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The Jews of Ukraine

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The Jews of Ukraine feature

Sue Fox recalls those Jews she met on her visit to Ukraine.

World Jewish Relief is a British humanitarian charity that responds to international disasters, funds projects to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable communities, and secures sustainable livelihoods for those in poverty. The organisation was originally created to rescue refugees. Since 1989, WJR has been working with 29 local partners in Ukraine. Last year alone, their programmes reached out to 13,000 people across the country. Many vulnerable and old people they support in Ukraine include a generation of Holocaust survivors who have lived through decades of conflict and instability. Now families are trying to flee the Russian danger zones. For men and women in the last years of their lives, fleeing is not an option. 

World Jewish Relief has just launched an Urgent Appeal for Ukraine. It is by no means their first appeal and won’t be their last. In November 2016, I travelled to Lviv in Western Ukraine to meet some of the bravest, poorest people I have ever seen who, without WJR, would probably have died. I wonder what will happen to them now? Lviv is far away from the Russian troops surrounding Eastern Ukraine’s border. Forces have already been deployed inside the borders. How long before the old people I met – if indeed they are still alive – will need more help?

As it happens, my mother’s family were all originally from Rostov on Don, Eastern Ukraine, where life was always an obstacle course. In late 19th century Russia, as in so many places throughout Europe, Jews lived in ghettos. Small and squalid, they were full of disease and at risk of fires. For several generations, our family had been allowed to live outside the ghetto because they ran a factory that employed more than five hundred people. They were free to live where they worked – outside the ghetto walls –  selling hardware and farming equipment. Between 1905 and 1917, different Russian factions tried to rid the country of its brutal Czar. Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Kerenskyites  – violence was everywhere. As the Russian Revolution became nearer,  the family knew they would have to leave. Jews were rarely if ever given permission – especially to this family who owned a factory which was too important to abandon.

City Duma Building

In 1919, Rostov on Don was taken over by Bolsheviks. It was a brutal winter – 28 degrees below freezing. On Xmas Eve the Communists went on a killing spree. My grandmother heard stories of dead bodies, frozen, hanging from trees. Anyone venturing outside was shot dead. 1500 bodies were left in the streets of Rostov on Don. A relative who was ten years old at the time remembered soldiers –  their bloody hands holding wallets of people they had killed – asking him to identify who they belonged to. Soldiers were illiterate peasants. The ten-year-old could read the names of family friends, neighbours, customers and employees. It was time to leave. Most made their way to America. My grandparents got as far as Manchester. 

This is what I wrote in November 2016: “There were 200,000 Jews in Lviv before the Nazi and Russian decimation of the community. Maybe 5,000 Jews live there today. They are making the best lives they can in a city where the horrors of a bloody history whisper from the cobblestones. Those whispers grow louder from the stark monuments with their bold, gaudy artificial floral tributes lying silently in the damp, biting chill of a November day. The old ghetto, says our extremely competent, grey-faced guide, in robotic, emotionless English is now bordered by a gas station. No harm was meant, but can I be the only one of our small group who thinks this a particularly sick joke? In a matter-of-fact drone, as though reading a shopping list, we are shown the exact spot where Simon Wiesenthal managed to escape from a work camp onto a train – or was it the other way round? It doesn’t matter. The name Simon Wiesenthal is one we can all recognise and the places we are shown are real. We are standing there, in our warm clothes, ready for coffee in our hotel – the best Lviv has to offer. In an hour we will visit more of the worst Lviv has to offer.”

Dr Wiesenthal talking in the Netherlands in 1963

Mother Teresa once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” Today in Lviv, World Jewish Relief is caring for 130  elderly and lonely Jews who live in conditions most of us cannot imagine.  Of these brave souls, 60 are lonely but active, 40 are lonely and barely leave their flats and 30 are totally alone and housebound. 

Uri, a double amputee aged 77 had a gas jet on so that he could welcome us into his home with a spark of warmth. Until the WJR home improvement scheme stepped in he had no means of washing himself or his laundry. He now has a suitable shower and a washing machine. Uri also has a care package of volunteers and social workers who take care of him as much as they can and keep him company.  

Anya, 91, has a huge smile. She has lived here in these two rooms for 60 years. Her pension, like Uri’s, is barely $30 a month. She has never been out of Lviv apart from a visit to Uzbekistan when she was a child. 

View from the Vysokyi Zamok hill Panorama over Lviv

Olga is 80. Her husband is dead. They had a son. When he was a teenager, they scrimped and saved to take him to the seaside for a wonderful day out on the beach. He drowned that day and Olga lives with her sorrow and memories.  

Chaim, in his late eighties, is virtually blind and deaf. He has a minuscule amount of hearing in his left ear.  Adina, a WJR psychologist, strokes his hands and talks into his barely functioning ear.  Chaim’s parchment skinned yellow-grey face creases into a smile, his eyes sparkle, and he begins to tell us about his life as a child before the Zigovka ghetto when the family were rounded up and life, as they knew it, ended. He tells us that his mother died when he was 12. In school from the age of 9, he learned only Yiddish. When Jewish schools were closed and he was forced to go to a Ukrainian school, the others laughed at him because he couldn’t speak  Ukrainian. Everyone in his village was a craftsman, his father worked in wood. There was a market twice a week and everyone was friendly. It was a community. 

Sitting with us is Inna, a middle-aged WJR volunteer from the community centre who has learned Yiddish so she can talk to Chaim. She visits him a couple of times a week. Helena, a paid social worker from the centre, spends  5 hours Monday to Friday cooking and cleaning for him. At the weekends he is mostly on his own. Sometimes his only son manages to visit. Chaim was an accountant. Twenty years ago he had throat cancer. He is a survivor, but every day he dreams of the brutality of the ghetto and German soldiers, of surviving by drinking his own urine. Suddenly he smiles and remembers the smell of his grandmother’s Shabbat food and the village matchmaker. Of weddings, joy and love.  

Children at the Mishpacha Orphanage in Odessa.

Longevity is a blessing in the name of this World Jewish Relief programme. It is only a blessing because of the human contact and practical help, support and selflessness of the team that these people who have already suffered so greatly, can defiantly stay alive with dignity.  

The Ukrainian winters are hard. They need new windows, doors, kitchens, boilers – the list is huge and the funds are limited. We are not talking Grand Designs. A new window which keeps out the wind, a cooker which works, a door which shuts – a cupboard – these are the things of dreams. One woman hadn’t had running hot water for 40 years. Another proud, educated, brilliant 80 year old, whose book recounting a personal history is in Yad Vashem, had a water heater that was ten years older than me.

Entrances to the blocks of flats are wet, cold, dark and dangerous. Neighbours are not friendly. Volunteers and care workers have to travel far and wide to visit their clients.  Buses are packed, traffic jams are a fact of life, and just getting places once the weather turns is difficult. Our skinny, clever translator, who has several degrees, a husband who works for a  poorly paid state department, three freelance jobs and a small son, told us that she added up the cost of a new winter coat, hat, boots and outdoor trousers for him (he is three) and it would take her entire month’s salary. The choice between eating and shopping for other things is often very hard. 

A Hesed social worker reaches a client in Odesa on Monday, February 28, 2022. (JDC)

Hesed, the Jewish Community centre run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and WJR, is a joyous, bright, bustling hub. Everything takes place there – singing, dancing, kindergarten, art classes, museum, library, discussions and WJR’s innovative and very successful Back to Work initiative. The Home Office has asked WJR to initiate a similar scheme, based on the Ukraine project, to help Syrian refugees in Bradford. WJR professionals have made contact with 140 plus employers in Lviv. They run intensive courses for motivated – mainly younger people – to improve their skills and find new jobs. It’s a win-win scheme where employers know that if they approach WJR at Hessed, they will be offered candidates for jobs who are enthusiastic, skilled and ready to interview for the position. This means they don’t have to advertise or pay recruitment agencies. We met an ex-security guard who was now doing well as a systems analyst in IT.  A woman with young children who was so efficient after the training that she is now training others. One woman had brushed up her skills and confidence so much that she is now in charge of HR at a five-star hotel. The candidates for the scheme all have stories – many of them very sad. The WJR head of social work is there to pick up the pieces and help them move forward. A young mother had been widowed – totally out of the blue – and was turning her hobby of rock climbing and yoga – into a business. Another woman who was very shy and depressed after losing her mother for whom she had been a carer, had gradually established a business as a therapist specialising in leech treatment  – yes  – leeches! They are popular in this part of the world for curing migraines and aches and pains. You can buy leeches at the chemist. Irina will now visit clients in their homes and use theirs or bring her own…..  world of mouth is encouraging and she is gradually gaining more clients.  

Children celebrate Chanukah in Kharkiv.

Deborah, aged 20, beautiful and tiny, is married to a boy who works as a road repairer and earns very little. Her disabled father has no job and she needs to support him. A hairdresser, Deborah worked in a salon that didn’t have many customers. She came to Hessed and was accepted on the work scheme. WJR found her training so she could learn to do manicures, pedicures and massage.  A fancy new shopping mall opened in town with a beautiful state of the art salon, and beauty product shop attached. The enterprise is owned by a  Ukrainian entrepreneur and her sister, who hope to open more salons around the city. Deborah is earning more than she ever has, loves the work, and has prospects for promotion. A manicure, by the way, costs about £1. Shellac is maybe £3. I wondered who could even afford that and was told that Ukrainian women don’t have much to brighten their lives, so they are very keen to spend on cosmetics, hair and nails. “A priority!” laughed our interpreter.

It made me think how much the £40 plus tip for a manicure and pedicure in London would buy in Lviv. How much the cost of a daily latte might help  Chaim, living with the memories of his grandmother’s soup and cakes.

So why are Jews still living in Ukraine? The sceptics in the Jewish community often ask this question. I wondered too. Israel isn’t the answer. Young people can go there, of course, they can. But there is no guarantee of success. For the small community bringing Jewish life back to Lviv, this is their home. Many have ageing parents. For the old, it is simply too late and not practical. So WJR has to throw a lifeline because no one else will. None of us walks in the shoes of the 5,000 Lviv Jews. There are a lot of positive, happy stories and, hopefully, a better future for the next generation who play happily in the Hessed kindergarten. They may not need our help and WJR. Meanwhile the lonely, old survivors of Lviv and its dark history – which feels horribly familiar as the world moves shockingly to the right – depend on the kindness of strangers. As Balzac said, “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.” 

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Sue Fox is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing famous people for the Sunday Times, Times Magazine, and many magazines since she was 18.  She has also been associate producer on TV documentaries and a film archive.
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