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Ukraine contains multitudes

Where personal heritage and professional responsibilities merge: the Jews of Kiev, who are living on love and courage

Her last name means “luxurious” in Russian, but these days, Klara Roshkoshnaya’s life is anything but — sleeping on a cot in the kitchen of a sixth-floor apartment in a Soviet-era apartment on the wrong side of the river in Kiev.

Klara, 87, uses a cane to walk, and the kitchen is closer to the bathroom than the living room is. Besides, that’s where her daughter Olga, 63, and her son-in-law Anatoly, 64, sleep.

Since the war came to their hometown of Donetsk, 10 hours southeast, they don’t have much — but they have each other.

“Even if we didn’t have a big salary or a car or a dacha (country home), we had love,” Klara told me, when I recently traveled to Kiev on a reporting trip. “And that’s what’s helping us get through the situation.”

There’s something spiritually nourishing about visiting the former Soviet Union — this is where my family comes from and Ukraine’s Brutalist concrete monstrosities, its sullen waitresses, and muddy country roads are tonic for my soul.

My grandfather Samuel fled his tiny hometown of Shatsk, nestled in the country’s far northwest, in the folded pierogi of land in between Ukraine’s borders with Belarus and Poland. It was 1941, and the Nazis were coming.

The last time marauders had approached, it was World War I and the Cossacks had been looking to conscript the village’s young men. Under cover of night, Shatsk’s strongest fled, leaving behind only women, children, and the elderly — the ones no one would want.

It was different this time. This time, they wanted everyone. This time, the day after Samuel left, they shot hundreds of Jews on the shores of Black Lake, now a protected natural site.

After the war, Samuel ended up at a displaced persons’ camp in Germany run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), where I now work. He moved to New York, married my grandmother, adopted my mom.

Back in Shatsk, his first cousin Khana had somehow survived. And over the next four decades, she eked out a life in Soviet Ukraine with her husband and daughters, working at an ice cream kiosk, raising animals, and growing herbs — living off the land, living off love.

When they got the chance to flee, they did. Khana’s daughter Diana left Ukraine in 1988, with her husband and young son, spending a year in the Roman suburb of Santa Marinella while JDC helped process their visa and HIAS helped them to get settled in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. Two years later, Khana and her other daughter Margaret joined.

My family knows from fleeing. That’s why the ongoing crisis hurts my heart the way it does.

In addition to the 60,000 we at JDC currently care for, about 1,400 displaced Jews are also being served on a monthly basis — down from a peak of about 2,800 in 2014 and 2015 when violence was at its worst. During the conflict, we’ve assisted more than 4,000 displaced Jews with accommodations, post trauma support, food, medicine, and community engagement. Additionally, we continue our emergency support to more than 4,000 people in the conflict zone, through our Hesed social welfare centers in Donetsk and Lugansk. At this critical time in their lives, families like Klara’s are relying on our support to survive — rent assistance, food and medicine help, bed linens, warm jackets, heating bills, and more.

For me, it’s holy work to spend my days at the organization that saved my family over and over again — and at the same time, it’s prosaic, it’s obvious, it’s inescapable.

An accident of birth is all that separates me or any American Jews from Klara, Olga, and Anatoly, from any of the Jews I met last month.

Like Yulia Polyakova, the 17-year-old who left Donetsk for Kharkov when the city’s school system shut down. A star student with flawless English, how could she let missiles and checkpoints derail her university dreams?

“For me, to be Jewish is to be strong, to know who you are,” she told me. “I’m not always as good as I want to be, but I’m trying.”

Or Gayane Chizhyna, the nearly blind 83-year-old Holocaust survivor. She’s lived through something like this before.

“I still remember my childhood. There were bombs everywhere,” she told me. “And now I feel the same.”

Klara, the old woman who sleeps in the kitchen, told me with wet eyes about her late husband, a celebrated journalist in Donetsk. On their 50th anniversary, he gave her a book of all the love poems he’d ever written her.

Each night before she goes to bed, she looks at a portrait of her beloved and recites his poetry.

“It’s like a prayer for me,” she said.

Visiting Ukraine for me is Shehecheyanu and the Mourner’s Kaddish all rolled into one.

I thank G-d for this moment, and I mourn for the past, grieve for the present, fear for the future.

To paraphrase Whitman, Ukraine contains multitudes.

Donetsk’s gleaming new airport built for a 2012 soccer competition — Olga told me she and Anatoly would drive by “just to admire it” — is rubble and ashes, but for her native sons and daughters, she is still the “City of a Million Roses.”

Black Lake in Shatsk weeps at what it’s witnessed, but the national park that houses it draws tourists from across Ukraine.

As a Jewish community, we owe the Jews of Ukraine more attention than we’ve given them. This may seem to some like a frozen conflict, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way to the people living it.

Ukrainian Jews are neither twinkly-eyed babushkas or hard-charging populists. They are 3-D, complex, diverse — just like life is.

And they’re looking for confirmation that their Jewish family around the world really sees them.

Alex Weisler, a former journalist, is the digital content guru at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

About the Author
Alex Weisler, a former journalist, is the digital content guru at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
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