Ukrainian Jews leaving Passover eve prayers were handed leaflets ordering them to either register with an interim government that is trying to make the eastern province of Donetsk Russian or face deportation.
Armed, masked men were waiting outside one synagogue, reports Ynet News, Israel’s largest news website, to hand worshipers the leaflets telling them to register with the forces who are trying to return the city to Russia.
The flyers said that all Jews in the province who are over the age of 16 must register, provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee of about $50 or “else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated.”
The signature of Denis Pushilin, chairman of Donetsk’s temporary government, was on the leaflets. They were also distributed in other areas where pro-Russian activists have defied an ultimatum from Kiev to surrender, and asserted that Donetsk is an independent “people’s republic.”
Pushilin admitted the flyers came from his organization but disavowed the contents, which said that Jews were being ordered to register because of their support for the Bendery Junta, a reference to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that fought for Ukrainian independence at the end of World War II.
The papers said the Jewish residents oppose Pushilin’s interim government, and they were told an “ID and passport are required to register your Jewish religion, religious documents of family members, as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to you, including vehicles.”
Donetsk is home to some 4.3 million people, including an estimated 17,000 Jews, reports Ynet, and is home to much of Ukraine’s heavy industry, so it’s considered one of the biggest prizes of the region.
Jewish resident Olga Reznikova, 32, told Ynet she never experienced anti-Semitism in the city until she saw this leaflet. She said it reminded her of the “fascists in 1941,” a reference to the Nazis who occupied Ukraine during World War II. Hitler’s regime murdered one million Ukrainian Jews in the Holocaust.
“I do not intend to register,” she said. “I am 32, I have lived in Donetsk my entire life and have never had to deal with anti-Semitism until I laid eyes on this piece of paper. Though I take it very seriously, I am uncertain of its authenticity.”
It’s not all clear who was distributing the leaflets, Michael Salberg, director of the international affairs at the New York City-based Anti-Defamation League told USA Today, as they could have come from the pro-Russian leadership or a splinter group.
Russians have been using claims of anti-Semitism since anti-government forces pushed out Ukraine’s pro-Russian former President Victor Yanukovych, issuing multiple stories about the the threat Ukraine’s new pro-Western government posed to Jews by in Kiev, Salberg said.
The threats turned out to be false, he said, even though they were based in part on ultra-nationalists joining the protests and the inclusion of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party in the interim government.
The ADL and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union have both said anti-Semitic acts have not increased since before the initial protests. The leaflets are “a recruitment tool to appeal to the xenophobic fears of the majority, to enlist them to your cause and focus on a common enemy, the Jews,” Salberg said.
“The message is a message to all the people that […] we’re going to exert our power over you,” he said. “Jews are the default scapegoat throughout history for despots to send a message to the general public: Don’t step out of line.”