ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 199

  • A Polish fireman holds a Ukrainian child, March 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    A Polish fireman holds a Ukrainian child, March 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Worshippers pray at Lviv's Garrison Church  on March 6, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
    Worshippers pray at Lviv's Garrison Church on March 6, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
  • Rosh Hodesh (new month) prayers in Tsori Gilod Synagogue (also known as Beis Aharon V'Israel Synagogue) in Lviv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
    Rosh Hodesh (new month) prayers in Tsori Gilod Synagogue (also known as Beis Aharon V'Israel Synagogue) in Lviv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
  • A Ukrainian soldier ferries supplies across the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    A Ukrainian soldier ferries supplies across the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Olesei (L) and Ruslan poses with their children in front of a destroyed Russian tank outside of Kyiv, July 22, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Olesei (L) and Ruslan poses with their children in front of a destroyed Russian tank outside of Kyiv, July 22, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman in Kharkiv, July 27, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman in Kharkiv, July 27, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • A makeshift memorial at the site of a deadly Russian rocket attack in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, July 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    A makeshift memorial at the site of a deadly Russian rocket attack in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, July 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Archpriest Valerii Shvets stands outside his church moments after a deadly missile strike  in Vinnytsia, July 14, 2022 (screenshot/Instagram)
    Archpriest Valerii Shvets stands outside his church moments after a deadly missile strike in Vinnytsia, July 14, 2022 (screenshot/Instagram)
Reporter's Notebook

A year of war in Ukraine: A reflection

A Times of Israel reporter looks back on his visits to the war zone in the past year, and stories he encountered along the way

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Main images by Lazar Berman / Times of Israel

One year and one week ago, I sat in the lovely Taki Da kosher restaurant in Podil, Kyiv’s traditional Jewish neighborhood.

There is no way war will actually break out, I assured Dani Gershcovich, the Joint Distribution Committee’s Kyiv-based representative, as we discussed the challenges of providing aid with swirling rumors of an impending invasion.

Though tens of thousands of Russian troops were massed on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, and intelligence agencies in NATO countries were sounding the alarm, things seemed too orderly, too civilized — too logical — in Kyiv.

Plenty of blood had been spilled in these lands over the years, but ground wars in European capitals were a thing of the past, I was sure.

Two weeks later, I found myself standing in the border city of Przemysl, waiting for the next train carrying thousands of refugees from Ukraine to arrive.

I wasn’t alone on the platform as the sun, and the temperature, went down.

Everyone had their own reasons for going into the maelstrom while others were trying to leave. One gregarious German man was heading to Kyiv to extract his mother-in-law. A tall Ukrainian veteran wearing a camouflage backpack explained brusquely that he had been called up to fight.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive by train to Przemysl, February 28, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

And I was going in to cover the war I never thought could happen.

Ukraine at war

My four trips to the country over the past year led me to stories that ranged the full spectrum of human emotion — heartbreaking, bewildering,  inspiring, infuriating. Such is war.

Stepping out of the train station in wartime Lviv in late February, the country’s unfolding human catastrophe became painfully clear.

Family members help an elderly Ukrainian lady to the bus organized by Israel’s Ukraine embassy to take citizens from Lviv to Poland, March 11, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Przemysl’s train station had certainly been crowded and unhappy, but Lviv’s seemed a throwback to Europe’s 20th-century conflicts. The smell of burning rubber filled the air. Every inch of space was occupied by travelers, many wrapped up in blankets as they slept on the floor. Police and soldiers moved through the crowds as babies cried and dogs barked.

Outside a light snow was falling. Groups of travelers huddled around fires in trash cans and Ukrainian rock music blared from speakers.

Fleeing civilians crowded onto trains, slept on station floors and had walked for hours — sometimes days — in their efforts to escape the Russians.

Archpriest Valerii Shvets runs outside of his church moments after a missile strike near his church in Vinnytsia, July 14, 2022 (screenshot/Instagram)

It’s here that Ukrainians who only days before lived predictable and conventional lives found themselves transformed suddenly into refugees. Now they were dependent on the goodwill of strangers if they were to find a place to lay their head. Now they needed handouts for a cup of hot tea to drink, or diapers for their babies. They set out on perilous journeys with small children in tow and pets in cages, leaving their homes behind as they headed to a safe haven — Poland, Germany, Romania, Hungary, Israel and elsewhere. It often didn’t matter, so long as it was anywhere else.

But not everyone can travel easily. Elvira Bortz, 87, had already seen the evil humanity is capable of. The  Mariupol native survived the Nazi occupation of her city as a young girl, hiding in Christian homes while 38 members of her family were murdered.

Holocaust survivor Elvira Bortz holds a photo of her husband in her temporary Kyiv apartment, August 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

She was forced to move several times during the blockade of Mariupol, before fleeing with her husband and niece. In the bizarre reality of war, they were allowed through checkpoints by Russian soldiers eager to help once they heard that her husband was a decorated Soviet World War II veteran.

During the early weeks of the war, he couldn’t grasp that Ukraine was fighting Russia. But when he finally accepted what his family was telling him, the man died, heartbroken, days later.

“It’s crazy,” Bortz told The Times of Israel from the safety of her temporary Kyiv apartment, “especially going through the other war when Russia and Ukraine were fighting together. I can’t imagine this, it’s just like an older brother attacking the younger brother, like the biblical story of Cain and Abel.”

The weavers and the creators

Even amid the tense columns of tired, cold civilians dragging themselves to the West, it was impossible to ignore the calm energy with which Ukraine’s civil society came together to care for their countryfolk.

Walking through Lviv’s Polytechnic National University late one night, I looked up at an illuminated window and saw two female students weaving threads hanging from a wooden frame into a rudimentary net. A late-night push to finish a final project, I figured.

Tanya, right, and a friend, both students at the Polytechnic National University weave camouflage nets to help with the war effort, Lviv, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Then I realized that in every window, there were students doing the same thing. In groups of two and three, they stood under their frames, hanging twine, tying knots, looping ropes around one other. They repeated the process and repeated it again. Three floors of Ukrainians weaving nets.

Inside the students explained they were making camouflage nets for the army, having heard about the initiative from one of the many Ukrainian Instagram channels that issued calls for volunteers.

The next floor up, three hip-looking computer science students were hard at work on their net.

“Now, it’s the only thing we can do,” said a student named Viktor.

Kira and Nick with their dog Butch at the Zavod warehouse in Lviv, March 7, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

There was something sad about these bright-eyed students thinking that their handmade nets would do anything at all to protect their friends from the Russian war machine slowly churning its way toward Ukraine’s cities.

But the nets themselves were not the point, I realized. What was really being woven, ever tighter, at the Polytechnic National University was the fabric of a proud and independent nation. And when a country’s most promising young men and women are willing to spend their nights tying thousands of knots and carefully measuring string, with their own two hands, that is a nation with a strength that cannot be measured in the number of its tanks and fighter jets.

Everywhere one looks in Ukrainian cities, one sees the unity of a people Vladimir Putin insists isn’t a genuine state. Volunteers staff Red Cross tents at the train station, assist journalists and patrol city streets.

Volunteers pack medicine at the Lviv National Art Gallery March 4, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine’s leading art museum, boasts over 60,000 pieces spanning seven centuries. Its treasures stashed away, the museum has become a buzzing logistical center, run by hundreds of volunteers, all of them having heard about the center by word of mouth.

They worked quickly, quietly and seriously. Though at first, the scene seemed chaotic, there was a frenetic order to the young men and women preparing food, laying out toys and carrying bags to the trucks waiting outside.

Roman Slutin, founder of Zavod, stands in his studio, which nows serves a temporary home for Ukrainian refugees, March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Even talented young artists were pitching in. In the Zavod creative colony in Lviv, a hip home to graphic designers, photographers, painters and bands, the music studios are silent and brushes sit unused in paint-splattered sinks. Since the first day of the war, Zavod has become a temporary home for refugees, with the young artists running the massive, improvised logistical operation.

Many of the studios now host families sleeping on mattresses. The artists also provide clothing and three meals a day, prepared in a kombucha company’s kitchen also located in the warehouse.

Mira Bachkur holds a painting at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Some of the artists continued creating. “First of all, you can sell your art and donate,” said painter Mira Bachkur. “Second of all, it’s a statement. That’s how you can speak up to the entire world community.”

But not all. “I think of the day when we will have improv shows again, and I can’t imagine how I can perform,” said improv artist Victoria Butelenko, wearing purple lipstick and glitter under her weary eyes.

Sacred ground

Ukraine has a parallel dimension that only Jews can see.

The names of towns and villages a Jew travels through are immediately recognizable from the tales of Hasidic masters… and from the countless acts of violence carried out against his people in this land. Even before the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in waves of pogroms, many of which were carried out during Ukrainian nationalist uprisings against neighboring powers.

Letters left by schoolchildren hang on lockers in Lviv’s Beis Aharon V’Yisrael synagogue (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

But Cossak leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads and Soviet oppression couldn’t snuff out the Jewish presence. The country has seen a revival of Jewish life since the fall of the Iron Curtain, with active, often thriving, communities in the country’s major cities.

While caring for their own members and elderly Holocaust survivors, Jewish communities have also been a pillar of stability that non-Jewish Ukrainians could rely on throughout the war.

Oksana (L) and Nastya (R) in Germany with their typically taciturn cat George (courtesy, March 2022)

There were no prayers at Lviv’s Beis Aharon V’Yisroel Synagogue when I attended one Friday night in March. But the old building, a survivor of the Holocaust itself, wasn’t empty. Cartons filled with toiletries and dried goods crowded the foyer.

Two young women sat along the wall on the right side of the room, scrolling intently through their phones. The two IT professionals had fled Kharkiv with their cat, George, and reached Lviv after a nightmarish journey. With nowhere to go, they asked their company’s chat group what to do, and an Israeli colleague named Yossi urged them to go to the synagogue, even though they weren’t Jewish.

“We were met very kindly with respect and felt at home,” said Oksana. “We were offered to stay over and were very happy about it. This was such a relief after all we went through, all the stress and pain, when we could just stop, just breathe and get peace of mind.”

In Kharkiv, Jewish business and parliamentarian Oleksandr Feldman used his destroyed zoo and other sites, including Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue, as hubs for the distribution of humanitarian supplies. He said his projects have provided over 540,000 food packages and 30,000 hot meals as of August.

The synagogue fed thousands of people every day at the height of the Russian assault. “We would never ask if they were Jewish,” said Feldman. “We were just sheltering people.”

In the capital, Moshe Reuven Azman, leader of the Brodsky Synagogue in central Kyiv and one of the two leading claimants to the title of Ukraine’s chief rabbi, has gained fame among Ukrainians for his viral videos urging strength and optimism.

Viktor Netchitayvo, deputy commander of Kyiv’s police department (L), Larysa Bezuh, director of the Head Medical Center of Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry (C), and Rabbi Moshe Azman in Kyiv, August 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

In August, I was at his synagogue almost every morning for prayers and breakfast. Not a day went by without a series of non-Jewish Ukrainians coming to the synagogue to ask for food, medicine and other aid. A synagogue bus was transformed into a medical transport vehicle and drove around the country picking up sick Ukrainians and their families and ferrying them out of the country.

The charity of the Jewish community even reached Uman, the site of the annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage for tens of thousands of Jewish men.

I was in the small city in August for the first time. The streets and grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav were quiet, but not empty.

At one of the Jewish hotels in the heart of the Jewish district, I began chatting with a man on the porch. He told me that he was being housed at the kosher hotel, and when I entered, I discovered that it was full of families and laughing children. They enjoyed hot kosher food three times a day under the strict watch of a supervisor, and gather in their hundreds for Shabbat meals.

Inna and Dima Karsonlov sit in their room at the Orot Hotel in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

But they are not Jewish. Refugees streamed toward the city at the beginning of the war. With nowhere to stay, they prayed for a miracle. Somehow, each family in a different way, stumbled across the Jewish community.

“The last number we called, we reached here and they were like ‘Yeah, you can just come in and we’ll figure it out on the spot,'” said Inna Karsonlov, a schoolteacher who fled Russian-occupied Kherson in late April with her husband, Dima, and two children. “So we came in here late at night and we were looking for a place to stay. And luckily we found this place.”

“They gave us food and they gave us shelter. They gave us a place to stay. So we were just greatly surprised, everything was very easy here. And so, it was just a miracle.”

A crucifix faces the Jewish district in Uman, Ukraine, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

In the trenches

As a reserve IDF infantry officer, I tried to spend significant time with the citizen-soldiers fighting the war.

I found them, like IDF reservists, bright, inquisitive and full of good cheer.

Oleksander (L) and Volodymyr (R), officers in the Territorial Defense Force’s 128th Battalion, speak to The Times of Israel near Chuhuiv, July 28. 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

In late July, I joined two reserve officers, Oleksander and Volodymyr, in their Mitsubishi pick-up truck to head toward the lines southeast of Kharkiv. Both were highly educated: Oleksander, 52, is a Kyiv lawyer and father of four, and Volodymyr, 57, is an army psychologist.

Typical of the country, every time we stopped at a gathering of soldiers, we’d find someone Jewish. Some even greeted me in Hebrew.

Sergey, a civil affairs officer in the Territorial Defense Force’s 128th Battalion, stands with his son in Chuhuiv, July 28, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Driving through a series of checkpoints, we finally reached a group of around 20 soldiers digging a trench.

Despite the deadly rocket strikes and the ongoing war, with no end in sight, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the scene. The green woods were awash in warm sunlight, and pine needles blanketed the soft forest floor. The sweet smell of freshly cut wood wafted in the mild summer air.

Ukrainian soldiers on the bank of the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Here were confident young combat soldiers, intelligent young men in the prime of their lives, hard at work for a cause far bigger than themselves.

“You’re from Israel?” a shirtless soldier yelled toward me. “We like you, you destroyed the drone factory.”

Some soldiers even found love — and their lives’ purpose — in the fighting. In Mykolaiv, I met Viktor, a Dnipro-born IDF tanker who returned to Ukraine to fight in a unit made up mostly of IDF veterans.

Giulia, an Italian Jewish pilot cadet, joined Viktor’s unit as well. In August, when I met them in a restaurant the day before the city was shut down for three days to search for Russian operatives, the two young soldiers were dating and quite clearly in love.

I saw them again in February, when I was in Kyiv with Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. Months of hard fighting had left Viktor somewhat more subdued, and his unit had come apart after taking significant casualties.

Though they were both still in uniform, their future in the military was uncertain. They are focused in the meantime on creating their Ukraine charity, called Cloud Walker.

And they had gotten married only days before in a civil ceremony in Ukraine. They are planning a larger ceremony with their families in an Italian castle in May.

Viktor and Giulia after getting married in Ukraine, February 15, 2023 (Courtesy Guilia Schiff)

The future

A year in, the war grinds on. It will likely grow in violence and destructiveness in the coming weeks, as Russia unleashes its long-promised spring offensive. Eventually, Ukraine will embark on its own counteroffensive, trying to drive Russian troops off its soil once it receives enough new Western weapons.

A Ukrainian girl runs by the Taras Shevchenko monument in central Lviv, March 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

And at some point, likely through some ceasefire that freezes the conflict, the guns will go (mostly) silent, and Ukraine will finally have space to take stock. Much has been lost, and the country will never be the same. Towns have been destroyed, lives extinguished, families driven to distant lands.

But it will also look to the future. The strength within the Ukrainian people has been revealed.

The Jewish community isn’t going anywhere either. Thousands of people who never before wanted to affiliate with the Jewish community have been attending services and Shabbat meals, and the country has a newfound appreciation for the aid distributed at synagogues.

And, like Viktor and Guilia, Ukrainians will get married, create families, and, one hopes, be able to get on with their lives, as the memory of the war slowly recedes into the past.

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