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The Peripatetic Journalist

Sam Sokol in Poland

Sam Sokol in Poland

More Tales From The Road

By Sam Sokol

I was standing in a room full of neo-Nazis . . . well, let me start from the beginning.

In just over a month, I have been to four cities in three countries (not counting Israel) on two continents, and I’m pretty tired. As a reporter covering the Jewish diaspora, it falls upon me to bite the bullet and travel around the world, collecting fascinating stories, interesting souvenirs, and lifelong memories. The fact that I also have to put myself in the odd bit of danger and risk my neck? Well, it’s part of the job. I prefer to focus on the good parts.

My latest round of journeys (for the previous batch, see “The Peripatetic Journalist: Tales from the Road,” posted at in May 2013) took me from my home in Bet Shemesh (where I recently got blasted with a high-pressure water hose covering a riot three blocks from my apartment) to Warsaw, New York, Chicago, and Kiev.

I was sitting in my bedroom, filing a story from my laptop (when I’m not on the road, I can pretty much work anywhere, though I do prefer my desk at the Jerusalem Post), when I received a call from former Soviet dissident David Shechter. David is the Russian-language spokesman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and a close friend of JAFI chairman Natan Sharansky. We had spent some time in Kiev together during the Agency’s recent board of governors meeting (I seem to spend a lot of time in Ukraine but have never seen Uman, go figure . . .) and David was calling to invite me to accompany him to Poland.

It seems that more than 90 percent of German Jews are Russian-speakers from the former Soviet Union, and that the Agency’s Russian-speakers department was arranging a Shabbaton for them in—of all places—Warsaw.

Poland was a fascinating experience. The Russian-speaking Jews in Germany are in a bit of a bind, lacking a coherent national identity. They don’t consider themselves Germans and, while they speak the language, they don’t identify as Russians either.

Under Sharansky, the Agency has made efforts to promote a Jewish (though not necessarily religious) identity among these Jews. Dispersed as many of them are among many small towns and cities throughout Deutschland, the most regular participants in Agency events only really gather as a group once a year for a weekend trip.

Watching these young men and women identify with their Jewishness, sing Jewish songs, and chat in Russian and German was a moving experience. Even more moving were two Warsaw sites that brought home to me what happened to the country from which my own mother’s family came, and which used to be the center of the Diaspora. At the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, I stood atop a mound containing the rubble which was the only grave many of the Warsaw ghetto fighters ever received. I looked at the site, at which a small Israeli flag had been planted by a tourist, and thought about how these men and women were the forebears of men like me, who served in a Jewish army in a Jewish state.

Even more moving was when Michael Schudrich, the New York-born Chief Rabbi of Poland, asked me to lead services in the Nożyk Synagogue, the last remaining pre-War synagogue in the city. Standing there davening on a Sunday morning, I realized how pitifully few the remaining Jews in Poland (or at least those who come to shul) really are. The city, once the home of multitudes of Jews and synagogues, was a wasteland.

I will gloss over New York and Chicago, except to note that almost immediately on the heels of Warsaw I had to visit America to visit a dying relative, and get straight to the meat: Kiev.

As anyone watching the news lately is probably aware, Ukrainians are up in arms (thank G‑d not literally) over President Yanukovych’s decision to scuttle a trade deal with the EU and to go over to the Russians. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the biggest protests since 2004’s Orange Revolution, in which Yanukovych was the target of popular anger over alleged attempts to fix an election.

Some Jewish organizations in the country were worried, with the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a group founded by oligarch and coalition MP Oleksandr Feldman, warning Jewish institutions and organizations to adhere to a policy of strict neutrality. Other groups declined to get involved even to that extent. While Chief Rabbi Bleich did attempt to intervene by taking part in a failed roundtable of government and opposition figures, he has not taken a side either, as such.

The leadership of the protest movement is not united and, aside from the unaffiliated grassroots, there are several opposition factions represented. One of the smaller factions, though incredibly prominent and ubiquitous, is the Svoboda party, a neo-Nazi faction that has drawn the ire of Jewish groups for its anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Svoboda flags were everywhere inside the barricades around the city’s central square, and men with army helmets and military-style boots tucked into camouflage pants were everywhere.

The morning I arrived in Kiev, I went straight to the Kiev municipality, which was occupied by several opposition factions, though chiefly by Svoboda. Standing in the building, surrounded by Svoboda flags, booths bearing the party’s name, and activists handing out literature and soliciting donations, I was understandably nervous.

At one in the morning, only hours before my arrival, the police had stormed the barricades and attempted to enter the building and were driven back by protesters with high-pressure fire hoses. As I wandered around the building, I saw wet floors, dripping walls covered in graffiti, and men in secondhand army helmets putting away the thick hoses.

While local Jews told me that some of their compatriots were on the front lines, clashing with police, building barricades of snow and detritus (some almost three times the heights of a man), I didn’t meet anyone who identified as Jewish. This was probably the best approach, given the presence of the far right.

While the protests were not about the Jews, one local chassid mused that angry Ukrainians and alcohol (this reporter saw some, though not many, political activists drinking to stay warm) were not soothing and relaxing sights, and that he worried over what might be.

At this point, I’m just glad to be home. v

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Posted by on December 27, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.