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Jewish Ukraine: 5 facts about the Jews of Kherson

On the inventor of camouflage, the founder of the Israeli opera, a potential city leader and many others

Compared with half the other Oblast centers of Ukraine, Kherson is quite a young city as far as Jews are concerned. They began to settle in this region around 250 years ago, but over two and a half centuries they gave Ukraine, Israel and the whole world in general so many interesting people that one can only be amazed. For example, the inventor of the famous camouflage design and the second Prime Minister of Israel were born here. Read about who else was born in the Kherson region and what else happened here (in the Jewish context, of course) in our new chapter of “Jewish Ukraine”.

1. A potential city leader – from the Jews

The first Jews settled in Kherson in the late 18th century – emigrants from the Mogilev, Vitebsk, Vilno and Minsk provinces, and then from Volyn and Podolia. In the plan of Kherson, in 1782 there were already quarters for Jews to settle marked out, and a little earlier, in 1780, the Staro-Nikolaevsky Synagogue opened there, which was attended by 2,000 people.

The Jews settled in the city very quickly – in 1803, 36 Jewish merchants and 344 Jewish members of the middle class lived there; they actively developed trade in the city and were known for their excellent education and high level of cultural development. Local authorities trusted the Jews so much and were confident in their ability to succeed not only in trade, but also in municipal administration, that they even recommended them for leading state positions. In 1862 the Kherson governor Klushin appealed to the interior minster Valuev for one Jewish merchant (unfortunately his name has not been preserved) to be permitted for election to the position of head of the city – although this was against the law.

The governor explained his decision by the fact that none of the local merchants of the Christian faith had sufficient education or development to take on the cares of city life in all its manifestations. In his appeal, the governor noted that “with a considerable fortune, having received an education and gained knowledge by trips abroad, he enjoys public respect: electing a worthy person from their midst to the position of city head would bring considerable benefit.” But the reaction from his superiors was not a positive one. Despite the fact that the Novorosissk governor-general supported the appeal, the Petersburg authorities were opposed to it.

2. The founder of the Israeli opera

Mordechai Golinkin (1875–1963) was born in the village of Izluchisty, which is now part of the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast, but in early childhood he moved to Kherson with his mother (his father died before Mordechai was born). The future famous conductor made his acquaintance with music at a young age: he learnt to play the piano as a young boy, tried composing and once showed his religious chant for four voices to the hazzan (choir master) Pinhas Minkovsky – and he was accepted into the synagogue choir. At the age of 15, after studying for a little while in Odessa, he went to the Warsaw Conservatory to study double bass and piano.

From 1896 to 1911, Golinkin worked as a conductor at the opera theaters of Kiev, Kharkov, Tiflis, Kazan and Saratov, and also went on tour to Petersburg. He finally moved there in 1911 and for six years was the head conductor of the opera troupe of the People’s House. But even for the most talented people of Jewish faith in the Russian Empire there were limits: Mordechai’s friend Fyodor Chaliapin recommended him for the Mariinsky Theater, but Golinkin was turned down because of his faith.

Golinkin raised funds to build an opera theater in Eretz-Israel, and Chaliapin made a major contribution to this. In Petrograd posters were hung up: “From 21-28 April 1918, concerts to support the Fund for a theater in Palestine with the gracious participation of F.I. Chaliapin.” The renowned bass did not work for free out of principle, but Golinkin asked him to take part in a good cause – and Chaliapin could not refuse his friend. On that evening, Chaliapin sang the song “Ha-Tikva” in Hebrew – the national anthem of modern Israel.

Golinkin received the offer to become the head conductor of the Mariinsky Theater in 1918, but he dreamed of an opera theater in Eretz-Israel, and did not want to make any compromises. He achieved his goal in 1923 – only then was he issued a passport for touring abroad. In that year, he conducted the first symphonic concert in Eretz-Israel. Over four years, from 1923 to 1927, the opera theater under Golinkin’s management staged over 15 classic operas in Hebrew.

3. Agent 007

No Ukrainian Jew has probably ever had such a complicated biography as the British intelligence agent Sidney Reilly (Solomon or Shlomo or Samuil or Sigmund Rosenblum). Historians can’t even precisely established the date and place of his birth. Some say that he was born on 24 March 1874 out of wedlock and brought up by his father’s cousin in Odessa, others that he was born a year earlier in Kherson. He himself claimed that he was born in Ireland into an aristocratic family.

In his youth, Sidney Reilly was a desperate revolutionary, and arrested several times. Changing names like gloves, he managed to escape to South America, and got a job as a cook on a British intelligence expedition. During the expedition Reilly, saved the agent Charles Fothergill, who some time later helped him to receive British citizenship. From Britain Reilly moved to Austria, where he began to study chemistry and medicine, and then – recruited by British intelligence – he returned to London.

Reilly’s subsequent life contains many murky and frankly criminal episodes – it is impossible to learn the truth about his activity, for many things remain unclear to this day. We can only say for certain than in 1897-1898 he worked at the British embassy in St. Petersburg, traded timber and weapons with army suppliers of the Russian Empire, and managed to learn secret information from Russian soldiers, always working on the British side.

In revolutionary Russia, Reilly carried out underground activity on the side of the “Whites”. In Moscow, he was known by the names of Sidney Relinsky, criminal investigator Konstantinov, the Turkish merchant Massino, the antique dealer Georgy Bergman – in short, he could easily take on any role. Incidentally, Reilly was the prototype of Agent 007 – he was just as adroit, smart and loved by women.

After the unsuccessful attempt on Lenin’s life in 1918, the revolutionaries sentenced Reilly to execution – but in absentia, as they did not have Sidney in their hands. He fled to London and became a consultant to Winston Churchill on Russian issues, and also led the organization for fighting the Soviet regime. In 1919 he returned to Russia as an emissary, and a hunt began on him. The State Political Directorate carried out a complicated operation to catch Reilly, and by deceiving the British side, in 1925 they captured the agent. Reilly was held in prison and endlessly interrogated. He was executed by firing squad in a forest on 5 November 1925 on the personal order of Stalin. As it turned out, Sydney kept a diary (he wrote on cigarette paper and hid the papers in brickwork), but these notes were only published after the collapse of the USSR, in England in 2000.

4. The avant-garde artist and inventor of camouflage

Vladimir Baranov-Rossine (Jewish name Shulim Volf Leib Baranov) was born in the city of Kherson (some sources give his place of birth as the village of Bolshaya Lepatikha) in 1888. Nothing is known about his family, but from all appearances, his parents gave their son at least some support in his creative development: in 1902-1903 he studied painting in Odessa, and in 1903-1907 at the Petersburg Academy of Arts.

The main area of Baranov’s work was cubism. In 1908, Baranov took part in an exhibition in Kiev organized by the renowned avant-grade artists David and Vladimir Burlyuk (also Ukrainian Jews), and two years later he moved to Paris. He lived there until 1914 and worked under the pseudonym Daniel Rossine at the colony of artists known as the “Hive”.

Initially Baranov accepted the revolution – he even returned to Petrograd after the February revolution, and from 1918 he exhibited his works there along with other artists, taught at the Higher Art and Technical Studios, and worked with other painters. He saw himself not only as an artist, but also as an inventor: in 1924 Baranov-Rossine presented the optophone to the general public (a synaesthetic instrument which projected pictures at the same time as playing music). He also invented a device which determined the quality of precious stones, a machine for preparing and selling fizzy drinks, and in 1939 he developed pointillist-dynamic camouflage.

In 1925, Baranov left Soviet Russia and emigrated to France. During the Nazi occupation he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz, where he died in 1944.

Evidently, Baranov-Rossine (posthumously, of course) has become the most expensive artist ever born in the Ukraine: his work “Rhythm” (“Adam and Eve”, 1910) was sold for £2 729 250 with a starting price of £1 400 000 — £1 800 000.

5. The diplomat Sharett

Moshe Sharett (Chertok) was born in Kherson and studied at the local heder, but in 1906 his family, in which the ideas of Zionism meant a great deal, repatriated to Palestine, where he completed a traditional Jewish education. After graduating, Moshe went to Constantinople to study law, and then studied economics in England.

In 1931 Moshe Chertok returned to mandated Palestine and held the positions of secretary of the political department of the Jewish Agency, and in 1933 he was appointed head of this department – where he remained until 1948, when Israel became independent (in which he participated passionately).

After independence was declared, Chertok translated his family into Hebrew, Sharett, and became Israel’s first foreign minister. Six years later, when Ben-Gurion retired, Moshe Sharett became the Prime Minister of Israel, but a year later he returned to his previous position, relinquishing the post to Ben-Gurion once more.

In 1955, Sharett left the government, and in 1960 he was elected chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency (Sokhnut), did literary and translation work, and trained brilliant Israeli diplomats.