by INNA ROGATCHI—
With recent Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur celebrations all over the Jewish world, it is worth to reflect on the Jews jammed in between two sides of the non-stopping conflict in Ukraine, especially in its Eastern part.
How there were celebrating their main holiday? How the New Year in their lives has been started?
We are in constant touch with many people and the Rabbis all over Ukraine, and are getting updated information from different regions of the country all the time.
There are some facts regarding the Rosh HaShanah celebrations in the eastern Ukraine: the synagogue in Lugansk has been without electricity and water all the time for many months by now; and people cannot pray there as they are unable to read in the dark. The synagogue is dysfunctional because of the absence of water and electricity, which poses yet more questions on how they could function there during the autumn and with winter approaching. In order to keep the synagogue open, there is somebody from the Jewish community present at the synagogue at all time despite being in dark and cold.
Due to the existing curfew in Lugansk, Jewish people were unable to come to synagogue for the main evening service for Rosh Hashanah. Instead, they were gathering there, in the cold synagogue without light and water, the next morning, on Thursday September 25th. There were only 40 people there, in the community that lists 2 500 people conservatively.
In the act of merciful care, the community leaders with the help of the private donors from the USA were able to bring about 30 members of the Lugansk Jewish community to the safe place inside the Ukrainian territory, and to make for them the Rosh Ha-Shanah festivities there, with paying for their hotel and bring the kosher food for the celebration. For a few nights, those 30 people were living ‘in a clean and safe hotel’, they’ve told us. “Safe” was a key-word there. But it is important to realise that in order to be able to conduct a normal celebration of the most important holiday, those people had to be taken out of their homes and to be brought to safety. This is utterly abnormal.
The same abnormal as the reason for the very big joy of the people from the same Jewish community of Lugansk, of which they have told us in early October: “ We have still no electricity and water in the ( Lugansk) synagogue, but we have got now the electricity in the ( Jewish ) school, for the first time during very many weeks, and so we were able to have fresh chalas for Shabbat, for the first time during all this time. We were so very happy over it!..” I found it heart-breaking.
All this time during the military conflict in Ukraine, with its nasty and merciless fights in the Eastern part of the country, people and organisations are trying to help to the Jewish people there who are living through the real disaster, from all and every points of view: economic, safety, social, religious. Their entire life has been shattered and broke into pieces. They cannot afford elementary food and clothing; they cannot pay their apartment rent or anything else; the houses of many of them has been bombed and destructed. There is martial law in the region, and the people are living under ongoing terrible pressure.
In early August, a notable murder has occurred in Donetsk where a well-known member of the local Jewish community, philanthropist Georgij Zilberbrod has been shot down along with the man who was responsible for maintaining the property in the cottage village built by Mr Zilberbrod when they were trying to stop the robbers who decided to run-sake the village as people left their houses in panic. He was 47 years old. The macabre of the senseless murder continued in Mr Zilberbrod’s funeral – the family was unable to conduct a proper burial at their native place, and they had had to bring the corpse all the way to Kiev and to bury their husband, father and son there, in exile.
Couple of weeks ago, before the Rosh HaShanah, a certain philanthropist made possible for some 15 people from the Lugansk Jewish community who are living now as refugees in Kiev, to come to the certain store and to buy some clothes for themselves. While coming to the store, those people were trying to smile. They were genuinely happy and relieved that somebody was providing much needed help to them. So they were smiling. But I do not remember when I saw such endlessly sad deep down eyes as I saw on photographs of those people who were supposed to be happy.
This war is not ‘just’ dramatic; it is really gets far in the sense of its absurd and cruelty. And what makes it much worse for the Jewish people who happened to live in the Eastern Ukraine, it is that they has become trapped in between two hard players, pro-Russian separatists, and the Ukrainian military, neither of them are sympathetic to Jewish people and cause, to put it mildly. Both sides involved in the conflict are known for large amount of neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists in their midst; and thus, Jewish people in those regions have come under the doubled blow.
Operation SOS was the main activity that donors, sponsors and philanthropists from many countries had been involved into before the High Holiday in order to help to the members of the Jewish communities from the Eastern Ukraine to make it. “The money is needed badly for everything for those people, from housing and food to medicine. We have a real war here, and people are affected directly and badly, indeed. They have no means for most elementary and immediate needs”, – we were told by the chief Rabbi of Zhitomir region Shlomo Wilhelm whose community is helping to the people from the Eastern regions of Ukraine all the time.
We also know that many Jewish people from those regions were made aliyah to Israel, and that it is organised currently for more people to come there. The rise of the aliayh from Ukraine that has become the second largest, after France, this year, with figures that has been increased for 292-371% for different Ukrainian regions, is unprecedented for the country.
But there should be no surprise in this to those who are aware with the current situation with the Jewish people in the Eastern Ukraine: the Jewish community of Donetsk which consisted of more than 10 000 members, has stopped its functioning completely from early August 2014, with its Rabbi Vyshedsky moving to Kiev along with approximately 1 000 community members. The Jewish community of Luganks had to stop its functioning, too, because of total destruction of the city. The Jewish community of Mariupol which consist 5 000 members did find itself in the same situation. Many of the people from those communities are living now as refugees in more safe places of Ukraine, but also many of them has moved to Russia. Most of them are preparing to make aliyah.
And there are several notable international organisations, both in Europe and the USA that has been moved by the worrisome for Jews situation in Ukraine in general, and by the desperate situation for them in the Eastern Ukraine in particular, who has launched special campaigns dedicated to help and support the aliyah from Ukraine, similarly to the ongoing campaign to help the aliayh from France. This noble work is conducted in co-ordination with the Israeli authorities.
According to the most recent opinion of Nathan Sharansky who had visited the Eastern Ukraine just after the Rosh HaShanah, this process will be yet more accelerated in a near future. Being himself from Donetsk, the chairman of the Israel National Agency ( Sohnut) after his brisk visit to Ukraine did confirm: “The Jewish people from Ukraine, and especially the Eastern Ukraine, have no alternative but to make the aliayh. It is clear on all the levels ( of the Ukrainian Jewry) that they will have no choice in this decision”.
But even in implementing this most obvious and vital decision, those poor people are not free in excising their free will: Nathan Sharansky has been very worried by the mass facts occurring in the Eastern Ukrainian regions when as soon as the local authorities are learning on the Jewish people’s decision to move to Israel, their property of all kinds is confiscated in a mass scale and routinely so. They are living now in sheer terror, and even before living Ukraine for good, they are robbed by the local authorities there.
This is even worse than it was during the Soviet regime – only if because we all have had that nightmare behind us. But it seems to be returned, in yet more ugly way. And it is important for the outside world to realise it, and to seeing the situation in Ukraine as it is, in facts of everyday’ life of thousands of people, not by some shameless propaganda fantasies produced by the both sides of the escalating conflict.
Inna Rogatchi (C)
Dr Inna Rogatchi is the writer, scholar and filmmaker. Her recent film on Simon Wiesenthal has been selected for several major international film festivals, and her forthcoming book is Dark Stars, Wise Hearts: Personal Reflections on the Holocaust in the Modern Times. She is co-founder and president of The Rogatchi Foundation – www.rogatchi.org