Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Part 4 —Currencies of Israel and Ukraine



Welcome to the final episode of our 4-part series on the currencies of Ukraine and Israel.

In Episode 1, the focus was on the respective histories of the currencies of these two states. In Episodes 2 and 3, we focused on eight prominent Jews born in Ukraine who were depicted on Israel’s currency.

In this 4th and final episode in the series, we will focus on the currency of Ukraine.

By 1994, less than three years after the break-up of the USSR, Ukraine had its own facility producing paper money of international-standard quality, security level and design. As we learned in Episode one, however, its establishment faced many challenges and obstacles.

The establishment of a mint that produced coins took even longer, and followed an even more convoluted path.

The first Ukrainian coins were made available in 1995. They were commemorative, or collectible, coins. A year later, general circulation coins were released. This coincided with Ukrainian monetary reform in 1996, when the karbovanets was dropped in favor of the new hryvnia.

These early coins were produced at a temporary facility, a converted factory in Luhansk. They were the first coins minted on Ukrainian soil in over 300 years.

Meanwhile, plans for a national coin production facility in Kyiv had begun in 1995. In April of 1998, the new Ukrainian Mint officially opened.

Commemorative coins are issued to commemorate some particular event or issue. They sometimes serve as collectors items, but often are issued for regular circulation as well. They have a distinct design with reference to the occasion on which they were issued. In Ukraine’s case, these occasions include the commemoration of prominent people, including Jews with Ukrainian roots.

Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich was a leading Yiddish author and playwright. He was born in 1859 in Pereiaslav and grew up in the nearby shtetl of Voronkiv.

In 1883, he published his first Yiddish story under the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem. By 1890 Sholem Aleichem was a central figure in Yiddish literature, the vernacular language of nearly all East European Jews. He produced over forty volumes in Yiddish.

One became the inspiration for the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe—the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman was first published in 1894, in Yiddish.

Fleeing pogroms in 1905, Sholem Aleichem left Kyiv for New York City in 1906. He was an impassioned advocate of Yiddish as a national Jewish language, and also devoted himself to the cause of Zionism. In 1907, he served as an American delegate to the Eighth Zionist Congress held in The Hague.

Sholem Aleichem was often referred to as the “Jewish Mark Twain” because of the two authors’ similar writing styles and use of pen names. When Twain heard of this, he replied “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

His granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, followed in his footsteps. She became an American author, and is most widely known for her novel, Up the Down Staircase, published in 1964. It was adapted to the stage and also made into a motion picture in 1967.

Sholem Aleichem died in New York in 1916 after a long bout with tuberculosis.

In 1997, a monument dedicated to Sholem Aleichem was erected in Kyiv. Streets were named after him in Kyiv, Odessa, Vinnytsia, Lviv, and Zhytomyr.

On March 2, 2009, 150 years after his birth, the National Bank of Ukraine issued an anniversary coin with a depiction of Sholem Aleichem.

Lev Landau was a Soviet physicist who made fundamental contributions to many areas of theoretical physics. For his work, he received the Nobel Peace prize in 1962.

Landau was born on 22 January 1908 to Jewish parents in Baku, Azerbaijan. He was a child prodigy. At age 14, he matriculated at the Baku State University, studying in two departments simultaneously: the Departments of Physics and Mathematics, and the Department of Chemistry.

From 1932–1937, Landau headed the Department of Theoretical Physics at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. In Kharkiv, he and a friend co-wrote the 10-volume Course of Theoretical Physics, which are still widely used as graduate-level physics texts.

On 27 April 1938, Landau was arrested for comparing Stalinism to Nazism. He was held in the NKVD’s infamous Lubyanka prison for a year. His renown and valuable contributions to science saved him from the Great Purge.

Landau led a team of mathematicians supporting Soviet atomic and hydrogen bomb development. He calculated the dynamics of the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb. For this work Landau received several awards from the Soviet state.

Landau died in 1968, aged 60, from injuries sustained in a car accident.

In 2008, a two-hryvnia commemorative coin was issued in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great physicist Lev Landau, a Nobel Prize winner. The coin was minted from nickel silver.

On 22 January 2019, Google celebrated what would have been Landau’s 111th birthday with a Google doodle.

Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov was a zoologist of Jewish origin. He was born in the village Ivanovka, near the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine.

Mechnikov is best known for his pioneering research in immunology. He is considered the “father of natural immunity.” He is also credited for coining the term gerontology in 1903, for the emerging study of aging and longevity. He developed a theory that aging is caused by toxic bacteria in the gut. Mechnikov and Paul Ehrlich were jointly awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their works are regarded as the foundation of the science of immunology.

In 1862 Mechnikov enrolled at Kharkiv University for natural sciences. Another child prodigy, he completed his four-year degree in two years. In 1867 he received his doctorate at the University of St. Petersburg, then went on to teach at Imperial Novorossiya University, now Odessa University.

In 1882, due to the political turmoil after the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II, Mechnikov resigned from Odessa University. He went to Sicily to set up a private laboratory. He then returned to Odessa as director of an institute set up to carry out Louis Pasteur’s vaccine against rabies. In 1888 he went back to Paris where, Pasteur gave him an appointment at the Pasteur Institute.

Metchnikoff wrote notable books on immunity, the prevention of infectious diseases, and the prolongation of life. He died in 1916 in Paris. His ashes rest in the Pasteur Institute library.

A two-hryvnia nickel silver coin released in 2005 commemorated the 160th anniversary of the birth of Ilya Mechnikov.

In the late 1690s, a magnificent synagogue with a late-Renaissance appearance was built for the rapidly growing community of Zhovkva, a town founded in 1594.

The Jewish community’s roots in Zhovkva run deep. The oldest Jewish tombstone in Zhvovka dates back to 1610. In 1690, local Jews established a Hebrew printing press, and a Jewish tailors’ guild dates back to 1693.

The synagogue survived two devastating fires in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the worst devastation occurred in the 20th century.

At the start of World War II, Zhovkva’s Jewish community made up half of the town’s population of 10,000. The synagogue was the center of religious life, and secular Jewish institutions included a school, a cultural society, and a football team.

In 1941, Nazi occupiers demolished the synagogue, leaving only the walls standing. German troops destroyed the cemetery and used the tombstones to build roads.

Of Zhovkva’s 5,000 Jews, only a few dozen survived the war, and most emigrated.

In 1994, the Ukrainian government declared central Zhovkva, where the synagogue is located, a State Historical-Architectural Reserve. In 2000, the World Monuments Fund declared the Zhvovka synagogue one of its 100 most endangered sites and provided a grant towards its restoration.

In November 2012, a ten-hryvnia “Synagogue in Zhovkva” silver coin was issued in honor of the 320th anniversary of the construction of this architectural masterpiece.

Last but not least, we will wrap up our series on the currencies of Ukraine and Israel with a commemorative banknote.

The Karbovanets has been a distinct unit of currency in Ukraine during three separate periods of the 20th century. It is also a predecessor currency of today’s Ukrainian hryvnia.

On June 18, 1917, a new Ukrainian state emerged—the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The fledgling state’s first banknote of 100 karbovanets denomination was issued on December 19, 1917. It is not widely known, but so profound was the impact of Jews on Ukraine that Yiddish was one of four state languages on this banknote. The others were Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish.

The inclusion of these four languages on the banknote reflected the Ukrainian principles of state-building—respect for all nations and peoples that inhabited ethnic Ukrainian lands, with freedoms and rights equal to those of the dominant ethnic group. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s attempt at independence from Russia lasted only from 1917 till 1921. The new currency disappeared along with Ukraine’s democratic dream…which almost a century later finally came true.

On 29 December 2017, the National Bank of Ukraine introduced a souvenir 100-karbovanet note commemorating the centenary of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917 – 1921 and the first Ukrainian paper money.

The design is based on the original 100 banknote designed in 1917 and circulated in 1918. It features illustrations of a large wreath of flowers, fruits and vegetables which, a century ago, were considered to be valuable entities. Annotations mark the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917 – 1921 and the note’s 100th anniversary.

Although it is not legal tender, Ukraine’s souvenir 100-karbovanet note nonetheless is the first banknote issued on the European continent since World War 2 that incorporates a Jewish language.

This series on the currencies of Ukraine and Israel was inspired by articles from the website of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You can find them, along with stunning illustrations, at Ukrainian Jewish Encounter dot org.

I’m Pawlina, producer and host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. I hope you enjoyed this series. Until next time, shalom!

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