Jewish volunteers reflect on a year of helping Ukrainians at war
A diverse group of locals and foreigners talk about their harrowing experiences standing shoulder to shoulder with communities under bombardment, and what motivated them to help
JTA — In the months after Russian tanks rolled into her country last February, the music largely stopped for Elizaveta Sherstuk.
The founder of a Jewish choral ensemble called Aviv in her hometown of Sumy, in the northeastern flank of Ukraine, Sherstuk had to put singing aside in favor of her day job and personal mission: delivering aid to Jews in Sumy.
“There was no time to sleep,” Sherstuk recalled to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently. “All my team members worked the same, 24/7.”
A year later, Sherstuk is still hustling as the Sumy director of Hesed, a network of welfare centers serving needy Jews in the former Soviet bloc. But she has also begun teaching music classes again, too — with performances sometimes held in bomb shelters.
Sherstuk’s story reflects the ways that Russia’s war on Ukraine has affected Jews in Ukraine and beyond. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands, left even more in peril and fundamentally altered the landscape and population of Ukraine, forcing millions to flee as refugees.
But the war has also mobilized the networks of Jewish aid and welfare groups across Europe, leading to a Jewish organizational response on a massive scale not seen in decades. And Ukrainian Jews who have remained in the country have recalibrated their lives and communities for wartime.
Here are four stories about Jews who stepped in and stepped up to help, and a taste of the on-the-ground situations they found themselves in.
‘I was needed there’
Since nearly drowning at 23, Dr. Enrique Ginzburg has felt he “had to pay back” for the extra years of life he was granted.
Now 65, the professor of surgery at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine and its trauma division has lent his critical care expertise in Haiti, Argentina, Kurdistan and Iraq, in various emergency situations. But until last year, he had never been to a war zone.
The Cuba native felt drawn to Ukraine because his grandfather is from Kyiv, while his grandmother is from nearby eastern Poland. So early on in the conflict, he called Dr. Aaron Epstein, an old friend and the founder of the nonprofit Global Surgical and Medical Supply Group.
“Get yourself a flak jacket, a helmet, a gas mask and come on over,” Ginzburg said Epstein told him.
He has been to Ukraine twice under the nonprofit’s auspices, last April and July. Ginzburg’s explanation for why he flew across the world to put himself in danger: “I was needed,” he said.
His base was an emergency hospital in Lviv, a city located far enough to the west that it became a major refugee hub. He consulted with front-line Ukrainian physicians, many of them young and inexperienced, and hospital administrators, watching the doctors in action. He also visited patients in hospital wards and helped to treat gunshot wounds and assorted combat injuries.
Ginzburg’s bags were packed with meaningful supplies. Some had been requested by his Ukrainian colleagues for medical use, mostly specialized catheters. But he also brought tefillin, the phylacteries used by Jews in their morning prayers. Ginzburg, who studied in a yeshiva while young but no longer considers himself Orthodox, wrapped them every day while in Ukraine.
Even though Lviv was far from the fighting, he could hear air raid sirens and the explosion of the Russian missiles, sometimes feeling the earth shake. When intelligence reports warned Ginzburg’s medical team of impending missile attacks, they sought refuge in safe houses.
“Today,” he told the Miami Herald last June, “I was calling my life insurance [company] because I have young sons and my wife, so I’m trying to make sure I have good coverage.”
By the end of his trips, Ginzburg lost count of the number of doctors he helped train and the number of patients he saw. “I’m sure it’s hundreds.” He plans to make a third trip sometime this year.
‘This is our new reality’
As the director of the JDC, or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in Poland, Karina Sokolowska has heard countless harrowing stories over the past year. But one sticks out in her memory.
It involved an elderly Ukrainian couple she met at the Poland-Ukraine border in late spring. The husband was in a wheelchair, and Sokolowska helped push him — back towards Ukraine. They had spent three months in a shelter in Poland but eventually “realized we cannot go looking for jobs, we cannot restart our lives. We are too old,” the woman said.
“If they are to die, they’d rather die back home,” Sokolowska said. “It’s a story of hopelessness. They are so vulnerable.”
Last year, about 8 million Ukrainian refugees made their way to Poland, the bordering country that accepted the most refugees. Early on in the conflict, Sokolowska contacted and visited Jewish communities throughout Poland, investigating the availability of places where the soon-to-be-homeless refugees could be housed. She also traveled to some of the border crossings where the Ukrainians entered, to arrange transportation to venues in Poland and to oversee the conditions in which the refugees would begin their new lives.
Later she would help with, among other things: arranging legal advice for the people who arrived with few identification documents; lining up medical care and drugs; finding them short- and long-term housing; connecting them to psychological counseling; providing kosher meals; and even caring for the refugees’ pets (“dogs and cats with no documents”).
According to JDC statistics, the organization “provided essential supplies and care” to 43,000 Jews in Ukraine and “aided 22,000+ people” there with “winter survival needs… more than double the amount served in previous years.” The welfare organization also claimed to provide “life-saving services” to more than 40,000 refugees in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and other European locations. It also helped evacuate about 13,000 Jews from Ukraine. (Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen recently said 15,000 Ukrainian Jews in total have immigrated to Israel since the start of the war.)
At the height of the refugee flood, Sokolowska said her monthly JDC budget ballooned to more than what she previously spent in an entire year. Her office went from having a few employees to over 20. The amount of sleep she got decreased in tandem; she started taking sleeping pills to get rest when she could.
“This is our new reality” in Poland, she says of the JDC work with Ukrainian refugees. “This is our life now.”
Sokolowska, the granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, became active in Jewish life during college, when a classmate heard her pronouncing some German words with a Yiddish accent and persuaded her to lead the Polish Union of Jewish Students. As JDC director for Scandinavian countries in addition to Poland, she typically organizes educational conferences and helps Jewish families learn about traditions they had not learned while growing up in the communist era.
Today, her sense of optimism has been ground down.
“Everything changed when war came to Ukraine — there is less hope,” Sokolowska said. “It’s a totally new everything. Every aspect of our life changed. Our hope for this to be over soon is going down, down, down. Nothing will change.”
‘It could [have been] me’
Sometime in the late 1890s, Harry Fellman, about 20 years old, left his home in Ukraine. According to family legend, he was a sharpshooter in the Ukrainian army and was about to be sent into active combat. Instead, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Omaha, Nebraska, where he became a peddler.
His grandson Tom Fellman — whose middle name is Harry — doesn’t know all the 120-year-old details, but he knows that he is grateful that Harry Fellman decided to leave Ukraine when he did.
“It could [have been] me, if my grandparents had not left when they did,” said Fellman, a successful real estate developer and philanthropist in Omaha.
In October, at 78 years old, Fellman made the reverse trip across the Atlantic to pitch in to the relief effort. He also wanted to pay what he sees as a debt to the memory of his late grandfather and to help the current generation of Ukrainian Jews.
He and his wife Darlynn served as volunteers for a week at the Krakow Jewish community center, joining hundreds (possibly thousands) of volunteers from overseas who have gone to Poland and the other nations in the region over the last year to participate in humanitarian programs on behalf of the millions of Ukrainian refugees. Fellman worked nine hours a day with a half-dozen fellow foreign volunteers in the basement of the community center, transferring the contents of “big, big” sacks of items like potatoes and sugar into small containers to be distributed to refugees in the building’s first-floor food pantry. His wife spent her time in an art therapy program that was set up for the refugee mothers and children to raise their spirits.
Fellman is “not particularly religious” but supports “anything Jewish.” In 1986, he accompanied a rescue mission plane of Soviet Jews headed to Israel. “It was the most rewarding experience of my life,” he recalled.
Fellman says he plans to return to Poland, in June, for the JCC’s annual fundraising bike ride from Auschwitz to Krakow.
What did his friends think of his septuagenarian volunteer stint? “They thought it was cool,” he said. “But none of them are going too.”
‘Everything was a risk’
Sherstuk’s parents would have sent their daughter to a Jewish school in her early years if they had had the option. But Jewish education was not permitted in Sumy during the final years of communist rule in the Soviet republic. Sherstuk was exposed to Jewish life only at home.
Her parents infused her with a Jewish identity, she said, and her grandparents used to talk and sing songs in Yiddish. That inspired Sherstuk’s first career as a singer and a music teacher, during which she founded Aviv and took it on tour throughout the region singing traditional Jewish songs. Later, she became the director of Sumy’s branch of the JDC-funded Hesed network.
Sumy, an industrial city with a population of 300,000 before the war situated only 30 miles from the Russian border, was one of Russia’s first targets. In the days before the pending invasion, Sherstuk stockpiled food, which was certain to become scarce in case of war, and arranged bus transportation to safer parts of the country for hundreds of vulnerable civilians, mostly the elderly and disabled. The bus plan fell through for safety issues.
As the bombing started, it became dangerous for members of the local 1,000-member Jewish community, many of them elderly, to venture outside of their apartments. Sherstuk, working out of a bomb shelter, assisted by a Hesed network of volunteers, coordinated food and medicine deliveries.
The situation grew more dire, and she coordinated the Jewish community’s participation in a brief humanitarian corridor evacuation of vulnerable civilians that the Russians permitted. She communicated with Sumy residents mostly by smartphones provided by the JDC — the Russian attacks had cut the landlines — and accompanied the busloads of Sumy Jews to western Ukraine. Some of them eventually moved on to Israel, Germany, or other nearby countries, she said.
Sherstuk stayed in western Ukraine for a while (“The humanitarian corridors are only for one-way trips,” she noted), moving from place to place, keeping in touch with the Jews of Sumy and waiting for Ukraine’s army to make the trip back safe. But Sumy, like many Ukrainian cities, has come under frequent Russian rocket attack.
“Everything was a risk,” she said. “We were following whatever our hearts told us to do. We had to save people. I was the one who had to do it.”
Last May, Sherstuk was among 12 men and women (and the sole one from the Diaspora) who lit a torch at the start of Israel’s Independence Day in a government ceremony on Mount Herzl. During two weeks in Israel, she spent some time with members of her family, and held a series of meetings with JDC officials, government ministers and donors. “It was not a vacation,” she said.
After going back to Sumy, at the suggestions of her choral group members and fellow Sumy residents, she organized concerts in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian — some in person, some in a bomb shelter in the city’s central square, some online. She has now resumed her music classes, too, and it has all boosted morale. “I [teach] all the time,” she said.
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