Nightmare in Donetsk

Jewish organizations take care of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the battles in east Ukraine

A woman looks with dismay at the ruin of her home, damaged in shelling, on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, August 16 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman looks with dismay at the ruin of her home, damaged in shelling, on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, August 16
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“WE NEVER imagined that such a thing could possibly happen to us,” Marina Klebanova said, bravely trying to maintain her composure.
The elegant, 65-year-old Jewish grandmother and former English teacher at the National Donetsk University in eastern Ukraine began recalling a desperate escape from her war-ravaged hometown, while at the same encouraging her five-year-old grandson, Genya, to draw a pretty picture “for grandma.”
We met at the offices of the Jewish charitable organization Hesed, in central Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, a city that has unexpectedly become her new home. Over the last 18 months a steady stream of previously self-sufficient Jews from the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine have arrived urgently needing help ‒ a roof over their heads, a meal, clothes, medical care, social support, the list is endless. Hesed, supported by the American-based Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), has been doing its best to help those most in need.
They fled – often with only the clothes on their back – from violent Russian militias, leaving behind their possessions and, tragically, in some cases, missing relatives and friends.
Sounds familiar? It vividly echoes the experience of European Jews 75 years ago fleeing the Nazis and their enthusiastic local collaborators. This time, though, Jews were not the specific target of the invaders.
They were simply another strand of a shattered society forced to flee from a far superior, well-armed advancing force.
“I told Raisa [the director of Hesed Kiev] that talking to you would be so hard for us all because we are not young people and at any minute we could burst into tears,” Klebanova tells The Jerusalem Report.
“The atmosphere in Donetsk changed and there was a spirit of something terrible about to happen. Nobody thought it would be a real war, a real invasion, a real occupation.
In the 21st century, it is very strange to conceive of it. People tend to more easily believe in good and not bad.”
When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent heavily armed militias into eastern Ukraine in early 2014 – he asserts that the militias have no connection to Moscow, but few in the international community believe that – he set in motion a chain of events that saw a large swath of the country plunged into a vicious war.
According to reports, at least 8,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands have fled. It was headline news for a while, but as the mammoth transnational Syrian refugee crisis emerged, the story of Ukrainian refugees fleeing from one side of their large nation to another generally evaporated from the public consciousness.
According to UN figures, at least 250,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) have flooded into Kiev in the last 18 months, and many more have sought sanctuary in other major towns in central and western Ukraine. Among them are many hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews. The cost of living in Kiev is far higher than in the provinces, meaning that while it may be safer than the east it is barely affordable to those who have lost so much, particularly since the beginning of 2015 and the alarming collapse of the local currency, the hryvnia.
“My husband was an ear, nose and throat consultant at the major hospital in Donetsk. I studied in Moscow. My PhD is from the Institute of Literature,” Klebanova says.
“Donetsk was an industrial town with quite a lot of Jewish people.”
She speaks very good English and is doing her best to remain composed and coherent as she relates her heartrending tale. The sadness in her eyes is all too apparent, though.
“Every night we went to bed fearing people could be killed and that things could be destroyed. It was especially diffi cult for the young people who thought everything would change. We understood this was a struggle against oppression.”
The last straw for Klebanova and her family was when her son-in-law narrowly survived a brutal attack. He had attended a meeting in Donetsk in support of Ukrainian independence and was set upon by Russian separatists wielding clubs. Pictures on social media of his blood-splattered body gave rise to reports that he had been killed ‒ in fact he had pretended to be dead to get the gang to stop beating him. In an ironic twist of fate it was his father-inlaw, Klebanova’s husband, who performed the emergency surgery that saved his life.
“That was when we decided to send the family away. By July 1, 2014, we had all left, I expect forever. We’d already seen the invaders from Russia. They were not Ukrainian [as Putin insisted]. Remember, I lived and studied in Moscow. I know the language that is spoken in Donetsk (Surzhyk, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian), and the invaders were speaking pure Russian.
“We became refugees. When we left, the airport had already been bombed and everyone who had the opportunity took their children and got out. My daughter’s home was bombed.”
KLEBANOVA’S STORY is mirrored in other heart-wrenching accounts I heard from five other Jewish grandmothers from Donbass, who joined us at the Hesed office and urged me to let people know what has happened in their homeland.
One brought with her pieces of shrapnel that came through her living room window; another, who seemed beyond consolation, showed me shocking photographs of her destroyed home of 40 years in Shaktarsk, just two kilometers from Donetsk airport, the scene of devastating battles. She could hardly bring herself to speak, but she didn’t need to ‒ the pictures vividly spoke for themselves.
Ludmilla Krivokolysko, from Lugansk, managed to smile, though.
“I just want to praise Hesed and say how grateful we are for all they have provided, helping us here in Kiev,” she tells The Report.
The other women nodded in agreement.
“We feel their friendship and they are like sisters and brothers. Thank you, too, to the JDC. When people understand other people’s pain, it is really wonderful.”
I asked if the help they have received locally from Hesed and the JDC (which is supported by a number of other organizations, including the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany) is significantly different from that offered by local Ukrainian organizations.
It’s the first time there has been any laughter in the air. The question, it appears, was extremely naïve.
“At Rosh Hashana,” one lady recalls, “the Jewish community and these Jewish charities made such an effort for us. We were invited to a nice hotel and we celebrated together.
It felt like a miracle. It was so nice to have that in such hard times.”
One grandmother, partially disabled and sporting a mouthful of sparkling gold teeth, shows me photos of her family at home before the war – kids playing on a computer, people laughing together on a sofa. She says all of them are now renting rooms in Kiev.
“We were at an age where we were relatively ‘well to do’” she says. “Then we arrived here deprived of everything, looking for shelter.”
She is clearly upset. Undoubtedly, the indignity of having to ask for help is as tough as the loss of everything she and her family worked for. Another woman has a heartfelt message for Jews in the United States and around the world: “We want you never to experience the same sorrow that we have experienced.”
The grandma with the gold teeth shows me a child’s painting depicting a bright, sunny day. Her 10-year-old granddaughter had written a poem on the back of the picture from inside a bomb shelter as missiles fell close to her home.
It concluded: “I want a candy, to have a shower, to listen to my CDs and see some happiness in my mother’s eyes, but those men don’t want it and don’t understand it.
These militants will never understand what we have experienced, losing everything.
They have thrown away my happiness, my childhood, my hopes, and broken our dreams and our souls.”
Silence fell on our gathering. A couple of women reached for their handkerchiefs to dry their eyes. For once, I was lost for words. What can you say? Raisa Gritsenko, the director of Kiev’s Hesed, tells me the organization has some 1,000 employees, the majority as homecare workers, serving more than 10,000 people in the greater Kiev region. They work closely with the JDC, which estimates there are now at least 700 Jewish IDPs receiving its help in the greater Kiev area, in addition to its regular, extensive client base. Together, they fund those in dire need, helping with medical bills and equipment, paying for necessary surgery or special care for those with diabetes, cancer and other serious illnesses.
They offer household assistance and general repairs, such as replacing windows to fend off the bitter Ukrainian winter. Their annual budget for Ukraine, where the JDC has some 21 offices and is helping more than 65,000 Jews in more than 1,000 locations across this large nation, is in excess of $50 million.
The day center is a meeting place for so many Jews who otherwise might be without company from one day to the next, especially those arriving as refugees in a strange city. It provides arts and craft classes, offers something to eat and drink, and music concerts. Kiev-based accountants and lawyers – some Jewish, some not – volunteer their time and advice, and rabbis from the different communities ranging from Chabad to Reform are available for moral support and prayers.
In the years since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, many Ukrainian Jews have migrated to Israel; a significant number left for the US and Canada; while others headed to Germany and Poland. However, many have remained, even in the war ravaged east of the country where much of the infrastructure has collapsed. They refuse to give up their cherished homes.
HAD THE six grandmothers considered making aliya to Israel? Only one said she was thinking about it. The others said they were too old to start over in a foreign country where they don’t know the language and what money they have left is worth so little.
At a café in central Kiev I met Daniel Gershkovich, director of the JDC in Central and Western Ukraine, and 26-yearold Lilia Vendrova, founder of the local Jewish charitable organization JUICE.
Our three cups of coffee with a few biscuits cost just over 200 hryvnia. I was stunned to learn that some poor Jewish people in Kiev are living off as little as 700 hryvnia a month, meaning our pitstop beverages represented very nearly one-third of their monthly income.
“We have an SOS fund to help people in desperate financial need,” Gershkovich tells The Report, “but we have to draw the line and we’re now having to prioritize people who receive less than 2,400 hryvnia ($110) a month. There are a lot of poor Jewish people who need help, but in percentage terms there are a similar number of Jewish poor as in the general Ukrainian population.”
The Israeli-born 35-year-old began his role in Kiev earlier in 2015 after spending three and a half years in central Russia responsible for an area 65 times the size of Israel. He says he has found the Jewish community in the Kiev area particularly impressive.
“The material support is one thing, but people need to have something for their soul, to be able to celebrate holidays, to feel that they belong and have not been forgotten,” Gershkovich explains. “The social solidarity [in Kiev] in general is not so good, but the Jewish community is quite amazing, especially the young people who founded JUICE.”
JUICE is an organization enthusiastically encouraged and supported by the JDC.
More than three years ago, before the war in east Ukraine, Vendrova and some friends decided they wanted to help the Jewish community, particularly children in need.
“We started organizing different charity and social events that helped us raise money for Jewish children,” Vendrova, an international economics and management graduate, tells The Report. “Everything from parties to cultural events, Shabbat dinners and even charity potato picking! The farmer who donated his potato field to JUICE was not Jewish. He said he wanted to help IDPs, whoever they are.
“We started as a group of five friends and now we have more than 1,000 volunteers (mainly organized through Facebook) and have so far raised over $30,000, which has been given to help 33 sick children undergo operations and to buy some wheelchairs.
Just one wheelchair costs $1,800, a huge amount here. There are a lot of Jewish children really in need and we have plans to help a lot more in the future.
“When the IDPs started to arrive, we decided to establish a warehouse and asked people to donate clothes and blankets. They were invited to come to take whatever they needed. In other cases, we delivered packages to them as they didn’t know the city at that point. When we gave people food packages, they would hug us and thank us.
We organized seminars to help them find jobs, to write CVs, and a Jewish-owned human resources agency also helped us.”
But with the biting economic crisis and great uncertainty surrounding the war in the east, does Vendrova ‒ who was born in Israel, but immigrated to Ukraine as a child ‒ believe her future still lies in Ukraine? “I think I will stay,” she says with certainty.
“My family is here, I have my work here. I feel comfortable here.”
And like the six grandmothers I met earlier in the day, despite the option to up sticks and leave, she concludes, “This is my home.” 
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ paul_alster and visit his website: