Jews stuck in Ukraine like ‘insects living in the darkness’

Whether in Odesa or Mykolaiv, many Jews have been left behind in Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion, including the elderly and Holocaust survivors.

 Elena Kuklova (photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV)
Elena Kuklova
(photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV)

Elena Kuklova’s modest leather purse holds some of her few possessions to have survived almost 12 months of Russian bombardments.

She sits gracefully on a wooden chair in a building with hundreds of Holocaust survivors who had gathered at the bottom floor of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Odessa, Ukraine, to receive food handouts.

Their coats and gloves don’t keep them from shivering in the February cold. Kuklova’s red hat with a big bow is positioned perfectly on her gray head. The 84-year-old is wrapped in a stunning fur coat, with a red scarf tied around her neck – large black polka dots jump from its fabric.

The daughter of a Ukrainian mother and a Jewish father, she was forced into hiding during her childhood in World War II.

“They murdered us then because we were Jews. Today, they kill us because we are Ukrainian.”

Elena Kuklova

“They murdered us then because we were Jews,” she says matter of factly. “Today, they kill us because we are Ukrainian.”

 Holocaust survivors receive meal boxes from the Chabad of Odessa, sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. (credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV) Holocaust survivors receive meal boxes from the Chabad of Odessa, sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. (credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV)

A generator buzzes in the background, turning on the lights just long enough to accommodate the survivors as they collect a box of food staples meant to last them a month. 

On tables in a small room upstairs lie dozens of fleece blankets. There, parents and children congregate to select the cover that could ultimately save their lives on a cold night with no electricity. 

Kuklova describes how when she was little, she lay all day in silence in a suitcase with only small holes for air. When she grew bigger, a non-Jewish family with 10 children took her and her mother in. They kept her discreetly in a large armoire.

“I was a good girl,” Kuklova recalls. “I stayed there quietly. This was here, in Odessa, because my father was a Jew.”

Her mother lived in fear for her daughter. Although she was not Jewish, her mother would sit under the table all day, forcing herself into hiding as well – a behavior she continued even after the war ended and they had survived.

“When I got older, I would sit under the table with her and hold her hand,” Kuklova says. “My mother could never work. She was never right after the war. She always thought something was going to happen. Eventually, I got married and we moved on and lived a normal life – as much as possible.”

Kuklova became a well-known local actress, including delivering a monologue about the Holocaust as part of her repertoire, until her recent retirement. Today, however, as a widow and enduring a year of missiles striking her hometown, she has been forced to live in fear again. 

“We began our lives in a war, and we are ending our lives in a war,” she says.

Kuklova is one of around 20,000 Jews – including 187 Holocaust survivors – still living in Odessa, according to Rabbi Avraham Wolff, chief rabbi of Odessa and southern Ukraine. Before the war, some 50,000 called the city their home, but most fled when the rocket attacks started. 

The few who stayed were just too old to leave. Others had husbands, male children or grandchildren between the ages of 18 and 60 who were forbidden from exiting the country in case they needed to fight and did not want to leave them alone. Others were patriotic or could not imagine going anywhere else. 

While fewer Russian missiles have hit the city, air raid warnings regularly ring throughout its streets. And bombings of critical infrastructures have left Odessa without electricity most of the time. People lack food and basic supplies. 

“Today, there are no people who are not in need,” Rabbi Wolff tells The Jerusalem Report. “There is just no way to measure this level of poverty. People who used to donate thousands of dollars a month [to the poor] come here and ask for a piece of fish.”

Wolff says he feeds some 7,000 people a month. The silent minority who are left behind are battling poverty, starvation, cold and constant fear.

JDC’s local Hesed social welfare program used to serve around 5,000 clients a month, explains Inna Vdovichenko of the JDC Odessa office. Although some 10% of recipients fled, today the organization has 7,000 clients.

“There are new poor people, people who lost their salaries – lost everything,” she says. “There are people from other regions of Ukraine who came to Odessa to find temporary shelter. In pre-war times, in addition to food, medication and meeting emergency needs, we provided Jewish education and renewal programs. Now we are just helping people get by.”

The organization, funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (the Fellowship), the Jewish Federations of North America and other private and organized donors, has stocked up on basic foodstuffs, winter survival gear, and gas and electrical heaters to help the Jewish community. However, “You can’t often start your heater because there is no electricity. You cannot cook because your stove – even a gas stove – needs electricity to start. The transmitters fail. The Internet is dead. There is no cellular connection,” Vdovichenko stresses. “Some of these people go to bed not knowing if they will wake up.”

When the war started, the Fellowship raised approximately $30 million for JDC, Chabad and the other main Jewish organizations in Ukraine, and operated in the field around the clock. They established emergency hotlines and strengthened the community’s security system. They also evacuated people to the borders, organizing sleeping accommodations and shelters, as well as purchased food, medicine and emergency supplies.

The Fellowship delivered over 100 tons of humanitarian cargo to the area in cooperation with Chabad, JDC and Latet over the past year. Recently, it committed to providing an additional $4 million to finance a variety of types of food aid, medicine, shelter, clothing, and electrical products as the war rages on. 

‘We suffered from starvation, but we stayed’

“They take care of me,” says Roman Schwartzman, 87 – a Holocaust survivor – about the Fellowship. 

He barely survived World War II. He lost two brothers in the war, and another was disabled. He has struggled for decades, “never really having enough. We suffered from starvation, but we stayed.”

At one time, Schwartzman says, he did consider leaving Ukraine, but by then his wife was dead and was buried in Odessa, and his oldest daughters would not leave her grave. He says that when World War II started, he was a little boy, so even though he was forced into a ghetto, he did not feel fear. Now, “when the Russians fight us, my fear is much stronger. I have children and grandchildren, and I worry about them.”

Moreover, he lives on the 10th-floor of a walk-up. Every time a siren blares, he has to run down all those flights of stairs. “My heart races, and it takes me so long to calm down,” he says. “I have slept in my coat, hat and shoes for several months.”

Nearby, Chabad is operating a geriatric center. The facility took care of 48 people before the war. Nineteen have died since the conflict started. 

“They just couldn’t handle it – it was psychological,” Wolff says. “These are people who survived World War II, beat the Nazis, but they just cannot take the booms anymore. It’s just terrible.”

“They just couldn’t handle it – it was psychological. These are people who survived World War II, beat the Nazis, but they just cannot take the booms anymore. It’s just terrible.”

Avraham Wolff

In the same area, Chabad runs a school for kindergarten-age children through high school. The children have become accustomed to learning in the safety rooms downstairs. There were days, according to Rebbetzin Chaya Wolff, when they would stay in the shelter from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later, with sirens raging several times a day.

Unlike in Israel, where citizens can have less than a minute to get to a shelter, in Odessa they have between 15 and 45 minutes to reach safety. The children have been taught that when a warning is sounded, they gather their belongings and walk carefully into the basement. At first, they played board games. Now they hold their classes there. 

“One time, we thought we were all going to sleep there,” the rebbetzin recalls. “They only let us out around 8 p.m.… It can be stressful.”

Some new children have enrolled in the school in the past year, as most public schools have shuttered and are offering only online courses – ineffective, considering that the teacher or the student usually doesn’t have electricity. Moreover, members of the Jewish community who may not have connected to their religion in the past are now coming “for a hug and support. Even if they don’t need the money, they come to hear a kind word,” Rebbetzin Wolff says. 

When the war started, she says that she and her husband felt like the young couple who came to Ukraine 29 years ago with the fall of the Iron Curtain, living on nothing but beets, cabbage and potatoes. But they quickly realized they were not a young couple that could think only about themselves anymore. They have eight children and are responsible for thousands of people and a handful of institutions. 

“When we came, we used to have to boil our water before drinking it; there was no electricity; and when I had a baby, there were no disposable diapers,” says the rebbetzin. “The first days of the war were like that, and they were very scary. 

“They put us under lockdown. We needed to bring food to the geriatric center but had no way to get it to them.”

The Wolff family helped transfer 300 orphans, children and single-mother families to Berlin, where they have been taking care of them since early March. Later this month, she says, they are shutting down the operation and bringing them home. 

The war has cost them around 750,000 euros a month.

 Roman Schwartzman (credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN) Roman Schwartzman (credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN)

‘God kept this synagogue intact’

Two hours away in Mykolaiv, another Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Gottlieb, the city’s rabbi since 1996, was helping to sustain the 4,000 Jews who remained in the city. 

Russian rockets and shells have relentlessly battered the city since the first days of the conflict.  Russia invaded the city on February 26, 2022, and heavily attacked its infrastructure, bombing the university and municipality. Russian troops remained in the area for about two months, until they were repulsed by Ukrainian troops. However, until November when the frontline was effectively pushed back, Russia continued to attack the area. 

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was born in Mykolaiv 120 years ago and attended the same synagogue in which Gottlieb serves. The basement across the street is where many Jews, including the Rebbe, hid during the pogroms. 

Gottlieb says that since the start of the war, the needs of the community have tripled. Those who wanted to get out and move to Israel, they helped. Others fled to Europe. But the people who stayed “live off our food. We give them clothes and blankets. There is no heat in their houses. There is no gas, so we deliver wood. People lost their windows and doors; we boarded them up before the winter.”

When there was no water, people filled buckets to capture the rainwater, and then boiled it to drink. Now trucks deliver water. But people have to take bottles and buckets to stations and carry the water back home. 

Pointing to the left, the rabbi says, “A rocket hit one street over. Another one hit there. From every direction. Somehow, God kept this synagogue intact.” 

“A rocket hit one street over. Another one hit there. From every direction. Somehow, God kept this synagogue intact.”

Rabbi Shalom Gottleib

He says that the situation is heartbreaking – for those who stayed and for those who left, including many women and children who have been separated from their husbands and fathers.

“It was not easy then, and it is not easy now,” Gottlieb says. “But this is our mission. The silver lining is that the war has brought some people closer to their Judaism. There are more than 150 new families who come here just for the connection. We support each other. This Chabad has become a center of life – physical and for the soul. I hope they’ll stay after the war.”

‘We want to escape this darkness’

The Mykolaiv community is on edge again, concerned that Russia may step up attacks against the battered city on the one-year anniversary of the war. 

“We are worried,” says Ukrainian journalist Taras Leoltyan. “In the newspapers they are writing – and I am hearing in my circles – that the Russians are going to step up attacks again and are going to renew their efforts.”

Earlier in January, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told a French media outlet, “We think that, given that they [the Russians] live in symbolism, they will try something around February 24.” 

Analysts have noted it is possible that Russia aims to take back territory that Moscow captured in its initial invasion of Ukraine but lost in counter offensives, which could include Mykolaiv. 

This fear has encouraged another upsurge in aliyah. Andrey Orlikovsky, 33; his wife, Victoria, 29; daughter Sofia, 5; mother, Maria, 61; and grandmother Alina, 85, are expected to be on a flight to Israel by the end of the month. 

“The war began very unexpectedly,” Andrey recalls. “Everybody talked about such a possibility, and there was a lot of information in the news. But when you get awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of rockets in your street, you don’t expect that, and nothing in your whole life prepares you for that.”

Orlikovsky grabbed his daughter from her bed and ran with her to the stairs. Their building lacked a shelter, so the stairs were the best solution. When they got downstairs, he saw that his neighbor was fleeing. When he asked the neighbor where he was going, the man said he didn’t know. 

“It is dangerous everywhere; but when we move, there is an illusion that we are trying to save ourselves,” the neighbor said. 

“I always thought that there was one thing that I was fully sure of: my ability to protect my little girl,” Orlikovsky says. “When I lay my body over her little body because that was the only protection from the rockets that I could think of, I understood that protecting Sofia was one of many other things that I was totally incapable of. For a father, this feels like physical pain.”

Orlikovsky lost his job on the first day of the war while trying to pay off the medical bills that had accrued to pay for the cancer treatments his father and grandfather had endured during COVID. Shortly after the war began, his wife’s mother got sick and died. Orlikovsky’s mother and grandmother came to stay with him because they needed help. 

“From time to time, I succeeded in finding some temporary jobs as a loader or a cleaner,” he says. “We needed money, so I was ready to do any job, but it is very hard nowadays. A couple of months ago, a friend told me that he could arrange for me to work as a lumberjack. People are forced to live almost entirely without electricity, as it is turned off many times a day. So people need wood. They can burn it and get some warmth. That is why the wood market has become very active in the last several months. So I found a job thanks to this market. Still, it is very difficult to exist with such a modest income.”

He says that they didn’t choose to make aliyah when the war first started because of Victoria’s mother and because they believed that things could get better. But as they struggled financially, schools stayed closed and the bombings and shelling left them exhausted and overwhelmed. “Step by step, we came to the conclusion that it is time to leave.”

Alina expresses similar sentiments. “We are like insects living in the darkness,” says the grandmother. “We want to escape this darkness.”  ■

‘I could be one of these people’

When Gadi Teichman Dan visited the border between Moldova and Ukraine for the first time four days after the war had started, it was blisteringly cold and snowy. Refugees who had walked for hours crossed to safety. 

“I stood there to greet them. Me, Gadi – Genya – from Ukraine,” Dan recalls. “Suddenly I realized that if my parents had not left Ukraine with me 30 years ago, I could be one of these people.”

Dan was born in central Ukraine into a large Jewish community. 

“I remember going to synagogue and Jewish activities,” he says. “In my last year, I even attended a Jewish school.” 

The family made aliyah in 1990 when Dan was 10. The decision was partially prompted by a derogatory comment made to Dan at his public elementary school the year before. Today, he is 42 and manages communications for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that has infused millions of dollars into helping Jewish Ukrainians survive and has brought around 5,000 Ukrainian Jews on aliyah this year. 

“I am someone who made aliyah, and now I am part of an organization that is helping so many others do the same,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. Of course, he could not have been prepared for the feeling of seeing people from his hometown escape a war zone and beg for a chance to come to the Jewish state. 

“While we stood there on the border, I saw young women holding their children in their arms. Old people. They had no suitcases because they had left everything behind,” he describes. “They had these full lives that ended in the blink of an eye.

“I realized how lucky I was that my parents did what they did,” he continues. “And also how lucky I am to be part of the Fellowship and able to help these people.”

When Dan came to Israel, he was an only child and spoke no Hebrew. His mother was an engineer and his father a lawyer, and they both had to start over. But he says that they succeeded. Until recently, his mother managed the engineering department for the Tel Aviv Municipality. His father ran a law firm. 

“I am very proud of them for that,” he says. “I believe that these new immigrants can acclimate, too.”

He says that contrary to what you sometimes read in the media, “as someone who has been helping these olim [immigrants] for a year and meeting them and hearing their stories, these are wonderful people that are coming.”

Dan highlights a young woman who recently graduated with a chemistry degree who made aliyah in February and says she wants to join Israel’s hi-tech community.

“There are so many like her who want to come and contribute to society like they did in the 1990s,” Dan says. “I think it is very important that as many Jews as possible come to Israel – those who can improve our society, as well as the elderly who, if they stayed in Ukraine, might not be able to continue. For them, we are saving their lives.”