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Jewish Ukraine: 5 facts about the Jews of Kiev

The Kiev letter, the Beilis affair, the queen of avant-garde cinema, Marchak’s jewelry business and more

The Jewish history of Kiev, which is over 10 centuries old, is full of the most diverse elements – here one of the largest Jewish communities of Ukraine formed and flourished, which financed many city projects, and here the biggest pogroms and the tragedy of Babi Yar took place. Read about the Jewish history of Kiev and the famous people who were born in the present-day Kiev Oblast in the final chapter of the project “Jewish Ukraine: facts about…”

1. The Kiev letter

The starting point in the official history of the Jews of Kiev was the so-called Kiev letter – an appeal addressed to all the Jewish communities of the world to raise money to pay the debts of the merchant Yakov bar Hanuka. The letter was written in around the year 930 and described how the poor man had fallen into such circumstances: Yakov bar Hanuka paid the debt of his murdered brother, but he did not have the necessary sum of 100 dirhems, and neither did the Kiev Jewish community, and it was decided to appeal to the entire Jewish world.

But evidently, Jews lived in the Kiev region before this letter was written. It is quite possible that their main area of settlement was the village of Kozary, which was mentioned in the Ipatiev chronicle of 945, and it is also known that in the year 986 Jews came to Prince Vladimir from the Khazar kaganat, hoping to convince him to convert Rus to Judaism (in all likelihood, there was already some sort of community to launch this religious “project”).

In the early history of Kiev there are already some references to Judaism. One of the legendary founders of the city was called Khoriv, but this was also the name sometimes given to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the commandments. In the treatise “On the running of the Empire” (around 948), Kiev and its fortress were called Samvatas – which is very similar to the name mentioned in Jewish literature, the Sabbath river of Sambation, which flowed along the edge of the world in the country of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

2. The jewelry house of Marchak

Although the surname of Marchak is primarily associated with children’s poetry, the hero of this story was not a writer, but a successful jeweler, who created his own jewelry house, which went international.

Iosif Marchak (1854 – 1918) was born in the village of Ignatovka and was the eldest of six children. When the future founder of the jewelry house was 14 years old, he went to Kiev and became an apprentice at a jewelry workshop, and several years later passed professional exams and received the right to work in the trade independently.

Shortly afterwards, Iosif opened his own workshop in Podol and initially worked there alone, but a year later moved to Kreshchatik and expanded his business, taking on an apprentice and pupils.

Initially Marchak only manufactured items of jewelry and sold them through the stores of other artisans and traders. Over the next 10 years he significantly expanded his business, hired new jewelers, gained authority in his business, visited jewelry exhibitions in Germany and France and introduced new approaches in his manufacture. In particular, he was the first to entrust engraving which required extreme accuracy and concentration to female jewelers.

Subsequently Marchak’s workshop grew into a factory, and the factory swiftly mastered new horizons – its items were sold in Kiev, Poltava, Kharkov and Tbilisi, and over time also in Moscow, Petersburg and Warsaw, where the large shops were the main clients of the Kiev jeweler.

Additionally, Marchak’s production was highly valued at professional exhibitions – in 1893 in Chicago, and also in 1894 in Antwerp his works were awarded a certificate and medal (later there would be many more awards). Over time Marchak also moved into watch-making, buying a watchmaker’s workshop from a Swiss citizen (from whom he initially rented the shop, and then purchased it), and then opened a watch-making school.

Iosif Marchak was one of the main competitors of the jeweler Peter Faberge, and he was even called the “Kiev Cartier”. His works – no longer just items of jewelry, but tea sets, clocks and other expensive works – were not only given as gifts to wealthy people, members of the nobility and the merchant class, but even to the royal family.

Iosif Marchak had eight children and numerous pupils, and so his life’s work was continued – but in other countries. When the founder of the Marchak jewelry house died of cancer at the age of 64, he left a will dividing his fortune between his children, and bequeathed 1 million rubles to charity and to provide support for the employees of his factory.

Unfortunately, the revolution meant that a great deal of the intentions contained in his will could not be realized, but the jewelry house survived. Iosif’s son Alexander opened a salon in Paris, where he successfully continued his father’s business, and after WWII a jeweler of the Jacques Verges house took Marchak jewelry to the American and Moroccan markets. After experiencing many difficulties and even being closed down, in April 2005 the Marchak salon was “reborn” once more in Paris.

3. The Beilis affair

One of the most, if not the most, sensational trials in the Russian Empire was the case of the Kiev Jew Beilis, a clerk at a brick factory, who was charged with the ritual murder of a 12-year-old boy. The victim of the crime on 12 March 1912 was a pupil at the preparatory class of the Kiev-Sophia religious academy, Andrei Yushinsky, and Beilis’ motive was allegedly that he wished to obtain innocent Christian blood to make matzo for Passover.

In fact, although Mendel Beilis (1874 – 1934) was born into a Hasidic family, he was not a religious Jew and had friendly relations with Christians – a local Orthodox priest was even one of his close friends. If only for this reason, it would have been strange to suspect him of ritual murder.

A forensic examination also established that the wounds on the boy’s body did not allow a great deal of blood to flow out – and so they could not have been made to collect blood. But the person who was evidently the real killer (but who was not charged), Vera Cheberyak, did have a motive to kill the boy – she was the mother of one of Andrei’s friends, and kept a thieves’ den, and the boy was indiscreet enough to threaten his friend that he would tell others about her dealings.

This murder served as the trigger for a new anti-Semitic campaign which broke out first in Kiev, and then with all over the Russian Empire. Despite the lack of evidence, the clear link of the murder with another person, the open anti-Semitism of the court and the clear fabrication of the charge, the defendant spent two years in prison, and the trial continued for several weeks. All of this provoked a wave of indignation among the intelligentsia, which supported Beilis and opposed the initiative of “blood feuds” – this movement even gained supporters outside the country.

The case was won by the renowned lawyer and protector of Jews Oskar Gruzenberg (who was incidentally born in Yekaterinburg).

After his release, Beilis emigrated to Palestine, and then to the USA, where he wrote the book “The Story of My Sufferings” in Yiddish – it was not translated into Russian until 2005.

4. A brilliant pianist and “son of the revolution”

Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989) was born in Kiev into the family of Samoil Ioakhimovich Horowitz, who owned a company that sold electrical equipment, and Sofia Aaronovna, who was a pianist. It was his mother who instilled a love of music in Vladimir (and her other children). First his mother taught him, and in 1912 he enrolled in the Kiev conservatory. But Horowitz did not receive a diploma, because he did not have a certificate of high school graduation. Although this did not affect his level of professional education – Horowitz studied under first-class teachers and was incredibly talented.

Horowitz started his career early and to a certain degree out of desperation – after the revolution, the Bolsheviks took everything from his family (and later the USSR also took the lives of some of his relatives), and the teenager had to earn money somehow. To feed himself and his family, Horowitz completed his studies early and started giving concerts.

Even though many people could not afford to buy food in those times, not to mention tickets to music concerts, Horowitz’s performances were a success – first in Kharkov (Horowitz’s debut there took place in 1920) and Kiev, and then in other cities of Ukraine and Russia. He often performed with his sisters Regina, and they had such a powerful musical temperament and amazing technique, and also had mastered such a huge repertoire, that in one article Lunacharsky even called them “children of the revolution”.

But Horowitz hated the October revolution and at the first real opportunity, in 1925, he moved to Berlin, under the pretext of studying. Over time he moved to Switzerland, and while living there he toured Europe from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s, and even travelled to the USA to give concerts. In the States he met Sergei Rachmaninoff and later performed his works – the composer himself said that the performances were perfect. It is not easy to describe the level of Horowitz’s popularity in Europe – it’s enough to say that when he gave a concert in Paris, the audience broke chairs in ecstasy, and the police had to be called in.

In 1939, Horowitz emigrated to the States and gave many concerts in his new country. When the war broke out, the great pianist gave concerts at the defense foundation, which brought him millions of dollars (as incredible as this may sound), and also performed works by Soviet composers.

Although Horowitz was practically always at the height of his fame, he never made a compromise with quality and did not work when he felt that his powers were at their limit. Living in Europe, for three years – from 1936 to 1939 – he spent his time recovering after a difficult operation to have his appendix removed, and did not perform. “I think that as an artist I grew during these forced holidays. At any rate I discovered a lot of new things in my music,” he recalled. In 1953-65 he also took a break because of exhaustion. Horowitz returned to concert activity in 1965, performing at Carnegie Hall – tickets to his concert in New York were in such demand that this was even reported in the news.

But these breaks began to happen more and more frequently. In 1969-74 Horowitz once more did not perform, but when he did return to the stage, he toured and took part in recording concerts with tripled strength. His last concert took place on 21 June 1986 in Germany. On 5 November 1989 Horowitz had a heart attack, and the brilliant virtuoso passed away.

5. The queen of avant-garde cinema

Eleonora Derenkovskaya (1917 – 1961),, better known by the pseudonym of Maya Deren, was one of the most unusual and unique representatives of American art house cinema. She was born in Kiev into a family of a psychiatrist, but when she was five, her family (like many other Jewish families at that time) moved to the USA.

Derenkovskaya was distinguished by her incredibly strong character, originality (in the 1940s she even looked like a hippie, even though the movement did not appear until much later), and was always attracted by new and unknown things which she felt had great potential. She studied literature at New York University and Smith College, but did not become a writer. From the early 1940s, Deren was the personal secretary of the creator of “black dance”, the ballerina and choreographer Katherine Dunham, and this experience inspired Maya to learn more about the world of African and Haitian rituals of voodoo – later, in the 1950s, she even lived in Haiti.

In 1943, Derenkovskaya started to make films – she was inspired by her second husband, the Czech avant-garde photo artist and film director Alexander Hakenschmiedt, with whom she was married for just three years. Incidentally, he came up with the pseudonym of Maya for Eleonora – he said that this was the name of Buddha’s mother.

Deren worked under the influence of the surrealists and avant-garde artists (and amphetamines, which she began taking in the early 1940s). In 1947 her film “The Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943) won the grand prix at the Cannes film festival in the category of “Best experimental film”. But her works were not what audiences wanted to see – they had no plot, only feelings, trance and optical illusions – and so she was not popular in the USA or in Europe during her life time or after her death. Maya Deren made eight films, but not all of them are even known to fans of American avant-garde cinema.

Maya Deren died at the age of 44 from a blood hemorrhage to the brain caused by extreme emaciation and drugs. Her ashes were scattered over Mount Fuji.

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