The train station has been bombed. There is little avenue for escape, but in the dark of the night, Jews leave their homes, their possessions — sometimes even their elderly — and make their way to prearranged pick-ups, awaiting safe passage from their battle-scarred cities to refuge.
No longer just a World War II scenario, in the past weeks several hundred Jews from pro-Russian rebel Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine have fled their war-torn cities with little other than the clothing on their backs. Their unlikely “displaced persons camp”? A Chabad facility for children in western Ukraine’s Zhitomir, a two-hour drive west of Kiev.
Funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, some 250 Jews have found a personal haven — while their homes, businesses, assets and jobs remain in peril. The campground refuge is owned by Chabad-Lubavitch of Zhitomir and organized by Rabbi Sholom Gopin, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Luhansk.
In a telephone conversation from Ukraine, Fellowship head Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein paints a dire picture of eastern Ukraine Jewry’s prospects. He tells The Times of Israel of a wealthy businessman at the camp who had a gun held to his head while rebels said, “Your business is now ours.”
Now, without a business or home, says Eckstein, the man and his family don’t know whether there will be an opportunity to go back, how long the fighting will last, or whether anything will be there in the aftermath.
“These are people who are refugees. They are middle class Jews who had to leave surreptitiously, in the middle of the night, in a dangerous way to get out,” said Eckstein.
Eckstein clarifies, however, that the Jewish communities are not targeted. Ukrainian Jews tend to live in the center of cities, he explains, which is also where most fighting takes place. In Donetsk and Luhansk, heavily shelled by mortars, Jews are “simply caught in the crossfire,” says Eckstein.
“The mortar shells and bombs raining down are not discriminating,” he says.
How bad is it?
According to the Associated Press, humanitarian concerns are rising as Ukrainian forces come closer to encircling Donetsk and continue their fight against the pro-Russia rebels in the large city of Luhansk.
Moscow has pushed for a ceasefire in the east, but the Ukrainian government continues a series of recent military advances to crush the rebels.
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have been fighting the Kiev government since April. Ukraine and Western countries have accused Moscow of backing the mutiny with weapons and soldiers, a claim the Russian government has repeatedly denied. However, US and NATO officials say, there are now about 20,000 Russian troops massed just east of Ukraine.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told AP he believed “the threat of a direct intervention [by Russia] is definitely greater than it was a few days ago, or two weeks ago.”
A US official told AP that US intelligence shows Russian forces continue to shell Ukrainian positions from inside Russian territory and send heavy weaponry — including artillery, armored vehicles and air defense equipment — from a separatist training facility in southwest Russia.
Adding to the concern is Russia’s proposal in recent days for a “humanitarian mission” to eastern Ukraine.
“We share the concern that Russia could use the pretext of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission to send troops into eastern Ukraine,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said to AP in an emailed statement.
While an overt military move into Ukraine would be deeply risky for Russia, Putin also faces agitation from nationalists who want Russia to take more assertive action.
As the Ukrainian military intensified its campaign against the rebels, heavily populated areas have increasingly come under attack. Kiev adamantly denies launching artillery barrage and air raids against residential neighborhoods and accuses the rebels of firing at civilian areas. The government has offered little evidence to prove its claims, which Human Rights Watch and others have questioned.
Soviet-era weapons in the Ukrainian military arsenals lack precision, making collateral damage in urban warfare inevitable.
The Ukrainian government has moved in swiftly on the rebel forces, ousting them from smaller towns in the region and tightening its grip on the regional capital cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Until recently, Donetsk saw little fighting other than a rebel attempt in May to seize the airport. But the city has come under more shelling in recent weeks, and local authorities estimate that around 200,000 people in the city of 1 million have left.
Eckstein says hundreds of Jews fled via rail before the train station was bombed. “Now it is by cars and it is quietly and you can well imagine it involves money,” says Eckstein.
Welcome to Camp ‘Safe Summer Fellowship Program’
Located on pastoral grounds, complete with a lake for water sports, the Zhitomir camp is generally used as a summer camp for up to 700 children. Currently some 250 refugees live there, taking part in the recreational activities available but mostly waiting, uncertain, trying to plan a future filled with unknown variables.
Everything is provided for the families — from food and T-shirts sporting the Fellowship logos, down to the black yarmulkes, also sporting the Fellowship stamp, adorning the men’s skulls in the cheerful images provided for this story.
“The camp here has been fully sponsored by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews,” states Gopin in a Chabad.org article. “But I really don’t know what will be on the first day that camp ends. Many people came to camp expecting to go back to Luhansk, but they can’t anymore. We are working to make sure that everyone has a place to go, but we are very seriously lacking the funds right now.”
The Chabad article says Gopin has coordinated other Jewish refugees’ escape to Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa.
Eckstein says he has traveled to Ukraine every few weeks for the past six months since Ukraine-rebel-Russia conflict intensified. The Fellowship consistently donates $25 million a year, but this year has increased its grants in Ukraine by $4.5 million, earmarked for food/basic supplies, security and aliya initiatives.
Working together with local agencies such as Chabad and the Joint Distribution Committee’s Hesed programs, the Fellowship is the largest donor to Ukrainian Jews. Eckstein laments the lack of Diaspora Jewish community aid and says it is a shonda, or scandalous.
The Fellowship’s $120 million annual income comes from some 2 million supporters, with most donations hovering at the $75 level, according to Eckstein.
“It is pretty outrageous that it takes Christians in America to hear the cries of the elderly [Ukrainian] woman in the 4th floor tenement — and the Jewish community doesn’t hear it,” says Eckstein.
Tatyana, a Jewish refugee at the camp, echoes Eckstein’s assessment. ““We don’t even know who is bombing anymore and who is shooting anymore. No one speaks of what is happening here; it’s as if we’ve been completely forgotten,” she says in the Chabad.org article.
With some 5,000 Jews in Donetsk alone, in its current campaign the Fellowship is preparing for the evacuation of what could be “an avalanche” of a few thousand Jews, many of them elderly who haven’t been able to get out.
“There are Jews in need, people whose literal survival is dependent on the world Jewish community — and they’re not doing enough,” Eckstein says.
“Where are we going to house them?” ponders Eckstein. On his recent trip he has found potential facilities that could hold hundreds, if not thousands of Jews, and says the Fellowship is “in the process of putting it together just in case.”
Foremost for Eckstein, however, are the 250 already at the refugee camp. “They’ve been living at camp for two to three weeks. They need to move on and get their lives back.”
Next stop, Israel?
In what may be considered a controversial move, the Fellowship is overtly urging these people to immigrate to Israel. In the past several months, says Eckstein, there’s been a 400% increase of aliya from Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Fellowship this week brought in a private immigration emissary to facilitate the bureaucratic processes and paperwork. He says some 60 percent of refugees say they are prepared to leave almost immediately. And the Fellowship is ready to help those fleeing, whether it be through chartered flights, or budgeting for each immigrant a six months’ stipend while they acclimate to Israel.
‘There is a strong interest now in aliya, which there wasn’t even a week or two ago. We are pushing, promoting and facilitating it’
“There is a strong interest now in aliya, which there wasn’t even a week or two ago. We are pushing, promoting and facilitating it,” says Eckstein. “It is an inherent part of the whole process to urge them to go on aliya.”
The local Chabad rabbis help identify who is part of the Jewish community, and in Ukraine this has little to do with halacha (Jewish law). The rabbis are not asking questions, says Eckstein. If they’ve been part of the Jewish community and participated in its programs, although they may not be halachically Jewish, they will be part of the whole process.
The Jewish Agency for Israel issued a statement saying that it was engaged in intensive activity in the embattled areas of Ukraine and is working with several partners to enable those Jews who wish to immigrate to Israel to do so as swiftly as possible.
Eckstein admits it may be unrealistic, but he is shooting for some 8,000-10,000 new Ukrainian immigrants to Israel this year, and his organization is ready to put up the money.
Jews in Ukraine feel abandoned by the Jewish world, says Eckstein. He relates a story told to him by Gopin’s wife Hani.
Her parents were Holocaust survivors. She told him she never thought that two generations later, her children would be fleeing in the middle of the night. Just like their grandparents, they fled with the clothes on their backs and don’t know if they’ll ever go back to their former homes.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.