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Jewish Ukraine: 5 facts about the Jews of Kharkov

On the second largest synagogue in Europe, a Nobel Prize winner, the captivating Ida, the six-pointed star over a horse’s head and many other things

Along with Odessa and Lviv, Odessa is considered one of the centers of Jewish life in Ukraine. Although the history of the Jewish community in this region is less than three centuries old, a great number of scientists, cultural figures, politicians and other famous people with Jewish ancestry were born and worked there. We will tell you about some of them in the new selection from our series “Jewish Ukraine: 5 facts about…” (today is a case when there are many more interesting stories and people that we would like to discuss than there are points, but… that’s our format).

1. The six-pointed star above a horse’s head

In the early 18th century, fairs began to be held in Kharkov. In this period, Jewish merchants from Poland and Turkey came here, some of whom decided to settle in Kharkov – they were the first Jewish settlers of the city. The community developed, and Jewish craftsmen, merchants and the intelligentsia began to lived here (in 1799 even the first Jewish cemetery appeared here), but with the increase of the Jews’ influence, the Christian population of Kharkov began to oppose Jews living in this region.

In 1805, at the demand of the Christian merchants, Jewish merchants were not allowed to sell goods at the fair, and in 1821 a ban was even placed on Jews’ temporarily living in Kharkov – but this did not last long. At that time, Jews could not legally stay in hotels (so many of them took rooms under false names and gave small bribes for the permission to be in the city), but from 1835 Jewish merchants were legally permitted to stay at inns. This was the start of the new trade era of Kharkov.

In the mid-19th century, the governor of the Kharkov province, Alexander Sivers, gave permission for Jews to have freer access the city, in order to revive the economy – and in 1860 4,000 Jews attended the fairs, and 20,000 did so three years later. In Kharkov, the elite of the merchant class and craftsmen of various trades gathered – i.e. the ones who had money. Of course, the city only gained from this. The Jew Ruvim Rubinstein opened the first banking house in Kharkov, and the railway magnate Samuil Polyakov made the city one of the largest transport hubs in the south of the country.

The coat-of-arms of the Kharkov province at that time was adorned with a gold six-pointed star above a horse’s head – and although this composition was simply considered to be a symbol of the successful fair, it’s not difficult to notice the reference to Jewishness.

2. The captivating Ida

Ida Rubinstein (1883–1960) was a legendary figure in the art world of the early 20th century. She was born into the wealthy family of the banker and merchant Leon Rubinstein and his wife Ernestina. At the age of 5, Ida lost her mother, and her father at the age of 9, and she was sent to her aunt in Petersburg, who was part of an equally wealthy family. Ida lived in luxury, learning from the best teachers (she was taught to dance by teachers of imperial theaters), and met the leading representatives of high society. And of course, she decided to take to the stage. She intended to become an actress and even went to Paris for theatrical training.

Her family wanted her to become an upright wife and mother, and so they were extremely opposed to the wishes of the young decadent beauty. Then Rubinstein decided to placate her relatives and married her cousin, the son of her beloved aunt – but literally a few months later she divorced him and gained complete independence.

Ida began to act in productions – she was invited by Stanislavsky (but she turned him down). Preparing for the production of “Salome” based on Oscar Wilde’s play in 1908, which she funded by herself, she took lessons from Vsevolod Meyerhold. The highlight of this production, which was omitted in the first performance because of the negative reaction of the Holy Synod, was Ida’s performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” – the captivating actress gradually threw off the fabrics during the dance, all seven veils, and at the end she was wearing nothing but pearls. On the day after the premiere, the newspaper “Rech” noted: “To the wild applause of the audience, half of the dance was repeated… So much enchanting passion… This is a story of a passion that expresses itself in the lithe movement of the body…”

Ida Rubinstein never tired of shocking the public. She continued to perform the role of Salome and danced in “Scheherazade” at the first Parisian “Russian seasons” of Sergei Diaghilev in 1909-1910, and later took part in several more performances. She was friends with the most outstanding members of the creative avant-garde and inspired many artists – her portraits were painted by Antonio de la Gandara, Romaine Brooks (an American artist with whom Ida had an affair) and Valentin Serov.

3. Second in Europe

The choral synagogue in Kharkov was built in 1912-1913 on the site of a house of prayer. The synagogue had to be moved back on the plot of land, because the builders were obliged to keep it at a distance of 100 sazhens (213 m) away from the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. This building was the largest synagogue in Kharkov and the second largest in Europe after the one in Budapest – the repository of scrolls in the Kharkov synagogue is nine meters high, and up to 1,000 people can fit in the hall.

But the Jews did not have much time to enjoy the beauties of the new enormous synagogue – in 1923 it was closed “at the request of the Jewish workers”. The “Jewish workers’ club of the Third International” was housed there, and in 1941 a children’s cinema moved in. From 1945 the Jewish community resumed its activity within the synagogue, but from 1949 to 1991 it housed the “Spartak” voluntary sporting association. The synagogue did not officially return to the community until 1990.

4. The father of GDP

In the modern biographies of the Nobel prize winner for economics Simon (Shimen Abramovich) Kuznets (1901–1985), it says that he was born in Belarus, while biographies printed during his lifetime claimed that he was from Kharkov. At any rate, he certainly did live and study in Kharkov – in 1918-21 Kuznets was a student of the Kharkov Commercial Institute, where he studied economics, statistics, history and mathematics. In 1922, as an incredibly erudite and intelligent young man, he emigrated with his brother to the USA, where his father had already been living for 12 years.

Simon Kuznets enrolled at Columbia University, where in 1923 he defended a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree in 1924 (as his dissertation he took a work he had written in Kharkov), and in 1926 he became a doctor of philosophy. He skillfully combined scholarly activity, teaching work and cooperation with state institutions. Among other things, from 1927-1961 he served at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and during WWII he was the deputy director of the Planning and Statistics Bureau of the War Production Board, and then worked as an advisor to the governments of several countries.

Simon Kuznets developed a number of theories on economics which became revolutionary. He proposed the theory of the “Kuznets Curve”, which determines patterns in the level of social inequality in society depending on the level of economic development. Kuznets is also called the “father of GDP” – in 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics “for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development”.

5. A precedent for the Nuremburg tribunal

In the Holocaust, Kharkov did not avoid the terrible fate of many other European cities in Eastern Europe. At Drobitsky Yar, in which 16,000 to 20,000 people were killed (it is impossible to name an exact figure today), the victims included both civilian Jews and prisoners of war of the Red Army, some of whom were also of the Jewish faith (or at least their ancestors were).

So many Jews lived in Kharkov during the war that according to some historians, if it hadn’t been for the evacuation, universal recruitment and the many Jews who left to join the army, the tragedy of Drobitsky Yar could have reached a scale comparable with the horror of Babi Yar.

When Hitler’s troops were driven out of Kharkov for the second time (and they occupied the city twice), in December 1943 the world’s first court trial of Nazi criminals was held. A juridical precedent was established, which was consolidated by the Nuremberg tribunal – it stated that carrying out an order from a superior did not exempt a person from responsibility for genocide.



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