Tanks, guns and broken glass: Ukraine war’s nearly forgotten Jewish victims

A year after fierce fighting engulfed the region, The Times of Israel visits the Jewish community of Zaporozhye, which absorbed hundreds of IDPs

Written by Raphael Ahren, Diplomatic Correspondent at The Times of Israel.

ZAPOROZHYE, Ukraine — Alexander and Larissa sit on their bed in what used to be a Jewish religious school dormitory. “My heart is aching when I think about the home we left,” says Larissa, 70. “We lived in a nice residential area. Now everyone has left, everything’s destroyed. We’d love to go back so badly, but we don’t know if we’ll be able to.”

Larissa and her extended family, who left their hometown of Donetsk when their neighborhood came under fire, are among the more than five million people in Ukraine who need aid, according to United Nations figures. Today, they reside in two small rooms in the school, which has became a makeshift refugee camp.

Some two million people have been forced to flee the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. Nearly 100,000 alone fled from Donetsk and the greater Donbas region bordering Russia to Zaporozhye, a city an hour’s drive south of Dnipropetrovsk. Some 300 of the Zaporozhye internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Jewish, like Larissa and her family.

“We are simple people,” she says. “We aren’t wealthy businessmen or something like that. But we had a good life.”

Larissa’s daughter Luda, along with her husband and their 15-year-old daughter Nadya, lived close to Donetsk airport, which about a year ago became the scene of intense battlesor.

“We heard fighter jets and helicopters over our heads,” Luda recalls.

“The city was full of tanks. You could see them in all the streets, all around,” she says, speaking in Russian through an interpreter. “It’s a city full of people with guns. There’s a constant sound of shooting.”

After a rocket exploded right next to her home, Luda (short for Lyudmila) packed a few belongings into a suitcase and fled westward to Zaporozhye, where it was still calm.

“When we left Donetsk we didn’t think it would last longer than at most one or two weeks,” she recalls. “But life has different plans.” She holds up photos of her home, in which thousands of glass shards cover the entire living room and the closet mirror has been perforated by bullets.

Luda’s husband, who had been seriously ill for a while, recently died from an unexpected worsening of his disease. His condition may have been the result of the nervous stress, she says. Luda had to briefly return to the war zone to bury him, before she rushed back to safety in Zaporozhye.

“We’re well cared for here,” she says about the Chabad-Lubavitch high school, which has been offering shelter to Jewish IPDs since the war started. “We’re welcomed nicely by the community. But it’s not home.”

Besides Chabad, many Jewish charities are involved in helping the Jews of Ukraine. The World Jewish Relief, a relatively unknown British aid group, invited this reporter to Zaporozhye to provide a glimpse into the lives of Jewish residents of the Donbas area, many of whom have lost their homes and livelihoods as a consequence of the war.

Founded before World War II to save German Jews through the Kindertransport, WJR spends more than half of its annual NIS 30 million budget in Ukraine, where it funds various projects ranging from emergency evacuations to repairing damaged homes and social gatherings for elderly Jews.

Olga, a physics teacher from Donetsk, is one of 40 Jews currently staying at Zaporozhye’s Jewish school-turned-IDP camp. Her nine-year-old daughter Polina suffers from cerebral palsy. Her legs are deformed but doctors told her that if they operate on her there is a good chance that she could start walking. However, they warned that the stress of the surgery could trigger the loss of some of the mental capabilities Polina has acquired through hard work.

‘Israelis know where to go when the rockets fall. In Ukraine, there are no bomb shelters’

In October, as Olga was pondering this terrible dilemma, the war broke out. Their neighborhood came under missile attack; metal shrapnel crushed into the house. Someone nearby was nearly killed.

“It’s absolutely insane,” she recalls, sitting on a chair in her room in the makeshift IDP camp, which she shares with her daughter and grandmother.

The war was hard on Polina, who silently lies on her bed for the duration of our visit, playing games on her tablet computer. When the fighting came close to the family’s Donetsk home, she panicked and had to be taken to the hospital, where she was given anti-anxiety medication, Olga remembers. “It took her a long time to recover. She didn’t sleep for many nights.”

Olga has recently returned from a short visit to Donetsk, to check up on the apartment they left behind. While not totally destroyed, it is badly damaged and all the window panes have been shattered.

An eerie silence dominates her hometown these days, she says.

“The streets are empty. There are no cars, no people,” says Olga. But the quiet is a mere illusion of normalcy, she notes, and loud gun and rocket fire rule the nights. “Then fears arise and you understand that you can’t live here.”

Olga blames Russian President Vladimir Putin for starting the war that uprooted her family. “Please don’t mention my last name in your article,” she quickly adds. But it’s not that she backs Ukrainian forces, either.

“These people call themselves rebels, but they are neither rebels nor patriots. They have faces typical of mercenaries,” says Olga.

“I love Donetsk; it’s my homeland,” she adds. “But when you hear bombs exploding all around, you forget that you’re a human being capable of nostalgic feelings. You become like animals running scared.”

At this point in the conversation, her brown eyes fill with tears. In Israel, she says, a military conflict rages all the time, but people feel safe because they know where to go when the rockets fall. “In Ukraine, there’s nothing like that. No bomb shelters, no early warning system.”

Olga received assistance from Jewish institutions in Donetsk, and therefore immediately knew where to turn to once she arrived in Zaporozhye, since the various Jewish communities in the area are tightly connected. Also in Zaporozhye, the Jewish Community Center and the local Chabad branch work closely together, endeavoring to help as many Jews in need as possible.

Housed in a large multi-story building, the JCC runs dozens of social, educational and vocational programs for locals and newly arrived IDPs. But other forcibly displaced persons, especially those that have a Jewish background but were never involved in communal life, sometimes spent months trying to make ends meet before being referring to the city’s JCC.

Although few Westerners have ever heard of Zaporozhye (or Zaporizhia in Ukrainian), with over 770,000 inhabitants it is Ukraine’s sixth largest city. Officially, some 4,000 Jews live here, but the city’s rabbi, Jerusalem native Rabbi Nochum Ehrentreu, is sure there are more than 10,000. More than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, “many Jews still don’t want to identify as such,” he explains.

On the other hand, Jewish religious life — or “Yiddishkeit,” as he calls it — is slowly blossoming in Zaporozhye. A few years ago, he built an enormous, beautiful new synagogue, paid for by a local Jewish industrialist who had grown closer to Judaism.

“At first we wondered if we need such a big shul,” he remembers. “But then we thought, if we build a large place, many people will come.”

Today he believes his vision came true: On holidays, hundreds of people attend services. In the basement he runs a small store offering kosher groceries. There are daily prayer services, attended by maybe two dozen worshipers, a mikve (ritual bath) and even a daily kollel, where some 30 men study the Talmud.

“The biggest wave of aliyah is behind us,” says Ehrentreu, who after growing up in Israel studied at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn before he arrived in Zaporozhye nearly two decades ago. He says some Ukrainian Jews want Israeli citizenship, “as a safety net,” but realize that starting a new life in the Middle East wouldn’t be a piece of cake either and therefore opt to stay. “They hear from their relatives [in Israel] that the economy is tough and that it’s almost impossible to buy an apartment.” (And yet, aliyah figures from the Ukraine actually increased by 85 percent so far this year).

Wearing the typical attire of an Orthodox rabbi, Ehrentreu is easily recognizable as a Jew but rarely experiences anti-Semitism in Zaporozhye, he says. “You feel a bit strange,” he allows, especially if you get curious looks from locals. Drunks sometimes call him a dirty Jew. “On the other hand, most people just pass by, and some actually say hello or shalom.”

Anti-Semitism will always exists, simply because people need scapegoats, he says, mentioning, en passant, that his brand-new synagogue was firebombed last year, a short while after the Euromaidan protests erupted in Kiev. “The police still haven’t found the perpetrators,” he notes, unperturbed.

Ehrentreu’s synagogue registered an increase in attendance since the IDPs arrived in Zaporozhye, and in April he conducted a special Passover seder for them.

“We are happy to help, because we know it can happen to anyone of us,” says Shlomit, 27, who comes to the synagogue three times a week to learn Torah. Her parents didn’t raise her as an observant Jew, but she is becoming more religious. “I try to keep kosher,” she says with a shy smile.

Shlomit worries about the fighting reaching Zaporozhye soon. And yet, she insists it’s not dangerous to be a Jew in Ukraine. “All my friends know I’m Jewish. They basically find it cool because I get to go to Israel and have so many holidays.”

But not everyone is so outspoken about their Jewish roots. Tatiyana, a grandmother from Zaporozhye and the recipient of financial aid from the JCC, is Jewish, but she thinks her neighbors are unaware of her Jewishness because she uses her gentile husband’s last name. She says occasionally people make anti-Semitic statements in her presence but she usually ignores them. “Sometimes it’s better to think twice before you say something,” she says. “Not only can it be useless, it can also be dangerous. So you keep a low profile.”

Ukraine has one of the world’s largest Jewish populations, which is mostly concentrated in the Donbas region. (Although German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier clearly exaggerated, he said after a recent visit in Dnipropetrovsk that Eastern Ukraine is home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel.)

But what being Jewish means exactly remains a fluid concept for many members of the extended community. At the home of Galina and Alexander, who were hosting a recent social gathering for elderly Jews, one had to look very hard to find any hint at the couple’s Jewish identity. There were no mezuzahs on the doors and only one lonely menorah hidden on a shelf, far out of sight.

In these get-togethers coordinated by World Jewish Relief, a dozen retired women, who would otherwise be alone, gather to schmooze and share homemade delicacies.

While Galina was busy offering pickled goods and showing off her embroidery skills, Alexander, a former cab driver born in Crimea, was talking politics. He complained about the Ukrainian army drafting his son to fight in the war, and he’s in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“It used to be all one country,” he says. It would be great if the Soviet era returned, he muses. “But that won’t happen.”

Does he feel Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish? “I’m an internationalist,” he replies.

Not all recipients of assistance from World Jewish Relief and other Jewish charities are halachically Jewish. Indeed, some are Jew-ish at best, although they are hesitant to talk about issues such as ancestry and identity, perhaps fearing they could lose their eligibility for aid specifically designated for Jews.

The Jewish community gives much more than others, according to Inessa Nosenko, the director of Zaporozhye’s JCC. “Others help on a need-basis, while we provide assistance in a systematic approach,” says Nosenko.

Valentina, 49, fled Donetsk and now lives in an IDP camp run by the UN. She says she has “Jewish roots” but doesn’t practice. Zaporozhye native Anna, 27, says doesn’t know whether she’s Jewish. A participant of WJR’s Livelihood Development Program, which assists locals and IDPs find employment, Anna says that although her grandparents were Jewish “by blood,” her father was adopted and her son Dima was baptized. “As a child I always lost the cross on my necklace. But the Star of David, which I got from a Jewish neighbor, I still have until today.”

Other people frequenting the JCC are proudly Jewish and want to learn more about their culture. During a recent visit, the members of the “Golden Age Club” were taught about the Shavuot festival.

Arkady Gentler, a 95-year-old singer, entertains a dozen elderly Jews with Yiddish songs from his youth. The men and women in the audience don’t sing along because they don’t speak the language, but later explain that the sound of Yiddish fills them with warm nostalgia.

Roman, 62, was a successful psychiatrist in Donetsk and an active member of the Jewish community there. When the war started, his family stayed put, though the constant rocket and gun fire had a detrimental effect on his children’s mental health, he recalls. “I definitely see changes in their behavior, and these are not changes for the good.”

In July, a missile hit the family’s apartment building. That was the moment when Roman decided to grab his wife and children and take the very next train to Zaporozhye. “We left literally under fire,” he says bitterly. “My kids had lives full of opportunity. I did everything to give them a good life: I took them to sports and all kinds of extracurricular activities. And overnight it’s all gone.”

But Roman is no defeatist. A specialist on treating alcohol and drug addicts, he believes in people’s ability to cope even with very difficult situations.

“Yes, it’s a crisis, but we can try to develop a positive attitude. We can use it for positive changes,” he says about the civil war that continues to ravage his country. “A crisis is sometimes a starting point for development. Otherwise you’d get into major depression.”

Now, during the war’s second year, the fate of the region’s people has slowly faded from headlines. But with no end to the fighting in sight, those providing aid to IDPs and others affected by the conflict know there’s a lot of work ahead.

“I don’t think there will be stability in the next few years,” predicts Denis Denisenko, the director of WJR’s Ukraine office. “Like in Abkhazia or Yugoslavia, such conflicts tend to linger.”


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