Over the last week there have been disturbing reports out of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, of leaflets being handed out by masked men to worshipers leaving Passover services at the Bet Menakhem-Mendel synagogue. The leaflets demanded that Jews register with the authorities and pay a fine or risk being deported and having their property confiscated, haunting echoes of a not-too-distant history of the Jewish laws that developed before and during the Shoah.
Government officials in the region quickly denied responsibility and blamed Russian sources for cynical fear mongering. Much has already been written about whether the leaflets were real or the result of a hoax and, as of this writing, the most plausible theory seems to be that they are fraudulent documents and that the officials named in them were clueless about any such requirements.
What is less suspect, or even capable of dispute, is the visceral fear that must have visited those who were leaving the synagogue when they were handed the papers, as they were again confronted with an existential threat to their people. Our people.
Family legend has it that my own great-grandfather Max – who was born 90 miles northwest of Kiev in the city of Zhitomir, Ukraine – left town alone as a young teen in the 1880s and walked across Europe, making his way to London. There he found work in a glass factory and earned enough money to gradually bring his brothers, and then the rest of the family, to England. From there, our family dispersed like branches of a stream, one drifting toward New York, one toward Israel and the third remaining in London.
In 1996, when I moved 3,000 miles west from New York to Los Angeles, I couldn't help comparing and contrasting the difference of buying a one-way ticket for a six-hour flight compared to what Max's journey must have been. What would cause such a young person to strike out alone and leave his family behind in the way that he did?
In 2009, I was invited to join an international legal delegation of lawyers, judges and professors to take part in a conference in Kiev. It was an impressive group that included lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and other jurists from courts around the world. I was asked to speak to the prestigious group about trademark counterfeiting and intellectual property infringement, a welcome opportunity in my professional career. However, part of why I agreed to go was that the trip offered me an opportunity to visit Max's hometown.
When I spoke about my plans with Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of my congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood, he quickly put me in touch with the Chief Progressive Rabbi of Ukraine, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, who in turn arranged for one of his congregants to lead me on a tour of our ancestral home.
I have visited Yad Vashem and studied the Holocaust at the University of Massachusetts with David Wyman (author of “The Abandonment of the Jews”), and I and grew up in Riverdale, N.Y., home to a large population of survivors. As the policy chair for Jewish World Watch, I also drafted the original bill that became ACR 144, adopted by the California legislature, to make our state the first in the nation to designate April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. All this is to say, I have more than a working knowledge of what befell our people during the Second World War. Still, I was ill prepared for what I saw when I arrived in Zhitomir on the rainy morning of March 24, 2009.
After riding for two hours in the cramped back seat of a small black car, I was excited when we arrived in town. I suppose the romantic in me was expecting to find a shtetl and lots of brown burlap. Instead, I found a modern, sophisticated city, rich in commerce and with plenty of modern conveniences. The roads were well paved, the stores modern. This was the new Zhitomir, not the city where 10,000 Jews were murdered in pits in 1941.
Then we turned onto Velyka Berdychivska Street and stopped in front of the Old Jewish Cemetery.
The only path to the cemetery entrance was a muddy one that was puddling in the rain. Behind unmarked painted-white cinderblock walls, I was shocked to find virtually every headstone toppled. Surrounding the cemetery property were apartment buildings and businesses with windows overlooking the abandoned destruction. A few stones were designed to resemble old trees with sawed off limbs. Broken beer bottles had been strewn about, and many of the stones looked to have been deliberately broken. I couldn't help wonder who would inflict this injury when there was such a large potential audience.
The dates on the stones that remained standing appeared to be from the early 1940s, but the gravestones looked to have been broken more recently. The littered bottles were certainly fresh.
My guide and I stood in the rain thinking of the hundred strangers buried here, and of their families. We were helpless. There was little we could do, so we simply recited the Mourner's Kaddish.
We decided to drive back into the main part of town to regroup and gather our thoughts before trying to find my family's old neighborhood. But before we arrived, we came across a local Chabad, or at least the shell of one. The synagogue was abandoned, its windows shattered, the points on the small Stars of David on the gate surrounding the building had been twisted into obscene shapes that appeared to be suffering.
And what was the response to all this? Where were the police? Where was the community support? Nowhere. No outrage, no protest; the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt put it, was apparent. We stood in the rain and I photographed the site. If nothing else, I could bear witness to what it looks like to be in a thriving community that has no place in its heart for Jews, that stands by and watches when the attacks come, that may erect monuments to victims of the past, but offers the living nothing but a shrug.
In recent months, I have been taken by the reports out of Ukraine about whether the Russian or Ukrainian leadership is attempting to generate faux-anti-Semitism in the current crisis between those two nations, as if to suggest the political finger is pointing to a condition in name only, that concerns something that doesn't exist. That version of the truth conflicts with what I experienced five years ago on that gray day in western Ukraine. What I experienced was a haunting quiet, passive acceptance of decimation. And it was all around us.
Peter Marcus is a partner with the law firm Berkes Crane Robinson & Seal LLP, where he specializes in civil litigation.