Ukrainian-Jewish relations are not just a record of mutual grievances but also the history of bonding

Who is Mykhailo Rudnytsky, and why is it important to know his name in the context of the formation of Ukrainian-Jewish relations?

This topic was discussed with Illia Chedoluma, a graduate student at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), where he is studying history, particularly the life and intellectual legacy of Mykhailo Rudnytsky.

Vasyl Shandro: Who is Mykhailo Rudnytsky, and how did the idea of researching the life of this individual come about?

Illia Chedoluma: My encounter with Mykhailo Rudnytsky is quite interesting and specific. When I was still studying at Chernivtsi National University — I was born in Chernivtsi — I began working on a project organized by the Chernivtsi Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews to collect interviews with Ukrainian peasants who remembered the interwar period and the period of the Second World War. The project, which lasted several years, focused attention on the memory of Bukovynian Jews. What do people remember about the Jews of Bukovyna; what did their parents tell them? This was my first encounter with Jewish culture, with the memory of Ukraine’s Jews.

Later, in 2015, I moved to Lviv, enrolled in the Jewish Studies Program at UCU, and began studying the life of Alfred Nossig, a Zionist from Lviv who was one of the first people to put forward the idea of founding a Jewish state in Palestine. In other words, all this took place in Lviv. Later, once I began graduate studies, my academic supervisor, Yaroslav Hrytsak, and I came up with the idea to write a study that would highlight the history of Ukrainian–Jewish relations in the western Ukrainian lands. We thought about modeling our work on Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s book The Anti-Imperial Choice, in which he describes this cohort of people of Jewish descent who became Ukrainian cultural figures.

When we began researching the western Ukrainian lands, we saw that, in fact, except for the Rudnytsky family, there are very few such examples, and we decided to focus on this particular family. Later, during our research, I realized that there was so much material that we had to narrow it down to a single person, and we chose Mykhailo Rudnytsky.

Mykhailo Rudnytsky is a very interesting individual for many reasons. First his background. He comes from a Ukrainian–Jewish family. His father, Ivan Rudnytsky, was the son of a priest, and his mother, Ida Spiegel, came from an assimilated Jewish family in Lviv. Second, he was a fascinating writer, literary specialist, and translator; he knew more than ten languages — in other words, he was a polyglot. And he was constantly interested in cultural interaction — French culture, Polish culture, Jewish culture, English culture. Naturally, he tried to introduce these cultural trends into the native terrains of Ukrainian culture.

The history of the genesis of this family is very interesting because, at the end of the nineteenth century, we have very few examples of mixed Ukrainian–Jewish marriages in the intellectual milieu or in priestly families. In most cases, if we even have such instances, this happened in the rural areas of Galicia. There were many more examples of mixed Polish–Jewish families because, since Polish culture predominated in Galicia from the late nineteenth century, local Jews assimilated much more readily into Polish culture, and this, accordingly, affected the number of mixed marriages. However, Ivan Rudnytsky, the father of Mykhailo Rudnytsky, belonged to the first generation of intellectuals who came from priestly families but chose secular professions. He decided to become a lawyer, which enabled him to obtain fully independent financing — he earned a living; and second, he could marry the girl of his choice.

This was a catastrophe in the view of the parents of both families because neither Mykhailo’s parents welcomed this marriage between the grandson of a priest and a girl from a Jewish family, nor did Ida’s parents. Ten years passed from the moment they met until their wedding, meaning that they went against their parents for ten years to have a chance to marry. They were able to do this only in 1888. Ida Spiegel converted to Christianity and received the first name of Olha. Only after this was the young couple able to get married.

First, the situation was quite complicated for the family because the wife’s background meant much talk behind her back. The couple often moved from place to place, and they were able to remain in one place, Berezhany, only in 1903. At one time, Mykhailo’s father, Ivan, and his father had studied in Berezhany; it was a kind of family tradition to study there, and they were able to gain a better foothold there.

Interestingly, the spoken language in their family was Polish, but, despite this, all of Mykhailo’s brothers and one sister — all the children of Ivan and Olha Rudnytsky — became Ukrainian figures and always positioned themselves as such. Their mother was never able to master the Ukrainian language, and in all the letters to her children, she wrote in Polish. But at the end of every letter, she always signed off in Ukrainian, “Your mother, Olia.”

In Berezhany, this Jewish background played an interesting role in Ukrainian–Jewish relations. In 1903, when a big pogrom took place in Chișinău [formerly Kishinev], the local Jewish community in Berezhany decided to hold a large prayer meeting in the big synagogue of Berezhany. The local Ukrainian community decided to send a delegation there in a show of solidarity with the local Jews to demonstrate that it also supported them in their grief. The delegation consisted of three individuals: a local attorney named Volodymyr Bachynsky and two students from the local gymnasium; Antin Chernetsky, who later became a Ukrainian socialist during the liberation struggles; and Mykhailo Rudnytsky. This was the first time that his parentage enabled him to participate in the Ukrainian–Jewish dialogue.

The second interesting case dates to 1907, during his studies in Berezhany. That year there was an incident involving a teacher from the gymnasium who had unjustifiably insulted a classmate of Mykhailo’s, a Jewish boy whose surname was Landsman. Mykhailo rose to his defense, calling the teacher’s behavior dishonorable. For this, he was suspended from lessons for some time. Afterward, another of his classmates, Alfred Bilyk, who during the interwar period was appointed to the position of voivode [leader, Ed.] in the revived Rzeczpospolita, spoke up in defense of Mykhailo and launched a huge strike that was reported on by Dilo and other newspapers. People from Lviv arrived to investigate what had happened at the gymnasium; ultimately, Mykhailo was allowed to return to school. This is an interesting situation where a Ukrainian gymnasium student stands up for a Jewish gymnasium student, and a Polish gymnasium student stands up for a Ukrainian classmate. This indicates that national identity in the milieu of gymnasium students, young people, at the beginning of the twentieth century, took a bit of a backseat, compared with what one can call class solidarity, if we can call it that; in other words, the fact that you were a gymnasium student was more important than your nationality. Mykhailo Rudnytsky wrote about this during the interwar period, recalling this period of his studies.

The situation and context markedly change during the interwar period because the Ukrainian defeat in the liberation struggles creates a context such that, say, the option of Jews assimilating into the Ukrainian milieu becomes practically impossible. The majority of the Ukrainian population consists of peasants, a priestly stratum, and a tiny stratum of members of the free professions: lawyers, physicians, members of cooperatives, and businesspeople, who were often the Jews’ economic competitors. Ukrainians are also a minority (in the urban centers) and, in many instances, have limited political rights, which leads to cultural assimilation and, to some degree, political assimilation or more detailed interaction — it was complicated. This was a very sharp contrast to which contemporaries drew attention. Stepan Baran, who was active in the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance (UNDO), wrote that the phenomenon of a stratum of Jews positioning themselves as Ukrainian cultural figures does not exist in Galicia, whereas we see this in Soviet Ukraine in music and other fields.

Vasyl Shandro: Particularly in both literature and translations. As far as I know, Rudnytsky was not involved in the First World War. But what about the Second World War? If he was in Lviv under Nazi occupation and not of “Aryan descent,” this could have played a fatal role for Mykhailo Rudnytsky and his family, as it did for many people of Jewish descent.

Illia Chedoluma: Yes, Mykhailo Rudnytsky did not participate in the First World War. He did not fight on the fronts, although his brothers, Ivan and Volodymyr, were mobilized into the Austro-Hungarian army. But he was not, and he ended up in the Dnipro River lands of Ukraine. Until January 1919, he lived in Kyiv, where he worked, teaching philosophy at a university. Interestingly, between 1919 and 1920, he was a member of the UNR’s [Ukrainian National Republic] diplomatic mission based in Paris, working first as an interpreter and later as the mission’s secretary and treasurer. In other words, it may be said that he took part in the liberation struggles, but in diplomatic service.

Yes, during the Second World War, his origins were a high-risk factor and dangerous because back in the interwar period, the Rudnytskys’ background [was ridiculed] in certain circles, for example, in the pages of the satirical humor magazines Zyz and more often in Komar, which featured various satirical texts and images. A company owned by Ivan Tyktor published them. They often featured caricatures that hinted at the Rudnytsky family’s Jewish origins. They were depicted wearing tallit [prayer shawls] and were occasionally pictured with stereotyped side-curls. From private correspondence, we see, for example, that in the milieu of some of the writers grouped around Dmytro Dontsov, the origins of the Rudnytsky family were constantly mentioned in derogatory connotations. In other words, it was no secret for anyone at the beginning of the Second World War. Yes, it caused problems. The journal entries recorded during the year 1940 by the distinguished diaspora historian Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky, the son of Milena Rudnytska and nephew of Mykhailo (in December 1939 he and his mother, Milena, fled the territory of the Soviet zone of occupation), state that some circles connected with the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] were blackmailing his mother and his uncle, Ivan Kedryn, who had moved to Cracow, about their Jewish descent, saying they could denounce them to the Germans. They waited impatiently for the arrival of Volodymyr Rudnytsky, their other brother, in whose safekeeping were their birth certificates, to prove that they were not from a Jewish family but a Greek Catholic one, as indicated in the birth certificates. This was definitely a problem.

At the same time, Mykhailo Rudnytsky faced an even more difficult situation because whereas Lysiak-Rudnytsky and his mother moved to Berlin (where, paradoxically, it was much easier for Jews to survive during the Second World War than in the eastern territories, the Polish and Ukrainian lands), Mykhailo Rudnytsky remained in Galicia. He lived in Lviv and various small towns in Galicia, and he was able to survive somehow. To be honest, how Rudnytsky survived during the Second World War is a big question, and in the meantime, no researcher has come up with a full [satisfactory] answer. In any case, until now, I have not come across any documents about this. Most likely, Rudnytsky was able to survive because, just like during the First World War, he earned a living during the Second World War by working at a translation bureau. He knew many languages, he was wonderfully fluent in them, and in these translation bureaus, he was engaged in creating various types of documents, including false ones. If he made them for other people, very likely he made such documents for himself during the Second World War. Most likely, these were documents showing that he was a Volksdeutscher, which allowed him to move around in relative safety.

Vasyl Shandro: Mykhailo Rudnytsky had a long life; he lived until the 1970s. What was his life like during the Soviet period, after 1944–45?

Illia Chedoluma: In the late 1940s, during the trials connected with the so-called struggle against the [Mykahilo] Hrushevsky school in Lviv and the like, there was a period when Rudnytsky was close to being repressed in 1947. But informally and formally, he was compelled to cooperate with the Soviet authorities to survive. However, his Jewish background came up again at the peak of this threat. People who came to his defense at party meetings and the like pointed out that his alleged collaboration with bourgeois nationalists and the Nazis was impossible because his mother was Jewish, meaning, so what are you saying? Here perhaps his Jewish descent may have been to his advantage. Even after the war, this issue of their Jewish roots followed the Rudnytsky family. We have an interesting reference dating to 1971 when the idea to celebrate Ukrainian Easter in IsraeІ emerged. Someone by the name of Avramenko, who had emigrated from Ukraine to Israel, writes to the brother of Antin and to Milena Rudnytsky, suggesting that they come to Israel and take part in organizing this. In the same way, the young Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky in the 1950s and 1960s put great effort into forging Ukrainian–Jewish contacts in academia among diaspora historians of North America. Coincidences are rare, but in the early 1990s, a young Lviv historian named Yaroslav Hrytsak, who was preparing to publish the essays of Lysiak-Rudnytsky, would go on to create a Jewish Studies program in the early 2010s. Hence, this continuity of the Rudnytsky family as a factor of the Ukrainian–Jewish encounter and the Ukrainian–Jewish synthesis in these lands is still leaving its mark to this day.

Vasyl Shandro: Are Mykhailo Rudnytsky and his family related to other Rudnytskys — for example, Antin, the composer, or Yuliian Rudnytsky or Stepan Rudnytsky? There are many Rudnytskys in Galicia and western Ukraine, on the whole. Are these people related to each other?

Illia Chedoluma: Antin Rudnytsky is Mykhailo’s brother, the family's youngest brother. Stepan Rudnytsky is not connected to them; he simply shares the same surname, but he had some influence on the Rudnytsky family in the 1920s, when Ivan Rudnytsky, another of Mykhailo’s brothers, was in the emigration in Vienna and began to publish his essays. To a certain degree, he lived in the shadow of his brother, Mykhailo, and that of Stepan Rudnytsky, who was already a famous geographer. And it was precisely in order not to be overshadowed by the other Rudnytskys, who were already well known, that Ivan Rudnytsky adopts the name Kedryn. That is how Ivan Kedryn, or Ivan Kedryn-Rudnytsky, came to be.

Vasyl Shandro: Yurii Rudnytsky — Yuliian Opilsky is also a pseudonym, obviously, because it is quite a popular surname.

Illia Chedoluma: Yes.

Vasyl Shandro: You are getting ready to publish a work based on your research?

Illia Chedoluma: Right now, I am working on my dissertation to defend it. After the defense, I plan to rewrite the dissertation because a book differs from the dissertation genre; I will rewrite it as a book and then publish it.

Vasyl Shandro: To summarize our conversation: Your research and the story of Mykhailo Rudnytsky and his family are the histories of what?

Illia Chedoluma: First of all, it is the history of Ukrainian–Jewish relations. It is not just stories about shared grievances, stereotypes, conflicts, tragedies, and the like. In many respects, it is also the history of synthesis and bonding, using the example of Mykhailo Rudnytsky’s parents. Second, Mykhailo Rudnytsky belongs to the category of twentieth-century Ukrainian figures who were of part-Ukrainian descent or had no Ukrainian roots whatsoever. We can mention, for example, Viacheslav Lypynsky, Olgerd Ipolyt Bochkovsky, even Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky; in other words, an entire pleiad of figures who, being of mixed descent, consciously opted for Ukrainian culture, the Ukrainian direction, and the future as connected with it. And I think that the story of Mykhailo Rudnytsky’s life is the history of synthesis and the conscious choice of Ukrainian culture.

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.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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