Ukraine chief rabbi helps evacuate Jewish refugees to safety

A Kyiv synagogue has become a way station for those headed westward and abroad seeking safety.

Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, in the sanctuary of the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, Kyiv, Ukraine. (photo credit: MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE)
Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, in the sanctuary of the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, Kyiv, Ukraine.

On a cold but sunny early April day, a group of evacuees − mostly elderly Jews − from the besieged city of Chernihiv, about 90 miles north of Kyiv, were gathering what belongings they could carry.

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Their immediate destination: the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, serving the Chabad-Lubavitch community in the Ukrainian capital, which has become a way station for many Jews fleeing the war.

Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, one of several claimants to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine, is the man behind the evacuation effort.

“We organized two buses, special buses with the second story having normal seating, while the first floor has beds for the wounded. We had two ambulances along with the buses. Some of the wounded had rocket fragments in their bodies because the hospitals there don’t work. There’s no electricity,” Azman said.

The latest group of some 300 evacuees consisted mainly of old women, the rabbi told The Media Line.

Brodsky Choral Synagogue, operated by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (credit: MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE)Brodsky Choral Synagogue, operated by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (credit: MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE)

“There were people suffering from shock. I work with these people; we gave them food and a place to sleep, and organized buses to send them abroad,” he said.

Azman puts Ukraine’s Jewish population at more than 300,000, adding that he has helped to evacuate thousands of people from conflict areas to safe zones.

Evacuating people from Chernihiv is a very complicated logistical exercise because the last bridge over the Desna River south of the city is out of commission, he said.

The 300 evacuees made their way to Kyiv under the cover of darkness. They were cold, hungry, and anguished but grateful to make it out safely.

Ola, a widow who lived by herself in Chernihiv, sat on a chair next to a menorah stand in the synagogue. She closed her eyes as she recalled the harrowing experience.

“I’m a lonely woman who has no idea what to do and how to feel. Should I die on the spot or run to the basement or stay in my apartment? I left my apartment and I have no idea whether or not it’s been destroyed,” she said.

Her group’s bus convoy traveled long hours on dangerous roads to the capital.

Ola told The Media Line she had spent many sleepless nights as relentless shelling kept her awake in the besieged city.

“It was a difficult month. There was no water, no electricity. No bread. No heat. We were freezing in our flats. We tried to get through this and survive,” she said.

Many people endured weeks under dire conditions, with little communication with others in the city or the outside world.

On March 6, Chernihiv received the title of Hero City of Ukraine.

Tatiana, another woman evacuated from Chernihiv, told The Media Line that intense shelling delayed their evacuation several times.

“They bombed us in the morning, during the day, and at night. Our kids winced, we kept waking up. It was a difficult experience, but thanks to the persistence of the humanitarian aid workers we were evacuated and don’t have to hear explosions any longer,” she said.

“We have calmed down now, and we are sure that victory will be ours. We are grateful to the evacuation team. Everything went smoothly, and we were taken to safety,” Tatiana said.

Nina traveled alone to Kyiv in the convoy. She told The Media Line that the Russian shelling and bombing campaign kept her and the residents of Chernihiv hiding in the basements.

“Horrible things. It was a mess. There was street fighting. It was scary. They [the Russians] stationed the tanks near the houses to provoke an artillery response [from Ukrainian forces]. They were hiding behind civilians, behind the kids. This is what happened.”

The Russian airstrikes devastated everything, said Rima, another elderly woman who was evacuated from Chernihiv. She told The Media Line she is lucky and grateful to make it out alive.

“Nobody was ready for a war. The basements were cold and dusty. We coughed; many people got sick. Waging a war is unthinkable, we want peace. We are very tired. And thank you for the warm reception of Jewish people, Russians and Ukrainians who fled from their homes. We all have shelter, food, a bed to sleep in.”

Valenchina told The Media Line that she saw people die as they waited in line for food in Chernihiv.

“People were standing in a queue to buy bread when the missile hit. Thirteen people were killed, many were wounded, and bodies were scattered all around. They were standing in a queue to buy bread. We ran to the basements every time we heard gunfire. This is how we managed to survive,” she said.

Azman, one of the country’s prominent Jewish figures, said organizing all these rescues, with buses, drivers, ambulances, and medical aid, has placed a massive financial burden on him. Some of the money came from donations to the synagogue, and some had to borrow to be able to finance these life-saving missions.

A single bus cost upward of $20,000 because of the shortage caused by the war, he said.

“You know organizing buses is not simple; the army took all the buses,” Azman said, adding that his campaign has cost about $100,000 a day since the war began, bringing the tally close to $2 million.

“Every day we had about 10-20 buses from all over Ukraine, and we took most of them to the border with Moldova, Poland, or Hungary. Some of them go to Israel, some to Europe, and some to western Ukraine. The men between the ages of 18 and 60 have to serve in the army.”

In the early days of the war, a Russian missile strike hit Kyiv’s central TV broadcasting antenna and the nearby site of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.

The most iconic memorials in the park are unharmed. They include a large menorah, a newly built synagogue, and a monument honoring the Soviet citizens and prisoners of war who died in the war.

Jewish groups condemned a missile attack near a Holocaust memorial, which commemorates the mass killing at the ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv of about 34,000 Jews by German forces and Ukrainian Auxiliary Police officers on September 29-30, 1941.

Azman dismisses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that one of the reasons he sent his military into Ukraine was to “denazify” the country.

“I say to the Russian people: We don’t need denazification, we don’t have Nazis. Ukraine is a democratic country. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech – we have a free life here. The nationalist party didn’t even make it into parliament. President [Volodymyr] Zelensky is Jewish; the head of the opposition is Jewish. We don’t need denazification. Please leave us alone.”

Azman said that he spoke at Babi Yar on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was marked on January 27, a month before the Russian invasion. In his speech, he urged the Russian president to avoid war.

“I called on Putin, and I called on world leaders, to please prevent a war, no to war. Because a war is easy to start, and hard to stop. Look at Babi Yar. They began the war and Babi Yar is a witness to the war crimes,” Azman said.