In part two of my blog on Jewish life in Ukraine past and present, based on an article that appeared recently in the Jerusalem Post, the focus turns to the war in the east of the country. The quotes come from interviews the author conducted recently in Kiev and elsewhere with Jews displaced by the war.
“We want to keep our community. People in Kiev can’t understand what we went through. So, we haven’t broken up the Donetsk community. It survives. But now it’s in Kiev, not in Donetsk,” says Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky in the community centre in the Podil district of Kiev that the rabbi established for Donetsk Jews fleeing to the capital during the war of 2014.
Vishedsky spent 20 years in Donetsk, painstakingly building up a Jewish community there. Then, in 2014, he was faced with the task of dismantling much of what he had built and helping in the evacuation of the Jews of Donetsk to areas further west not touched by war. He paints a stark picture of the gradual disintegration of normal life in Donetsk in the spring and summer of 2014.
“On May 25, during the elections for the president of Ukraine, they put polling booths near the schools and I got a phone call from the Jewish school that it was surrounded by men with guns [supporters of the pro-Russian “separatist” cause who wanted to dissuade residents from taking part in the elections]. It was the last day of studies. I went down and they pointed the guns at me. I told them, ‘Aren’t you ashamed? Don’t you have children at home?’ I found the commander and he allowed the children to leave.
“Then, in June, the rebel army in Sloviansk began to approach Donetsk and people started to leave. I sent my wife and children to the US on the last train out of Donetsk. The rebel army camped out in the student residences by our home.”
Vishedsky with other supporters of the Donetsk community helped organise the evacuation of thousands of Donetsk Jews in the following weeks. He estimates that perhaps 10,000 Jews left the area during that period. Making his way to Kiev, he has sought to re-establish the community there.
The Jewish school in Donetsk is still functioning, but only 27 children now attend. There is still a minyan in the synagogue; 450 families receive food parcels each week in Donetsk. A total of perhaps 2,000-2,500 Jews remain in Donetsk city, according to unofficial estimates. “The embers are still burning,” says Vishedsky.
But the picture he paints of life in the rebel-controlled “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk” is bleak in the extreme. “Most of the people who could leave have gone. There are no banks working. Most shops have closed. You need to have connections with a shop owner so he can open it up for you. There is no work there and no future. It is mainly the older people who stayed, a needy population. The border is closed much of the time and this makes it hard for older people to get their pensions,” he says.
As for those who left, some have gone to Israel, some to Germany, some are in Kiev or other Ukrainian cities such as Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. The future? “Everything’s frozen,” sighs Vishedsky. “We’ve grown tired of expecting change.”
The process of the gradual collapse of order and normality as the war came to Donetsk and Sloviansk is echoed in the testimony of other Jews that have left their homes in the east, interviewed at a community centre in Kiev established and maintained by the Joint Distribution Committee, which runs the “Hesed” programme, among others.
Albert, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor and retired mechanical engineer, spoke of the sudden appearance in Luhansk city in April 2014 of “strange people... bandits” who seized control of the state security building and other administrative points. These were the pro-Russian “separatists” led at that time by the former FSB officer Igor Girkin, known as “Strelkov” (Shooter).
Then came the groups of armed men and unmarked military vehicles on the streets, the cooked up “referendum” for independence and the coming of a new, severely constricted life. “We are afraid to talk about this,” says Ludmila, Albert’s wife, “because we still have an apartment there and those people check apartments.”
There have been many allegations of individuals close to the authorities established by the separatists seeking to confiscate abandoned apartments and cars in their areas of control. The couple left the area in November 2014, and have been living in Kiev since. Albert, as a Holocaust survivor, receives additional help from the Hesed program and this has enabled them to “live normally,” as Ludmila puts it. She says “Ukrainian” (ie, non-Jewish) friends who have to make do with the very meagre state pensions have been unable to leave the area of the Luhansk “People’s Republic” established by the Russians and separatists.
Nina, a retired chemist from Donetsk city, also remembers the first appearance of the separatists in the spring of 2014. She is a widow, whose only daughter died a few years ago. She was living alone in an apartment near the centre of the city. At first, she thought the men shouting and chanting in the night were “drunkards…They were banging on metal, and shouting ‘Russia, Russia.’” Then, the next morning, men with guns in black ski masks were on the streets of Donetsk and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” was on its way.
“From November, all the banks closed, the post offices closed. The local administration the separatists created barely functioned,” she says. Confiscation of cars by the armed groups began and Nina left for Kiev at the end of the year; she doesn’t see herself returning to the Donbas.
“Thanks to Hesed, I am not alone,” she adds. “They give me support, and in Donetsk I would be alone. The graves of my husband and daughter are there, but the graveyard is close to Donetsk airport and now the area is mined.”
There are common threads running through all these accounts – the extreme unpredictability of life in the Donbas under the Russians and their separatist proxies; the dysfunctionality of the threadbare administration they have established; the meagre assistance given by the Ukrainian authorities to displaced people; and the impressive care given to Jewish refugees by a variety of Jewish organisations and initiatives.
There is something else, too. All the testimonies speak of suffering, displacement, danger, unpredictability. But none talk about being targeted as Jews. The difficulties were faced in common with their ethnic Ukrainian and Russian neighbours; if anything, the presence of Jewish organisations considerably alleviated the situation of the Jewish refugees. This is very notable given the undoubted presence of organised antisemitic forces among both the separatist groups and the Ukrainian volunteer battalions. All those we spoke to were adamant that neither the separatist authorities nor the Ukrainian forces had singled them out as Jews.
For the full article, see http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/In-the-land-of-the-trident-503106http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/In-the-land-of-the-trident-503106
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.