DNEPROPETROVSK – Shimon Leib and Esther Zuckerman stand under a wedding canopy on the roof of the Menorah Center in Dnepropetrovsk, preparing to marry for a second time. To their right and left stand nine other such canopies with their respective couples.
Octogenarian refugees from the separatist stronghold of Luhansk, the pair are not new to displacement, having fled to save their lives during the Holocaust. Living in the Soviet Union they were unable to marry according to the Jewish rite, and now, displaced once again by combat in their homeland, they are determined to rectify that oversight.
As Shimon Leib stamps down, shattering a linen- wrapped glass in the culmination of the traditional ceremony, his son’s family, themselves refugees from the rebel capital of Donetsk, clap and cheer. To both sides of the Zuckermans, the families of the other couples likewise begin celebrating.
Nineteen couples were married in two shifts on the roof billed by its management as the world’s largest Jewish community complex.
The Zuckermans had lived in Luhansk since graduating from university in the mid-1950s. In the intervening decades Shimon Leib worked as an economist and academician, spending more than half a century as a university instructor.
He bemoaned once again bearing the title of refugee, saying that he felt it “puts us down internally,” but that after making his way to Dnepropetrovsk he felt a “revival of our souls” due to the care exhibited by the local community.
Dnepropetrovsk has taken in hundreds of Jews displaced by the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian- backed separatists in recent months. It is hard to estimate how many refugees are lodged in the Jewish communities across the country, but refugee centers have been established in Kiev, Kharkov, Zhitomir and elsewhere.
Many of the Jews of Luhansk left the city after utilities such as water and electricity were disrupted and incessant shelling made continued life there untenable.
One refugee from the city, speaking to The Jerusalem Post
a number of weeks ago in a makeshift refugee center in the northwestern city of Zhitomir, accused both sides of firing indiscriminately into civilian areas, “just like Hamas.”
The first stage of the Zuckermans’ exodus took them to Donetsk, where their son-in-law Yaakov Virin was the editor of the Jewish newspaper.
They then made their way with their daughter Rachel and granddaughter Miriam to Dnepropetrovsk, joined shortly thereafter by Yaakov.
“First we ran out to Donetsk, we stayed with our children in Donetsk, but when we realized that Donetsk was already under such bombing and military activities we had to abandon it and come to Dnepropetrovsk,” Shimon Leib recalled.
During that time he married off his grandson, who is now living in Israel.
Shimon Leib, who lost his father during the Second World War and spent time in an orphanage, said that “it wasn’t [then] as scary as it is now.”
However, despite everything that they have gone through, the Zuckermans seemed to have temporarily placed their troubles behind them, beaming as they stood and released doves into the air together with their fellow newlyweds.
He praised the displaced persons center at the Beit Baruch assisted-living facility where he is now being housed, beaming at their introduction to a stable Jewish life that he found here.
“I have moved from hell to paradise,” he said.
Dnepropetrovsk is a bright spot in an otherwise troubled region, asserted Zelig Brez, the director of the Jewish community.
The mass wedding was the result of two months of hard work, he continued, saying that it is “extraordinary” how the community has developed since the fall of communism.
However, many of those displaced by the fighting, including Yaakov Virin, while happy, are markedly less content with their current situation.
“It’s very good for us here and we would like Donetsk to be at least 50 percent as good as it is in Dnepropetrovsk,” the former journalist said. “We are hoping that negotiations will lead to something. We are hoping that the fighting sides will reconcile and negotiate and find compromise and there will be peace and people from Donetsk will come back.”
Another resident of Donetsk, who declined to provide his name, agreed.
Having fled to Dnepropetrovsk by way of the Zhitomir camp, he said that all he wanted to do was to return home and begin the task of rebuilding his dispersed and shattered community.
A short drive outside the city, in a vacation village, several dozen Jews have a different plan. Living in temporary housing paid for by the Jewish Agency, they are looking to remake their lives in Israel. The festive vibe felt at the Menorah Center is not in evidence there, as those soon to make the move to the Jewish state recount their woes with lowered heads and grim expressions. They have given up on Ukraine.
While Zuckerman’s granddaughter Miriam smiled and said that she had managed to reestablish a social life in Dnepropetrovsk and the local community seems to be pulling out all the stops to help their co-religionists land softly here, the help they provide serves to highlight the difficulties that these refugees will face in rebuilding their communities should they have the opportunity, and the desire, to return home after the violence ends.