Ukraine crisis: Donetsk anti-Semitic leaflets stir old fears

Jewish men praying in Donetsk synagogue (18 April)

The BBC has obtained security camera footage that shows men in balaclavas distributing threatening anti-Semitic leaflets in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. The leaflets bore the stamp of pro-Russian separatists the People's Republic of Donetsk, but the separatists have declared them a hoax.

Nonetheless, as Natalia Antelava reports from Donetsk, they seem to be part of a larger, anonymous campaign of intimidation against minorities in Ukraine.

Asya Kreimer has a big laugh. And laugh, she says, is what she did, when she logged in on Facebook a few days ago and saw a leaflet that ordered Jews to register, pay a tax or leave.

"It seemed ridiculous," she said, as she sliced kosher chicken for a Passover meal in her kitchen in Donetsk. "We have never had any problems here. My Ukrainian and Russian friends respect me for being a Jew. So to see that piece of paper was at once disgusting and laughable."

Anti-Semitic leaflet in Donetsk (18 April) Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk have denied any connection to the leaflet

The leaflets that were distributed by men in balaclavas outside the synagogue in Donetsk a few days ago have been declared a hoax.

Leaders of the Donetsk People's Republic, a separatist pro-Russian group, have adamantly denied being behind the letter, calling it a provocation and attempt by the government in Kiev to discredit them.

Threats and intimidation

But regardless of who wrote them, for some of the 15,000 Jews of Donetsk, the very existence of these leaflets is enough reason to worry.

"It's just another illustration of nastiness that's emerging here," Ms Kreimer told me. "I don't think it means that Jews are in an immediate danger, but it's all part of this plan to push people towards a confrontation"

Anti-Semitism is part of Ms Kreimer's family history - five of her aunts were buried alive when Germans invaded in 1941.

In the years that followed, much of the rest of the family was exterminated.

Asya Kreimer (R) with daughter and granddaughter, Donetsk (18 April) Asya Kreimer (R) views the anti-Semitic leaflet on her tablet - for the first time, she is thinking of emigrating

But most of Ms Kreimer's own 66 years have been peaceful. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, she has turned down many opportunities to emigrate. A few weeks ago, she started studying German.

"I am thinking of going to Germany. It's the first time in my life that I think of leaving," she told me. "I am afraid of Russia. Not of the people, but of the government. I think the West is underestimating the danger of Putin."

Donetsk Rabbi Pinkhas Vyshedsky Donetsk Rabbi Pinkhas Vyshedsky has called for the Jewish community to be given special protection

"It feels like someone is trying to drag us into a political game between Russia and Ukraine," says the chief rabbi of the Donbass region, Pinkhas Vyshedsky.

He also has called on the Ukrainian security services to give the community special protection, but so far they have received none.

Start Quote

Leaflets are just a small part of it - what matters is that Russia is trying to stir trouble”

End Quote Asya Kreimer Jewish resident of Donetsk

The leaflets are part of an emerging pattern of an anonymous campaign of threats and intimidation against several minority groups here.

During the Russian annexation of Crimea, Tatars, who are indigenous to the Black Sea Peninsula, found themselves in a similar situation. In 1940s Stalin deported the entire Muslim Tatar population of Crimea to Central Asia.

In the 1980s many of them returned to Crimea but last month, as Russian troops occupied military bases across the region, unidentified young men armed with sticks went around ethnically mixed neighbourhoods, marking the gates of the houses of Crimean Tatars with crosses.

"This is exactly what Stalin's police did days before we were put on trains and deported to Central Asia," Rustam Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar resident of the town of Bakhchysarai, whose house was among those marked, told me at the time.

"I don't know who is doing it, but they are trying to intimidate us," he said.

President Putin has accused the government in Kiev of violating the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. Moscow says Ukraine's nationalists and especially the powerful Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) group are fascists.

Jewish boy in Donetsk (18 April) Many in the Jewish community in the region around Donetsk say they feel safer in a pro-European Ukraine than they would in Russia

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government has continuously failed to pass laws that guarantee language and other rights to minority groups here.

And yet most representatives of Jewish and Crimean Tatar communities I have spoken to feel that a pro-European Ukraine would give them a greater chance of security than Russia.

"I am not afraid of Pravy Sektor. I am afraid of Russia," says Asya Kreimer, who like most Jews here, is also a Russian-speaker.

"It feels like the end of the life as we knew it," she says. "Leaflets are just a small part of it: what matters is that Russia is trying to stir trouble. They have invented a new type of genocide, a new form of war. From the outside it may seem like it's okay because thankfully there haven't been many deaths or much violence. But Russia is killing our statehood, our nation."

As the stand-off between Russia and Ukraine deepens, so does the dangerous power vacuum that it has created. Like any conflict, it has already began to unleash long-dormant religious and ethnic tensions. Minority groups here fear that they will be the biggest victims of this conflict between two Orthodox, Slavic nations.

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