Jews in East Ukraine Are Being Threatened, But By Whom?

Fliers in Donetsk, Ukraine tell Jews to register, pay up, or be deported. The city’s grand rabbi says he takes the threat seriously.

Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty

DONETSK, Ukraine—It was the second day of Pesach celebrations on Tuesday and over 100 Jewish believers at the Donetsk synagogue had just finished praying. Several stayed to visit a bit longer; some shared a community meal, others just chatted with friends. A few community members were smoking outside when a car pulled up, five men in masks got out, and handed them pieces of paper. Witnesses said that on reading the text of the leaflets a few elderly Jewish women burst into tears.

The flyers were addressed to “Jews of Donetsk” from the “Independent Donetsk Republic” and ordered Jewish residents of the city to pay the new pro-Russian revolutionary authorities $50 apiece for individual registration, otherwise “the guilty ones would be deprived of their citizenship and deported outside the republic; their property would be confiscated.”

Identical leaflets appeared under the windshield wipers of cars parked on Artur Avenue in the middle of town on Wednesday night. The threat left many of the 15,000 Jews of Donetsk “shocked and hysterical,” the chief rabbi of the city told The Daily Beast in an interview on Thursday. He pointed out where one of the leaflets had been left on a tree outside his synagogue on Oktiabskaya Street.

In all of his 20-year service in Donetsk, Rabbi Pinhas Vyshedski said, he could never imagine that anything as “cynical” and “anti-human” could ever happen to his community. The text of the leaflet read like an accusation against Ukrainian Jews for their supposed support of the “Bandera Junta” in Kiev, which is what many Russian-speakers call the government that took over in February after ousting pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The irony, of course, is that Bandera was for a time a Nazi collaborator.

The leaflet claimed that each Jew was to come to room 514 of the occupied administration building on Lenin Square and to pay the fee. The leaflet was stamped by the Donetsk People’s Republic and signed: “Your People’s Governor Denis Pushilin.”

Later Pushilin publically denied that he had ever signed such a letter, and indeed it could have been the work of provocateurs hoping to discredit the pro-Russian movement. But Pushilin’s statement was not enough to comfort the alarmed Jewish community, which has other reasons to suspect it could have been issued by at least some members of the pro-Russian faction.

According to Rabbi Vyshedski, the press secretary of the self-proclaimed republic, Aleksander Kriakov, is “the most famous anti-Semite in the region.” Vyshedski wondered how separatists who are trying to position themselves as “anti-fascist” and claiming it’s Kiev that’s run by neo-Nazis could pick Kriakov as their spokesman.

The sense of insecurity is heightened by the uncertainty and a feeling of abandonment. “I want to know why in two days of these threats, the Jewish community has not heard a single comment from either Donetsk—or from the Kiev authorities,” said the rabbi. “Last time Donetsk saw similar messages was in 1941, when the Nazi German army occupied Donetsk. It is so painful for us to see that some cynical politicians dare to use us as an instrument in their political games.” The rabbi said he is still hoping authorities will find the guilty ones and punish them.

But the problem is, precisely, that there are no authorities who really control the situation in Donetsk Oblast just now.

On Wednesday afternoon a group of 100 pro-Russian protesters arrived at Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk. The visitors brought flags from the Russian Federation and Donetsk Republic flags and banners “to demonstrate who has power in this region.” In Sloviansk, where protesters had barricaded the entire town last week, pro-Russian militia or “green men” took over the television tower; from now on there will be no Ukrainian channels working, only Russian, the Medianyanya Internet news website reported.

This afternoon I went to see who was collecting the “Jewish fee” in room 514 at the seized administration. The office was empty.

“Nobody is going to charge Jews for living in our republic,” said Dmitry Sinegorsky, the “security supervisor” on the 5 floor who showed me the room. Sinegorsky said he would personally “put needles under Pushilin’s nails” to find out whose idea that was to discredit the pro- Russian movement, but he believed it also could have been a “pure provocation.”

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“See, until today, there were all sorts of thugs and confused men in this building,” Sinegorsky told me. “But as from today we begin a self-cleansing process.”

“Jews should not be worried,” he said. “We are an anti-fascist, anti-xenophobic movement.”

But Jews are very worried indeed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the rabbi's name.