Fleeing Danger in Ukrainian War Zones, Jews Find Welcome in Dnepropetrovsk
July 22, 2014
Anna Kroll sighs with relief. She’s grateful for the opportunity to care for her month-old daughter in the comfort and quiet of the Chabad-run old age home in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, where she has found refuge. The Lugansk native watched her hometown erupt in violence over the past few months. Recently, as the situation grew more dangerous, she escaped with her extended family and newborn to Eastern Ukraine’s largest Jewish community, where she was welcomed with open arms.
“Four generations of our family now live here,” said Kroll. “Me, my husband David, our three kids, and even my sister, mother and grandmother. We all live here at the old age home, in neighboring rooms.”
Anna, who says she left everything behind—an apartment, a car and the family business—is thankful that their needs are now being provided for. They are served three hot kosher meals a day at the home, and her older children attend the local Jewish kindergarten.
The Krolls are among hundreds of Jews made refugees by the fighting in eastern Ukraine, part of a larger movement of tens of thousands of people who have fled since pro-Russian militias—some toting heavy caliber machine guns and mortars—took up arms against government troops in March.
Hundreds already have died in the fighting, including the 200-plus passengers and crew aboard a Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday by what American and Ukrainian officials say was a Russian anti-aircraft missile fired from rebel-controlled territory.
On Friday, a Jewish mother and daughter—Svetlana Sitnikov, 57 and her daughter, Anna, 31—were killed in an explosion in the eastern city of Lugansk while on their way to buy shoes.
“The Sitnikovs were among the most active members of the community,” said Rabbi Shalom Gopin, Chabad’s emissary to Lugansk, who had to wait for authorization from city officials before bringing the deceased to a Jewish burial.
Chabad of Dnepropetrovsk Provides for Hundreds
While local Chabad activity and aid remains present in regions that have seen the most fighting, like Lugansk, Donetsk and Crimea, more and more Jews are seeking refuge with family and friends in safer parts of the country. For those without relatives to take them in, the well-developed Chabad community of Dnepropetrovsk has arranged rooms in the community’s various institutions.
Chabad of Dnepropetrovsk, under the auspices of the chief rabbi of the city, Chabad representative Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, is one of Ukraine’s largest Jewish communities, with 50,000 members. The community’s institutions include the Beit Baruch old age home, several Jewish schools, soup kitchens, and orphanages, and the multi-million dollar Menorah Jewish Community Center—a 450,000 sq. ft facility that includes the community synagogue, classrooms, mikvahs, kosher restaurants, a Holocaust museum and a day care center.
Zelig Brez, Director of Dneproptrovsk’s Jewish community, said organizing the rescue and relief operation isn’t merely a religious duty but part of the community’s responsibility toward Ukraine’s smaller Jewish communities.
“It comes with the territory of being an engine of Jewish life in Ukraine,” Brez said.
To that effect, Chabad has mobilized its resources to accommodate the influx of refugees, providing individuals, families and seniors with reliable shelter and protection, kosher food, schools for children, and Jewish infrastructure for their religious needs. The Beit Baruch old age home reached its capacity last week after 28 people were given spots in vacant rooms. Chabad is now working to make more rooms available in its other facilities and has arranged kosher food deliveries to other refugee institutions throughout the city.
Community officials have also enlisted the help of local Jewish Medical Center (JMC) to provide medical care for the incoming Jewish refugees.
“It is impossible to remain indifferent to these people who at this point have lost their homes and shelters, and were forced to flee to a new city and adapt to a new way of life,” says JMC director Elena Strakh. “Most of the survivors who have come here to Dnepropetrovsk are families—many are young children, some just months old. We care for all their needs. Some have become ill due to the level of stress they’ve been exposed to. We also care for the elderly.”
Strakh noted that it was “amazing to watch the astonishment and delight on the faces of the elderly in response to being treated with basic human decency: sympathy, empathy and our willingness to help.”
While Chabad has set up an employment assistance program for refugees, most are still unable to pay for their own needs and a majority of the care is being funded by community charity fund “Chesed Menachem”.
As Situation Worsens, Jews Forced to Flee
Members of the Popernikh family, who hail from Donetsk say they “are trying to keep in good spirits.”
“We try not to think about what is happening in our land, in our home. We are deeply grateful to this community that we can now live in such good conditions and are provided with excellent food, and most importantly—the attention and support of all these kind people.”
Malvina Ruvinskaya, director of Beit Baruch, says that she hopes that “with the help of G-d, in the near future this need will disappear and all who now live with us will be able to go home to a normal, peaceful life.” Until that time, “we will do everything in our power to ensure that people who are forced to become refugees feel safe and protected.”
79-year-old Stella Moiseyevna from Kramatorsk describes the chaos that compelled her escape to Dnepropetrovsk. “With each passing day the situation in our city became much worse. There was constant bombing, lack of water and food, salaries were going unpaid, and there were no pensions and social benefits. My family and I were sitting in a shelter when it was fired at. I said to my granddaughter ‘Well, now we run?’ My granddaughter hugged her children and said, ‘yes.’ With the help of local Jewish organizations we were safely evacuated from Kramatorsk.”
Stella’s daughter was forced to remain in the region, and though she lives on the outskirts of the city, away from military action, they are hoping for a family reunion.
The family is now temporarily living in Dnepropetrovsk’s boy’s orphanage “Bayit LeBanim,” where they have been given comfortable accommodations, kosher food and community support. Local Chabad community members are also helping them draw up documents for Aliyah to Israel, which they now hope to make their final home.
The Moiseyena family expressed their tremendous gratitude to Chabad. “We did not expect that the Jewish community would make us feel us so welcome! We were provided with everything we need for a normal life and even more. Here they care about our comfort, but most importantly, here we feel safe.”