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Jewish Ukraine: 7 facts about the Jews of Poltava

Poltava, Ukraine, Jewish Ukraine, Alina Teiger, Hasidism, Yuly Ganf, Mane Kats, Sonya Delaunay, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Shenur-Zalaman Borukhovich of Lyady

We continue the series of articles about the Jewish history of various Oblasts of Ukraine. Today’s chapter is about Poltava. You couldn’t say that this city and its environs were a center of Jewish life, but the history of these places does have a Jewish note (which sometimes sounds in a minor key, and is sometimes quite cheerful). But first things first.

1. The ally of Mazepa and father-in-law of Orlik

Compared with cities of Western Ukraine, Jews appeared in the Poltava area relatively late – Jewish communities in Peryaslav, Lubny and other settlements arose in the 17th century, and in Poltava itself Jews settled a century later. The most difficult times (of course, not counting the years of the Holocaust) were suffered by Jews here during the period of Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s uprising – the community was almost completely destroyed, and Jews were not allowed to settle in this region until after 1772. Although the “sons and daughters of Israel” were disliked among the Cossacks, in the higher circles of the Cossack army, there were a considerable number of people with Jewish blood. Today we remember the Poltava native Pavel Semyonovich (Simeonovich) Gertsik, who was the son of a Jew who converted to Christianity during the years of Khmelnitsky’s uprisings.

Pavel lost his father at an early age, and some time after the death of her first husband, his mother married the wealthy colonel Pyotr Zabela, who made his stepson a scribe. Over time, Gertsik (who never signed his surname, but only gave his first name and patronymic) became a colonel and amassed a respectable fortune – he owned five villages, which brought him a permanent income. He married his sons and daughters off to colonels and captains (for example, his daughter Anna became the wife of the future hetman of the Right bank Ukraine, Filipp Orlik), and himself was an ally of Ivan Mazepa.

2. The founder of Chabad

Rabbi Shneur-Zalaman Borukhovich of Lyady (1745–1813), who was born near Vitebsk, died near Kursk and was buried in Gadyach became the founder of the Hasidic movement Chabad. From childhood, Shneur-Zalaman was much more intellectually developed than his peers, and even than people older than him – many contemporaries even called him a genius. By the age of 18 he had made a full study of the Talmud and Kabbalah in the house of his father-in-law (he married the daughter of the wealthy Yeudy-Leib Segal of Vitebsk at the age of 15), and then continued his education and became a Maggid preacher.

In 1770, Shneur-Zalaman began to write the book “Shulkhan Arukh Rava”, which explained Halakha clearly and simply, and seven years later, with a group of other Jews he prepared to emigrate to Palestine. But the emigration did not take place – Shneur Zalaman was talked out of it by the Hasidic activist Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who gave him his blessing to be the priest of Hasidism in his native region. In 1797, Shneur-Zalaman wrote his famous book “Taniya”, in which he lists the foundations of Chabad.

Rabbi Shneur-Zalaman (or as he was also called, Alter Rebe) founded a new movement, the study of which began to spread swiftly, causing anger among his opponents. His movement was called harmful, and he himself was accused of cooperating with hostile Turkey. In 1798, after the holiday of Sukkot, he was arrested and sent to the Peter and Paul Fortress, but in 1801 he was released. Shneur-Zalaman left the fortress on the 19th of Kislev, and this day became a great holiday for Hasidim – it is considered the “birthday of Chabad” and the “New Year of Hasidism”.

3. Sonechka, the queen of simultanism

Sara Shtern (1885–1974), who took the name of Sonia Delaunay when she was married, was one of the brightest stars of abstractionism. She moved abroad under the influence of her main passion, painting, not to escape pogroms or anti-Semitic hostility (as was the case with many other Jewish emigrants of that time).
Sonia travelled all over Europe, studied in Karlsruhe and Paris, but rejected academic style, inspired by the bold works of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, the fauvists and cubists. Sonya began painting in her own manner – together with her husband she developed a style called “simultanism”, which expressed the dynamic of movement and the subtlety of color harmony.

Over time, Sonia branched out beyond painting – she became interested in making works with fabric, embroidery in her own style, and interior decorating. In 1920, Sonya opened a fashion atelier in Paris. Her artistic manner began to be used in decorations and design (both textiles and ceramics), and even in advertising. Sonya Delaunay made decorations for Diaghilev’s ballets, was the first female artist to have a personal exhibition at the Louvre in 1964, and in 1975 she was made an officer of the Order of the Honorary Legion.

4. The second president of Israel

In Poltava, the second president of the state of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (Yitzhok Shmishelevich) was born – and if the Kiev native Golda Meir is called the mother of Israel, Ben-Zvi is called the father (this honorary “title” was given to him by the first Knesset).

Yitzhok Shmishelevich was distinguished by his active civic position from an early age – in particular he took part in Jewish self-defense of his city during the pogroms of 1905 (thanks to the local divisions, there was no violence in the city), was the member of the socialist Zionist party Poaley-Tsion, and also took part in the Zionist congress of 1907. In the same year, he moved to mandated Palestine, and in 1909 he organized a Jewish high school in Jerusalem. Then he moved to Istanbul to study law, where he studied along with Ben Gurion, and was later arrested with him in 1914 by the Turkish authorities on returning to Palestine. After his release he moved to New York for a few years.

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi took part in the creation of the Jewish workers’ party Ahdut ha-Avoda, and was also one of the participants of the Zionist military underground organization Hagana. Thanks to his activity and firm position he was elected to the city council of Jerusalem, and also joined the shadow government of the Jewish yishuv in Palestine.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi became president in late 1953, and stayed in the post until his death. He never tried to shut himself off from the people – Ben-Zvi was convinced that the president should be a public person, and should also live modestly.

5. Our Mane

Mane Kats was born into a large Jewish family in Kremenchug. His father dreamed that his son would become a rabbi, but at an early age Mane felt a love for drawing and became an artist.

Mane Kats studied painting in Vilnius (where he went with two rubles in his pocket) and later in Kiev, and then he went to achieve mastery in Paris –from 1913 he absorbed art there not so much through lessons so by visiting museums. Later, during WWI, he returned to the Russian Empire (he wanted to join the Foreign Legion, but he was not accepted because of his “non-military constitution”) – he lived and studied in Petrograd, then moved to Kremenchug, and later went to Kharkov, constantly continuing his creative work and collaborating with other artists. During this period Kats became interested in the Jewish topic, to which he subsequently devoted many of his works – incidentally at that time he began collecting items of Jewish heritage, which inspired him.

In 1921, Mane Kats moved to Berlin, and in 1922 to Paris, where after five years he received French citizenship, and with the rights of a local artist he organized exhibitions and took part in salons. During WWII he was taken prisoner, but managed to escape and move to the USA, from where he returned in 1945. At the end of his life he lived in two houses – or rather in two workshops, in Paris and Haifa.

6. Ganf the satirist

Yuly Ganf (1898–1973) was born in Poltava and spent his childhood there, but he went to Kharkov to study his profession. And initially he chose a legal career: for some time he studied at the law faculty at Kharkov University, but it soon became clear that he was more interested in drawing.

From 1917-1919 he attended courses of painting and sculpture at the studio of E.A. Steinberg in Kharkov, and at the same time made satiric sketches on topical issues – a labor of love, so to speak. His works were noticed by artists from the famous “ROST windows”, and they persuaded Ganf to make “caustic” drawings.

From 1919 he made illustrations for “UkROST windows of satire”, the newspaper “Communist” and the magazine “Chervony Perets”, and in 1922-1923 he studied in Moscow at the Higher Art and Technical Workshop and then worked with the magazines “Krasny Perets”, “Zanoza” and “Krokodil”. During the war he also drew war posters and cartoons, and afterwards joined the staff of “Pravda” newspaper and “Krokodil” magazine. Taking into account the nature of the time and the politics of the publications that he worked with, Ganf’s works were extremely politicized, criticizing everyone and everything which had any connection to the West and capitalism (even the New Economic Policy), and they were not distinguished by their tolerance. But even despite the anti-Western propaganda component, they were still very talented.

7. A female rabbi from Poltava – the first since the Second World War

In 2010, the former Poltava resident Alina Treiger from reformist Jews became the second female rabbi in Germany, at the age of 31. The first rabbi to be ordained was Regina Jonas – in 1935, and in 1944 she died in Auschwitz.

In her family, Alina Treiger did not have much sense of being Jewish – they did not observe traditions, did not go to the synagogue and did not know Hebrew, but at an older age Alina took an interest in the culture and religion of her ancestors. After emigrating to Germany in 2002, she received a theology degree at the Avraam Geiger college in Potsdam, where rabbis have been trained since 1999. She was the only female in her group, and ten years later she became the only female rabbi in Germany to receive a theological education at a local educational institution.


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