I first encountered hatred as a Jew in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, when I was 11 years old in 1969. Without provocation, two boys called me a dirty Jew in the hallway of my school. Sneering, they punched me in the face and body and knocked me down. I cried going home.
Incidents like these led me to begin investigating my heritage. My parents were secular Jews who never mentioned our past. They never celebrated Passover or attended synagogue. My father died when I was 10.
While researching my family roots, I made a sad discovery in a book of remembrances that listed victims of the 1941 Babi Yar ravine massacre, which happened near Kiev. Nazi death squads took more than 30,000 Jews (including children), stripped them naked, and led them to the bottom of the 50-foot ravine, where they were slaughtered with machine guns. My grandfather, aunt, and two cousins were among the dead. Thousands more died the same way through 1943.
Ukraine’s Communist government suppressed details of the massacre. For a long time, even acknowledging the Holocaust was taboo. Finding that millions of Jews were murdered in Nazi concentrations camps during World War II shocked me.
The government was well known for its anti-Semitic attitude, and it treated us as second-class citizens. We always knew rejection. Officials stamped “Jew” on my identity card and student records. The KGB monitored Jews attending Sabbath services.
As a teenager, I heard about a group of young toughs beating up someone I knew, yelling, “Hitler should have killed all of you!” Hatred against Germans poured into my heart.
Peace with God
Because universities in Ukraine only accepted a small number of Jews, mainly for scientific or engineering studies, I decided to pursue a profession that did not require mathematics. I was no good at figures, so photography seemed like the best career choice following my military service. Haunted by prejudice, I needed to prove I was worth something.
In the army, I met another man named Anatoli. He was honest and humble, the kind of good worker who didn’t curse or get drunk like so many soldiers did. Anatoli was the first Christian I had ever met, and he told me about his faith in Jesus. I liked him, but I pushed away his religious ideas. Like many Ukrainian Jews, I considered myself an atheist.
After leaving the military in 1991, I enrolled in the Kiev Technical Institute for Photography, where I met my wife Irina. As a student, I worked for magazines and newspapers, but this brought little satisfaction. To help fill the void, I tried every pleasure: alcohol, smoking pot and hash, partying, and sex. I even cheated on Irina. And I explored different world philosophies, including occultism and Eastern religions. But nothing brought me any closer to fulfillment. Clearly, something was missing from my life.
God intervened when I visited my mother. On a table in her living room, I noticed a book called Betrayed! A Messianic congregation in Kiev had just mailed the book with a phone number inscribed. The author was Stan Telchin, a successful American Jewish businessman. In the book, he described how angry he was when his daughter came to faith in Jesus. He tried disproving her experience, but in the end he came to faith along with his wife and family.
The book’s message challenged me. This was the first time I learned about a Jew believing in Jesus. Telchin had found a purpose in life that I lacked, but without betraying his Jewish heritage. Irina read his story as well.
We called the synagogue in Kiev and decided to attend a service during Passover. The congregation rented space in an old movie theater. Feeling uncomfortable, Irina and I sat in the rear, afraid to be noticed. The 100 or so people there were joyful, and I was surprised seeing Jews worshiping together.
An Israeli man preached on “Yeshua” and the love of God. During his sermon, a vision suddenly appeared in my mind. In it, I saw a backpack strapped to my shoulders, loaded with problems and cares, with unanswered questions, with my search for fulfillment and all my sins. It was heavy and pulling me down. Then a road appeared, leading to a Jewish man hanging on a cross. Somehow, I knew the only way I could get rid of the backpack was following that road.
When the sermon ended, we knew we could not leave until we found peace with God. Irina rushed to the altar, where people surrounded her with praying. She stayed a long time and gave her heart to Christ, the Messiah.
Watching the spectacle somewhat fearfully, I ran to the altar and grabbed the lapels of the speaker’s leather jacket. Staring into his eyes, I pleaded, “I want peace with God, but get this backpack off me!” At first he assumed I was mentally disturbed and wished to harm him. But then, realizing my sincerity, he said, “Tell God about your backpack experience.” And so I did, asking God to forgive my sins in what I’m sure was a laughably childlike manner.
Mission to Germany
Right away, I knew everything in my life would change from that day on. Irina and I were baptized a few weeks later, along with 23 new Jewish believers. We continued worshiping with the congregation and grew spiritually as we fed upon the Bible.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s final break-up in December 1991 created lasting turmoil. Our future looked hopeless. The economy collapsed. Good jobs didn’t exist, food was scarce, and the long-term health effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster troubled us, especially for our daughter Alexandra.
With anti-Semitism rising, we decided to leave Ukraine for Israel. However, relatives warned us against coming because of the Persian Gulf War. Germany seemed like the best alternative. The German government opened doors welcoming Jewish immigrants from Russia. I only wanted to stay there temporarily, but God had another plan.
We sold our household possessions, and in June 1992 we arrived at the immigrant center barracks in Stuttgart. Learning German proved difficult, but I found help by using a Gideon New Testament I discovered in a trash dump. Riding the subway to language school for eight months, I asked commuters to explain the meaning of words I was reading. Although they obliged, they questioned why I was reading the New Testament. This opened opportunities for sharing my testimony.
During the first week in our new country, I met a Russian-German Christian who helped me understand the Bible and encouraged me to start a Messianic home group. From eight people meeting twice weekly, we grew to the point of renting a larger room from a Baptist church. Unfortunately, officials in the state Protestant churches refused us. They warned, “You should not tell Jewish people about Jesus.”
Eventually I met a missionary couple from Holland who encouraged me to lead a Messianic movement in Germany. Although I was somewhat skeptical, I took a step of faith, leaving my photo-lab job in 1994 to launch Evangelical Ministry for Israel. Initially, I sponsored summer camps for Jewish youngsters and a national Messianic conference. The first conference attracted only 25 people, but it has grown ever since. I also visited camps popular with Russian Jews.
One year after starting my ministry, during a family hiking trip to the Black Forest, an incident brought home why God had called me to this work. Returning to our car, I noticed a woman staring at the rear sticker, which displayed three symbols: the Christian fish, the star of David, and the Menorah. When she asked about the meaning, I gave my testimony as a Messianic Jew. Tears painted her cheeks as she revealed how the Gestapo killed her father for hiding a Jewish family in her home during the war. I could see that, even as a German, she also suffered under the Nazis, and did not blame the Jews for causing her father’s death.
God used that moment to shatter every bit of my lingering hatred toward Germans. And it renewed my desire to bring reconciliation between Jews and Germans through Christ. In 1998, Evangelical Ministry for Israel established one of the first Messianic congregations in Germany. Now there are 40 growing congregations and groups across the country, four of which I supervise. Close to 200,000 Jews call Germany home, and I want to continue sharing Jesus the Messiah with them.
Anti-Semitism is growing in Germany. Hate crimes against Jews are at the highest rate since 2001. But what could happen if more Messianic Jews began telling Germans who have little or no faith about the hope of Christ?
Religious Jews often say this prayer when arising, based on Psalm 3:1-6: “Dear God, I thank you that you gave me back my soul so I can live this day for you.” If God wakes me up every morning, then I want to live every day in fulfillment of his will. That’s my calling.
Anatoli Uschomirski is the founder of Evangelical Ministry for Israel in Stuttgart, Germany. Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York.