DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — In the warm glow of a spring evening, the central square in this eastern Ukrainian city bustles as shoppers crowd a pedestrian mall with shiny storefronts. Children spin on a brightly colored carousel.
But behind the glimpses of ordinary life lies a terrible history: The merry-go-round stands on the spot where in 1941, 11,000 Jews were rounded up by Nazi occupiers and taken away to be shot. Across the square, the podium of a toppled monument to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin recalls the decades of oppression that followed the war and the atheist Communist regime that suppressed Jewish religion and culture.
Now, fear of war has returned to Dnepropetrovsk, carried by the tensions surrounding Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on whether to declare independence from Ukraine and join Russia and by deadly clashes that erupted this weekend near the eastern border.
With Russian forces massing along the frontier, worries run especially deep among the city’s Jewish population of 40,000 to 50,000 — including thousands of Holocaust survivors — which has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades in large part thanks to efforts by Boston’s Jewish community.
“People are afraid of the Russian tanks. If they get into [the border regions of] Donetsk and Lugansk, why not come here,” asked Shmuel Kaminetzky, the chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk.
The foreboding mood was palpable Friday at the Jewish center of this rambling city of 1 million bisected by the mighty Dnieper River. A gleaming 22-story complex serves as a sprawling beacon of the Jewish revival. It combines a synagogue, a luxury hotel, shops, two convention halls, kosher restaurants, and art exhibits.
Some people at the center said they were considering leaving for good.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has declared that he will use his military to protect people in Ukraine from those whom he refers to as ultranationalists who illegally seized power when they chased the pro-Moscow president from power last month.
“I don’t need protection, I don’t want to live in Russia, and I don’t know anyone who wants to live in Russia,” said Tatyana Boicheva, 70, a children’s music teacher whose brother lives in Jerusalem. She was at the center to pick up special food parcels being handed out to pensioners and World War II veterans for the Purim holiday.
Boicheva experienced Soviet anti-Semitism firsthand. She wanted to study math or medicine out of high school, she said, but was refused because she was Jewish.
“I had the right grades but the wrong last name,” she said.
Boicheva’s reservations were not limited to Putin. She cited the alliance of the new Ukrainian government with a nationalist party whose members venerate a World-War II-era partisan leader, Stepan Bandera, seen in Russia and eastern Ukraine as a Nazi collaborator.
“All of Europe condemns Fascism. How did these people come to power,” said Solomon Flaks, 87, head of an organization with an office in the center, the Jewish World War II Veterans Council, who has spent the past 20 years documenting the military service of Jews in the war against Nazi Germany.
Historians here said 25,000 Jews from Dnepropetrovsk were drafted into the Red Army, and 10,000 were killed in action. But for 50 years, the Soviet regime refused to acknowledge their service as part of a general policy to diminish the role of Jews in Soviet society (the Soviets also refused to publicly acknowledge Jewish victims of the Holocaust).
The city’s Jewish identity suffered in myriad other ways. In the decades after World War II, all but one of the city’s 42 synagogues were confiscated by the government. By the late 1980s, said Zelig Brez, the executive director of the Jewish Community of Dnepropetrovsk, “there were only a few men who would gather at the synagogue for Sabbath services.”
Boston’s involvement with Dnepropetrovsk started shortly thereafter, basically as a random assignment, according to Jeremy Burton, director of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council. Jewish communities in the United States were being paired with cities in the former Soviet Union, and Boston drew Dnepropetrovsk.
Early on, the Boston community sent prominent doctors to help open a children’s clinic and a women’s health clinic. Instead of just sending financial aid and equipment, Boston focused on expertise, particularly in areas where Soviet society was weak: management of nonprofit groups, working with people with disabilities, and modernizing such aspects of medical treatment as screening for breast and cervical cancers.
The cooperation has led to some big successes, said Olena Finkova, chief doctor of the hospital where the Boston Jewish community helped open the Corky Ribakoff Women’s Clinic. Timely diagnosis has drastically reduced the mortality rate of cervical cancer.
The Jewish Community now boasts senior assisted living facilities and outpatient care, a big brother and big sister program, a Jewish school, an initiative to create IT jobs for young people, and a microlending program for women at risk.
“Boston did just not help the Jewish community here,” said Rabbi Kaminetzky. “Boston is the mother of the Jewish community here. Everything we are, they started.
“We didn’t know how to teach people to volunteer. They came here to implement the essence of how to build a community,” he added.
As time has gone on, Burton said, the relationship has become more of an exchange of opinions.
“We are in partnership with this community,” he said. “It’s not about us telling [Ukrainians] what they should be doing.”
That scenario played out Thursday in a cramped office perched over a dingy courtyard hidden behind a heavy steel gate. It is the former site of the sole synagogue during the Soviet period, now turned into Brez’s office.
Brez and several other members of the Dnepropetrovsk community worked out details via a videoconference with four Americans for a new medical center for the general public — they were down to such fine points as where to put the bathrooms and whether it should have its own pharmacy.
Another example of Americans learning from Ukraine took place in late February, when supporters of the Kiev protest against then-President Viktor Yanukovych tore down the Lenin statue. The next morning, Emilia Diamant of Hebrew College in Newton, who was leading a group of Boston-area high school students on a weeklong winter camp at the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish day school, took her charges into the square.
“There was a lively debate between the two sides, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian,” Diamant said. She said she told her group, “ ‘someday your kids will study this, and you will tell them – I was there.’ We were there for one of the turning points, for a historic world moment.”
If older Jews worry about which position to take up along the divide between Russians and Ukrainians, some younger Jews see in the crisis an opportunity.
Brez remembers being mocked in his school days in the 1980s, when he was the only Jew in his class. The teachers reinforced it.
“I felt like a monkey in a cage,” he said. “I had to fight. And I cried.”
Now, he said: “That kind of official anti-Semitism is almost never felt. It’s a miracle how much it has changed.’’
Amid the unease, Brez said he dreams that the crisis will usher in a new era in Ukraine.
He noted that the new governor of Dnepropetrovsk, a Jewish media, metals, and banking magnate who is Ukraine’s third-richest man, has Russians and Ukrainians in his administration, and works with members of far-right parties.
“These parties are moderating their positions,” Brez said. “There’s such a feeling of Ukrainian national pride that wasn’t there.”
“Up until now, I could say I’m a citizen of Ukraine,” he said. “Now, I want to say I’m proud to be a Ukrainian who feels freedom and dignity to be a Jew.”