Jewish WWII veteran Solomon Flaks, 87, tells his story at the Menorah Jewish Center in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine on March 14, 2014. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.
The light-haired customs official in Kiev inspected my American passport. As I quickly presented myself as a Russian-speaker, he looked up and asked where my Russian came from.
“My parents are from Moscow,” I replied, realizing as I said it that my father’s birthplace was now the capital of Ukraine’s enemy.
“Why are you speaking Russian here?” the agent retorted. “This is Ukraine.”
My father was born in Moscow and my mother in Leningrad, but my grandparents are mostly from Ukraine; my grandfather was born and raised in Uman, western Ukraine. As war rages in eastern Ukraine, creating the greatest Jewish refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and as the Ukrainian economy continues to falter, drying up desperately needed sources of income for Jewish communities that have thrived since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I wanted to see for myself how its Jews were faring.
For the last months I’ve been covering Ukrainian Jewry for Chabad.org, the website of the worldwide hasidic movement. Since the fall of Communism, Chabad-Lubavitch has devoted substantial resources to bringing its message to the Jews of the former Soviet Union and establishing Jewish institutions there. Unlike in the U.S., where Chabad operates alongside mainstream denominations, in Ukraine it frequently occupies the center of organized Jewish life. Often a Chabad emissary is a city’s only rabbi. Thus, many Jews active in communal life have some affiliation with Chabad, even if they themselves are not members of the movement.
Since February, when 100 protesters were killed at Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea, violence has rocked major Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv and Odessa, and Russian-backed separatists have taken control of a large swath of eastern Ukraine, leading to war. Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists—or Russian soldiers—used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down an airliner, killing 300.
In short, instead of getting better, as everyone had expected, the situation in Ukraine has gotten worse. My task as a journalist went from writing about the Jewish community during a time of general unrest to reporting on the deaths of a young Jewish woman and her mother in Luhansk, felled by a mortar round as they went out to buy some groceries, leaving behind a four-year-old boy.
Back in April, I had spoken with Rabbi Pinhas Vishedski, the Chabad emissary in embattled Donetsk, just after masked men handed out fliers in the synagogue demanding that Jews register at a central office. At the time, he was optimistic, denouncing the pamphlets and stating that the Jewish community would remain until the situation calmed down. (It turned out that the fliers were the work of an anti-Russian group aiming to make the separatists look bad.) But when I arrived in mid-September, his outlook had changed. The Vishedskis and their community were now refugees in Kiev, planning a Rosh Hashanah-in-exile with the help of 40 pounds of gefilte fish that I’d brought at the request of the rabbi’s wife.
According to the UN, the war in eastern Ukraine has displaced at least one million people, with Ukraine absorbing about 300,000, of whom 18,000 are thought to be Jews. (Overall Ukrainian Jewish population figures are difficult to pin down, with estimates ranging from 70,000 to more than a quarter-million.) These numbers do not include the untold thousands who have not registered as internally displaced persons. Refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk with whom I spoke told me they saw little purpose in registering.
“I can go fill out government forms that we’re refugees, but what’s that going to help?” asked Galia from Donetsk, thirty-four, as we sat together with her older sister Marina in their tiny apartment on Kiev’s left bank. Eight people live in the apartment’s two rooms, and children ran in and out of the sun-filled kitchen. “It’s a lot of effort for basically nothing in return.”
Galia’s son attends a Jewish school, but otherwise she and her sister receive no support from government or civic organizations. In fact, none of the refugees I met with has received any government help. With landlords suspicious of penniless exiles from the east, many try to hide their status. When refugees flooded the southern port city of Mariupol, rents tripled overnight.
I met Shaul Melamed, thirty-six, in the small basement café of Kiev’s Brodsky synagogue. A programmer from Donetsk who works for an American company, Melamed led his family out of Donetsk in mid-June, thinking, like many of his neighbors, that they would return before summer was over. Now he plans to stay in Kiev indefinitely, but he still hopes he won’t have to abandon his home—an apartment he had just purchased in the center of Donetsk—for good.
“If a government of bandits stays, then we won’t return,” Melamed told me, referring to the self-proclaimed, pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). “I need to work, and I need to live in a place with a normal government and working banks, I can’t live behind an iron curtain. I never gave assistance to Ukrainian forces, but I didn’t hide my views in support of Ukraine, either. If I returned they could easily arrest me.”
Melamed does not fear Ukrainian anti-Semitism, despite the presence of far-right political parties in the central government. Instead, he told me stories of anti-Semitism among the leaders of today’s DPR. In 2004, when they first appeared on the scene as opponents of the Orange Revolution, “they had all sorts of anti-Semitic slogans. When this is done, I’m sure they’ll all come back.”
In Kiev, there is little sign that a war is raging a few hundred miles to the east. People go to work, sit in cafes, stroll along the city’s wide and twisting boulevards. The ubiquitous yellow-and-blue patriotic signs are the only visible hint that momentous events are afoot. Yet economic instability is felt everywhere; in the last year, the Ukrainian currency has lost almost 40 percent of its value.
As a result, Jewish communities that had long supported themselves independently are now, in exile, being forced to scrounge for money. Several rabbis told me that they are struggling to meet their financial obligations.
“Until the current situation we always stood on our own feet,” said Donetsk’s Vishedski. “We have a board that has supported us for years. Unfortunately not all the board’s members are able to give now, although others have stepped forward and increased their gifts.” For a community that has experienced months of exploding rockets and constant shelling at home, and whose members have fled for their lives often with little more than the clothes on their back, the paucity of outside help is shocking.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has worked assiduously on behalf of Ukraine’s Jews, funding Chabad-run refugee camps and paying for food packages and stipends to be distributed throughout the affected areas. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has also set up its own camps. But, while local Jewish federations in the United States are collecting money for the JDC, the sums so far are nowhere near what’s required, and much is not even reaching the synagogues, schools, and social-service organizations of the Jewish communities themselves. “The situation is desperate,” Vishedski told me. “We needed money not today but yesterday.”
What’s true of Kiev is also true of the other two cities I visited on this trip, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. In the former I met a forty-nine-year-old woman, Irina, who had fled Luhansk with her husband after a Grad rocket fell near their home for the second time, destroying four neighboring houses. She had received assistance from the JDC and from the Fellowship, for which she was very grateful, but now she was staying in someone’s vacation home on the outskirts of Kharkiv with no heat or plumbing. Winter is rapidly approaching, and she worries how she will survive.
In Kharkiv, the Jewish community, led by Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, has taken in dozens of families; at least ten are staying at the yeshiva building and another five at the camp grounds outside the city. With a towering dome that is a city landmark, Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue is often the first stop for refugees, the place where they come to ask for help or to be given a plate of hot food. No one is turned away.
“We currently do not have the money here even to cover our budget,” Moskovitz told me, stressing that they had received no assistance from outside Jewish sources. Since the crisis began, energy prices in Ukraine have risen dramatically. To make matters worse, the government recently revoked a law exempting religious organizations from paying for gas. Pointing up at the synagogue’s domed ceiling, he wondered aloud whether he will be able to heat the massive space.
I spent the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah in Kharkiv. On Sunday morning Tolik, a thirty-two-year-old regular at the synagogue, drove me the three hours to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city. We passed roadblocks manned by either highway police or Ukrainian soldiers, one of the only vivid signs of something big going on farther down the road.
Tolik is mostly preoccupied with supporting his family and expanding his taxi business, something he says he was able to do while Viktor Yanukovich was president (2010-2014) and the country was stable. “He could have built himself his own private Monaco for all I cared,” said Tolik, referring to Yanukovich’s lavish mansion that was discovered after he fled the country. “I was making more money and was planning to hire another driver to work for me.”
Tolik does not believe Ukrainian Jews have much of a future. “I know that I’m a Jew and I’m lucky that I can always leave for Israel or somewhere else. If I need to leave I’ll just go there. It would just be better to leave when times are good and not have to flee.”
Across the central bridge over the Dnieper River, Dnipropetrovsk’s skyline came into view. Straight ahead of us rose the seven-tower, 22-story Menorah Center. The building is so tall that aircraft-warning lights flash from its roof. Inside are a Holocaust museum, a concert hall, two hotels, two convention halls, kosher restaurants, and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish offices—testimony, all in all, to a burgeoning Jewish life in Ukraine that stood in stark contrast to Tolik’s dire premonitions.
The man behind Dnipropetrovsk’s Jewish revival is Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki. Coming to the city in 1990 as a Chabad emissary, he has benefited greatly from its two billionaire Jewish oligarchs: Gennady Bogolyubov, who also serves as president of the Jewish community, and Igor Kolomoyski, now the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region; the two jointly funded the $100-million Menorah Center, completed in 2012. Dnipropetrovsk is unique in that all of the Jewish organizations, and there are dozens of them, work under Kaminezki’s umbrella. The JDC, the Israeli consulate, and an Israeli cultural organization are also housed in the gleaming Menorah Center.
Like Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk is awash in patriotic signs and slogans. Sitting in his office on the 18th floor of the Menorah Center, Kaminezki assures me that “there is no local support here for separatism.” Lenin’s statue in the center of the city is gone, and everyone from taxi drivers to businessmen sings the praises of Kolomovsky, the region’s strongly pro-Ukrainian governor. As for the future of the refugee Jewish communities now in town, Kaminezki and others are less sure. Two Jewish leaders told me privately that they don’t believe Luhansk’s 7,000 Jews will ever return to their destroyed city. Donetsk, however, being a larger city with a more robust economy, may be more likely to draw some of its former residents back.
Vladimir Putin and his supporters have been eager to paint the Ukrainian national movement as fascist and anti-Semitic. The movement does in fact contain some anti-Semites and even some neo-Nazis, but they are in the minority. Putin apologists also point to a long history of entanglement between Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Semitism. No small number of Ukrainian national heroes, from Bogdan Khmelnitsky in the 1640s to Stepan Bandera 300 years later, perpetrated horrifying massacres of Jews.
But most of those I spoke with feared Russian despotism far more than Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Indeed, as the veteran Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert has written recently, East European Jews in general may be better off in “a democratic independent state . . . steeped in nationalist ideology” than under a triumphant “Russian imperialism, even if it is tempered by a demonstrated opposition to anti-Semitism.”
Natan Khazin is a man who does not fit well into Moscow’s storyline. An Orthodox Jew who has associated himself with some of the most nationalistic elements of Ukraine’s pro-Western movements, he actively took part in armed standoffs with Yanukovich’s forces at Maidan. He now commands the Ukrainian military’s first drone unit and will soon deploy to the front lines near Mariupol.
“I tell my Ukrainian friends that I am fighting here so that the Ukrainians don’t make the same mistakes that we Jews made in Gaza,” Khazin tells me over the phone. “What is at stake here is not just the future of Ukraine but the future of Europe, maybe even the world.” Confident that Russia’s game, as he calls it, is coming to an end, he believes Ukrainian Jews will enjoy a long and prosperous future, not just as residents but as active citizens in Ukrainian society. “Eventually, peace will come to this land, and Jews will be a part of that.”
Time will tell.