Why the word ‘zhyd’ stirs fighting in Ukraine

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Dec. 5, 2012, 4:58 p.m. | Op-ed — by Yulia McGuffie

A man sits at the Babiy Yar monument in Kiev on Sept. 29 during a rememberance ceremony marking the 71st anniversary of the beginning of mass execution of Jews by the Nazis in September 1941. Some 34,000 Jews were murdered over two days in September 1941 on Babiy Yar, a plazza in Kiev rendering it a symbol of the Holocaust where Nazis shot more than 100,000 people between 1941 and 1944. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY


I would like to tell a personal story about why the word “zhyd,” a derogatory reference to Jews, stirs so much emotion in Ukraine. The reason I am doing this is discussion around a recent comment by my former university mate-turned-member of parliament from Svoboda Party, Ihor Miroshnychenko. He called the Hollywood actress of Ukrainian descent Mila Kunis is a “zhydivka.”

My great-grandfather's name was Efim Abramovich Kalishevsky. The name is telling, but in Soviet days people used to hide very carefully the Jewish roots of one’s relatives. Actually, my great-grandfather was a christened Jew, and some years ago he married my grandmother Varvara Radzievska. They had two daughters, the elder Susanna and younger Agnessa, my grandmother.

In the 1930s, my great-grandfather was a bishop of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. In 1937, he was shot in the dungeons of the October Palace for membership in counter-revolutionary church-based nationalistic organization. I only found out about it in 1990.

Our big happy family lived in a semi-communal apartment on 24/7 Instytutska Street in the very heart of Kyiv. The reason I say it was semi-communal was that three of the vast rooms in this flat were taken up by my family, while the other one was used by the authorities for lodging various underclass folks, with whom we had to share our everyday existence and the mailing address.

My grandmother's name was Agnessa Efimovna, and this Jewish name she also used to hide. For her colleagues and the rest of the people around her she was Alla. Until the age of five, I used to know her as “Granny Alla,” until one day I picked up the phone when her close friend was calling.

The friend asked to talk to Agnessa, and I was scared and said that Agnessa doesn't live here. I told this story to my parents and they explained to me that my granny, who headed a lab in one of Kyiv's infectious hospitals, wore shoes by Chanel at the age of 60, used bright red lipstick and smoked Belomor cigarettes, had two names. This is how my granny turned from Alla Efimovna to Agnessa Efimovna. 

Our underclass neighbors also knew my granny's real name. In the late 1980s, the fourth room in our flat was taken over by Uncle Yura, his wife and two little daughters. Uncle Yura was a militiaman from Fastov, I think [a suburb town outside Kyiv]. It is because of his job that he was lodged in a room of a flat in the very center of Kyiv.

Uncle Yura had a tough job, so he got drunk rather frequently. A few times he got very drunk and called me “little zhydovka” because my granny's real name haunted him. One day my father heard him say it, and he simply smashed his face in our communal kitchen.

So, when Svoboda, in an attempt to whitewash their party member Miroshnychenko, says that the word zhyd, or Jew, is a Ukrainian literary archaism, and the rest of their blah-blah-blah, I am not buying it. I know everything about it, and I know that the way this particular word is used in our country is unfortunately offensive.

The rest of my story has little to do with my main point, but nevertheless it's interesting and relevant. My fraternal grandfather, the husband of my favorite granny Agnessa Efimovna, was called Taras Hryhorovych Diachenko. He was a distant relative of another great Ukrainian, Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, through artist Fotiy Krasitskiy, the grandson of Shevchenko's elder sister Kateryna.

The fact of distant kinship with the great Ukrainian poet, who used the archaic word zhyd (Jew) in his literary work, did not prevent my grandpa from marrying the daughter of an enemy of people with a disreputable name and surname.  And he never used the word about my granny. My father was born in this complicated family, and so was I.

None of the people mentioned in this family story are living any more. Mila Kunis has probably not heard the words of my ex-university mate Miroshnychenko, but I did and it stirred a lot of emotions.

I don't mean to moralize. This is just my personal family story that demonstrates the complex connections. And it also shows why I am still ready to smash the face of anyone who calls someone a zhyd in my presence. I also think that people should avoid the word to make sure people don't start hiding who they are and what their real name is.

Yulia McGuffie is the chief editor of, one of Ukraine's biggest online news portals.

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