Edward Serotta
Writer, photographer, filmmaker specializing in Central Europe
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The bread of affliction: Passover in Kharkiv

After leaving Ukraine when Russia invaded, this Chabad rabbi and his wfe were told not to return – but return they did
Damage from Russian artillery in Kharkiv
Damage from Russian artillery in Kharkiv

Passover began last Wednesday, April 5th, and ended at sunset on April 13th. The first words spoken at the seder, as someone holds up a piece of matzah, are, “This is the bread of affliction our forefathers ate while they were slaves in Egypt.”

Sounds about right for anyone living in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which for several months last year stood dangerously close to falling to the Russians.

Those were also the words I heard last week as Rabbi Moishe Moskovitz led a seder for some 200 guests in the Kharkiv synagogue. For observant Jews, those Passover seders can last four hours or longer, as there are prayers to recite, stories to share, songs to sing.

“Not this year,” Rabbi Moskovitz quipped. “Kharkov still has a curfew of 9:00 PM. That’s when the street lights are turned off, so bring a flashlight for the way back to your hotel. We’re going to have a Seder Express!”

Rabbi Moishe Moskovitz of Kharkiv preparing to lead his “seder express” in Kharkiv, a city still under 9:00 PM curfew.

Affliction is one thing Vladimir Putin’s army has been inflicting on Ukraine in what can reasonably be described as biblical proportions, and since Kharkiv (or Kharkov in Russian) is only 19 miles from the border, and since most of its citizens speak Russian, Putin’s generals felt confident this enormous industrial city would fall in days.

It didn’t. The Ukrainian Army put up fierce resistance, even as the Russians pummeled some of the city’s finest buildings into ruin and killed around 600 civilians. One of those was a Hillel student, Serafim Sabaranskiy, who had joined the army to help defend his city.

The Ukrainians staged a counterattack in September, chased the Russians away from the city and since then, Kharkiv has been relatively safe although it still suffers from periodic missile attacks. Whereas schools in much of Ukraine now meet in person, Kharkiv’s schools are still strictly online.

Of the approximate 1.4 million residents, nearly half fled in the first days of the invasion, and although some have returned, this city of wide boulevards and handsome buildings still looks like other cities do on a Sunday morning.

Only a few hours before the invasion on February 24, 2022, Rabbi Moishe Moskovitz and his wife Miriam were hosting hundreds of guests to celebrate the Jewish school’s thirtieth anniversary.

During their three decades in Kharkiv, the couple literally helped rebuild Jewish life in a city where none existed under Communist rule. They did not act alone. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Claims Conference set up programs for Holocaust survivors as well as programs for students and adults.

“But suddenly, it was as if the lights went out,” Rabbi Moskovitz told me. “As for being prepared, I didn’t even have a bottle of water in our basement.”

“In the first days, people came to the front of the synagogue and stood outside our gates. Most of them were not Jewish, and we didn’t know how to be a humanitarian aid agency. I just said, ‘Open the gates!’ and scores of people came to get food that we scrambled to find for them. And many wanted to sleep in our cellar.”

“We had 150 people sleeping here. The one rule was: ‘No pets!’ But when I watched a family walk away with their cat in their arms, I said, ‘Wait! Come back! And bring your cat!’” He rolled his eyes. “It was like Noah’s ark. I’m telling you, in our basement.”

With volunteers cooking in the kitchen, the synagogue had indeed become a humanitarian aid agency, just like so many of the city’s churches, schools and office buildings had become.

Rabbi Moskovitz organized convoys for his students and their families. Then he and Miriam, along with their 12 children, boarded a bus, drove into Moldova and flew to Israel.

Miriam told me, “Everyone in Israel was saying how lucky we were to get out, and how happy they were that we were in Israel. But my husband and I were so depressed.”

“I had to go back,” the rabbi said. A member of the Chabad movement with its headquarters in New York, he received word: Do not back to Kharkiv under any circumstance. “I went anyway. I got here in April while the city was still under attack. And my family arrived in the summer.”

Since then, aside from holding religious services for those who stayed, Rabbi Moskovitz has been visiting the hospital regularly to chat with soldiers. “As soon as they see me, they try to rise from their bed, out of respect. In fact, a Jewish soldier who was wounded in Bakhmut came to the synagogue this morning just to pick up some matzah.” And the Chabad rabbi’s seder was not, I learned later, the only one going on that night. From the Times of Israel, I learned that Hillel was putting on its own seder as well.

As badly damaged as Kharkiv is, no one can fail to notice how clean it is. The streets are swept, the gardens are trimmed, and last week I counted more than 50 city workers repainting the metal work on bridges. Which gave Rabbi Moskovitz’s son Shalomber an idea. The synagogue’s kitchen had a decent-sized oven for baking bread, and, not unimportantly, a generator outside the size of a small car. The community decided to bake 500 loaves of bread every morning and now has volunteers delivering them—first to city street sweepers, then to people farther out. This week, people get matzah.

On the day of the seder last week, Rabbi Moskovitz made his customary visit to the county administration, where officials tried to convince him not to hold the seder. The rabbi smiled, and as he was leaving, he told me “this young man working for the county, his name is Alexander, and he asked me some questions about the synagogue. Curious, I asked him if there was anyone Jewish in his family. ‘Just my mother and grandmother,’ he told me. A few hours later, he was at our seder, sitting in the front row. I think we’ll be seeing more of him.”

About the Author
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Edward Serotta has been living and working in Central Europe since the mid 1980s. As a photographer, he covered the revolutions of 1989 and the war in Bosnia for AP, TIME, Die Zeit and other publications. He has written four books and edited six others on Jews in Central Europe. Edward Serotta produced four films on Central Europe for ABC News Nightline. Since 2000, he has directed the oral history institute,, based in Vienna, Budapest, Hamburg and Washington.
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