Just like during the Holocaust, people are now being killed and buried in pits without documents in Ukraine: historian

On 26 August, a scholarly conference on "The Jews of Volyn: History, the Holocaust, and the Present Day" [took place] place at the Sarny History and Ethnography Museum. It [was] devoted to the 80th anniversary of the killings of innocent local Jews. 

We decided to capitalize on this event as an informational lead-in to a conversation about the Jewish community in Sarny. On today's broadcast of Encounters, a program focused on Ukrainian-Jewish relations, we discussed this with Viktoriya Dashko, the director of the Sarny History and Ethnography Museum.

The Jewish community in Sarny: its founding and development

Viktoriya Dashko: The Sarny Jewish community is poorly researched. Everything that my colleagues and I have succeeded in discovering dates to the early twentieth century, the interwar period, and the Second World War. Some documents on which we relied included the recollections of people who escaped the Holocaust, Steven Katz's book The Shtetl: New Evaluations, and a book containing the reminiscences of residents, which was published in Tel Aviv in 1961 under the title Memorial Book of the Community of Sarny.

The first Jewish families settled in the city of Sarny in the early twentieth century. I would like to talk about the year 1903, when, in keeping with the special permission granted by the interior minister of the Russian Empire, the city of Sarny was included in the Pale of Settlement. From that time onwards, Jews began settling en masse in Sarny. Jewish businessmen and tradesmen began arriving here, and they acquired land in order to further their affairs, etc.

The development of the Jewish community in Sarny peaked during the interwar years. Jews moved to the main streets of the city. They worked in administrative institutions and banks, were engaged in the trade of timber and meat, and were employed as teachers and doctors. They also worked as water carriers, religious functionaries, and Torah scribes. It was Jews who organized a small business in Sarny and established a bank that offered loans to Jews, thereby securing their activities.

The Jewish population's primary source of revenue during the interwar period in Sarny was commerce and the trades. In 1925–26, Baruch Rosenberg founded the Bank of Commerce and Trades in Sarny, offering loans to traders, petty merchants, and craftsmen-artisans. There was also a lawyer's office in the city that defended the interests of the Jewish community in their dealings with state, financial, and trade institutions, as well as the tax agency, which levied taxes for the municipal budget. This happened quite frequently because new directives pertaining specifically to Jewish workers and traders began to be issued.

In addition, of the twenty deputies of the municipal council, nineteen were Jews. From the first day that the municipal administration was created in 1920 to the last day of its existence in 1939, there were always Jewish deputies and Jews in the leadership. Jews were well integrated into the life of this city. Sarny, like Rokytne, was a shtetl. According to the 1921 census, Sarny had a population of 5,931, including 2,808 (47 percent) Jews. After the Second World War began, the number of Jews increased to 7,000, constituting two-thirds of the total population.

The local population's attitude to the Jewish community

Viktoriya Dashko: I have never encountered any conflicts in people's memoirs. On the contrary, Jews who recorded their recollections described the local Ukrainian population in glowing terms. I have published several articles about Righteous Among the Nations. As is generally known, Ukrainian frequently hid Jewish families and children when the Nazis created the ghetto in 1941.

The local inhabitants treated the Jews quite well. According to descriptions, there was an atmosphere of well-being in Sarny because not only Ukrainians and Jews but also Poles lived there. There were various faiths, but everyone lived harmoniously.

The life of the Jewish community during the interwar period

Viktoriya Dashko: The main place for a Jew was his home, where his family resided. It is also thought that wherever Jews live, there lives God. Only a few Jewish buildings remain in Sarny, and they are quite easy to spot due to their different architecture. The synagogue, the site of Jewish religious life, came second after the home. Seven wooden synagogues were constructed in Sarny, mostly in the Jewish quarter. A bathhouse with a mikvah was also built. In 1921, when the first immigrants arrived in Palestine, a whole group of Hasidim from Sarny emigrated. The Jewish community of Sarny officially supported this emigration. Sarny's political and cultural life was dominated by Zionists.

A Jewish elementary school was opened in the city. Its graduates usually joined secular youth movements. While some members of the older generation still maintained the Hasidic lifestyle, the community’s leaders in the 1930s were Zionists. The most popular educational establishment in Sarny was the Tarbut school, which had nearly 600 pupils; its building still stands today. There was also a Polish gymnasium that accepted a limited number of Jewish pupils. In terms of cultural life, four libraries, a drama group, and theatrical troupes functioned in Sarny.

The tragedy of the Jewish community during the Second World War

Viktoriya Dashko: At the start of the Second World War, there were about 7,000 Jews in Sarny. With the onset of the German-Polish war, chaos and panic broke out in the city. People began rushing around, trying to save themselves. Some packed their belongings and left, heading for Russia; others remained in Sarny. Many Jews stayed behind. The first thing the Germans did was demand that the Jews relinquish their valuables: gold, jewels, and foreign currency. Then, in August 1941, they began to set up a ghetto. They issued announcements ordering all Jews in the city of Sarny and its vicinities to gather at the Roman Catholic church. One year later, from 26 to 28 August, Jews were shot to death en masse on the outskirts of Sarny. This year we will be marking the 80th anniversary of these mass shootings. People described that those were sweltering days, and people were brought across the railway tracks from the ghetto and housed in a temporary concentration camp. From there, they would bring out 500 people at a time. Pits had already been dug there, and between 13,000 and 18,000 Jews were killed, together with approximately 200 Roma.

The goal of the conference "The Jews of Volyn: History, the Holocaust, and the Present Day"

Viktoriya Dashko: By organizing the scholarly conference "The Jews of Volyn: History, the Holocaust, and the Present Day," I would like to include this black page of the city of Sarny in the history of the Volyn region because it is quite poorly researched. I believe that this conference will provide more information for people who may be searching for their murdered relatives. I would also like to hear about the research done by people from various cities of Volyn. I plan to publish a scholarly collection of articles about these tragedies, perhaps about the Jewish communities in various cities; it will be of interest to the students in our city and all of the Rivne region.

In general, I would like to talk about friendly Ukrainian-Jewish relations because I believe that an act of genocide is now taking place in our country, just like the Nazi-created Holocaust in 1941–42. We must face up to the truth and declare that a genocide against the Ukrainian people is taking place. There are cities in our country where Ukrainians have been killed in our time. The Russians, too, are burying bodies in pits, destroying people without documents, without identification. These horrors should not be happening in the twenty-first century, but they are, unfortunately.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.