Ukrainian Jews Reconstruct Their Lives in a Romanian Coastal Town

May 24, 2023 | Amie Feris-Rotman
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In the 19th century, the newly independent kingdom of Romania received a large influx of Jewish immigrants who fled restrictive laws, dwindling economic opportunity, and occasionally pogroms in the Russian empire. Now it is the Russian Federation’s invasion of its former Ukrainian territories that is causing Jews to take refuge in Romania. Amie Feris-Rotman takes a look at the lives of some 1,000 Jews from Odessa who have tried to re-establish their community in the Romanian resort town of Neptun:

The high-stakes drama of their exodus in the first week of March 2022 seemed almost biblical. Community leaders made the decision to leave Odessa quickly, departing in a convoy of eight buses and four vans. Six containers of kosher food trailed close behind. The caravan was led by former members of the Israel Defense Forces—hired by the community—who drove motorcycles, snaking their way through the heavily forested Carpathian Mountains and stopping every 40 miles to check which roads were safe to use.

Romania and Ukraine are adjacent to each other, and only 200 miles separate Neptun and Odessa; the Ukrainian city is situated to its north, on a shallow indentation of the Black Sea. But the emotional and psychological distance between the two is vast. To help offset that distance, the refugee children’s first summer was spent playing in the waters of the shimmering Black Sea, its smells and changing light so familiar to them.

It is with a certain tragic irony that the Odessa Jews who have found refuge today in Neptun are largely the descendants of those who had managed to flee the city before Nazi occupation and Romanian-allied violence. Such uncomfortable truths are not lost on the community. When [one refugee] packed up her Odessa apartment, instructing her five daughters to get dressed in their favorite clothes, she channeled her ancestors from World War II. “I kept telling myself, ‘Those who stayed, got killed.’ So I threw some matches and medicine in a bag and started getting ready.”

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