We have managed to largely overcome harmful Soviet lies about historical Ukrainian-Jewish relations — Leonid Finberg

A conversation with Leonid Finberg, director of the Center for the Studies of History and Culture of East European Jewry, editor-in-chief of the Dukh i Litera Publishing House, and member of PEN Ukraine.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What part of your work at the Center is attracting the public's attention right now?

Leonid Finberg: We are engaged in scholarly research. Before the war, we were organizing conferences and exhibits. Our main work is preparing and publishing books on Jewish history and culture. According to Yaroslav Hrytsak, more than 90 percent of the books on Jewish history and Ukrainian-Jewish relations published today are the products of our Center and our publishing house.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In an interview you gave four years ago, you said that you personally know almost all the people who read the books issued by your publishing house. I realize that you were exaggerating. I think that the situation has changed in these past four years. Is that right

Leonid Finberg: We published over a hundred books about Jewish history and culture in those years. Our average print run is between 500 and 2,000 copies. We know historians, philosophers, and sociologists who have the greatest interest in these topics. So, they are the ones whom we know personally and with whom we collaborate. If we are talking about other readers, I think that there are many more of them.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You have said that solidarity between Ukrainian and Jewish intellectuals is important to you. It does manifest itself, but at the same time, there is a palpable lack of consensus around the understanding that Ukrainian Jews are, in fact, part of Ukraine. To say that "Jews are in Ukraine" is to cut off part of one's identity. What do you think about this?

Leonid Finberg: In the years of independence and democratization, we have gradually arrived at the point that the [other] European nations reached earlier. People in France or Holland do not ascertain a person's ethnicity or sexual orientation; they are all called Dutch or French people. Today, that's the way it is in Ukraine, too: we are all Ukrainians. If we want to talk about our identity connected to an ethnicity or sexual orientation, or age, then we talk about it. Therefore, Jews, Crimean Tatars, and Poles living in Ukraine — all of them are Ukrainians. But in ethnic terms, they are different. I expect that most of them are patriots of Ukraine, especially now, during the war. This is a normal process that should have taken place earlier. But Soviet traditions, the strategy of "divide and rule," and lies about the historical relations among peoples had a harmful impact. We have succeeded in overcoming this for the most part.

"During the Thaw in the 1970s, we began to form our worldviews contrary to the stereotypes and dogmas imposed by the government"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: All the guests on our program have talked about a vacuum and the conditions that the USSR was creating to impede the dissemination of information. You devoted a significant part of your life to the exact sciences. You worked as an engineer, and you said that this was practically the only way you could organize your life in the situation at the time. When did this begin to change? When did you feel the strength to resist the system? 

Leonid Finberg: During the Thaw in the 1970s, most of us began to form our worldviews contrary to the stereotypes and dogmas imposed by the government. We looked for books in which we could read about the real history of the country, the peoples of the world, and real literature.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Where did you find them? You were living in Kyiv at the time

Leonid Finberg: I was not involved in dissident circles during that period. That came much later. Like most consumers of the official literature, I looked for this by reading between the lines of antisemitic and anti-Ukrainian books. I tried to find out what was really happening. Gradually, I gained access to dissident literature, to samvydav. I had good connections with the Moscow-based Institute of Scientific Information in Social Sciences, which published books for Politburo members and academicians. They were for internal use only and contained the texts of Weber, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, etc. Their print runs were small, but the Soviet leaders had to know their opponents. I knew Viktoriia Chalikova, Academician Sakharov's colleague, very well. She gave me these books, and I brought them here and circulated them. This was in the 1980s.

"Ukrainians do not know Jewish history, and Jews do not know Ukrainian history"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: How did the Soviet system work with regard to Jews and people who tried to find their identity rather than being a typical Soviet citizen?

Leonid Finberg: Leonid Pliushch, a great researcher and dissident, said at one of the first Ukrainian-Jewish conferences: "Ukrainians do not know Jewish history, and Jews do not know Ukrainian history. Worse still, Ukrainians do not know Ukrainian history, and Jews do not know Jewish history."

It was the goal that Soviet propagandists and ideologists succeeded in achieving: all our knowledge of history was distorted. Gradually, as we opened ourselves to the world and the world opened itself to us, we studied materials and texts that offered an adequate understanding of multiple aspects, including relations between social groups and national structures at various stages in Ukrainian and world history. There is a chasm dividing what we know today and what was imposed on us back in Soviet times.

"There is no everlasting freedom. You need to fight for it every day"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What can we do right now to reclaim what is ours and restore lost color and memory about it, which we will continue to carry?

Leonid Finberg: We, the intelligentsia, have been doing this over the last few decades, sometimes more consistently, sometimes less so. The renaming of streets, which is happening today, and changes to the texts of Ukrainian school textbooks — all of this is part of the same process. Our Center has issued several textbooks recommended for high schools, including Essays on Jewish History in Ukraine and Essays on Jewish Art in Eastern Europe. Quite a few other projects contribute to the modern liberal-democratic view of history and the events that took place here. We now have a considerable number of documentary and feature films in Ukraine —  world classics and the works of Ukrainian masters, which recount both this history and these events. Of course, this is far from enough. This is a task for many a generation, but we know that there is no everlasting freedom. You need to fight for it every day. We are doing this, as far as we have the strength. There are dozens of programs. We would like there to be hundreds and thousands of them.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Since 2006, when the Center for the Studies of History and Culture of East European Jewry was established, you have been tracking moments when there was effective communication and when some formats were more productive. What conclusions have you reached over the years

Leonid Finberg: Everything began in the early 1990s, with the start of independence. At the time, we went by various names: Jewish Studies Institute, Jewish Studies Group. We have been working for more than thirty years. With the emergence of our Center, it became more holistic, professional, and institutional, especially considering that we are a branch of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The academy offers a Master's degree in Jewish Studies and, for nearly ten years now, has been issuing degrees to history graduates specializing in Jewish Studies. Some stages were more productive, and some less so. They depended on the government's actions less than on the potential that we managed to gather around our topics and problems. I think the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University have done quite a lot. There are various small groups dealing with Jewish Studies either at the Rivne State Humanitarian University or in Drohobych. Everyone is doing something bit by bit, and that is how our knowledge of what was and exists today is being built up; we are trying to predict what will happen in the future.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: If someone wants to gain a better understanding of how Jews lived in Ukraine and wants to read some thoughts on this topic, what books would you recommend?

Leonid Finberg: We have published over a hundred books on this topic. Some print runs have become depleted, and we will print more. The website of Dukh і Litera has a column called Judaica, where you can see our publications. I would single out the following:

  • Jewish Civilization: The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (two volumes, nearly 1,000 pages; a survey of Jewish history and culture from biblical times to the late 20th century);
  • Jewish Addresses of Ukraine: A Guidebook (lists information about Jewish history and culture in various cities of Ukraine and the people who lived there, including Agnon and Sholem Aleichem);
  • Tehillim (Psalms of David) (two volumes with a commentary to each psalm and every phrase).

There is a lot of fiction. These are books for those who are knowledgeable about this topic; for intellectuals.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What advice would you give to someone discovering this topic for the first time?

Leonid Finberg: We have a few books whose print runs have become depleted, unfortunately: Essays on Jewish History and Culture in Ukraine and a textbook for schools. Hopefully, we will reissue them soon. I would also recommend reading An Anthology of Jewish Literature in Eastern and Central Europe, which we published not so long ago. It contains the first-ever texts in Ukrainian of works by Bruno Schultz, Babel, Stanisław Jerzy Lec, and Singer. This is a phenomenon that gives you an idea of twentieth-century Jewish literature in our lands, in the wonderful translations of our associates and translators with whom we have been working in recent years and decades.

To people who are interested in the Holocaust, I would recommend the book Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman, a brilliant sociologist who was born in Poland and later became a British citizen. This is a most powerful book; it states that, to a significant degree, the Holocaust happened because human civilization did not have safeguards for resisting evil. This is what we are observing today as well; human civilization has not developed such safeguards. That is why solidarity between various countries — above all, the US, Britain, Poland, and Ukraine — is very important to us. I would like to see the structures that have existed for many years, like the UN and others, be capable of doing at least something. It seems that they are barely able to do anything.

"We are planning to publish a paperback version of the Kobzar for our soldiers"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What ambitious and fascinating projects are in the works? What can we expect?

Leonid Finberg: Right now, at our Center alone, we are working on sixty books and projects, like a project to create a virtual museum of Jewish culture in collaboration with the University of Toronto. The following projects are of extraordinary importance to us:

  • The publication of 5,000 paperback copies of the Kobzar, book size A6, to be distributed to our soldiers — this will be our contribution to victory;
  • The publication of books for children aged six to nine who are interested in Jewish history and Judaism.

We borrowed this idea from PJ Library, an American program that has been operating for 20 years now. Every month, each willing child receives a present in the form of a book. In Ukraine, this project has been in operation for seven years. Nearly 50 books have been published, and today we are the publishers of this program. At present, we are launching this program for Ukrainian children who are scattered throughout the world. Every child between the ages of six and nine can receive a cartoon or an electronic version of either a fairy tale or a prose work for children. I hope that this, too, will contribute to our victory.

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.

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