x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Without prospects, the young leave

Where there was once a thriving Jewish population of 200,000 in Lviv, Ukraine, now there are only 4,000.

Tatyana Kotova says she will stay in Lviv as she feels too old to retrain for a job in Israel.
Tatyana Kotova says she will stay in Lviv as she feels too old to retrain for a job in Israel.

LVIV, UKRAINE // Tatyana Kotova, the organiser of the B'nai B'rith Leopolis Jewish organisation in this city in western Ukraine, points at the photographs of the group's past presidents on a wall in its headquarters. "Dr Alexander Schwarz, he helped rebuild this organisation. Dr Schwarz lives in Munich now. Samuel Rosenberg - he's in Israel now," she said. The exodus of this organisation's leaders is symptomatic of a wider decline in the Jewish population of Lviv. A decade ago, there were as many as 6,000 Jews in the city. Now, the group estimates there are fewer than 4,000 left. "It is getting less and less," said Mrs Kotova. "Nobody returns and the community consists mostly of elderly people. They are dying day by day. Young Jewish people emigrate."

According to Mrs Kotova, one reason why Jews do not feel comfortable is anti-Semitism in this western region of Ukraine, which is more nationalistic than the Russian-orientated eastern parts of the country. "The most popular displays of [anti-Semitism] are graffiti like swastikas or ugly words like, 'Jews must die', or, 'Only for Ukrainians - Jews go away'," she said. One wall of a building in the city contains a spray-painted image of a man attacking a Star of David with a hammer, while other group members have said graffiti of the Star of David hanging from a noose have appeared.

A bigger problem is simply a lack of opportunity for young people, a pattern mirrored in the Ukrainian population as a whole, which has suffered heavy emigration as a result of poor prospects at home. "There are no prospects for young people," said Mrs Kotova. "That's why they try to go abroad to have better education, to have a better salary." Many of the city's Jewish population have left for Germany and Israel, although Mrs Kotova herself is unlikely to join them.

When she was younger her family remained in Ukraine because her elderly grandparents, who were originally from eastern Ukraine but were settled in western Ukraine by the Soviet authorities after the Second World War, were not up to the strain of moving to Israel. Mrs Kotova, 35, a Latin and Greek teacher, feels she is too old to train in a discipline in demand in Israel. "If the youth feel that they will have a good future here, they will stay. Otherwise they will migrate" said Joseph Shtatman, a former president of the B'nai B'rith Leopolis group in Lviv, which was founded in 1899.

The current decline of Lviv's already modestly sized Jewish population sits in stark contrast to the community's fortunes prior to the Second World War, when the city was part of Poland. Then, there were as many as 110,000 Jews and more than 40 official synagogues - there is just one functioning synagogue today - as well as countless private Jewish places of worship. "Before the war, 73 per cent of the total trade belonged to the Jews and Jews were the greatest owners of the buildings," said Mr Shtatman. Lviv's Jewish population swollen to 200,000 as Jews fled western Poland, only for the Nazis to occupy the city in 1941.

Many Jews were killed soon afterwards in revenge for the killing of Ukrainians and Poles by the retreating Soviets, while tens of thousands were forced into a ghetto. A short car journey from the city centre is a stone memorial marking the site of the Janowksa labour and transit camp, where many prisoners were killed. Here, there is a stone memorial with a Star of David and the number 200,000 - the one-time Jewish population of Lviv - and a signboard that warns of "eternal damnation on the executors". Many from Janowksa were sent to Belzetz, a camp in modern-day Poland, and on their way they passed through Lviv's Kleparov station. According to a memorial plaque at Kleparov, 500,000 Jews went through the station on their way to their deaths.

Other reminders of the fate of the city's Jews include at least two memorials that mark empty spaces where synagogues once stood. One city centre shop façade retains a few lines of Yiddish writing. Recently, according to Galina Gavrilina, 55, who runs a Jewish group for women, the challenges faced by the city's Jewish population have included assimilation as well as emigration. "The process of assimilation is very strong," she said.

"Our generation is very assimilated, so we cannot expect our children to be really Jewish." To try to reduce assimilation, Mrs Gavrilina runs classes for young people to teach them Jewish traditions. It represents, in a small way, the kind of reassertion of Jewish identity that has taken place in neighbouring Poland where, despite the Jewish population remaining small in size, Jewish schools, for example, have become more popular.

"We have a branch of young Jewish people," Mrs Gavrilina said. "They keep their Jewish rules and traditions. We spend a lot of time teaching young people to be Jewish." dbardsley@thenational.ae