner of Pyrohov Street and Shevchenko Boulevard, where there is a former Commercial Institute, and Baseyna Street 5-A, the house where Golda Meir once lived. There is a memorial plaque dedicated to Sholom Aleichem on Saksahanskoho Street. There is the very interesting Sholem Aleichem Museum in the Bessarabian quarter in the complex that combines Mandarin Plaza and Arena City. I can in addition recommend the book by the publishing house Dukh i Litera, which is at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. They have a very interesting cultural almanac called Yehupets that has been published for nearly two decades. This name, for those who read Sholem Aleichem, immediately evokes the culture at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yehupets is the “small Egypt,” a country of exile where Jews did not live that well. But today Yehupets is a journal that publishes works by Jewish authors and translations from Yiddish and Hebrew. There are biographical explorations, historical articles, and profiles on Jewish artists. It is a great source to learn about Jewish Kyiv in different eras.

Speaking about Yevbaz, I would also recommend reading the books Punks from Yevbaz and Komunalka by the contemporary journalist and fiction writer Yuri Chykyrysov. The first text is frightening. They are children’s stories of occupied Kyiv, the tragedy of people from Yevbaz—currently Peremohy Square—who were taken to Babyn Yar. And of course the classic is Anatoly Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar. This is one of the basic texts without which it is impossible to imagine what Kyiv Jews had to go through in the 20th century.

It would take me another half hour to speak of monuments or to name some addresses, in Lypky in particular. So I would advise you to search in the library or to buy in a bookstore the solid work by Olha Truh and Dmitry Malakov, two well-known researchers of Kyiv. The book is called Mansions of Kyiv. These are the mansions where the Brodskys, Margolins, Zaitsevs, Sachs and other famous Kyiv Jewish families lived. These families took part in ensuring that we have fine public buildings, schools, and so on. There is a lot of information about them in this book. It is also worth going to the Bessarabian Market, which would also not exist if there were not such a generous family of entrepreneurs as the Brodskys in Kyiv. Then it is worth going to Poshtova Square and looking at the remains of Brodsky’s mill that is practically not seen because of the giant new hotel on the corner of Poshtova Square and Naberezhno-Khreschatykska Street. There are the remains of the Jewish cemetery by the television station on Melnikova Street. In the Old Town in Podil there are many small houses.

But you know what? It now all has a different flavor. Globalization touched upon that as well.

The program is created with the support of Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter

Originally appeared here.
Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter
Edited and additional translation by Peter Bejger