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Israel & Christians Today

Biblical understanding about Israel

May 17, 2016

The unknown history of Jewish Chernobyl - Based on the article of Diana Kopeikin

On April 26, 1986 in the city of Pripyat a catastrophic disaster took place – an explosion at the nuclear power plant. Twenty-eight highly exposed reactor staff and emergency workers died from radiation and thermal burns within four months of the accident. Officials believe the accident also was responsible for nearly 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer among individuals who were under 18 years of age at the time of the accident. As of 2005, 15 children had died of thyroid cancer.

Chernobyl explosion – 26.04.1986

These events in Chernobyl with such tragic and devastating consequences unfortunately put the long history of this area in the shade. This history is to a large extent connected to the Jewish history of Ukraine.

The town of Chernobyl or Chernobol was mentioned for the first time in in the annals of 1193. The name "Chernobyl" comes from the name of the plant wormwood - чернобыльник. The records of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania describe a castle built in 1450 AD, near the settlement. One hundred years later this castle was transformed into a powerful fortress and Chernobyl became the central point of the area.

Jews were resettled to Chernobyl during the Polish colonization. According to the records they appear in Chernobyl in the late 17th century. The census of 1765 makes mention of about one hundred Jewish houses in Chernobyl with a population of 700. Crisis, partition of Poland, Cossack raids on Jewish communities and failure of the Messianic movement of Shabtai Zvi (one of the most famous Jewish false messiahs) - all this led to the development of Hasidism on the territory of Ukraine.

In the seventeenth century "Hasid" literally meant "good". So what is Hasidism? This doctrine is based on Kabbalah - understanding of the Lord and creation, roles, goals, and, most importantly, the nature of human being and the meaning of life. According to Hasidism, the divine presence is in everything, as in the expression "all is in the will of God". Overall, this is a very positive doctrine. Hasidism proclaims service to God with joy, songs and dances. So, it's a personal experience of God. The rabbi dynasty of Chernobyl was founded by Grand Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky, known by the name of his work as the "Meor Einayim". It has gained widespread acceptance as one of the major works and foundations of Hasidic ideology. Rabbi Twersky was a student of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Hasidic movement).

Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky was succeeded by his son, the Rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl – also known as the Chernobyler Magid.

Throughout his life Rabbi Mordechai collected large amounts of money for tzedakah (charity). Throughout his teachings, Rabbi Mordechai stressed the importance of pure speech and pure thought as a condition for a proper prayer connection. He also spoke of including all Jewish souls in one's prayer, even evil people. By doing so, evil people will stand a better chance of repenting.

Rabbi Mordechai was succeeded by his son Rebbe Aaron of Chernobyl, as his successor in Chernobyl. All of Rebbe Mordechai's eight sons became rebbes in different cities. The Chernobyl dynasty includes the rebbes of Chernobyl, Cherkas, Turisk, Talne, Korestchov, Makarov, Skver, Rachmastrivka, Malyn, Hornosteipl, Machnovka, Ozarnetz, and several others. Chernobyl Hasidism as a movement survived the ravages of the Holocaust, although many of its members perished. There are many descendants of the Chernobyl dynasty alive today.

Generally, at present, anyone with the last name Twersky (or Twerski) is likely to be a descendant of the Chernobyl dynasty. The rabbinic dynasty itself lived in Chernobyl until 1920, when due to the civil war, a descendant of Menachem fled with his family.

In 1847 the Jewish community consisted from 3,500 members, and in 1897, according to the census, from 9,350 citizens 5,520 were Jewish. They were involved mostly in crafts, trade and agriculture. Three times a year a large fair took place in Chernobyl. In the beginning of the 20th century in Chernobyl there were a synagogue, some chapels, a Talmud-Torah school, the Jewish women's private school and a hospice. In 1905 and in 1920 the extreme right movement in the Russian Empire conducted attacks (pogroms) during which Jews were robbed, killed, drowned, shot, and survivors were obliged to pay huge amounts of money. Everyone capable of fleeing, moved to the big cities, some even immediately emigrated.

Former synagogue in Chernobyl

In 1926 in Chernobyl 3,165 Jews resided (40% of the total population). During the first occupation of Chernobyl by the Nazis in 1941-1943 all the remaining Jews were shot. Only few Jews returned to Chernobyl after the war. But the policy of the Soviet government did not allow holding prayer ceremonies of any confession, even in private. In 1970 in Chernobyl 150 Jewish families were living.

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is popularly associated with the destruction of the burial crypt of the Hasidic dynasty on the Jewish cemetery of Chernobyl. Five graves of Chernobyl tzaddikim including Rabbi Menachem were torn down and paved during school constructing in the 1970’s.

During the next 10 years after the explosion thousands of Jews from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus returned to their Homeland, Israel. Liquidators of the nuclear disaster (civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster) receive special social assistance.

We can only guess what was the real spiritual reason of the Chernobyl tragedy. But 30 years after this awful accident its consequences are still evident all over Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. 

Orly Vohlstein - "First Home in the Homeland" Project manager Jewish Agency for Israel

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