Ukraine, the place Golda Meir fled from, now embraces her as a hero

Kievian tourist sites proudly declare Golda Meir as "a true daughter of Kiev" with modern Ukrainians viewing her as a role model for heroism and nation building. "For us, she is an example of a person who made great changes in the country," said Ukrainian-Jewish member of parliament Georgiy Logvinsky, who is also the head of the Ukrainian parliament Jewish committee.

"We are very proud of the fact she was born here," he said. "Ukraine today has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world and it is the only country led by a Jewish prime minister [Volodymyr Groysman]and I always hear my colleges in parliament use quotes by Golda Meir such as ‘We will have peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us‘. In Ukraine we are now in a state of war [with Russia, in Donbass] and we try to learn from Israel and Israeli leaders. I personally learned from Israeli leaders during my stay in Israel and that helps the Jewish community here. When she was prime minister, Meir sent a letter to Henry Kissinger who was serving as the US secretary of state and was a Jewish-American asking him to help Israel. He wrote back: ‘I am an American citizen, then the state secretary, then a Jew.‘ She responded by saying: ‘It‘s OK, we read from right to left.‘"

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"I always use this line," said Georgiy Logvinsky.

Like many of the leaders, writers and poets of the Jewish pre-state community in the land of Israel, Golda Meir was born in Kiev, Ukraine. To mark her 120th birthday I went to look for her home in number 5 Basseyna street in Kiev.

The original shack in which Meir lived is long gone, and modern offices and flats now stand there. Like most old houses in this beautiful city, the building is impressive and tasteful. One store offers expensive shoes of the sort Meir, who was raised in poverty, could only have dreamed of. A relief with her image was placed on the entrance of the building by the Jewish Agency and the city of Kiev and now adorns the entrance to the building.

However, when I ask passersbys if they know who is the woman in the relief they profess ignorance, most of them don‘t speak English and the shopkeepers also aren‘t aware of Golda Meir. Locals told me that this part of the city is known to include well known brothels.

Family heritage of some importance.

Meir was born on May 3, 1898 as Golda Mabovich to a traditional and poor Jewish family. Five siblings born before her died in infancy and she grew up with two sisters. When she was four years old she experienced a pogrom directed at the Jewish community she was a part of and in 1906 she emigrated with her family to Milwaukee in the US where her father was already working. She described her first eight years in what was then Russia as times of poverty, coldness, hunger and fear.

Gradually, the young girl built up the determination to emigrate to Israel, a process aided by visitors from Israel like David Ben Gurion.

She convinced her husband Morris to emigrate and in 1921 Meir and her sister sailed to Israel with their families on the passenger ship Pocahontas. 

In Israel, the couple moved from Tel Aviv to Kibbutz Merhavia and later to Jerusalem. 

In the coming years,  Meir held a variety of different positions such as a secretary at the Working Women‘s Council, she was the head of the Histadrut poiltical department, she served in the Haganah, she became the Minister Plenipotentiary to Moscow and she was elected to the first Knesset eventually rising to the position of Foreign Minister.

Meir assumed the role of Israeli Prime Minister on March 17 1969 and filled that position for five years. Becoming the first and only woman to serve in that position. After she met with leaders from the Israeli Black Panthers chapter [who were Mizrahi Jews] she famously described them as: "not pleasant."

Despite the outcome of the 1973 Yom Kippur War she was reelected to the position of prime minister. As public criticism of her actions during the war increased she conceded to establishing the Agranat Commission.

The commission concluded that Meir acted responsibly and made the right decision during the war; however, she ultimately resigned on April 11 1974 having lost the trust of her party.

Meir passed away on Saturday, December 8 1978 of lymphatic cancer and was laid to rest on Mount Hertzel among past leaders of the nation.

"Her Kiev childhood was not good", said Professor Miron Medzini who served as Meir‘s spokesperson when she served as prime minister, "her father was a carpenter and poor. The only place in which this played in her advantage was of course the Vatican [as Joseph, the father of Jesus, worked in the same trade] and they told her this is a great heritage. There was little money and her father went to the US to support the family. Infant Meir was brought up with her mother, grandmother, and sisters and they never stopped bickering. She did not attend Heder [Traditional Jewish school] or [Secular Russian] school and she only began going to school in the US.  When she was eight years old, she witnessed preparations for a pogrom; she saw the hammering of wooden planks on the doors and she heard the hoof beats of the galloping horses."

"In her memoir, there is a lively scene from her early childhood. There was a fear of a pogrom against the Jews and little Meir saw her father attempt to use house furniture to block their door [in case of a break in]", says Jewish historian and Ukrainian born reporter Shimon Briman. "She carried the bitterness her whole life, her father can not protect her in anyway other than using wooden chairs and closets. She remembered the fear throughout her life, the helplessness of exile and the life of hunger."

"The person who had the most influence over Meir as a girl was her big sister Sheyna", adds Professor Medzini, "She was seven years older and took part in illegal Zionist activities in Kiev which took place in the shack they all lived in. From infancy she was exposed in that shack to Zionism and Socialism. The main factor that shaped her Kiev life was the feeling of the Jewish experience of being like a wind-swept leaf, always under threat, she never got over that and always felt the urge to do something to improve the situation of the Jewish people. When she was 10 years old she was a leader in America and collected money from classmates to give to poor girls, which the local press wrote about. The girl who sat next to her in class, bear in mind both girls spoke no English at the time, was my mother."

"Levi Eshkol used to call her "De Malka" [The Queen], when he was angry at her he called her "De Klafte" [Bitch] and when he was furious "De Mehashifa" [witch].

What would she have said about Israel today?

"Oy gevalt if not worse. If I compare her to those who came later she was pure gold. It would be interesting to hear her thoughts about Antisemitic events taking place in Ukraine today such as the hero-worshiping around past leaders of pogroms as part of the nationalization process the country is going through due to the war with Russia. [Events like] Honor marches to mark 75 years to the creation of a Ukrainian Nazi SS unit and young people wearing Nazi symbols on the streets of Ukraine."

"The loose connection Meir had to Ukraine was enough for the [Ukrainian] state to embrace her as ‘one of our own‘" says Israeli ambassador to the Ukraine Eli Belocerkoweski, "today Ukrainian-Israeli relations are marked by a great deal of friendship and will to work together. When Ukrainian leaders mark the contribution Ukrainian Jews made to the creation of the [Israeli] state one of the first names to be brought up is Meir. This is a major turn of history as the place little Meir ran away from now, 120 years later, warmly embraces her."

Anna Zarova, head of the Israeli-Ukrainian Friendship Association said that "I don‘t think it coincidental that Meir, first female prime minister, was born in Ukraine. Despite the bloody history of Jews here, there had also been a sort of freedom that I think influenced Meir as a girl. This is why so many Zionist activists who made their mark on Zionism came out of Ukraine."

She added that in 2014 the Israeli embassy in Ukraine held a poll asking which Ukrainian person had the most influence on Israel – Meir won first place.

Translated by Hagay Hacohen