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Strength to Ukraine

From the warehouse in Brooklyn where I donated clothing.
As a financial advisor in New York for over 25 years, I always enjoyed learning history and especially tracing my family origins from Galicia under the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, Russia under the Pale of Settlement, and Ukraine. Like a lot of other second, third, or even 4th generation New Yorkers, I learned about my Jewish Ancestors. They came from places like Pinsk, a small Russian town that is now located in Belarus, and from Kyiv, Russia, now the Capital under siege in the Ukraine. Other towns my family came from, like Uman, then Russia, now Ukraine, and Kamenetz-Podolski, also, then Russia, now Ukraine, also were targets of the Russian Army,  even then, over 120 years ago, before my family came to the United States. My Great Grandparents on my Mother’s side were from Podvolochis’k, a small town in Western Ukraine near a larger city of Ternopil, around the turn of the last century, under the Austrio-Hungarian empire.
Jews were largely confined to an area known as the “Pale of Settlement”, which meant borders of settlement, under the Czars of Russia. This area included parts of Belorussia, Crimea, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. I know that in the past an estimated 60,000 or more Jews were killed by Ukrainians and there were Ukrainians before and during World War II that massacred the Jews and helped the Nazis. But that was then, this is now. While antisemitism exists in the Ukraine, as in other countries, Jews in recent decades have been allowed to live in relative peace, without restrictions on their religion, for the most part. I know of once great synagogues that have been restored in Ukrainian villages such as Chechelnyk and Vil’khivtsi. There was even a newly inaugurated wooden synagogue unveiled in 2021 at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, near Kyiv, which marks where 34,000 Jewish women and children, and more than 100,000 others, including Ukrainian nationalists, Roma Jews, and Soviet prisoners of war were killed. In addition, there were definite plans to restore other synagogues in towns such as Ivan-Frankivsk and Lutsk.
In deciding whether to help, I would reread Hillel’s quote from Pirkei Avos. The Ethics of the Fathers: “Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah…If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self only, what am I. And if not now, when.” And seriously, how can we not do anything, as we see helpless people, including women, children, and the elderly targeted for death by Russian forces, on a daily basis?
Like so many other Jewish immigrants, my great-grandparents came to America to escape the pogroms, the brutal killings by the Russian Army and the conscription or drafting of Jewish boys, ages 12-18, into the Russian Army to serve for 25 or more years under the Russian Czars in an attempt to force secularization, suppress religious freedom, and keep Jews away from their religion and heritage. Jews were treated by the Russian government with antisemitism, which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet empire.
My Weinstein family on my father’s side, came from Kyiv and Uman, then Russia, now Ukraine, as well as my Weiss family on my mother’s side, from Podvolochis’k, came to New York, settling first on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, then branching out to Brooklyn, Queens, then Long Island towns like Great Neck, Hewlett Harbor, Hicksville, Jericho, Lido Beach, Long Beach, Roslyn Heights, Syosset, and Westhampton Beach, all places where Jews have been able to live in freedom and pray in their own synagogues.
Fast forward about 120 years and Russia is acting like never before, invading Ukraine and directly targeting its citizens and military, as we all see from daily news reports via the internet, radio, and television. I ask, “Have we as a global community not learned the words “Never Again”?
So about 3 weeks ago when the urgent pleas for help came knocking on our doors, cell phones, and computers, I chose to try to so something. Also in Pirkei Avos, Jewish sages say “The day is short, the task is substantial…it is not your responsibility to finish the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”
My first small effort was to reach out to my Ukrainian friend Vitaliy who I “found” online, on Facebook, while I was searching about Podvolochis’k. Vitaliy lived in nearby Tarnopil, knew English, and was more than willing to share history and old photos that I could not find online. I learned that Vitaliy had emigrated to Edmonton, Canada, a few short years ago, to start a better life, with his wife and 3 young children, just as my family did over a century ago. One of my great-grandmothers left Podvolochis’k, now Western Ukraine and immigrated to America with two friends when she was only 16 years old. My other great-grandmother from Pinsk came with her 3 children, to join her husband. Two more children were born in New York, one of them was his grandmother. I try to imagine how difficult it must be to be Ukrainian and living in other places, while your family and friends are living through the horrors of war. Every day I ask G-d to protect my Ukrainian friend and his family and friends who never left Ukraine.
My own, great-great grandfather, Michael Rosenthal was able to leave Kamenetz-Podolski, which was then part of Russia but now in Western Ukraine. In fact, he and children and grandchildren were denied entry into the United States and so they settled instead in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
My Great Great Grandfather Michael Rosenthal from Kamenetz-Podolski, Ukraine.
My Great Great Grandfather Mordecai Weiss, and his family, from Podvolochis’k, Western Ukraine.
So really, my friend Vitaliy and my great-great grandfather share a similar path. Perhaps it will be Vitaliy’s great-great grandchildren who read about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and recall the bravery of its citizens.
Vitaliy has enough to worry about, with his parents and grandfather, as well as aunts, uncles, and many cousins still in the Ukraine, but he has been so helpful to me in learning about Putin’s war in Ukraine, during this devastating war, which includes indiscriminate attacks on civilians, particularly the elderly, women, and children. The few dollars I sent in the beginning of the war went directly to Vitaliy’s friend who made his way to Poland but made the decision to transport Ukrainians to Poland, one carload at a time. I received photos of helmets that were purchased as well as a powerful photo of a young boy wearing a helmet, ready for battle.
Truly, the courage of the Ukrainians, even the young ones, is remarkable. Strength to Ukraine. When asked by my neighbors, to contribute to a local synagogue clothing drive, I knew I had to go through all his clothes and donate some to the Ukrainians and refugees. While some organizations said “no more clothes,” and some had “a ridiculous policy of new clothes only,” I knew I had to assist. “Strength to Ukraine” means actions, not just words.
Helping in warehouse, packaging clothes and medical supplies for shipment to Ukraine and Poland.
Very recently I learned of a temporary warehouse in Coney Island, Brooklyn and after work recently, I drove over an hour to the Coney Island warehouse. A week later, I returned to help for a few hours. We loaded boxes and boxes of medical supplies onto trucks. I felt good knowing that I helped transport boxes of syringes and neonatal, and pediatric supplies. The volunteers I met were so appreciative and thankful, I made it a point to get the word out to others. Now into it’s 4th week of war, Ukraine and its more than 3 million refugees need our assistance more than ever. Let’s all assist the helpless victims of war, particularly the children. “Strength to Ukraine.”
About the Author
Michael J. Weinstein, is a Director - Investments with Oppenheimer & Co. He has over 25 years of experience in financial services and for the past 5 years, serves as a Volunteer with Connect2 Friendly Visits for Holocaust Survivors, a project of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY.
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