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"The fear is different"

Europe in focus: Researchers from the University of Passau contextualise current developments and the background circumstance of the Ukraine war. Part 5: Dr. Natalia Poluhin-Ivanusa, a scholar of Eastern European history from Ukraine, tells us about the Jewish population in her home country.

Ruins of the fortress synagogue in Brody, a city in western Ukraine. The synagogue was built in the 1740s and heavily damaged in World War II. Photograph: Adobe Stock

Dr. Natalia Poluhin-Ivanusa

Dr. Natalia Poluhin-Ivanusa

conducts research on the Jewish merchants in Galicia of the Habsburg era

How did the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment spread from Galicia in the 19th century?

How did the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment spread from Galicia in the 19th century?

Dr. Natalia Poluhin-Ivanusa is a researchers at the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History of Eastern Europe and its Cultures. The historian, who is originally from Lviv in western Ukraine, studied there at the Ukrainian Catholic University and then at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt an der Oder). She completed her doctorate at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany. She is involved in a project at the University of Passau where she studies the mobility of Jewish merchants in Galicia of the Habsburg era during the long 19th century   and how ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment spread via their international network. Dr. Poluhin-Ivanusa lives in Frankfurt with her family.

Judaism interested me already as a student in Lviv. The religion, the rich tradition, the long history, the many different things to discover, I found all of that very exciting. In my research project at the University of Passau, I am studying an era in which diversity was thriving. It's about Jewish merchants  in the city of Brody in Habsburg Galicia, a historical region in what today is western Ukraine and in southern Poland, in the long 19th century. I am studying how the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment spread on account of their mobility and via their international network. So, my take of Ukrainian history is from a different perspective, from its history as a translational contact zone.

How is the Jewish community doing in Ukraine now? Well, just like my family, like all Ukrainians are doing: they have to fear for their lives.

Dr. Natalia Poluhin-Ivanusa, University of Passau

But  I hardly have any time to conduct research at the moment as I'm very much involved in the organisation of aid and support for Ukraine. My parents live in Lviv, my husband's parents live in Kyiv. We stay in touch daily; they are fine. But I worry a lot.

How is the Jewish community doing in Ukraine now? Well, just like my family, like all Ukrainians are doing: they have to fear for their lives. But Jews are in a particularly difficult situation. The fear they feel is different. After all, history is replete with examples where they were held responsible for tragic events. That is why they are also very afraid to take a public stance, to make their position clear.

It was different in 2014 during the Maidan Uprising. Back then, a minority actively took part on the pro-Ukrainian side. For now, a certain restraint prevails on account of this great fear. That Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish plays no role in the way the public sees things. That's simply not an issue and will therefore not help to reassure the Jewish population.

Russia has been waging an information war since around 2007. Ever since, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been continuously expanding and deploying his "Russkiy Mir" ideology – which translates as "Russian World" – and putting it to use for his own purposes. He has successfully managed to spread his narrative according to which Ukraine is ruled by fascists. This narrative is informed by the fear felt by the Jews and the national minorities, including the Russian one, it conjures up memories of the bloody massacres of Polish civilians committed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the 1940s and thus gives rise to a sense of apprehension that the Jewish community and other minorities might meet exactly the same fate. That Stepan Bandera, who was a political activist and leader of the Ukrainian National Movement in the 1930s and 1940s, is hailed a national hero in western Ukraine feeds into the Russian narrative. In his fight against the Soviet government, Bandera saw Nazi Germany as a potential ally.

But the Russian narrative is very far detached from reality. Yes, anti-Semitism continues to exist in the language and culture of Ukraine, as in anti-Semitic jokes for example. But the Jewish community lives in safety in Ukraine. I do not know of any incidents escalating into physical assaults in Lviv.

A look back in history will show us that hostility against Jews was much more pronounced in Russia's Tsarist empire. Horrific pogroms were instigated, triggering large-scale emigration. Conversely, the ideas of  the Haskalah, of secularisation and integration into the local societies began to gain currency among the Austro-Hungarian Jews starting at the end of the 18th century. On account of this, anti-Semitism played a lesser role here, paving the way for the golden age of the Jewish merchants, which forms part of my research.

The people in Ukraine and their staunch resistance are now pushing back resolutely against the Russian narrative. Russia has already set down in writing how history will unfold from here: On the second day of the war, articles briefly appeared in the Russian press purporting that Ukraine had capitulated.

To keep up the resistance, Ukraine now needs the support of the world community more than ever before. A coalition must come together to ramp up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin and stop the invasion."

Do you have any questions about the attack on Ukraine? Contact us at: - we will forward your questions and publish answers from researchers here in a timely manner.

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Unabhängigkeitsdenkmal der Ukraine auf dem Majdan Nesaleschnosti in Kiew. Foto: Adobe Stock

Digital propaganda, Putin's view of history, fake news: All assessments by Passau researchers on the background and current developments in the Ukraine war.

Statement of the President

In a video message, President Ulrich Bartosch is outlining the University's response to the war and explains the aid initiatives and options for action the University Executive is currently exploring.

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