President of Israel: Mention the Jews of Ukraine or not anger Moscow?

From left to right: Israeli poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Shoshana Persitz.

Exactly sixty years ago, a group of Israelis, including top officials and distinguished personalities of the young Jewish state, perceived themselves for the first time as natives of Ukraine. Who organized the first “Ukrainian encounter,” and who sought to hinder it?

On the evening of 11 June 1961, President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was born in Poltava, received a warning from his old friend, the Israeli journalist Benjamin Vest, a native of Berdychiv. Vest was adamantly advising him to cancel the “Ukrainian encounter” (Kenes Ukraina) that was planned for the following week at the president’s residence.

In his youth, Vest had been convicted in Moscow of membership in the Zionist movement, and in 1925 he was deported from the “Soviet paradise” to British Palestine. From 1931 to 1957, he worked at Bank Hapoalim.

Benjamin Vest

For many years Vest was engaged in civic work. On the one hand, in Israel, he raised the topic of the struggle for Soviet Jewish emigration. On the other, he had a visceral memory of the methods used by the Soviet state security organs and thus opposed high-profile actions so as not to anger the Soviet regime.

President Ben-Zvi had on earlier occasions hosted get-togethers of Israelis who were born in a variety of countries. However, this was the first time in the history of Israel that its 78-year-old head of state decided to gather Jews from the country where he himself had been born.

Clearly, the idea to hold an evening in memory of Ukrainian Jews was born out of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The trial of this Nazi, which began in April 1961, changed Israeli society: For the first time, the Holocaust topic began to be discussed openly, and the pain of Jews living in various countries began to break through to the surface.

At this point, Ben-Zvi received a letter from Vest, urging him not to host that commemorative soirée for natives of Ukraine lest it cause a reaction from Moscow. The very articulation of the word “Ukraine” might be interpreted by the government of the USSR as support of Ukrainian nationalism in the home of the president of Israel.

“Whereas such an evening for natives of Lithuania is understandable because Lithuania was annexed to the USSR only at the beginning of the Second World War, Ukraine has been an organic part [emphasis in the original—S.B.] of the Soviet land since the beginning, for the past forty-three years. Haters can slander us, saying that we [in Israel] are supporting the Ukrainian separatist movement that exists in West Germany and the U.S.,” wrote Vest.

Fragment of Vest’s letter, dated 11 June 1961.

The letter to the president also stated that holding a Ukrainian soirée would complicate the Blumel and Mayer mission during their visit to Moscow. André Blumel was a French philosopher and the president of the USSR–France Friendship League. Daniel Mayer was the head of the French Human Rights League. “Nativ,” the Israeli governmental liaison organization that maintained contact with Jews living in the USSR, secretly engaged these two French Jews to conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Kremlin about the fate of Soviet Jews.

Vest was in fact threatening the president of Israel: If you host the soirée of “Ukrainian separatism” at your residence, this will anger Moscow and hinder Blumel and Mayer’s efforts to obtain Khrushchev’s “gracious” consent to allow at least a small group of Jews to emigrate from the USSR.

The Soviet empire had reached its zenith at this time. A short while earlier, in April 1961, the USSR had overtaken the United States and sent the first human into space. Soviet tanks were stationed throughout Eastern Europe. At the United Nations, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was threatening the West from the podium and helping Arab countries, the enemies of Israel.

Quarreling with Moscow over the word “Ukraine”? The president of Israel was faced with a difficult choice: to cancel or go through with the planned Ukrainian soirée.

The president from the banks of the Vorskla River
Yitzhak Shimshelevitz [Shymshelevych in Ukrainian, Ed.] (1884–1963), the future president Ben-Zvi, was born in Poltava into a family descended from famous rabbinical dynasties, including the great eleventh-century scholar Rashi from France. The father of the future president, Zvi Shimshelevitz, was a lecturer of Hebrew and a Zionist activist.

In 1904 the 22-year-old Yitzhak made his first trip to the Land of Israel, which was under Turkish rule at the time. He traveled throughout the country on foot from north to south and established contact with many Zionists.

After returning to tsarist Russia in 1905, Yitzhak witnessed a wave of pogroms organized by the Black Hundreds and attended the funerals of seventy Jews who had been killed in Katerynoslav. For protection from the pogroms, Shimshelevitz organized in Poltava a self-defense detachment and the political party Po’ale Tsiyon (Workers of Zion) with self-defense subunits based in Kremenchuk and Pryluky.

The police were watching him and found a weapons cache in his father’s house in Poltava. The entire Shimshelevitz family was deported to Siberia, but Yitzhak managed to escape across the border. He returned to Russia, was arrested twice, and then escaped again. He ultimately left the Russian Empire in the spring of 1907.

Yitzhak settled in Jaffa, then Jerusalem, together with his future wife, Rachel Yanait (Golda Lishanska, 1886–1979), who was from the small town of Malyn in Kyiv Gubernia. They met back in 1905 during the founding of the Berdychiv branch of Po’ale Tsiyon.

Yitzhak and Rachel founded the organizations Bar Giora and Ha-Shomer for the protection of Jewish settlements. In 1912 they separated in order to pursue their studies. She studied agronomy in France, and he studied law in Salonika and Istanbul. They wed officially in 1918, only after the fall of the Turkish government.

David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, 1912.

David Ben-Gurion, the future first prime minister of Israel, was a friend of the family. The Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi duo became fast friends as well as a political alliance over many decades within the framework of MAPAI, the Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel. Ben-Zvi was one of the founders of the trade union and workers’ movement in Mandatory Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s and was a member of the municipal council of Jerusalem, the Jewish National Council, and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In 1937 Yitzhak and Rachel Ben-Zvi represented Israel in London at the coronation ceremony of King George VI, the father of today’s British queen.

On 14 May 1948, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi signed the Declaration of Independence of Israel and became a member of the first convocation of the Knesset. One of Yitzhak and Rachel’s sons was killed in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence.

After the death of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, in November 1952, the ruling MAPAI party, on the initiative of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, nominated Yitzhak Ben-Zvi for the post of president of Israel. He was elected following a vote that took place in the Knesset in December 1952. He was subsequently re-elected two more times: in 1957 and 1962. Ben-Zvi was the longest-serving president of Israel, with his tenure lasting eleven years.

As a historian, Ben-Zvi published more than 20 books and 150 scholarly articles on the history of Israel and Jewish communities in Eastern countries.

Yitzhak and Rachel Ben-Zvi.

A poet-prophet from Lviv
Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896–1981), a master of Hebrew poetry and winner of the Israel Prize in the field of literature (1957), was invited by the president of Israel to the “Ukrainian encounter” as a star on the national scale.

For the distinguished poet, his identification with Ukraine was the result of the painful breakup with Poland against the background of the Holocaust.

Greenberg was born into a Hasidic family in the town of Bilyi Kamin, near Zolochiv, in Galicia. A year later, the family moved to Lemberg (Lviv), where he was formed as a young man and a poet. In Lviv, in 1912, he published his first poems in Hebrew and Yiddish.

In November 1918, Greenberg, his parents, and six sisters were miraculously saved during a pogrom carried out by Polish soldiers in Lviv. This bloodshed made a terrible impression on him.

In 1924 he left Lviv and immigrated to the Land of Israel, where his poetic creativity blossomed. Greenberg became an ardent supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Greenberg’s poetry was replete with prophetic visions and marked by sharp expression. In 1922 he poetically described a dream in which thousands of Jews are suffocated with gas and burned. In 1931 Greenberg wrote a poem about the two last surviving Jews, who hide in the earth, like moles. The great Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik published this in his journal, even though he called the subject insane. Within ten years, the last Jews of Lviv would be hiding underground in the city’s sewer system.

In the 1930s, the poet returned several times to Poland and visited his parents in Lviv.

In September 1939, he left Poland two weeks after the beginning of the Second World War. Greenberg was able to obtain British entry visas for his family only in 1943, unaware that all of them had already been deported in 1942 from the Lviv ghetto and suffocated by gas at the Bełżec death camp.

Uri Zvi Greenberg with his sisters and mother in Lviv, 1930s.

He never got over this tragedy, nor did he ever lose his sense of guilt from being the “runaway son.” During the course of the entire war, he did not write a single poem. Only in 1951 was he able to mourn his mother and sisters in a poem in which he recalls the small Jewish town on the Buh River.

Perhaps everything that was unexpressed and unlamented, everything that had been silent in him for many years, spurred Greenberg into taking part in the commemorative soirée for the Jews of Ukraine in 1961.

The Rose of Kyiv
The president of Israel asked Shoshana Persitz to be the presenter of the “Ukrainian soirée.”

Shoshana Persitz (Rosalia Zlatopolsky) was born in Kyiv in 1892 into a family of the sugar magnate, banker, and philanthropist Hillel Zlatopolsky, who was in charge of the finances of the Zionist committee in Kyiv Gubernia and supported the teaching of Hebrew.

One day at the Kyiv gymnasium, her classmate, who was from a family of Russian princes, called Rosalia by the contemptuous term zhydovka [instead of ievreika—Trans.] The Jewish girl slapped her and was expelled from the gymnasium. She completed her education in Germany.

In 1911 Rosalia (Hebrew: Shoshana) Zlatopolsky married Joseph Persitz, the son of a Moscow merchant. They spent their honeymoon in the Land of Israel. Shoshana Persitz’s main project became the publication of Hebrew-language children’s books.

In the spring of 1918, the large Zlatopolsky-Persitz family was evacuated from Red Moscow to free Kyiv, together with the printing house and its employees. According to a family legend, they were saved from the Bolsheviks by the German ambassador [Wilhelm von] Mirbach, who was on the same train to Kyiv, where he was bringing the wife and children of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky, Hetman of the Ukrainian State.

In the fall of 1918, the family moved to Odesa, then the capital of Jewish book publishing. Throughout 1919, Shoshana Persitz continued to publish Hebrew-language children’s books of extraordinary beauty. These were probably the only Hebrew publications that were illustrated by the distinguished Ukrainian artist Heorhii Narbut, the designer of the first banknotes issued by the Ukrainian National Republic and the draft design of the emblem of the UNR.

The Persitz couple managed to move to France and Germany. Their house in Bad Homburg became the center of gravity for Hebrew writers. For example, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, a friend of the family and the future Nobel laureate in Literature who was also born in Ukraine, visited their home. Agnon would later write the short story “The Wisdom of Women” and dedicate it to the 50-year-old Shoshana Persitz.

Shoshana Persitz.

In 1925 Shoshana Persitz moved to Tel Aviv, where for thirteen years, she headed the municipal commission for culture and education. From 1949 to 1959, she headed the same committee in the Knesset, to which she was elected three times from the General Zionists party. In the Israeli parliament, Persitz drafted important laws on general school education, support for higher education, and the protection of women’s rights.

Today her grandson, Amos Schocken, continues the family’s publishing tradition and is the owner and head of the Haaretz media group.

Remembering the Jews of Ukraine
The president of Israel, the head of Jewish self-defense in Poltava, ignored Benjamin Vest’s warning and was not afraid of incurring Moscow’s wrath. The evening dedicated to the memory of Ukrainian Jewry took place in the residence of the Israeli president on 18 June 1961, the first such event in the history of Israel.

Although the home of the modest Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was described by the grand word “residence,” it was actually a small wooden house whose interior walls were ordinary boards (as seen in the photograph below).

The date of the “Ukrainian encounter”—late June 1961—was not chosen haphazardly. It was connected not only with the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the Holocaust in Ukraine, which followed Germany’s attack on the USSR on 22  June 1941, but also with such bloody events in the history of Ukrainian Jews as the massacre in Nemyriv in June 1648 and the Uman massacre in June 1768.

The president of Israel, enumerating these Jewish tragedies that had taken place over the centuries, also mentioned the “pogroms of Petliura’s gangs.” However, Ben-Zvi did not say any critical words about the Ukrainian nation as a whole. The president-historian generally refrained from making stereotypical accusations of anti-Semitism against the entire nation.

“All the sufferings of past centuries cannot be compared to what happened in our time. The bitter fate of the Jews of Ukraine also lies in the fact that no eyewitnesses are left, nor did eyewitnesses come to the Eichmann trial in order to talk about those who were killed in Babyn Yar, Kharkiv, Poltava, Odesa, the Crimea, Volyn, and Podillia,” Ben-Zvi said.

This was the very first mention of the Babyn Yar tragedy by a president of Israel, even before the publication of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s magnificent poem in September 1961.

Ben-Zvi also underscored the immense contribution of Jews to the development of Hasidism, Zionism, literature, education, and political movements in great Ukraine (Ukraina ha-Gedola, as he put it).

The poet Uri Zvi Greenberg read his poems about the Holocaust “From the Songs of Destruction” (Mi-Shirei ha-Hurban).

The event proceeded smoothly under the elegant direction of the master of ceremonies Shoshana Persitz. In addition to speeches and poetry recitations, the evening featured a performance by a children’s choir.

Professor Ben-Zion Dinur (1884–1973) had prepared a lecture on the history of Ukrainian Jews. Dinur (Dinaburg) was born in the town of Khorol in Poltava Gubernia, obtained a Jewish religious education in Kremenchuk and Korsun, and married a Jewish schoolteacher from Poltava. He obtained a degree in History from the universities of Berlin and Bern. In 1936 he became a professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1951 to 1955, he was Israel’s education minister and the creator of Yad Vashem, serving as its first head from 1953 to 1959.

However, on the day of the planned event, Prof. Dinur fell ill, and his lecture was read by Dr. Shmuel Ettinger, a native of Kyiv, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a distinguished specialist in the history of Eastern European Jewry.

One year after the “Ukrainian encounter,” Ben-Zvi received a request for a pardon from Adolf Eichmann, who had been sentenced to death. The president of Israel did not write a resolution indicating either “agree” or “refuse.” The graduate of the Poltava gymnasium simply wrote on the Nazi’s piece of paper the words that the ancient Jewish prophet Samuel spoke prior to the execution of the criminal king of the Amalekites: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” Eichmann was hanged in the early morning hours of 1 June 1962.

A year later, David Ben-Gurion said in his farewell speech at the grave of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: “He won the love of the entire Jewish people as was vouchsafed to no other man in our generation…. His words, ways, customs and attitudes were the essence of simplicity and modesty, true sincerity and purity of heart.”

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was the first president of Israel to raise the topic of Ukrainian Jews. The second one to do so was President Chaim Herzog, who in January 1993 delivered a speech during the historic visit to Israel of the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk. The third was President Reuven Rivlin, who did this from the podium of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine during the commemorative events connected with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy.

It is certain that the son of Chaim Herzog, Yitzhak Herzog, who was elected president of Israel on 3 June 2021, will speak about the Jews of Ukraine and Ukrainian-Jewish relations in September 2021 in Kyiv, at the ceremonies marking the eightieth anniversary of Babyn Yar.

Text, collage, and colorized photographs: Shimon Briman (Israel).
Photographs: The Ben-Zvi Institute, the National Library of Israel, the Government Press Office (GPO), the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage House, and the Israel State Archives

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