In a corner of the Jewish cemetery number 3 in Odessa, between bushes and tombs that no one visits anymore, there is a monument that the present has recovered from oblivion. It is an amphitheater made up of large stone blocks and black granite columns. Some steles collect 305 names in Hebrew. They are the identified victims of the 1905 pogrom against the city’s Jews. That ethnic persecution also provoked the largest armed organization of the Jewish people on Ukrainian soil, that of the Jewish self-defense groups of Odessa. More than a century later, members of this community are once again taking up arms against Russian imperialism.
Each piece of the monumental complex has a number painted in red, they are the marks that gave order to the reconstruction of the tribute. The original site was the old Jewish cemetery number 2 in Odessa, which was closed in 1974 by the Soviet authorities. It stands again, ignored even by the descendants of the dead who are honored there. The spirit of survival, however, has passed on to new generations, says Roman Shvarcman, 85, vice president of the Ukraine Holocaust Survivors Association. “Russia says that it wants to denazify Ukraine. Have you seen many Nazis in the Ukraine?” Shvarcman asks rhetorically: “Not me, and believe me I know what a Nazi is, I grew up in the Berschad ghetto [centro de Ucrania] and I came out of it alive, so I know that it is the Russians who are acting like the Germans 80 years ago.”
Every day at eight in the evening, Gennadiy Raskin dons a military uniform and takes his rifle to patrol the city of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. He proudly explains that both of his grandfathers fought against Nazi Germany in the Red Army, and at home they keep a photograph of one of them in a tank in Berlin after the German capital fell. Raskin is Jewish, but that, he assures him, means nothing when he is on duty with his four fellow patrolmen. Only one of them, Aleksandr, has a Jewish father; the others have no link to his creed.
They form a surveillance unit of the Territorial Defense Forces, the paramilitary arm of the Army, made up of civilian volunteers. They go through the old quarters of the center of Odessa during the curfew, from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Raskin, like Shvarcman, cannot believe how the Kremlin’s discourse has permeated left-wing European political parties: “To say that Ukraine is led by Nazis is stupid. the president himself [Volodímir Zelenski] he is jewish In our country there is no problem between nationalities”.
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Raskin is 40 years old and a coroner by profession, currently holding a high rank in the structure of the Odessa Territorial Defense Forces. He is respected as the authority by his colleagues and by the police. He knows the legacy of the Jewish self-defense forces during the pogroms of more than a century ago, because they are a myth in the armed reaction of his people against the aggressions he has suffered.
It was in his city that the strongest self-defense groups in Ukraine against pogroms were organized since the end of the 19th century. The proletarian revolution of October 1905 led to nationalist violence against the Jewish population. The dead, which according to some counts numbered a thousand, might have reached a higher number had it not been for the self-organized defense. This was the conclusion of the American historian Robert Weinberg in the most exhaustive book on this episode, The revolution of 1905 in Odessa (Indiana University Press, 1993).
The aggression against the Jewish population was the product of a combination of two factors, according to Weinberg’s study: on the one hand, the workers’ uprising that demanded reforms from Tsar Nicholas II was also made up of radicals motivated by stereotypes against the supposed Jewish economic control . On the other hand, and more importantly, Russian nationalism and the authorities channeled popular anger against their community.
“The pogrom started on October 19 [de 1905], hundreds of Russians gathered in various parts of the city in patriotic marches to demonstrate their loyalty to the Tsar, with the approval of the local authorities”, writes Weinberg. The spirits between the revolutionaries and the supporters of the Government had been heated since the previous days: “Police officers in civilian clothes distributed bottles of vodka, money and pistols among the protesters. During the journey from the port to the center of the city, the national anthem and also religious hymns were sung; according to various documents, slogans such as ‘down with the Jews’ and ‘the Jews need a beating’ began to be chanted. Weinberg’s account of the Jewish paramilitary organization, and its coalition with Bolshevik and student groups, partially evokes the current civilian militarization in Ukraine: “The Jewish National Self-Defense Committee distributed leaflets threatening non-Jews with reprisals in the event of pogrom occur. […] Many Jews residing in Odessa followed the Committee’s advice and armed themselves with guns, knives, sticks, whips, as well as sulfuric acid.”
Rabbi Abraham Wolff believes that this will to prevail against so many enemies has been what has kept the Odessa Jewish community alive. The main Black Sea port, founded by the Russian Empress Catherine II, had Greeks and Jews as the main entrepreneurial groups in maritime trade. Despite the pogroms and especially despite the Holocaust – which ended the lives of 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine, 90% of the total -, his community in Odessa is today made up of some 35,000 members. According to Wolff, some 15,000 have fled the war to the West or to Israel, and 15% of these are involved in volunteer work.
Raskin estimates that 300 Odessa Jews have enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces. He considers that the current context is very different because the Russian aggression is not against its people: it is against Ukraine as a whole. He does believe that, as happened at other times in history, his relatives have to flee again – his wife and his three children are refugees in Hungary. But the war, he admits, has also divided the Jews themselves: Of the many friends he has in Russia, he can only talk to one or two. “They are under the influence of propaganda, and despite the fact that they have relatives in Ukraine who tell them what they are suffering, they do not believe it.”
Schvarcman highlights that the identity component does not play any role today because the Jewish community is fully integrated into Ukrainian society, unlike the time of the pogroms: “The mentality of the Jews at that time was different, they lived separately from the rest of the population ”. Schvarcman above all provides arguments to refute the speech of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, according to which Ukraine is a nest of Nazis. He criticizes the fact that despite the role of the Russian State in encouraging the pogroms, the monument of the cemetery number 3 did not receive Russian money to be rehabilitated, and adds that “during the Soviet Union there was a palpable anti-Semitism”: “Now we have synagogues that we could not open then . And in independent Ukraine we can talk about the Holocaust, explain what happened without censorship. This is my response to Putin.”
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