Fearing rebels, Donetsk’s Jews flee Mariupol

Rabbi of strategic port city in eastern Ukraine says many of the residents will end up in Israel or go to communities in safer areas of country.

RABBI MENDEL COHEN (left) (photo credit: PR)
(photo credit: PR)
Despite a tenuous cease-fire between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of Jews have fled the strategic port of Mariupol, according to the city’s rabbi.
Rabbi Mendel Cohen, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, said not only have members of his own community fled the city, which has been subject to artillery bombardment in recent days despite the truce, but also those Jews who took refuge there from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
Mariupol had a pre-war population of some 500,000, while Donetsk, 100 km. to the north, had around a million inhabitants.
Cohen, who has been in Israel since the beginning of the month, said the local community organizations, run by Chabad, have enabled “hundreds” of Jews to leave the embattled city, which lies directly on the rebel line of advance.
The community is working to find its members apartments in other cities, including Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa, Kiev and Zhitomir, where there is a makeshift refugee center in a converted summer camp.
The community had sent buses with those looking to leave to Zhitomir and Dnepropetrovsk, as well as evacuating the families of 14 children who attend the Jewish kindergarten.
These children will remain in Zhitomir for up to 10 days before the prospects for return are assessed, the rabbi said.
Out of those who fled Donetsk for Mariupol, he said, maybe 10 or so remain.
More than 100 families from Donetsk arrived in Mariupol in recent weeks, together with Pinchas Vishedski, their rabbi.
Both Vishedski and Cohen are Israelis, and Vishedski arrived back this week to celebrate the circumcision of a grandson. He confirmed the continuation of his congregants’ exodus. According to the rabbi, several hundred to a thousand Jews remain in Donetsk out of a pre-war population of more than 10,000. At least one Jewish leader from Kiev, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed this figure, intimating that more Jews remained in the besieged city.
It is impossible to verify population figures in Ukraine given the rapid migrations engendered by the war and the difficulties inherent in estimating Jewish population in post-Soviet nations.
Both Cohen and Vishedski said it is impossible to tell what effects the conflict will have for the prospects of rebuilding their scattered communities, but both expressed confidence they would be able to pick up the pieces.
While it is premature to speculate on how the reconstituted communities will look, Cohen said, the longer the war drags on, the fewer the number of Jews who will return.
Many residents will move to Israel or go to communities in safer areas of Ukraine, he said.
Given how Mariupol has changed hands between rebels and the army in recent months, the residents have spent much of the time living in fear, including the city’s Jews, but at no time did they feel threatened by either side because of their religion, Cohen said, adding that the community sought to stay apolitical and focus on aiding its people.
Several Jews have been injured in the fighting over the past several months, he said.
Both sides in the conflict have accused their opponents of anti-Semitism, and a German television program this week aired footage it said showed pro-Kiev militias wearing Nazi insignia on their helmets.
Aaron Kagnovski, a 29-year-old community activist and father of two from Mariupol, who spoke to the Post last week, is now living in Dnepropetrovsk with his wife and two children.
Having fled due to the dangers posed by rocket and artillery fire, he said he plans to leave his family in Dnepropetrovsk while he returns to Mariupol to check the situation for himself.