MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Wary but defiant, the Jews of Mariupol are not yet ready to cut and run despite standing directly in the advance line of eastern Ukraine’s Moscow- backed separatists, members of the community told The Jerusalem Post.
While held by the Ukrainian army, the strategic port city of almost half-a-million, on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border, has experienced upheaval and violence, and has seesawed between rebel and government control. As Ukrainian forces pushed the rebels back throughout the Donbas industrial region toward the end of August, Russia stepped up its aid. It allegedly sent infantry and armor into the region and halted the Ukrainian advance, making its own move down the coast toward Mariupol. The city has continued to suffer shelling since the shaky cease-fire began nearly two weeks ago, and burned out husks of buildings here bear testament to the brutal cost of war.
Last week, several hundred internally displaced persons from the Donetsk Jewish community who had taken refuge in Mariupol left the city, fearful of being plunged back into the violence from which they had fled.
However, representatives of Jewish organizations in Mariupol said that very few of their constituents had followed.
Four local families moved to a Chabad-run refugee camp in the northwestern city of Zhitomir, three to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and a couple of families packed up and took their children over the border to Russia, said Liudmilla Khaikin.
The director of the local branch of Chesed, an organization that takes care of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, Khaikin explained on Tuesday that there are between 2,500 and 3,000 Jews in Mariupol, down from a peak of 4,000 several years ago, but that since the war began there has been no mass exodus.
A diminutive woman with short black hair and thick glasses, Khaikin said that most Jews are staying in the city and that many of those who depend on services provided by Chesed are in any case unable to leave.
“The war has definitely not affected the Jewish life of the city in a positive way, but our Jewish life still goes on,” she said.
Chesed has had to expand its operations due to the war and is providing 244 elderly people with smart cards for grocery purchases and 184 others with prepackaged food. Fifty-seven families are receiving such packages, with an additional 20 using the smart cards.
“People really started to panic when they saw tanks on the streets and heard gun shots,” she said. “People were fighting in the streets.”
Chesed employee and Mariupol native Yana Burmistrov, a thin blond woman in her early 30s, recalled one battle.
“I live not far from here,” she said, referring to Chesed’s downtown office. Through the windows of her apartment she “heard people screaming and saw military planes flying above [her] house.”
People were screaming and “you could tell someone was badly wounded,” she said.
Burmistrov hid in the bathroom, hearing gunshots. Neighbors later told her that people had been shot within sight of her building.
During the worst of the fighting in the city, “no one went out to street, everyone tried to stay at home and hide,” Khaikin added.
Hidden behind an unassuming and unmarked pair of green gates on a side street, the Chabad synagogue stands as the headquarters for Mariupol’s Jewish community.
Some 500 families attend the synagogue at least once a year, according to Ludmilla Beyter, assistant to Rabbi Mendel Cohen, the city’s head rabbi.
Sitting in the Chabad House’s dining hall next to Alisa Rostovtseva, the community press secretary, Beyter said that a number of families with small children have left the city, but have indicated their desire to return in a week or so to continue their lives in Mariupol.
Those who wished to leave received “door-to-door” transport, she continued.
Out of the 10 families that have fled, she said, several have already returned, while “some of them are still afraid of coming back” and have moved on to Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye.
“The community provided those who left with financial support” and among those who stayed Chabad is providing 180 families with food packages, she said.
Asked why those who fled Donetsk chose not to stay in Mariupol, she blamed the media, saying that it had “spread very scary information,” and that “the people from Donetsk who managed to escape from bombing in their own city got very afraid of what may happen and left for different cities and towns.”
Fewer people are leaving Mariupol since the cease-fire took effect, despite the occasional shelling, but due to reports regarding the possibility of a separatist attack on the city “many people are in a panic and are afraid of staying here,” Beyter said. “It has been quiet for the last few days, but I live close to the airport and the other day I heard some gunshots and similar sounds and it makes everyone kind of nervous.”
There is a popular sentiment shared by Israelis that the Jews of Ukraine should pack up and move to Israel en masse, but that is not very realistic, Beyter said.
Many people have jobs and families and homes and cannot just move on, she explained. “Israel is home for them as much as Ukraine is home for us.”
This sentiment was expressed by a number of community leaders and locals throughout Ukraine, and despite a significant increase in the number of people moving to the Jewish state, many here have said that they do not plan to emigrate.
Rostovtseva said that she has bags packed and a car full of gas, “but we are not going to leave this city and I am going to be here till last moment.”
The Jews of the city are calm despite reports that members of the Azov Battalion, one of the volunteer militia units loyal to Kiev stationed in the city, have painted Nazi symbols on their helmets, and the community has not been targeted in any way, she asserted.
Sitting in his fourth floor walk-up in a Soviet-era apartment bloc in the city, Chaim Shubarev said that even should artillery begin to fall he will not move.
“I am a Jew,” the 97-year-old retired Red Army colonel declaimed in fiery Yiddish. “Whenever I go to bed, I always pray to God to save and support those who are close to me....
Every other day I go to synagogue and I believe in God and pray for the health and happiness of all the people in this city and country and especially my children, and God seems to hear my prayers and still keeps me safe and alive.”
Despite the members of the Chabad community from Donetsk having left, there remain 57 displaced persons from the city in Mariupol, many of them elderly, according to Khaikin.
Several of them spoke with the Post, recounting their struggle to survive and their desire to return and rebuild their shattered community.
Sixteen-year-old Misha Ginzburg recalled fleeing the city after a hospital near his home was bombed.
While he left with his paternal grandmother and 10-year-old sister Sofia, his mother remained behind to care for her palsied mother.
Sixty-seven-year-old pensioner Vyacheskav Aksentsev said that he was not only worried for himself, but for his Kurdish son-in-law and his grandson Jameel, who are living through their own civil war in Syria.
They speak every day by Skype, the Jewish grandfather said.
“Everybody desperately wants to go home,” Ginzburg’s grandmother Natalia Lazakova said, summing up the sentiment among the displaced.