A Guide To Reading Centropa’s Ukrainian interviews.


Whether you choose to explore some of our 264 Ukrainian interviews online (which range from 15 to 35 pages), or would like to read the five interviews we offer in edited versions, allow us to make a few points about oral history interviews in Ukraine.

Special thanks to of our interns, Anne Godard of Lyon and Nils Braune of Munich, who did the editing, and thanks to staff member Lauren Granite for reviewing their work.

Extra special thanks to those who conducted these interviews between 2001-2007: Ella Levitskaya, Ella Orlikova, Zhanna Litinsksaya and Natalia Fomina.

We begin with what makes an oral history interview in the former Soviet Union different than one conducted in other European countries.

All of Centropa’s interviewees (1,320 of them) were born between 1918 and 1935. Those who grew up in the interwar Baltic states, in Central Europe and in the Balkans had this in common: they could live religiously observant lives. Some grew up in orthodox homes, some were moderately observant, others not observant at all. They had a choice.

Not so in the Soviet Union. Founded in 1922, one of the key tenants of the USSR was to create an atheist society, and with this fact in mind, let us now summarize the events, themes and dates that you will find mentioned in most, if not quite all, of our Ukrainian interviews.

  • Azriel Ozerianski and Gita Ozerianskaya

Religious grandparents, secular households

Many of our interviewees’ grandparents were quite religious, but by the mid 1920s, countless synagogues and rabbinical seminars had been forced to close (a few synagogues did still operate). Some of our interviewees’ parents were also religiously observant.

Our interviewees grew up at a time when some still attended Jewish schools, which often taught in Yiddish but did not teach religious subjects. By the mid 1930s most of these schools had been closed.

Veniamin Shubinsky

The Holodomor

Most of our interviewees speak of the Holodomor, the Great Famine, of 1932-1933. Beneath this text there is a link we provide elsewhere that describes what turned into Stalin’s genocide against the Ukrainian people, killing between 3.5 and 4 million people.

Ida Limonova's first husband Natan Shafir in the Red Army

The Second World War

You probably think that the Second World War began with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939. For many years, the Soviet Union stated that the Great Patriotic War began in June, 1941.

Why the discrepancy? Because just before Adolf Hitler sent the German Army into Poland in 1939, his foreign minister, Joachim Ribbentrop signed a non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. The Germans swept into Poland from the west on 1 September, 1939. Seventeen days later the Soviet Army took eastern Poland.

Over the next two years, Hitler and Stalin were actually allies. Until, that is, Hitler had the German Army invade the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941. What he thought would be a short and easy victory did not turn out that way.

You will read that some of our interviewees do not refer to the Germans or even the Nazis, but Fascists, which is the term many citizens of the Soviet Union use.

You will also read about Jews in the Soviet Army. Indeed, around a half million Jews served in the armed forces and around 198,000 fell in battle.

Note: since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, the authorities no longer refer to it as The Great Patriotic War, but the Second World War.

As for antisemitism: many of our interviewees tell us they felt little antisemitism as they were growing up or in the Soviet Army. That all changed after the war.

  • Kindergarten that Frieda Portnaya's daughter attended

Postwar antisemitism: the anti-cosmopolitan campaign and the doctors’ plot

Many interviewees speak of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that began in 1948, and this was specifically antisemitic. It was followed in January, 1953 by the Doctors’ Plot, in which Jewish physicians were called ‘murderers in white coats.’ In both cases Jews were fired from their jobs, many were arrested. The trials set for Jewish doctors never took place as Stalin died in March of that year.

The death of Stalin in 1953 and Khrushchev’s 1956 speech

The next historical event many of our interviewees speak of is Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech of 1956, in which he denounced Stalin, his crimes, his cult of personality. You will read that many of our interviewees cried for days upon learning of Stalin’s death. Three years later, however, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and his cult of personality, quite a few of our interviewees began understanding the horrors that Stalin had inflicted upon his people.

Ernest Galpert's family

1960s through 1991

When Israel managed to fight off its Arab neighbors in 1967 and score a remarkable victory in just six days, the Soviet Union was infuriated, mostly because it had been strongly backing neighboring Arab states. The Kremlin immediately cut off diplomatic relations with Israel and forced the Warsaw Pact countries to follow suit. It then launched an anti-Israel propaganda campaign that lasted decades. You will find some reference to this event in our interviews. 

We then move into the late 1970s when Jews began leaving the Soviet Union, mostly for Israel. That movement grew in the late 1980s. As restrictions loosened, others left for North America and Germany.

Centropa’s Ukrainian interviewees often speak of Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of Perestroika and Glasnost (openness and reform) starting in the mid to late 1980s—the liberalizing of the Soviet regime. Many were thrilled with these changes, but as economic conditions spiraled downward, their opinions soured.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the birth of an independent Ukraine. The next decade was especially difficult for our interviewees. The country reeled from one economic crisis to another, living standards plummeted, and by the time we began interviewing in the early 2000s, our interviewees ranged in age from their mid 70s to late 90s. 

The one bright spot most of them point out was the rebirth of Jewish life. While children and grandchildren began identifying as Jews, nearly all our interviewees speak with gratitude for the social welfare network that was established for them. They often mention Hesed Centers, and scores of them went into operation in the 1990s, offering Holocaust survivors medical care, social clubs, psychological help as well as hot meals, served either in the Hesed Centers or in ‘warm homes.’ These activities were mostly funded by the Claims Conference and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.