The legacy of communism lives on in some interesting ways in this part of the world. Poland, in spite of ongoing efforts to distance itself from its Communist past, continues to celebrate May 1st, International Workers’ Day, not least because it’s just two days before May 3rd, Constitution Day, marking the nation’s adoption of a constitution in 1791. This makes for a week of May holidays, a sort of national spring break when the entire country seems to take off and travel.
I decided to go to Kiev, because I had never been there before, I could learn more about both Jewish history and Eastern Europe, and because cheap flights made it possible. It was a great choice – I wasn’t expecting to be charmed by a city many associate with Babi Yar, but I was. The city’s geography is what surprised me most. The hills of the city on the Dnieper make for some tough but interesting walking, past small shops, elaborate Eastern Orthodox churches, and ornate apartment buildings from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century.
The churches, dominating the landscape with domes in every direction, are probably the highlight of any visit to the city. Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or the Monastery of the Caves, was founded in 1051. Visitors can wander through the maze-like caves, past the mummies of monks whose bodies were naturally preserved and remain on display. There is much to see in this cluster of churches, including several museums located on the property. In the early Soviet period of the 1920s, the monastery was turned into the All-Ukrainian Museum Town, and the property still hosts museums whose missions have nothing to do with religion.
I was very fortunate to come across the Museum of Theatre, Music, and Cinema of Ukraine, located far back in a courtyard off to the side of the main entrance. The first thing I noticed when I walked in were posters in Yiddish! The museum currently has a small, temporary exhibit honoring the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sholem Aleichem. The posters on display advertised Yiddish theater productions based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories in Kiev and other cities. The exhibit included photographs of actors in the performances and a slide show presentation of the photographs. The rest of the museum was equally interesting, with displays of puppets, costumes, playbills, posters, and musical instruments.
Sholem Aleichem can be found elsewhere in the city, too, in the Sholem Aleichem Museum, a branch of the Kyiv History Museum. Dedicated to the author’s career and legacy, the small museum is one large room that serves as a performance space as well. The enthusiastic guide spent much time with me and my friend reviewing the photographs of old Kiev and even showed us an exhibit that had just closed. This exhibit, of artwork by Ukrainian students inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s Jewish Kiev, was the highlight of the visit.
I also had time to visit two of the city’s synagogues, the Brodsky Synagogue (or Central Synagogue, run by Chabad Lubavich) and the Great Choral Synagogue. Both are open and functioning and visitors are allowed. Nearby each synagogue was a kosher market. Right next to the Great Choral Synagogue was Taki Da, an excellent kosher restaurant.
I made it to the sites associated with World War II as well, including Babi Yar and the imposing Motherland Monument, overlooking the Dnieper not far from Lavra Pechersk. The monument is on the site of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II. Today Babi Yar, on the other side of the city, is a memorial park. I was left with the impression that it serves as both a memorial and a public park, an uneasy but also unexpectedly moving combination for a site of such suffering. Anyone walking the path through the monuments on a spring morning will encounter children at play.
Sean Martin is associate curator for Jewish history at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.