The Jewish Hero of the Ukrainian Uprising
An exclusive interview with a most unlikely rebel, chasidic freedom fighter Asher Yoseph Cherkassy.
This article originally appeared in Ami magazine.
For over two years the media have been reporting on a bloody war going on between Russia and Ukraine. The scenes are often grisly and violent. But amid the thundering tanks and artillery inflicting death on both sides, a surprising figure emerges: a Jewish man, a Lubavitcher chasid, complete with a long beard and twinkling eyes. He is praying Shacharis, enwrapped in tallis and tefillin, and smiles for the camera.
Meet the hero of the Ukrainian insurgents, Reb Asher Yoseph Cherkassky. A photograph of him in his green uniform, waving a Kalashnikov in front of a tank, has become one of the most iconic images in Ukraine today, and a symbol of the seemingly endless war that has already claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 people. Borys Filatov, the governor of the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast region in Eastern Ukraine and one of the country’s most prominent politicians, has called Cherkassy a “symbol and hero of the Ukrainian uprising.” Cherkassy has even been referred to by the media as the “Ukrainian Fidel Castro,” thanks to the visual similarity with the Cuban rebel, most notably their camouflage fatigues and beards. Other common nicknames are “the chasid soldier” and “the rabbi warrior.”
Regardless of the nomenclature, Cherkassy is now one of the most famous men in the country. In Ukraine, it is customary to distribute postcards bearing the likenesses of prominent national personalities for the New Year. This year, among the photos of the usual war heroes was Cherkassky wearing a black suit and a fedora.
A Rebel with a Cause
“Many people ask me why I enlisted,” he tells me in an exclusive interview. “Why would I want to fight alongside the Ukrainian patriots in the war against Russia? But it’s quite simple. When people attack you, when they seek to destroy you and send you fleeing from your home, you have to stand up and fight. You need to protect your children, your home and your friends. It is a civic duty, a personal duty, an obligation to my family.”
When people attack you, when they seek to destroy you and send you fleeing from your home, you have to stand up and fight.
Our interview took place in the office of Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the Chabad emissary in Dnepropetrovsk, who fully supports Cherkassky. “Yoseph Cherkassky is a dear Jew who is making a kiddush Hashem [sanctifying God’s Name]. Not only is he a great fighter, but he maintains his Jewish observance on the battlefield.”
All the publicity has propelled Cherkassky into local politics. He was recently elected to the Dnepropetrovsk city council, having received widespread support not only from Jews but from many Christians. He is the first chasidic Jew elected to higher office in Ukraine. While he is still an active member of the militia, he does not believe that there is a conflict. “If I ever felt that my military obligations were preventing me from doing my job on the council I would concentrate on the council, because I believe I can be more influential in that role.”
So what brought Cherkassky, an Orthodox father of two, to the battlefront? His story begins farther south, in Crimea.
“I grew up in the small town of Feodosia in the Crimean Peninsula, on the Black Sea,” he says. “It’s a little port city with a small but historic Jewish community that is actually one of the oldest in Ukraine.”
Feodosia was founded as a Greek colony during the ancient Hellenistic period. A synagogue that was built there over 1,000 years ago survived up until the Holocaust. After Russia conquered Crimea from the Turks, Jews flocked to the coastal town and established a thriving community that numbered around 3,000 by the late 19th century. The community prospered until the Nazis occupied the city, rounding up the Jews and killing most of them. After World War II, some local Jews returned. The Cherkassky family was one of those that worked to rebuild their community.
“I received a Communist education, not a religious one. For many years I didn’t know what Judaism was or how to observe the mitzvot or holidays,” he tells me. Cherkassky, who is tall and sturdy, worked as a laborer doing renovations. In the 1990s he served in the Russian Army. “I was in the army for several years. I learned how to fight and how to operate weapons. That was also the time when the Russian Army was fighting in Chechnya. I learned a lot.” Today, he uses the knowledge he learned from the Russians...against the Russians. Familiar with the Russian Army’s strengths and weaknesses, he takes advantage of that knowledge.
After discovering the power of prayer I made a commitment to increase my observance.
It was during those years that Cherkassky discovered Judaism and belief in God. “My father, with whom I was very close, was seriously ill. He was admitted to the hospital, but the treatments didn’t help him. The disease progressed and the doctors gave up. It was then that I realized that no one could help us except for the One Above; everything depends on Him. I went to the synagogue and learned how to pray. I asked God to heal my father. After discovering the power of prayer I made a commitment to increase my observance and to uphold the Torah and Jewish law. I began studying Judaism in depth and started to keep Shabbos and kosher and accepted all of the mitzvot. Eventually, after being sick for a very long time, my father passed away, and he was given a Jewish burial. He has now gone to the Next World, but in his merit I have continued to grow stronger.”
After living elsewhere for a time Cherkassky returned to Feodosia, got married and had two children. He became a leader of the small local Jewish community. Then, around two years ago, riots broke out in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and pro-Western rebels took control of the government. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had supported Russian President Vladimir Putin, was removed from power. Yanukovych fled to Donetsk, a pro-Russian stronghold in the far eastern region of Ukraine, and everyone thought the crisis was over; Ukraine would move politically closer to the West. But Putin had other plans. “Now we have to start working on the return of Crimea to Russia,” he declared at the time.
Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, saw mass demonstrations – widely believed to have been orchestrated by Putin; Russian flags could be seen flying from government buildings – against the new regime. Protesters gathered in front of the local parliament, demanding to break away from Ukraine. Then unidentified soldiers took over the municipal buildings and the parliament voted to establish a new pro-Russian government. While all military operations were kept secret and Moscow insisted that only local forces were involved in the uprising, it was clear that Russian troops were on the ground. The Kremlin later admitted that Moscow was in fact was behind the coup. The Russian Army then took control of Crimea, ignoring international protest against the occupation.
“Vladimir Putin acted like Hitler in his conquest of Europe,” Cherkassky says angrily. “He conquered country after country, piece by piece, under all kinds of pretexts that he was supposedly invading those countries by their own invitation. Putin did the same thing, claiming to have invaded Crimea at the request of the local Russian population. Then he used Russian separatists to try and take control of parts of Eastern Ukraine.”
Unwilling to live under Russian rule, which had now spread to Feodosia, Cherkassky decided to flee to Dnepropetrovsk, the largest city in Eastern Ukraine. It is also the country’s industrial center and home to tens of thousands of Jews. The community supports a Jewish school, Ohr Avner Levi-Yitzhak, and a girls’ seminary, Beit Chana, which educates girls from all over Ukraine. A large 150-year-old synagogue in the city center, Shoshanat Hazahav, was appropriated and nationalized under the Communists and used as a theater, but was later returned. An enormous new complex, the biggest Jewish community center in the world, has just been built adjacent to it, donated by the president of the local community. “We have everything a Jew could possibly want,” he tells me. “Kosher restaurants and bakeries, a mikvah, a guest house, educational facilities – even a Jewish museum. I feel very much at home here. The Jewish community is very warm.” Cherkassky is now studying law and hopes to become a lawyer.
When the tensions began between Russia and Ukraine in Crimea, they were felt in Dnepropetrovsk as well. “We share a long common border with Russia and have a sizeable ethnic Russian minority. Some cities with large Russian populations like Donetsk and Luhansk have even declared themselves members of a non-existent republic called Novorossiya, or New Russia. The separatists were supported by the Russian Army, and there were periods of fighting with the Ukrainian forces. Thanks to the massive Russian assistance, the separatists have succeeded in taking control of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threaten to continue on to Dnepropetrovsk.”
Very often the non-Jewish soldiers ask me to give them blessing before we into battle.
The Ukrainians were alarmed. Many, including Cherkassky, believed that Putin would use the same strategy again, instigating pro-Russian riots demanding independence from Ukraine and then sending in his army to annex another region.
Around the same time, the new governor of Dnepropetrovsk Oblast started recruiting volunteers to support the Ukrainian armed forces. Cherkassky decided to use his military knowledge and join the regiment. “I was not the only Jew who joined,” he says. “There were a lot of others, including an Israeli soldier who previously served in the Golani Brigade. But I am definitely the only chasidic soldier,” he adds with a smile. “I was welcomed with opened arms when I volunteered. Instead of hostility, they appreciate my being here. Very often the non-Jewish soldiers ask me to give them blessing before we into battle.”
A Jew in the Army
How do you keep kosher and Shabbos at the front?
“I cannot expect the army to provide kosher food just for me, so I bring some provisions from home. I also eat fruits and vegetables. For Shabbos I try to do as little as possible, and consult with my rav. But if there’s a battle on Shabbos, what can you do? You’re saving lives. The enemy doesn’t take into account that I keep Shabbos. The most painful experience for me as a combatant was having to engage in a battle that took place on Rosh Hashanah.”
Cherkassky has participated in several major clashes and has often found himself in danger, particularly after Russian separatists occupied Donetsk. The Ukrainian government controlled only the local airport, which they turned into a stronghold of sorts. Then the Russian separatist forces laid siege to the airfield. The Russian Army tried to take over the strategic location and shelled the Ukrainian positions. Cherkassky was injured by an exploding shell; some of his friends were killed. While Cherkassky recovered from injury, his hearing was impaired. “War is dangerous. I’ve had to bentch gomel [the Thanksgiving blessing] many times.” The Ukrainians were able to hold their positions and a ceasefire was signed. Once calm was restored in the area, Cherkassky returned home and to his studies.
But in January 2015 the ceasefire collapsed and the fighting resumed full-force. The Russians shelled a Ukrainian military checkpoint. A bus was hit and ten passengers were killed. Fighting around the Donetsk airport resumed, and this time the pro-Russian forces used enormous firepower to defeat the Ukrainians. Cherkassky’s unit had to retreat and the airfield fell into Russian hands. The Russians continued to advance and marched westward towards Dnepropetrovsk, recruiting numerous sympathetic volunteers and staging bloody battles along the way. After several months of fighting without tangible results another ceasefire was signed, in Minsk, Belarus. According to the agreement, a 50-kilometer demilitarized buffer zone was to be established between the Russian and Ukrainian forces. Negotiations on holding local elections to establish a temporary administration in the Russian-dominated areas, in accordance with Ukrainian law, were also supposed to commence. Then fighting broke out around Debaltseve, east of Donetsk, and was pulverized by the Russians, and the Ukrainians had no choice but to withdraw. Till today, the hostilities continue sporadically, with each side blaming the other when negotiations or ceasefires break down. Ukraine is basically doing what it can to keep the Russians from making any more inroads.
Does Ukraine, with its small army, stand a chance against one of the largest and most powerful armies in the world, which is also providing weapons to the separatists?
“Jews do not ask such questions. We know that the main thing isn’t numbers but the power and the passion in our hearts. When the Maccabees rose up against the Greeks they were only a few, but they were able to beat them because they had faith. How many times has Israel had to fight for its survival against all odds? I’m obviously not comparing it to the situation in Ukraine but it’s the same principle. It’s not only about numbers.
“I remember fighting in Chechnya. Chechnya is a small country; it cannot be compared to Russia. But despite its much smaller army they were able to put up a good fight against the Russians and were very brave. The fighting went on for years. Both sides suffered many losses, but the Russians could not prevail. So yes, despite the might and sophistication of the Russian Army, a small determined power can hold out.”
Anti-Semitism and the Ukraine
Have you personally experienced any anti-Semitism? I ask.
“Yes, I’ve encountered occasional harassment, but not at the front. Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist when we are all fighting against the common Russian enemy. I am a citizen of Ukraine and wish to continue living in a democratic Ukraine. The governments in Kiev and Crimea have always defended the Jews, and the claims of anti-Semitism are just propaganda.”
There are claims that the movement is fueled by neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism which Cherkassy insists it isn’t true.
It should be noted that the Ukrainian national movement has deep anti-Semitic roots. It is estimated that Bogdan Chmelnistzky, the Cossack leader, killed an estimated 100,000 Jews and decimated hundreds of communities; a later version in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Simon Petliura, was responsible for the murder of thousands more. And let’s not forget the Ukrainian collaboration with Nazis during the Holocaust. Nationalist leader Stepan Bandera was known to have killed thousands of Jews, including the Admor of Bobov, hy”d, in Lvov. And while even today there are claims that the movement is fueled by neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism, Cherkassy insists it isn’t true.
“These arguments linking the Ukrainian nationalist movement to Nazism are the fruit of Russian propaganda. They have no relation to reality. Yes, there are elements of anti-Semitism in the ranks, but the movement is not anti-Semitic. There are many Jewish Ukrainian patriots, and we are welcomed. On the contrary, it is Russia that has been traditionally anti-Semitic. For years they preached anti-Semitism and disseminated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is the worst anti-Semitic document ever published. They carried out pogroms persecuted the Jewish relentlessly.
“Unfortunately the phenomenon of anti-Semitism exists in Ukraine as it does everywhere else. Fighting against it part of what I am doing. When non-Jews see a Jew like me sharing their distress and their difficulties, it shows them that Jews are also loyal to their country and are willing to lend a hand. The fact that so many people congratulate me and thank me shows that you can dispel anti-Semitic notions. I was elected to the city council with a lot of support from non-Jews, and by being in a prominent position, I can also help encourage efforts to eradicate anti-Jewish sentiment.
“Have we forgotten who made the pact with Adolf Hitler that started World War II? Russia! Hitler and Stalin agreed to the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. You cannot erase history. We must never forget what the nations of the world have done to us. But the fact is that today, the Ukrainian national movement isn’t anti-Semitic, and I have never encountered any anti-Semitism during my service to my country.
“And don’t forget that it was Russia, and before that the Soviet Union, that traditionally supported the Arabs and provided weapons to those countries that sought to destroy Israel. Even today Putin continues to support Iran, which calls for Israel’s destruction. He supports Hezbollah, which has killed many Jews not only in Israel but in Argentina and elsewhere. He supports the dictator in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. By contrast, Ukraine is a friend of Israel in the international arena.”
Does he believe that Israel should support Ukraine in the war against the Russians?
“Yes. The entire free world should support Ukraine. Putin is the Hitler of our century. He is acting like a true despot, and if not we do wake up and stop him he will only get worse. The Western world must throw its support behind the democratic forces in Ukraine in the fight against Russia’s attempt to expand its occupation.”
This article originally appeared in Ami magazine.