Leader of the Bratslav Jewish community: There is more to Jewish history than tears and suffering

Faina Baiek talks about the Bratslav Jewish History Museum, the activities of the local Jewish community during the war, and her family's survival experience. Baiek is a native of Bratslav and has led the Jewish community there for the past 12 years.

The Jewish History Museum and the Jewish community in Bratslav

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: One of the goals of the Encounters program is to discover people like you and communities like yours for our audience. Let's begin with your plan to open an ethnic history museum of the Bratslav Jews. The town already has a museum that was opened thanks to you. Please tell us about your idea and what already exists in Bratslav.

Faina Baiek: The idea emerged all by itself. In 2011, the head of the local Jewish community died, and his wife was going to leave for Israel. So, the question was who would become the next leader. That same year, we held a meeting, and I was unanimously elected head of the community of 84 people. There was no head in Nemyriv, so our community accepted people from Nemyriv and several young families from Tulchyn.

Before the war started, we had a lot of tourists coming here, and we had an old museum. The idea for the new one came by itself. My mother, who is now 88, used to live in a shared house. She occupied one part; the other consisted of a small room and a kitchenette with a separate entrance. Since no one lived there, we decided to turn that part of the house into a museum.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Could you tell us about Bratslav's Jews and the diversity of its population before the 1917 revolution, pogroms, and World War II? How much synergy was there in everyday life? How many different ethnic groups shared the same space? How did their traditions and individuality manifest themselves?

Faina Baiek: This is an extremely interesting topic, which I always mention. Until 1919-21, there were 6,000 Jews and 6,000 people of other ethnic backgrounds (Ukrainians, Russians, Roma, and Armenians) in Bratslav. This kind of settlement was called a shtetl, or Jewish town.

The town is famous as the place of origin of Breslov Hasidism. This is where its founder Rebbe Nachman lived, and his student Rebbe Nathan is buried. Every year, even though it was forbidden in Soviet times, Hasidim would come here by hook or crook, as well as to Uman and Medzhybizh. And even in Soviet times, they would fly in a helicopter and land near the cemetery here. Rebbe Nachman's grandfather, who founded Hasidism, is buried in Medzhybizh. So, Medzhybizh, Uman, and Bratslav are three places to which Hasidim have made great pilgrimages.

To get the museum started, we cleaned up the rooms and set up a kitchen, a living room, and a religious room. When we found a sponsor, he said he would only give money for a Holocaust museum.

I said it couldn't be a museum of the Holocaust only because there is more to Jewish history than tears and suffering. Jewish history is also about joy, and it is worth showing people how Jews lived and that, for centuries, they lived side by side with Ukrainians, the indigenous people.

We have shared joys and sorrows, and there have been decent and dishonorable persons on both sides. Just as the current war exposes who is who now, World War II showed who was who back then. Some people were collaborators.

So, we set up these rooms and would have completed the Holocaust room long ago, but a deal is a deal. Since the beginning of the full-fledged war, our sponsors have also been doing a lot of work. They have been very busy sending Jews abroad to Chișinău. I brought them here and showed them what we had done, but these sponsors said they didn't have time. The historian who was supposed to do the Holocaust room went to the front, and we decided to do it ourselves. You will see how it turns out when we finish it.

"When this war broke out, we realized how united we were. We have no divisions along ethnic lines."

Yelizaveta Tsarehradska: There is no synagogue in Bratslav now, and the community has 84 members. We understand how this contrasts with the town's vibrant past. Is it possible to revive this flavor and restore the Bratslav of old you remember?

Faina Baiek: As soon as I was elected our community's leader, I really wanted to preserve this flavor. I saw the period when there were still a few more Jews and when people would come to the market square and mix with Roma, Ukrainians, and Jews. Bratslav is my life, and I loved that flavor so much. I loved how Ukrainians and Jews were so much in tune with each other.

Although there were collaborators, there were also many who saved Jews. We put up a monument near the Jewish cemetery to the Righteous Among the Nations and Holocaust and pogrom victims. Our community had the Righteous Among the Nations. Two years ago, the last one of them died in Nemyriv. When we receive aid, we share it with her descendants just like with Jews. I believe they deserve it.

Before the war, we searched for places of mass shootings of Jews. Thanks to the Christians for Israel organization and our sponsors, we installed ten monuments and three memorials in our region. We went to people who witnessed the events (they are probably no longer alive), interviewed them, and kept a living book of memory. We were invited to schools and colleges to teach classes on tolerance. We showed many films and told real-life stories. Children are very interested in this.

The Jewish community is very much respected in Bratslav. When this war broke out, we realized how united we were. We have no divisions along ethnic lines.

My father once told me that when he and other children escaped from the concentration camp, where they even had to eat grass to stay alive, they went to nearby villages and survived, thanks to Ukrainians.

According to my father, he and six other children escaped in the winter in order to go to villages and find something to eat. The Germans found out about their escape and unleashed a dog. It gnawed some of them to death; the Germans shot others, and my father was wounded in the leg. It was already dark when he crawled to the edge of a village and started knocking on the windows. A woman who had three children let him in. She washed him, bandaged him, woke up the children, and went into the village to collect some food. He spent the night in that house. The next day, the woman gave him all the provisions but asked him to stay, promising to hide him. I asked my father why he refused to stay and returned to the concentration camp. He said he couldn't do otherwise because he had two sisters and his pregnant mother there. (She gave birth in the camp, but the child died.) There were also other relatives there. My father explained that he couldn't leave them without food because they were expecting him to bring them something. He said he never saw that woman again. She saved him, and he didn't even know who she was.

Illustrative photo of child prisoners in Auschwitz. Source: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

I, for one, am very fond of young people. Nowadays, they are not the same as Soviet youth or us when we were young. And I hate the Soviet government now. I used to talk about it completely differently before this war. I used to visit my children and tell them how good and orderly things used to be. They didn't want to offend me, always telling me I was just young back then. My sister sometimes calls, saying she still adores Putin and the Soviet Union. Because of this, we can't establish a relationship. She calls my mom, telling her how good life was in the Soviet Union. To this, my mom replies: "God forbid!"

On discovering your mission and helping others

Faina Baiek: One man by the name of Vasyl lived here in the neighborhood. His mother died when he was just a child. His four sisters left, one to Russia and the other abroad. Vasyl lived in Moscow but returned here just a few months before the war. Everyone thought he had come to collect intelligence and were checking him. For some reason, I saw something in that man that made me feel sorry for him. I have three children and have been a widow since I was 30, when my husband died in a car accident. Since then, I have had no one else and lived for my children. God gave me wonderful children, grandchildren, and in-laws. I was helping my neighbor Vasyl with whatever I could, and when he said that he would probably go to the front, I said: "Son, go. This may be your calling."

Vasyl went to the front and has been there for 16 months. He calls me mom, and my neighbors and I keep sending him parcels. I have another son now.

When the war broke out, 15 orphans were brought to our orphanage (now a sports lyceum) from Lyman, and our community took them under its care. My daughters started raising money in Israel. Thanks to this, we were able to dress these children and take them to entertainment centers and the cinema to watch Mavka: The Forest Song. This was when these Russian-speaking children began to speak some Ukrainian. Now, they have been taken into family-type orphanages. We cried when they left because they were like our own children, and they were so kind.

After the war started, my friends from the European Union started sending us humanitarian aid, and we were able to begin taking care of low-income people and large families. Our community is known to all the internally displaced people here because we give out food and clothes to Bratslav residents and everyone in need.

We enjoy great respect in our community, and no one will say a bad word about Jews behind our backs. People know that Faina will never leave anyone in trouble if they ask for help. Now I need to make a museum, so I don't have any special reserves. However, when people call me, for example, from Kharkiv, I help them as much as I can. I tell them I will come, and if I have the opportunity, I will continue to help them.

I am proud that our community has received a certificate of recognition from our army. We have sent a lot of aid to the military, helping with everything we can, including foodstuffs and first aid kits.

On losing close ones

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: When your husband died in an accident, you were left with three children and had to cope somehow. Unfortunately, we live at a time when many people are losing their loved ones in the ongoing war against Russia. These two situations have significant differences, but it is all about loss. What would be your advice for those women and men who have found themselves in similar circumstances? What helped you to keep going?

Faina Baiek: Maybe, it was my faith in God. I say that the Lord helped me. It was tough in those evil 1990s. We sometimes had no bread to put on the table, but God gave me very good children. They understood what was available and what was not. My sister and my brother helped me out, even though there are misunderstandings between us now. And my parents helped me, too. Or it could be love and the support of my children. You know, I do not make any decisions without my children. My sons-in-law and daughter-in-law are my children, too. And I always call them when I contemplate taking a bold step.

My children may have wanted me to get married again, but I don't want this. I had a wonderful husband, and he must have been the love of my life. I once said this was not normal, but such is life.

I cannot even give any advice to the women who have lost their husbands, because it all depends on what's in your soul.

My community, my children, and my mother are my life now.

The story of the Jewish orphanage in Bratslav

Faina Baiek: I would like to tell you about the Jewish orphanage in Bratslav, which operated here during World War II. It was set up in 1927 by the Joint, a Jewish humanitarian organization. Initially, it was focused on Jews, but because there were so many street children, they also began to take in Ukrainian children. When the war broke out, the plan was to transport these children to the Odesa port and send them abroad by sea. But they were bombed on the way to Odesa, and the survivors returned to this orphanage. Later, in February, the police entered this orphanage at 3 a.m., rounded up 250 children (including Ukrainian children as they did not ask for IDs), stripped them naked, and took them across Bratslav to the Southern Bug River. There they drowned them in ice holes. A monument was erected there to commemorate these children, and we want to tell this story also in our museum.

Many years passed, and we came to a point when we had no premises for a volunteer center we needed to set up. And then we were given a place in this orphanage. Of course, its building has been expanded since World War II, but this is precisely where the orphanage was initially located.

"My great-granddaughter has now gone through the same things as my father did during World War II."

Faina Baiek: Last year, I went to Poland to speak at the Auschwitz summit, where 26 countries were represented and which was focused on the current war and the Holocaust. I was given the floor and told how my daughter-in-law and her 8-month-old daughter went to Mariupol to visit her parents around the time when the war broke out. She didn't have time to leave before the full-scale invasion began, so she hid in the basement for a month with a hundred other people. Shells were exploding nearby, and she said she had never seen such atrocities, even in horror movies. They suffered from hunger and cold. It was a good thing that she was still breastfeeding her child. Her car and that of her parents were intact, and they slowly passed through the filtration camp and left for Georgia, where they were picked up.

In my speech at the summit, I said that we need to pray for Ukraine so that this does not happen again. My father was in a concentration camp many years ago, suffering from violence, hunger, cold, and abuse. Many years have passed, and now his great-granddaughter has experienced the same things. She has also suffered from cold and hunger. It's very hard and scary.

I am a great patriot, and the members of our community are great patriots of Ukraine. I love my Ukraine so much that I sometimes weep alone in my apartment. I love it so much that I ache when someone starts saying bad things about Ukraine.

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.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.

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