Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine

Ukraine’s Survivors

The region around Vinnitsya, a city four hours southwest of Kiev, once boasted dozens of shtetls (Jewish villages) and hundreds of thousands of Jews. Today, those who survived the Cossacks, czars, Nazis and Communists -- and who chose not to emigrate to Israel or the United States -- number only several thousand.

After decades of Soviet-enforced atheism, few keep kosher or Shabbat and fewer read Hebrew -- but Jewish culture is beginning to thrive again.

"I only started observing Jewish holidays after the Soviet Union fell," says Yvgeny Zilbert, who runs Mishpakha, an organization devoted to rejunenating Vinnitsya's Jewish culture. "Now I´m making up for lost time," he says.

Zilbert's actions speak louder than his words. For example, around the Purim season every year, Zilbert reads the Book of Esther publicly more than a dozen times, making him the traveling celebration broker of the Vinnitsya region.

The Vinnitsya Jewish community shows particular enthusiasm for Klezmer music and Yiddish theater. Sasha Tsondekovich, a math teacher, manages a young Jewish theater group in his spare time. Tsondekovich's troupe performs Sholem Aleichem plays several times a month in former shtetls around the region.

One afternoon in early Spring, Tsondekovich visits an elderly woman living 100 miles south of the regional capital, in the small town of Bershad. She last attended a Jewish function when Tsondekovich´s Chanukah play came to town.

"Oy vey, Maccabey!" shouts Vera Shvartsman Cheyved, 78, answering the door with a loving, toothless smile, unconcerned or unaware that the Maccabis pertain to Channukah, now long past.

"Oy," she repeats for emphasis, and the grin disappears momentarily as she says to Tsondekovich in Yiddish, "I've had a lot of bad things in my life."

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an indignity she has been spared. She was ghettoized, orphaned, shot, starved, dressed in rags, left childless, torn from her husband, exiled, denied religious freedom and, more recently, stripped of adequate health care.

"But oh, how I love to sing!" Cheyved says, the light returning to her scarf-framed face as she clasps her chubby hands to her bosom like a little girl receiving a gift.

Cheyved props her enormous figure against the bed frame in her tiny flat. Playfully shaking in her massive blue housedress, she sings half a dozen romantic Yiddish songs.

Returning from Bershad, Tsondekovich remarks that Cheyved´s rosy demeanor is unsurprising. "Our sense of humor," he says of Vinnitsya´s Jews, "is how we survive."

Bryan Schwartz visited the remaining Jewish community of Ukraine’s Vinnitsya region in 2001 and presents its members in vivid text and photographs in his book with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, Scattered Among the Nations.


"It has the kind of walls that keep in the cold of winter and the heat of summer," says Bershad Jewish community President Yephim Chaim Vigodner (far right) breathing a good-natured sigh as he surveys his 200 year-old synagogue. The roof and floor sag. A pair of old tefillin (leather phylacteries) grows mold in the rotting podium. Rusty matzah-making machines and decaying volumes of Talmud litter the women's balcony. Yet, miraculously and mysteriously, the synagogue exists, surviving the Cossacks, pogroms, Nazis and Communists. During World War II, the Jewish population of the ghetto surrounding the synagogue swelled to nearly 30,000, as the Rumanians, Moldovans and Ukranians shipped their Jews to this shtetl (Jewish village) seven hours from Kiev.  Today, of Bershad's14,000 inhabitants, fewer than 100 are Jews. On Shabbat, 20 of those healthy enough among the remaining community kiss the centuries-old mezuzah on the synagogue doorframe and gather on the creaky benches before the original ark. The problem is that after decades of Communist repressions, no one in the community can read Hebrew or recollect Jewish prayers. The last rabbi left in 1956. One frigid Friday night, an out-of-town visitor occasions a larger crowd than usual. Huddling with them, he teaches ancient Jewish melodies without words – for some, it is the first service they have ever seen. The community and synagogue seem to shed layers of dust and for an instant, their voices rise to the sky. Ironically, it may have been that very same dust which enabled them to hide these many generations. As Yephim says, "Perhaps we were humble enough to be spared."

"It has the kind of walls that keep in the cold of winter and the heat of summer," says Bershad Jewish community President Yephim Chaim Vigodner (far right) breathing a good-natured sigh as he surveys his 200 year-old synagogue. The roof and floor sag. A pair of old tefillin (leather phylacteries) grows mold in the rotting podium. Rusty matzah-making machines and decaying volumes of Talmud litter the women's balcony. Yet, miraculously and mysteriously, the synagogue exists, surviving the Cossacks, pogroms, Nazis and Communists. During World War II, the Jewish population of the ghetto surrounding the synagogue swelled to nearly 30,000, as the Rumanians, Moldovans and Ukranians shipped their Jews to this shtetl (Jewish village) seven hours from Kiev. 

Today, of Bershad's14,000 inhabitants, fewer than 100 are Jews. On Shabbat, 20 of those healthy enough among the remaining community kiss the centuries-old mezuzah on the synagogue doorframe and gather on the creaky benches before the original ark. The problem is that after decades of Communist repressions, no one in the community can read Hebrew or recollect Jewish prayers. The last rabbi left in 1956. One frigid Friday night, an out-of-town visitor occasions a larger crowd than usual. Huddling with them, he teaches ancient Jewish melodies without words – for some, it is the first service they have ever seen. The community and synagogue seem to shed layers of dust and for an instant, their voices rise to the sky. Ironically, it may have been that very same dust which enabled them to hide these many generations. As Yephim says, "Perhaps we were humble enough to be spared."

In the 1920’s, Zhmerinka had over 5000 Jews and nine synagogues. During World War II, the few thousand remaining Jews were concentrated within a ghetto, hundreds on this street. Many were forced laborers at Zhmerinka’s industrial hub - its railway station. The Rumanians, allied with the Nazis, controlled Zhmerinka during the War and sent 2000 Jews from the Zhmerinka ghetto to the Germans to appease Hitler and maintain control over the region.  Today, the railroad tracks are eerily quiet. By the dawn of the new millennium, the railway station, still Zhmerinka’s biggest business, employed a Jewish President. Most of the remaining Jews are elderly. One young man reported that there were five fellow Jews with him in his fifth grade class, but by his high school graduation, there were none left. Nonetheless, since the community was reestablished in 1994, people have become more involved. At the beginning of the 21st century, community meetings were drawing 75 people at the town’s grandest building - the “State Cultural Center,” a former synagogue. The leaders work toward the restitution of one of their former synagogues, which they hope to open with foreign assistance. It will be the first functioning synagogue in Zhmerinka since the Communists shut down the last one in 1960.

In the 1920’s, Zhmerinka had over 5000 Jews and nine synagogues. During World War II, the few thousand remaining Jews were concentrated within a ghetto, hundreds on this street. Many were forced laborers at Zhmerinka’s industrial hub - its railway station. The Rumanians, allied with the Nazis, controlled Zhmerinka during the War and sent 2000 Jews from the Zhmerinka ghetto to the Germans to appease Hitler and maintain control over the region. 

Today, the railroad tracks are eerily quiet. By the dawn of the new millennium, the railway station, still Zhmerinka’s biggest business, employed a Jewish President. Most of the remaining Jews are elderly. One young man reported that there were five fellow Jews with him in his fifth grade class, but by his high school graduation, there were none left. Nonetheless, since the community was reestablished in 1994, people have become more involved. At the beginning of the 21st century, community meetings were drawing 75 people at the town’s grandest building - the “State Cultural Center,” a former synagogue. The leaders work toward the restitution of one of their former synagogues, which they hope to open with foreign assistance. It will be the first functioning synagogue in Zhmerinka since the Communists shut down the last one in 1960.

“There was a hole in the ground, and we lived in it,” says Vera Shvartsman Cheyved (left), remembering how she survived the Holocaust in Bershad. She remembers singing Yiddish songs to the doctor in the hospital after she was struck by a bullet. Today, she is still singing whenever she receives visitors, like Brukha Feldman (right), another Bershad native.

“There was a hole in the ground, and we lived in it,” says Vera Shvartsman Cheyved (left), remembering how she survived the Holocaust in Bershad. She remembers singing Yiddish songs to the doctor in the hospital after she was struck by a bullet. Today, she is still singing whenever she receives visitors, like Brukha Feldman (right), another Bershad native.

The Purim spiel in Vinnitsya is a bawdy affair. Mordechai, pictured above in Hasidic garb, shocks elegant Esther with his indecent proposal. Cross dressing Jewish community officials, with gold teeth and uneven breasts, solicit young King Ahasuerus — who nonetheless chooses Esther for his queen. A Nazi costumed Haman loses his eye patch when he is tossed to the ground, spanked and ejected from the scene. Everyone sings, eats hamantashen and drinks vodka.  Though Vinnitsya’s Jewish community has not recovered religiously from the Soviet-era prohibitions on Jewish practice, Jewish culture is undergoing a veritable revival. Jews and Ukrainians alike are keenly interested in Yiddish theater and Klezmer music, in particular. Holidays like Purim provide a perfect opportunity for showcasing community members’ talents, silliness – and resilience. 

The Purim spiel in Vinnitsya is a bawdy affair. Mordechai, pictured above in Hasidic garb, shocks elegant Esther with his indecent proposal. Cross dressing Jewish community officials, with gold teeth and uneven breasts, solicit young King Ahasuerus — who nonetheless chooses Esther for his queen. A Nazi costumed Haman loses his eye patch when he is tossed to the ground, spanked and ejected from the scene. Everyone sings, eats hamantashen and drinks vodka. 

Though Vinnitsya’s Jewish community has not recovered religiously from the Soviet-era prohibitions on Jewish practice, Jewish culture is undergoing a veritable revival. Jews and Ukrainians alike are keenly interested in Yiddish theater and Klezmer music, in particular. Holidays like Purim provide a perfect opportunity for showcasing community members’ talents, silliness – and resilience. 

Yephim Chaim Vigodner (friends call him Pheema) and his son, Misha (pictured here at age 12), in the kitchen of their Bershad apartment. Pheema trained as a shipbuilder in Odessa but returned to his hometown of Bershad, where he now works full-time for Chesed, a branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee distributing food and other necessities to approximately 150 indigent Jews in Bershad and several nearby villages (former Jewish shtetls). Though Pheema’s older son lives in Israel – where the standard of living is much higher – Pheema feels he is needed in Bershad. “We don’t have any arguments with the Ukrainians, but we don’t make friends with them either,” Pheema explains. “We live separate lives, and must take care of ourselves.” But copper-headed Misha wants to go to Israel when he grows up. “At school, I’m not treated like the others, because they know I’m Jewish. One boy always hits me on the shoulder and says, ‘Zhid!’ (Jew!).” Misha explains, “I have a lot of books about Jewish history, culture and traditions, and I read them all, but there are no activities here – there are only seven 9-14 year-olds left in Bershad, and some are already leaving.” Misha is teaching himself some Hebrew for his upcoming bar-mitzvah and will attend a program sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch in Zhitomir, approximately six hours away.

Yephim Chaim Vigodner (friends call him Pheema) and his son, Misha (pictured here at age 12), in the kitchen of their Bershad apartment. Pheema trained as a shipbuilder in Odessa but returned to his hometown of Bershad, where he now works full-time for Chesed, a branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee distributing food and other necessities to approximately 150 indigent Jews in Bershad and several nearby villages (former Jewish shtetls). Though Pheema’s older son lives in Israel – where the standard of living is much higher – Pheema feels he is needed in Bershad. “We don’t have any arguments with the Ukrainians, but we don’t make friends with them either,” Pheema explains. “We live separate lives, and must take care of ourselves.” But copper-headed Misha wants to go to Israel when he grows up. “At school, I’m not treated like the others, because they know I’m Jewish. One boy always hits me on the shoulder and says, ‘Zhid!’ (Jew!).” Misha explains, “I have a lot of books about Jewish history, culture and traditions, and I read them all, but there are no activities here – there are only seven 9-14 year-olds left in Bershad, and some are already leaving.” Misha is teaching himself some Hebrew for his upcoming bar-mitzvah and will attend a program sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch in Zhitomir, approximately six hours away.