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Jewish Ukraine: 10 facts about the Jews of Donetsk

On Bank of London bonds, Samuil Marshak’s brother, masterpieces in glass, the head of the Jewish agency and many other things

Over the last year the Donetsk Oblast has turned into a warzone, where much blood has already been spilled, some of it Jewish. Today part of the region is controlled by fighters of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, whose leaders do not conceal their anti-Semitic views. Despite the armed conflict and the fact that these lands have been taken away from the control of the Ukrainian government (temporarily, we hope), Donetsk remains part of Ukraine, and no one can take away the Ukrainian history from this region, which contains a considerable Jewish component. Read about the past and present of Jewish Donetsk in the new chapter of the project “Jewish Ukraine: 10 facts about…”

1. A quarter of Yuzovka

Jews were permitted to settle in the worker’s village of Yuzovka (which was founded in 1869 and later became Donetsk) in 1903, and according to the census of the Yekaterinoslav guberniya, in 1897 Jews made up 4.97% of the population of Yuzovka. Seven years later, in 1910, quarter of the population of the village, which would later become the center of the Oblast, were members of the Jewish community.


2. London Bank bonds

Information about Jews of the region was carefully collected in a book with the title “Shtetl Bakhmut – the phenomenon of the Jewish people in Donbass” by S. Tatarinov and S. Fedotov. Here is an excerpt from it, which tells how the Jews of Bakhmut (now Artyomovsk) took part in the Zionist movement: “In London the National Bank is being founded with the colonial Jewish fund of 2 million pounds, which was raised in shekels. The Jewish colonial fund was founded by Benyamin-Zeev Herzel in 1899 to provide financial support for the Zionist movement. A bond of 1 English pound from the London fund of 1900 has been preserved, and the funds from the realization of these shares went to settlers in Palestine. The bond belonged to the Bakhmut magnates the Fintektikovs.”


3. The first grand master of the USSR

Boris Verlinsky was born in Bakhmut, but he did not live there for long – in childhood he moved with his parents to Odessa, and after a while he moved to Moscow. Owing to illnesses he suffered in childhood, Boris grew partially deaf and mainly communicated with gestures – he could speak, but his speech was unclear. Health problems did not stop him leading quite an active life – he liked music and the opera, and… adored chess. In 1929 he won the USSR chess championship, and was awarded the title of grand master – the first ever grandmaster from the USSR.


4. Marshak’s brother

In his childhood, the famous children’s poet Samuil Marshak lived for several years in the Donetsk Oblast. When the future writer was seven, his family moved from Russia to Bakhmut in Ukraine – at that time, at the end of the 19th century this provincial town was called the “capital of New America”, and the father of the family believed that he could settle down easily in the new place. He worked as a foreman at a soap factory, but there was little profit to be made, and soon the entire family left for Ostrogozhsk in Voronezh region. In Bakhmut, Samuil’s brother Ilya was born, who subsequently became one of the first authors of books for children on scientific topics, under the pseudonym of M. Ilin.


5. Reizen the opera singer

Mark Reizen (1895-1992) was born not far from Gorlovka into a Jewish family – his father worked as a loader of coal. After fighting in World War One, receiving injuries and medals, Mark decided to become a singer. In 1917-1921, Mark Reizen studied at the Kharkov Conservatory, under the Italian Federico Bugamelli. Possessing a magnificent bass, Reizen worked at the Kharkov Opera Theater, and later in the Mariinsky Theater in Leningrad and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow – his unique voice enabled him to perform the parts of Don Basilio, Mephistopheles and many others.


6. Stalin and lemons

On 29 June 1924, the member of the KSMU Isaak Moiseevich Rokhelman wrote to Moscow from the town of Bakhmut: “Comrade Stalin! I was in Moscow in January of this year, and had the opportunity to visit you, after which I went to the Communist University of Laborers of the East, as we, the regional party school pupils of Donbass, visited it during our excursion in Moscow… We spoke about the ancestry of everyone and discussed yours, and as I had visited you and knew that you were of eastern ancestry, I said a purely joking phrase: did Stalin sell lemons when he was in the underground movement? I said it without any selfish purposes. Now my comrades accuse me of being disrespectful to the leaders of the revolution. And so I have decided to write a letter with you, asking you to give me an answer as to whether you regard this as an insult or not.” At this time (after the death of Lenin and the publication of his testament, which contained complaints about Koba), Stalin wanted to look democratic, and listen to the people”, and naturally, he replied to the party member: “Dear Comrade! I believe that your comrades were mistaken in accusing you of a lack of respect for so-called leaders. Personally I do not see any insult, or even a hint of an insult, in your remark about “lemons”. With Communist greetings, J. Stalin”.


7. An artist in glass

Vitaly Ginzburg (1938-2006), the Ukrainian glass artist, was born in Constantinople. He graduated from the Lviv polytechnic institute, studying at the chemistry and technology faculty (majoring in “glass technology”), and saw an artistic application for his skills. Vitaly Ginzburg stayed in Lviv and founded Ukraine’s first artistic workshop of glass sculpture in small forms.


8. Shcharansky and the Jewish Agency

The Israeli minister of industry and trade, minister of internal affairs, minister of construction, and now the chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Shcharansky was born in Donetsk in 1948. After graduating from school he enrolled at the Moscow Physics and Technology Institute, and after completing his studies he began to work at an oil and gas institute. In 1973 he decided to repatriate to Israel, but he was refused and dismissed from the scientific institute. Despite the authorities’ expectations, he didn’t reconcile himself to this, and began to fight – he became the assistant and translator to Professor Andrei Sakharov, and also told foreign journalists about the persecutions experienced by activists, and the unjustified refusals to leave the USSR. On 14 July 1978, Shcharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his activities. He was released in 1986 thanks to the petitioning of western politicians.

In Israel he began his political career, worked in ministerial posts, and also headed the Strategic Research Institute at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered Shcharansky the position of chairman of the Jewish agency, and his candidacy was approved by the Commission for appointments of the trustee council.


9. Is David Copperfield related to a Donetsk rabbi?

In the 1920s-30s, the rabbi of Donetsk (Stalino), the first in the history of the community, was Shmuel Kodkin, who in 1938 was arrested on charges of anti-Soviet activity, and was executed, like many others. It is not known what happened to his family, but there is a theory that his relatives emigrated to the USA before the first period of repressions, and one of them was the grandfather of the famous illusionist David Copperfield (David Seth Kotkin).


10. Jewish passions

The American writer, journalist and dramatist Samuel Spewak (1899-1971) was born in Bakhmut, but when he was four years old, his family emigrated to the USA. He was a correspondent for the newspaper “New York World”, “Look” magazine and the “New York Evening Post”, and the press-attaché of the US embassy in Moscow and the head of the Russian section of the foreign office at the department of military information.

But he is not remembered so much for his own creative works, as for his collective efforts with his wife, Bella Cohen. The couple had a truly explosive temperament, and were currently on the brink of divorce. These passions inspired Bella to write a modern version of “The Taming of the Shrew”, and she realized this idea together with her husband. Thus the libretto of the musical “Kiss Me Kate” was born, which had over 1,000 performances on Broadway and was the basis for a film of the same name.


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