When bombs began falling on Donetsk two years ago, local businessman Nikolay Liskov barely had time to pack up his car and drive away with his wife, who was seven months pregnant. He left behind his home and his business, and even his winter clothes. Earlier that day, he was almost executed at a military checkpoint by a group of armed men whom he had never seen before.
Now Liskov, who found a low-paying job in the Ukrainian capital, is trying to get even further away from this war — he wants to go to Israel.
He says his 76-year-old grandmother recently revealed to him a family secret: that she is the daughter of a Jewish woman. It is something that his grandmother’s brothers and sisters still don’t want to make public.
“They were very afraid that they were Jewish, so they never talked about it,” Liskov said.
The story, Liskov says, goes back to World War II when a policeman agreed to give his great-grandmother a new passport, changing her name from Gitlia to Katherine, and her ethnicity from Jewish to Ukrainian, to save her life.
Great-grandmother Gitlia (a.k.a. Katherine) died young from tuberculosis and never told her daughter, Liskov’s grandmother, that she was Jewish. But one night in the 1960s, Liskov says his grandmother saw her father come home drunk and in tears. She asked him what was the matter.
“He said, ‘Can you believe it, I just ran into the man who helped your mother during the war.’ That’s when her father told her everything,” Liskov said.
Having heard the legend, Liskov needed proof. So he turned to Nadia Lipes, a Ukraine-based Jewish genealogist.
Lipes originally set up her genealogy business, Jewua.info, to cater to Jews living abroad who are interested in tracing their family trees back to the old shtetls in Ukraine. But after Ukraine’s military conflict with Russia started, she began to hear from more Ukrainians who are desperately trying to find an ancestor with a Jewish connection — to repatriate to Israel.
Despite the difficulties, the number of Ukrainians making aliyah annually has tripled since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014.
According to Avi Mayer, the spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, the number of Ukrainian immigrants from 2011-2013 ranged between 2,000 and 2,100 per year. This year, already by June, Israel has seen 2,735 Ukrainian immigrants. Some 7,000 individuals moved to Israel from Ukraine in 2015, as well as 6,000 in 2014.
Some 3,500 of these immigrants arrived through the efforts of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which also aids their absorption with extra benefit packages and grants through donations from evangelical Christians.
“I get three requests per day from hypothetical Jews who say they are sure they’re Jewish, even though all their documents say they’re Ukrainian or Belorussian,” Lipes says. “They get really upset when I tell them they’re not Jewish. I tell them to do a DNA test and come back after that.”
DNA tests alone are not enough to prove Jewishness as far as the Jewish Agency, which makes decisions on Aliyah, is concerned — but the test can justify putting an effort into a thorough search. It can happen, for example, that a mother’s DNA test shows she is 50 percent Jewish, which can encourage a grandfather to admit that he was adopted, Lipes says.
Often people contact Lipes simply because they think their grandmother has dark features on old photographs.
“People say their grandmother looks Jewish. [But I tell them] she could be Gypsy, Greek, Armenian, or Moldovan — the Mediterranean look is similar,” Lipes says. “The average person thinks someone with dark eyes and dark eyebrows is Jewish of course.”
‘The average person thinks someone with dark eyes and dark eyebrows is Jewish’
But at other times, as in Liskov’s case, the family legends do turn out to be true.
Liskov says he found that on his grandmother’s older siblings’ birth certificates, the mother’s ethnicity is recorded as Jewish, while the younger ones, who were born after the war, have birth certificates where the mother’s ethnicity was changed to Ukrainian.
This should make him eligible to make aliyah, he says, because according to Israeli regulations, the Law of Return, which is based on the Nuremberg Laws, a person can immigrate to Israel if he or she has at least one Jewish grandparent. (“All individuals who have made Aliyah from Ukraine were found eligible to do so,” the Jewish Agency’s Mayer wrote in an email.)
Liskov adds that he would really like to move to Israel in part because he has diabetes, and insulin was at times entirely unavailable in Ukraine.
“My friends used to joke that I’m Jewish because I’m savvy and sly, but I never thought much of it,” Liskov said. “Now it turns out that I actually have Jewish blood.”
Sometimes, rather than contacting a genealogist, people try to search the archives on their own.
Olena Ilkova, an archivist in the State Archives of the Vinnytsia Region, says that the workload of archive employees doubled in recent years because more people are now trying to find some non-Ukrainian ancestors to leave the war-torn nation.
‘If there was a pogrom, no one tried to save the books that were kept there’
She cautions that the Jewish archival records of the Russian Empire are not always complete. What often happens is that in a town or village all the Christian birth and death data survived, but the Jewish records vanished, or are available for only a limited number of years, Ilkova says.
“I think it’s because there were Jewish pogroms and the war,” she explained. “The books were kept in the synagogues. If there was a pogrom, no one tried to save the books that were kept there.”
The desire to find Jewish ancestors doesn’t always end after the new immigrants reach Israel.
Daria Kurlianchick, who moved to Israel two years ago after marrying an Israeli, recently contacted a genealogist in Ukraine to look into a family legend — that her great-grandmother’s grandmother (on her mother’s side) was the daughter of a rabbi.
Kurlianchick spent more than a thousand dollars on the research with the genealogist, Vitaly Semionoff. She says she would like to document an unbroken Jewish connection on her maternal lineage in order to have a Jewish wedding in Israel, to be buried in the same cemetery with her husband, and to have her children recognized as Jews.
At first, she says, the genealogist laughed her off. But then, he actually found her great-great-great-grandmother’s conversion document from 1891.
Kurlianchick’s Jewish ancestor, whose name was Bluma Brodskaya, changed her name to Lubov (which means “love” in Russian) and married a Ukrainian peasant when she was only 17 years old.
“It was very funny, because the genealogist wrote me early in the morning on Facebook, super excited because he didn’t expect to find it himself,” she said. “I think they had six children. She kept having kids until she was over 40. I think it was a love marriage.”
In 19th century Ukraine, where Jews made up a significant percentage of the population, such marriages were not unheard of.
So much so, that genealogoist Lipes claims that “in Ukraine, almost everyone has Jewish blood.”
That’s because while looking through the 19th century archives in the Kiev region, she found that about 300 pages every year are taken up with the names of Jews who converted to Christianity.
The descendants of those converts, however, are not eligible to make aliyah.