Our car decelerated and pulled over to the side of the highway after passing the final checkpoint on the road leaving Mariupol.
Walking over the cracked asphalt, the driver, my translator Alexandra and I approached the uniformed soldiers manning the concrete barricade to ask for permission to take their photograph.
Standing under the vivid blue sky of eastern Ukraine, the verdant fields and leafy trees lining the way provided the scene with a pastoral feel that contrasted sharply with the harsh lines and drab colors of the Ukrainian military position bisecting the decrepit road.
I ambled behind my Ukrainian companions and walked up to one of the infantrymen. After an exchange in rapid-fire Russian, my translator turned and answered in the negative.
“He says you can’t photograph the checkpoint, but you can ask his commander for permission. He’s just up that way,” Alexandra said, gesturing to a small temporary fortification comprised of sandbags and concrete blocks just off the road 30 meters away.
As we reached the command post, the officer in charge came out. He was a burly man in full battle kit and sunglasses, a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung barrel- down across his back and a Ukrainian flag sewn to his camouflaged combat harness.
“No, you cannot take photographs of my soldiers,” Alexandra relayed that the commander responded, “but you can take a picture with me.”
Hoping that such a shot might include the checkpoint itself in the background, I handed my camera to the driver and walked over to the commander. A sudden smile distorting his broad face, he grabbed me across the shoulders and hugged me in tight, just as another soldier ran up and thrust a loaded rifle into my arms. Standing there in shock – I was a noncombatant after all – I reverted to training, looping the gunstrap over my neck as I had been taught in the IDF, just before the driver snapped a picture.
Moving on, with the sun setting over the highway, I reviewed that day’s notes, reflecting on the pects of the Ukrainian civil war in evi dence in a city only a few kilometers from the front. Having left prior to the imposition of that night’s military curfew, we had a long drive ahead of us. I knew that in the hours to come, I would have to work out the best way to tell the stories I had collected.
SEVERAL DAYS earlier, I stepped off a Ukraine Airlines flight to Dnepropetrovsk on my seventh trip to the country in two years, and my fourth since late 2013’s so-called Euromaidan Revolution. I had been covering the effects of Ukraine’s unrest on its Jewish community since the beginning, and was eager to come to grips with the refugee situation in the east.
As anti-government protests erupted last November, triggered by pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s 11th-hour refusal to sign a trade pact with the European Union that would bring Ukraine further into the European community, right-wing nationalist factions such as the Svoboda Party took on an increasingly visible role in Ukrainian politics.
Deemed a neo-Nazi party by the local Jewish community and the World Jewish Congress, Svoboda has 35 out of 449 seats in parliament, making it the third-largest party in Ukraine. While most European far-Right parties oppose closer integration with Europe, Svoboda embraced the spurned EU trade deal as better for Ukraine than tightening ties with Russia, which the party sees as a threat to Ukrainian independence.
Many Jewish groups expressed worry over the prominent role Svoboda strongmen played in the protests, fearing it could strengthen its subsequent electoral appeal. A series of anti-Semitic incidents during the Euromaidan protests and the appointment of several Svoboda members to ministerial positions following Yanukovych’s deposition further strengthened that impression.
The group’s popularity seemed to falter after presidential elections were held and oligarch Petro Poroshenko, Yanukovych’s successor, did not include any Svoboda members in his newly formed cabinet. Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok garnered only 1.16 percent of the vote despite his high-profile role in the protests.
As pro-Russian protesters began taking over government buildings in cities near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine following the revolution, worries of anti-Semitism receded even as fear of conflict with Russia grew.
In March, Russia annexed the semi-autonomous Ukrainian territory of Crimea on the Black Sea, and in April separatists in Donetsk, an eastern industrial city of 1 million residents, declared their independence as the Donetsk People’s Republic. A civil war had begun that would eventually drive out most of the city’s 10,000 to 11,000 Jews, as well as the Jewish community of nearby Luhansk and many of the surrounding towns and villages.
The US and NATO have accused Moscow of funding and arming the rebellion, as well as sending its own troops in to aid in the fighting.
I had reported from the barricades in Kiev in December 2013, visited the war-torn city of Donetsk this past May and visited refugees from Donetsk in a temporary internally displaced persons camp in Zhitomir in August.
In September, I went back.
After landing in Dnepropetrovsk, an eastern Ukrainian city of almost one million people that has remained firmly in government hands, I immediately made my way to a holiday resort comprised of small dachas – Russian-style bungalows – where the Jewish Agency maintains a small way station for Jewish refugees awaiting transport to Israel.
Approximately 4,200 Ukrainian immigrants have arrived in the Jewish state over the past year, an increase of 110% over 2013, according to the Jewish Agency.
Birds sang among the trees intermingled with small green vacation homes as teenagers rushed past, teasing each other in Russian. A woman in her 20s sauntered past in a bikini, an indication of the continued use of this facility by vacationers even as those who have fled for their lives make use of it.
Life, even in eastern Ukraine, goes on.
The vacation village setting is necessary because not all of those seeking to move to Israel feel safe in an urban setting after their war experiences, says Maxim Luria, the Jewish Agency’s representative in Kharkov and Donetsk.
Given the time necessary to work out the bureaucratic issues involved in aliya, the Jewish Agency has had to provide temporary shelter for its clients, he says, explaining that many Ukrainians do not have passports, a necessity for those seeking to travel abroad.
Obtaining a passport, dealing with the Israeli consulate and providing all of the paperwork required to prove one’s Jewish identity – especially given the dearth of documentation among those who fled the conflict zone – all conspire to make the process less smooth than it could otherwise be, he explained.
On the afternoon I visited the camp there were 28 refugees present, down from 42 only a few days before.
The camp’s population fluctuates as people arrive, are processed and are placed on flights to Tel Aviv.
Despite the rise in aliya figures, many of those who have escaped the war still harbor hopes of returning.
“There are many people for whom aliya is not on the table,” Luria explained.
“I just spoke with people from Luhansk. On the one hand, to return to Luhansk is not something that is possible because there are no windows in most of the buildings, there is no heat or electricity, there is nothing and winter is soon starting.
On the other hand, when we start to discuss aliya they say, ‘No, no, no, it’s okay, it’ll all work out. So most try not to think about this. We will see what will be in the winter.”
Igor and Larisa, a couple in their 40s, recently escaped the Donetsk region with their 20-year-old son, Alexander.
Sitting on a bench among the trees, Igor slumped over, a frown above his short gray beard. His eyes were only half open behind his glasses as he clasped his hands between his knees.
The picture of misery, he recalled the economic dislocations brought about by the rebellion which forced him to close down his cellphone repair shop in the town of Makiivka. Despite all the hardships they faced, it was the sight of a group of tanks rolling down the street outside their house that finally made up their minds, Larisa said, describing Russian and old Soviet flags flying over the tracked vehicles.
While no missiles landed near their house, Igor recalled hearing the “boom boom boom” of mortars and rockets and a “feeling of anarchy” in the streets.
Wishing the family success in their move, I left the camp and made my way to Dnepropetrovsk where I was met by community director Zelig Brez, a Chabad Hassid.
I first saw Brez, with his hair receding to his black velvet kippa and a full, bushy beard tipped in gray, standing inside in the Menorah Center, a seven-building complex billed as the world’s largest Jewish center.
Housing a Holocaust museum, several restaurants, a luxury hotel, the city synagogue, a hairdresser and the area’s Israeli consulate, the building will also soon be the locale for an especially interesting event, Brez said.
The Jewish community has arranged for a mass wedding ceremony for 19 couples, several of them refugees from the war, who never married according to Jewish law.
AFTER CHECKING into the hotel I made my way onto the roof, where 10 wedding canopies had been set up for the two shifts of couples soon to tie the knot. As Jewish music played softly in the background and refugees and locals alike mingled, one refugee circulated putting tefillin on the men in the crowd.
Many of those at the party spoke of their desire to return home.
“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,” Yaakov Virin, the former editor of Donetsk’s Jewish newspaper, told me.
According to Brez, most of Dnepropetrovsk’s estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Jews are not contemplating aliya.
In fact, he says, the local Jewish community, which is led in part by oligarch and regional governor Igor Kolomoisky – who helped finance the Menorah Center and personally financed a private militia to fight alongside the Ukrainian army – is incredibly patriotic and has contributed towards the war effort.
While some communal leaders in Donetsk, Luhansk and other cities have professed neutrality, wishing to remain separate from a conflict in which each side has accused their opponents of anti-Semitism as part of their propaganda efforts, the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk is very much pro-Ukrainian, he said.
“Our community took a strong position for supporting the independence of Ukraine and territorial integrity,” he elaborated, adding that the local Jewish school helped raise funds for the war effort.
The war has served to unify many of the disparate ethnic groups in Ukraine and create a sense of patriotism in the Jewish community, he continued. According to Brez, the reason why aliya remains lower than many Israelis anticipated is that many Ukrainian Jews are “very rooted… culturally, mentally, linguistically and socially, to this place.”
While caring for the refugees has strained the exchequer, “the ideology of the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk and the city rabbi is that we don’t refuse help to anyone – even if we don’t have a place, we find one,” Brez stated.
The following day he arranged for me to tour the local Beit Baruch assisted-living facility and the Jewish day school, both of which have been enlisted in efforts to provide for Brez’s internally displaced co-religionists.
Strolling outside the well-appointed day school where several hundred youngsters are studying Bible and Hebrew, Yehudit, an Israeli teacher, said that if she “were to ask an Israeli why people in the Gaza periphery didn’t leave [during Operation Protective Edge], they would understand why I stay… because that is your home, and that is where you live.”
“I’m here 16 years and I have family in Israel and if, God forbid, the war will come here [to Dnepropetrovsk], I will go to Israel – but is it simple for me? No.
Here I have my work with the children, and each has their house and their bed. It is not so simple,” she said.
According to Moshe Neuman, another teacher, the local community has taken on the responsibility of caring for the refugees in every way.
“We admit them into our institutions. They don’t pay. The community takes care of everything: their food, their transport, their living solutions. They eat and drink and study for free, and [we all] hope they return home in peace.”
Daniel, a 14-year-old from Luhansk, now studies in Dnepropetrovsk and while the city is nice, he said, he wants to “go home, that’s all.”
While economic dislocation and the ongoing war will likely force many to make the move to Israel, the Jews of Ukraine represent those who declined to move to Israel during the mass emigration following the fall of the Soviet Union, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky would subsequently tell me, a conjecture that seems to fit the facts as I saw them on the ground.
OVER 40 refugees are currently staying at Beit Baruch. As I entered the building, I glanced into the d i n i n g room immediately to the left of the foyer, only to do a double- take as a bearded hassid took out a shofar and blew a long series of blasts in the middle of the refugees’ lunch.
Among those eating were Sofia and Gregoriy Minyuk, a couple in their late 60s who escaped from Donetsk. Sofia left by herself, leaving her husband behind to continue medical treatment at the local hospital.
After suffering through bombardments while hiding sick and alone in his basement, Gregoriy made his own escape.
According to Beit Baruch director Malvina Ruvinskaya, around 200 internally displaced persons have been hosted by the local Jewish community. While Chabad and the American Joint Distribution Committee collaborate, they also act in parallel, each taking care of different segments of the refugee population.
At the local branch of Hesed, a JDC-funded network of elder-care agencies located in the Menorah Center, a number of refugees young and old are gathered.
I began chatting with them and was struck by the story of Grigoriy Bitman, a 69-year-old pensioner from Donetsk.
“There was constant shooting from heavy weapons,” he recalled, describing hiding in his house with the power and water shut off.
Rebel missiles fired from near his house brought about return fire by Ukrainian troops and a missile hit the apartment above his, killing the family that lived there, he recounted.
Many of those who escaped over the past several weeks have had to run a gauntlet of fire to get out. Andrey Frumkin, 39, who used his savings to hire an ambulance to get his 76-year-old mother out of Donetsk, said he was shot at during their escape.
Before leaving, Frumkin said he witnessed a woman lose an arm to shrapnel and “just stand up and go without her arm.”
Driving through a neighborhood adjacent to the city’s airport, the only part of Donetsk still controlled by the Ukrainian army and the scene of fierce fighting, six bullets hit his ambulance.
He arrived in Dnipropetrovsk with nothing, the little he had left confiscated by fighters of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic at a checkpoint outside Donetsk, he said.
“All the people who had the opportunity to leave [have left] Donetsk, [but] there are many elderly people who don’t have anyone and they stay there,” he said.
Alla Simonovskaya, a 77-year-old from Donetsk, expressed what seems to be the consensus opinion when she said that “of course I want to go back.”
Fumbling in the dark, with the booms of exploding rockets and shells reverberating around them, she and her husband managed to pack their belongings and were whisked out of town by a car and driver provided by the Jewish Agency, they recounted.
Chatting with Lyubov Kiss, the head of social services at Hesed, after the roundtable with the refugees I was told in no uncertain terms that they “all want to return home.”
Aliya doesn’t seem to be in the cards for many of the refugees at the moment.
Sharansky later told me this is not precisely the case, and that he believed the hardships of the coming winter will change many people’s minds.
“Even to the most resistant to aliya – it’s clear they have no choice,” he told me.
THAT EVENING, as I sat typing in my hotel room, a JDC representative tells me that after speaking with a number of drivers, all of whom refused to even countenance traveling to Mariupol, a city only a few kilometers behind the front line and which had suffered from rebel fire in recent days, he had finally found someone willing to take me.
The next morning at 6 I met with the driver and Alexandra, and we set out on the long road to Mariupol.
After five hours bouncing on cracked roads, we made our way to the first of three government roadblocks outside the city.
Entering Mariupol, I was surprised to see a city in which life appeared to be continuing pretty much as normal.
People were out shopping and strolling, traffic was flowing and businesses seemed to be open. Ukrainian flags and patriotic graffiti could be seen everywhere.
Arriving at the local Hesed, I was treated to a replay of the previous day’s roundtable in Dnepropetrovsk.
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 chronically ill mother.
Pensioner Vyacheskav Aksentsev, 67, said 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 via Skype, the Jewish grandfather said.
“Everybody desperately wants to go home,” Ginzburg’s grandmother Natalia Lazakova said.
After meeting with the refugees, I stopped off at the Chabad synagogue to meet with community leaders who defiantly proclaimed they would not leave the city until the fighting forced them out.
One said she had bags packed and a car full of gas, “but we are not going to leave this city and I am going to be here until the last moment.”
Driving through the city, I was taken to see the burned-out shells of buildings hit by rebel fire, their gaping windows edged with jagged glass reminiscent of broken teeth in the mouth of a man who has just taken a beating. Shrapnel holes formed pockmarks on the sides of the charred structures, and as I walked through the husk of what was once a bank, the carcass of the air conditioning ducts groaned and I feared they might fall on me. I stood amid the wreckage, taking pictures of the only piece of furniture left in the building – a heavy metal safe with its door ajar.
Before leaving I met again with the JDC, only to learn that over 2,000 Jews – most of them elderly – were left in Donetsk and Luhansk and, according to Yoni Leifer, who heads the organization’s operations in eastern Ukraine, given current expectations of a fuel shortage this winter, might be in mortal danger.
Arriving at the airport for my flight home, I was greeted by the sight of dozens of new immigrants to Israel being shepherded by a Jewish Agency emissary.
They did not look particularly happy. Shopping at the duty-free shop I again ran into Igor and Larisa, who did not seem overly enthused by their imminent departure from Ukraine.
Less than a week after my return, violence again returned to Donetsk, yet barely anyone I spoke with in Israel knew anything of the challenges facing the Jews of Ukraine. Maybe it is because, unlike the Jews of France, they are suffering not because of their religion but because of their geographic location; maybe there is another reason; but whatever the cause, their suffering certainly is not common knowledge.
Discussing this with Pinchas Vishedski, the chief rabbi of Donetsk, I was told that in his eyes, “It is very unfortunate that people are not aware of and may not seek to know the difficult situation of so many Jews in eastern Ukraine.”