03 December 2016

Woke up early to exercise, but the gym had been closed for nine months. Booking.com will not hear the end of this.

After a nice breakfast we met our guide in the lobby.

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I’d arranged our tour with Darina Privalko, founder of JUkraine- a ‘Jewish Studies and Travel Center’. Our guide was Aleksandra Kirsanova, one of many who have graduated from Darina’s training course for tour guides. Throughout her tour Aleksandra stressed the interconnectedness of Jewish and general histories of Ukraine.

We started just outside our hotel, which stands near the Dnieper River at the top of Khreshchatyk- the main thoroughfare of Kiev since construction in the 19th century. It lies in the valley between Old Town (northwest) and Lypky, the government quarter (southeast). Khreshchatyk runs parallel to Volodymyrska, the main thoroughfare of Old Town, which lies up a steep hill.

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At the top of Volodymyrska stands the impressive Saint Michael’s Golden Dome Cathedral, commissioned by Sviatopolk II (grandson of Yaroslov I) who reigned over the Kievan Rus from 1093 until 1113.

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It was destroyed by the Soviets and rebuilt in 1999.

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In front stands a statue of Saint Olga (r.945-962) who was the first ruler to adopt Christianity, which was mandated by her grandson Vladimir I (r.980-1015). Olga was preceded by her husband Igor (r.912-945) whose father was Rurik (r.862-879), founder of the Rurik Dynasty. Rurik’s successor was Oleg (r.880-912) who moved the capitol from Novgorod to Kiev, which he’d conquered from the Judaized kingdom of Khazaria. A mid-tenth century letter found in the Cairo Geniza testifies to the Khazarian origin of Kiev’s earliest Jews.

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It was a short walk down Volodymyrska to Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, commissioned by Yaroslov I (son of Vladimir I) who reigned over the Kievan Rus from 1019 until 1054. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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In front stands a statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657) who organized an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had gained control of the region from the Mongol Empire in the 15th century. He is glorified by Ukrainians as a nationalist hero despite instigating the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews across Ukraine.

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We continued down Volodymyrska to the Golden Gate, the only gate that remains of the three embedded into the city wall during the reign of Yaroslov I. Another gate was called the ‘Jewish Gate’, testament to the presence of Jews in young Kiev. Alas, the early Jewish community was decimated by the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century.

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The current structure was rebuilt in 1982 atop ruins of the original gate, completed in 1024.

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Nearby stands a Karaite synagogue (Kenesa). Built in the Moorish style between 1898 and 1902 for the 300 person Karaim (Turkic Karaite) community, it is considered to be one of the most remarkable buildings in Kiev.

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As we continued our pleasant stroll down Volodymyrska, Aleksandra pointed out three buildings of secular importance.

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(1) The  National Opera House of Ukraine was constructed in Neo-Rennaisance style in 1901. In 1911 the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, was killed there during an intermission by Dmitry Bogrov- a Jewish revolutionary.

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(2) The Teacher’s House now occupies the building where the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic was based between WWI and Soviet occupation in 1921.

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(3) The Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev was established in 1834. It was one of the top three universities in the Soviet Union (including Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University) and is the top university in Ukraine.

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At 11:30 we walked back down the steep hill to bottom of Kreshchatyk, which runs into the Lybed District of Kiev. After centuries of intermittent expulsions, Jews were finally allowed to settle in Kiev on a permanent basis per invitation from Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Alas, they were only allowed to reside in two districts- Lybed was one of them. Within two years the Jewish population was over 3,000. The community had grown by more than ten times when Lazar Brodsky, a sugar magnate and one of the wealthiest Jews in the Russian Empire, endowed the construction of a central synagogue in 1898. Used as a puppet theater in Soviet times, the Brodsky Synagogue resumed her original purpose in 1992. She serves the Chabad Hasidic community of Kiev.

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Nearby stands a statue of famed Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem. He lived from 1887-1905 in Kiev, where in 1894 he published his first story about Tevye the Dairyman (later adapted into Fiddler on the Roof).

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It was a short walk to the site where the childhood home of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once stood. Born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev in 1898, she immigrated at age eight to Milwaukee where she resided until leaving for Palestine in 1921.

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At noon we taxied beyond the top of Old Town to Podil District, the second area where Jews were allowed to reside and home to Kiev’s other active synagogue-the Great Choral Synagogue.

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Built in the Neo-Moorish style in 1895, it serves the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic community of Kiev.

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Aleksandra pointed out other Jewish heritage sites in Podil including a prayer house and Talmud Torah.  Twenty thousand Jews remain in Kiev.

Our tour of Podil concluded at the Church of the Intercession, which stands behind the belfry of the dismantled Church of St. Nicholas the Good. Alexander Glagolev served the latter. A Russian Orthodox priest, Glagolev intervened in the 1905 pogroms on behalf of the Jewish community. He later served as an expert witness in the defense of Menachem Beiles, accused of blood libel in 1913. Alexander’s son, Alexi Glagolev, served the former church. Alexi hid Jews and prepared false baptismal certificates for them during WWII. He was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1991.

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We then walked up Andrew’s Descent, the steep road that winds for 2,500 feet down from Old Town to Podil District. A major tourist attraction, it draws vendors year round.

Aleksandra joined us for vareniki and borsch. We learned that she was born in Chernivtsi, which I visited only a few months ago.

Saint Andrew’s Church imposes from the top of Andrew’s Descent. Built in the mid-18th century at the behest of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, it was intended to supplement her summer residence in Kiev. Elizabeth died before it could be completed.

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En route to Babi Yar, Aleksandra pointed out the corner where all Jews (who hadn’t fled to the interior of Russia) were ordered to gather on September 29, 1941. A few days prior, a mandate had been posted around the city: All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets (near the Viis’kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

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We parted ways with Aleksandra upon arrival. Samantha and I began our tour at 3:15. It was a haunting walk to the memorial in front the ravine where 33,771 Jews were massacred by the German SS and local collaborators on September 29 and 30, 1941.

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Jewish men, women and children were ordered to undress and then lay atop the previously murdered. They were systematically shot dead by machine gun fire. Over 100,000 people were executed in the ravine at Babi Yar during the war.

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Samantha and I walked around the full length of the ravine and back, which took some time.

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Near the entrance to the park stands a memorial to the thousands of children killed at Babi Yar.

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Emotionally and physically exhausted, Samantha and I took the colorful subway back to Kreshchatyk at 5:00.

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We were determined to visit a couple more essential sites. We started at the central square of Kiev known as Maidan. It has been the traditional site for political rallies since Ukraine gained independence in 1991. Most recently it was the site of the Euromaidan protests of November 2013, when thousands gathered in response to the rejection of an EU association agreement by President Yanukovych. A violent response to the peaceful protest sparked the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. By February  more than 100 protestors had been murdered by government forces, mostly in Kiev’s center. President Yanukovych was ousted and exiled later that year.

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The road adjacent Maidan is lined with memorials to the ‘heavenly hundreds’ killed during the revolution.

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We walked up the steep hill from Kreshchatyk to Lypky, the government district. We visited Mariinsky Palace, which stands behind the Ukrainian parliament building. Mariinsky Palace was the intended summer residence built for Empress Elizabeth of Russia in the mid-18th century. After her death it was frequented by Catherine the Great and later reconstructed by Tsar Alexander II.

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With that, we finally journeyed back to the hotel. It was a privilege to watch Samantha share family information with her grandparents, for whom it was obviously emotional.

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We had a delicious dinner at the hotel restaurant.

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Talked at length with our friends Yitzi Peetluk and Lauren Saag before going to sleep.

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