When the German army invaded Ukraine in WW2, greedy for land and slaughter, they fell upon the Pale of Settlement. This was the vast area to the West of Russia – including Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, part of Poland – to which 5 million jewish people had been expelled, initially by Tsar Catherine the Great in 1791, and thereafter until the end of WW1. Yet another stain of ethnic cleansing that has nourished European history and continues to do so.
But, by cruel chance, here was a ready corralled group of victims for the Nazi obsession with racial purity – or economic pillage, depending on taste and disposition.
In a tiny corner of what became the most widespread and successful case of ethnic cleansing in history, lies a small town, Zlatopol, about 120 miles south of Kiev, and just 20 miles outside the larger town of Kirovograd (Yelevetsgrad, as it was earlier known when Leon Trotsky and Gregory Zinoviev were born there – both Bolshevik leaders purged by Stalin).
Zlatopol held around 5,000 people of whom 70% were jewish. My grandfather was among them. He left and went to live in the more metropolitan Yelevetsgrad (which boasted the first tram in the Russian empire) until 1914 when he left for England. Yelevetsgrad itself was 40% jewish and had 23 synagogues, and two large and imposing jewish hospitals as well as grand properties owned by jewish guild-masters.
The Pale of Settlement policy had created this accidental demographic concentration. For those Germans who were truly Nazis, who were blinded by the ambition to purify the commencement of the messianic millennium with the blood of christ-slayers, here was the place to be, the ultimate slaughterhouse party.
So I find myself in the jewish cemetery in Zlatopol. It was predictably and casually desecrated by the invading German army, many jews were rounded up and cast in a well and other not unfamiliar atrocities were committed – not just to jews. Tombstones were shipped out. The scar that is this cemetery remains – some few broken tombstones cast about, the perimeter fence intact, goats grazing on the grass.
There is something of a mass grave painted in turquoise constructed for the eternal housing of some since recovered individuals – a flag of Israel stuck in a tree stump, fluttering somewhat folornly. Underfoot are the remains, I guess, of my grandfather’s family and, therefore, mine.
I struggled to connect.
The holocaust has always been an intellectual phenomenon for me – of course, rising into a passionate despair and indignation for all its victims – jews, homosexuals, gypsies, hated neighbours, the mentally impaired and others. None of my family, to my knowledge, were immediate victims and so I had no visceral attachment to the indignation I felt. My father and uncles fought a political war during WW2, not a war of redemption and retribution. I carry no brief for Israel and zionism, both of which I regard as historical absurdities and a chronic tragedy. I am as passionate an atheist as was Christopher Hitchens (one of my gurus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1OvDTrXr4k), though I am a great fan of many of the cultural attributes of judaic life – its sense of community and justice, its age-old belief in enlightenment and its nothing-less-than-worship of festive food and drink. Its incipient racism and sexism is a constant abrasive.
But Zlatopol was different. Here, indeed, were people with whom my family were close – almost certainly family members themselves – who were touched both by anti-semitic pogroms (the most recent for my grandfather in 1904) and, of course, by the Nazi millenarians. At some level, this was suddenly personal. I had chosen to come here – out of intellectual curiosity. I knew and deeply admired my grandfather, and was somewhat in awe of this imposing but gentle figure from the East. I wanted a connection with him. I was not looking to be touched by the Nazi holocaust and this place was stirring an unwelcome sense of attachment. I went with it to see where it would go – I still am.
In the middle of the cemetery there is a plum tree. I took a plum and ate it. Now, there’s a finality. An impossible undoing. An ancestral nourishment.