Russia invaded Ukraine — what about the Jews that remain?

According to Jewish Agency statistics, some 200,000 Jews are still in Ukraine following Russia's invasion.

 Aliza, from Mariupol, addresses the audience at the European Jewish Association’s annual conference, June 21, 2022 (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
Aliza, from Mariupol, addresses the audience at the European Jewish Association’s annual conference, June 21, 2022
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

BUDAPEST – Some Jews are staying in Ukraine because they don’t want to leave their deceased relatives behind, without knowledge of what the future might bring, Aliza, a refugee from the city of Mariupol, said at the European Jewish Association’s annual conference in Budapest on Tuesday.

Nearly five million Ukrainians have been displaced since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, according to the United Nations’ latest estimates. Currently, according to Jewish Agency statistics, some 200,000 Jews are still there.

“Our town is destroyed,” said Aliza. “Before the war, we had a beautiful and small community. It was strong.” The Jewish community in Mariupol had its own synagogue and school.

Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a war that continues to leave many dead, injured and displaced in its wake. Last month, after weeks of being besieged, and what so far has been the longest and bloodiest battle in the war, Mariupol ceded control to the Russians. Ukraine has said that tens of thousands died in the city.

When the invasion began, the community managed to salvage the Torah scrolls from the synagogue and move them to a safe location. Now, the community has effectively relocated to a different building and uses it as a center for all communal needs.

Nicola Beer, Vice-President & Chair of the Working Group Against Antisemitism in the European Parliament (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)Nicola Beer, Vice-President & Chair of the Working Group Against Antisemitism in the European Parliament (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

“Everyone in Mariupol knew that if they came to our kitchen at 10, they would get what they needed,” Aliza said.

Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine vice president Rabbi Raphael Rotman told countless stories of people who reached out for help and families that were successfully reunited outside of Ukraine’s borders.

When a friend phoned him to help get their aunt and uncle out of Kyiv, Rotman responded that he could get them a car but they’d have to pack up in 20 minutes and leave. They did exactly that.

Another family left Kyiv on a Friday morning. It took six days until the entire family was reunited.

Aliza noted that some Jews stayed in Mariupol because they have relatives buried there – some in their own courtyards – who died either from explosions or from illnesses for which they couldn’t access medications because stores were either closed, bombed or looted.

After telling her stories, Aliza received a standing ovation from the conference audience.

What is the war doing to Ukraine's Jews? 

Rotman recounted his experiences in Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel – near Kyiv – reaching the citizens of these cities after they were liberated.

In April, after Russian forces left Bucha, dozens of corpses were found in the streets of the city, creating shock waves in international media and among world leaders.

Rabbi Raphael Rotman, Vice-President of Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)Rabbi Raphael Rotman, Vice-President of Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

One woman’s husband died during the Russian occupation. It took six days before a safe burial could be completed.

“Families are being separated, wives from husbands, children from fathers,” said Rotman, who has been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.

For some of the Jews whom Rotman met as they struggled to escape, meeting him was their first experience of Judaism.

“Some people have never been to a Passover Seder before. It took a war to bring them out,” he said. “On Shavuot, a man who is turning 78 next month got an aliyah [called up to the Torah] for the first time. This was his celebration of his bar mitzvah. These are some of the joys we try to cling to in this crazy uncertain time.”