In Zhytomyr, Jewish refugees find both safety and uncertainty

In Eastern Ukraine, 150 Jews are in a 21st-century refugee camp while their hometown is overtaken by violence.

Vadim and Vladimir at the impromptu Zhytomyr refugee camp. (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Vadim and Vladimir at the impromptu Zhytomyr refugee camp.
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
ZHITOMIR, Ukraine – Four-year-old Vadim sat calmly next to his grandfather Vladimir in the dining hall of the impromptu refugee camp in the town of Zarychany just outside Zhitomir in northwest Ukraine, his calm demeanor belying his recent experience.
Vadim’s mother and grandmother were among the residents of the city of Luhansk who were killed in the intense shelling due to Kiev’s drive to retake Ukraine’s rebellious Donbas region.
His grandfather had already booked tickets to leave the city when the bombardment started. They fled alone, leaving all they had behind.
“We want to return to Luhansk when the war is over,” Vladimir told The Jerusalem Post, speaking bravely in front of his young charge.
“God willing, it will be okay.”
Vadim and Vladimir are two of over 150 Jewish refugees from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, the focal points of the Moscow-backed insurgency against the post-Yanukovich regime, who have gathered at what was once a summer camp/orphanage. Run by Chabad, represented in Zhitomir by Rabbi Shlomo Willhelm, and sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the camp is one of several community initiatives throughout Ukraine seeking to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis engendered by the civil war.
From young families with children to elderly pensioners, the camp houses a wide range of Ukrainian Jews: from modern and secular to conservative and traditional.
There are no religious litmus tests for admission to the camp or the receipt of aid, said Shalom Gopin, until recently the Luhansk rabbi.
“We don’t check if people are halachically Jewish,” he said, adding that another 50 refugees were expected sometime in the afternoon.
Much of Luhansk’s youth have left, with many taking refuge in Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, Kharkov and Russian-controlled Crimea, according to Gopin.
As the refugees recall their travails, the sounds of music and laughter echo from outside, where the children of those who were forced to flee take part in a carnival that appeared to have been specially arranged to coincide with the arrival of IFCJ president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
The youths ran about, yelling through mouths jammed with cotton candy, and made their way from one attraction to another.
“This is a 21st century refugee camp, even if it does not look like it,” Eckstein said, after pointing out the well-appointed guest houses and educational facilities into which the displaced have moved.
The temporary carnival atmosphere seemed at odds with the reality of the situation in Ukraine.
Upon arrival in the city, many of the refugee children would cringe and run to their parents, crying and warning of impending attacks whenever an airplane would pass overhead.
However many of them have since calmed down at the camp, thanks to a full program of activities that took the children’s minds off of their situation.
Michael, who asked that his last name be withheld, said that the rebels in Luhansk confiscated his company, leaving him without a means of support. Once a prosperous businessman, he now spends his days learning Hebrew and pondering his future.
“One day you are a community leader or a business owner, and the next day you are here,” Eckstein commented after hearing Michael’s story.
One middle-aged woman recalled huddling on the floor of her bathroom with her daughter and granddaughter for a week, three generations doing their best to avoid the deadly artillery fire that raked their neighborhood.
Isaac Mohelievsk said that before he escaped, he could “feel the explosions” of the artillery barrages through his feet, not just hear the sounds.
One young volunteer, barely out of his teens, said that at times it has been very difficult to work with the refugees, especially when he sees people trying unsuccessfully to call home and crying when they don’t know what has happened to their friends and families.
Chaim, a 28-year-old member of the Jewish burial society in Kiev, has a mother who steadfastly refuses to leave Donetsk. Fearful to leave the house because of mass looting by rebel forces, she will not budge, and he cannot go and see her.
Aside from the risks attendant on traveling through a war zone, he is scared of being impressed into serving in the rebel forces, he said.
Despite the horrors they have escaped, however, many of the refugees indicated that they have allowed themselves once again to breathe in Zhitomir.
Yaakov David, a hassidic man from Donetsk, has been at the camp for two weeks.
Walking along behind the stroller of one of his three children, he said that he felt comfortable at the camp but that he will soon be moving on to Dnepropetrovsk to stay with friends.
While he is anxious about the possibility that the war will spread, he said he still maintains hope of returning to Donetsk.
His children have adjusted well to life in the camp, he added, saying that seeking refuge in a facility originally intended for children during the summer makes the transition less jarring for them.
During the course of the day, a number of the refugees gathered in the camp’s synagogue for a lecture on the benefits of aliya, a possibility endorsed by Gopin and Rabbi Yaakov Gaissinovitch, a prominent Ukrainian mohel.
“There is uncertainty about the possibility of returning home,” Gaissinovitch said.
With no possibility of returning home until the conflict is resolved, “the longer they are outside of their homes the more they will come to the idea of aliya,” he said.
While there is a definite interest in aliya among the refugees, there has not been a corresponding enthusiasm displayed by Israel’s representatives in Ukraine, Gopin said.
He said that new refugees sometimes have to wait for weeks for appointments to meet with embassy and consular officials to apply for immigration, despite sometimes not having places to stay in the interim.
“They should operate on emergency hours and schedule appointments immediately,” he said. “It should be the same day.”
As the day progressed, Gopin found himself sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake adjacent to the camp, watching Eckstein, surrounded by children displaced by the war, filming a video calling on American donors to support the camp.
After three days of being unable to communicate with those left in Luhansk, he said he got a message.
The situation there, he said, “is a catastrophe.”