Kherson Jews among thousands forced to flee rising water after Ukraine dam rupture

Some 20 Jewish families living in low-lying areas of frontline southern city being aided by community, says rabbi, with help also planned for those in danger in countryside

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

A local resident makes her way through a flooded road after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed overnight, in Kherson, Ukraine, Jun 6, 2023. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)
A local resident makes her way through a flooded road after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed overnight, in Kherson, Ukraine, Jun 6, 2023. (AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)

From the green-tiled rooftop of the synagogue of Kherson, Rabbi Yosef Wolff said he can see the water level slowly rising in the Kosheva River that divides this city in southern Ukraine.

The river has been swelling since the collapse earlier in the day of the Kakhova dam on the adjacent Dnieper River, triggering floods, endangering crops and forcing thousands living in low-lying areas, including several Jewish families, to flee the city near the frontlines of fighting between Russians and Ukrainians.

Both Russian and Ukrainian authorities brought in trains and buses to evacuate residents of low-lying areas. About 22,000 people live in areas at risk of flooding in Russian-controlled areas south of the city, while 16,000 live in the most critical zone in Ukrainian-held territory on the north bank, according to official tallies.

Neither side reported any deaths or injuries.

Wolff said the Jewish community was helping organize shelter for the approximately 20 Jewish families affected.

“We’re helping the Jewish families find alternative housing, some with other Jewish families, others in communal spaces, and we’re looking to do the same in the countryside, which also has Jews,” he said.

FILE: Kherson region Chief Rabbi Yosef Wolff, with supplies he managed to bring to Kherson city from Crimea, on March 10, 2022. (Screenshot)

The local Jewish community is also transferring blankets, clothes and other essentials to help non-Jews who have had to leave their homes even after staying put in the war-torn city for over a year of Russian bombings.

The synagogue, a gray, two-story decorative Art Nouveau structure from 1899, is situated only 800 meters (2,500 feet) from the bank of the Kosheva but is not in danger of being flooded because it’s about 20 meters above the water level.

People board an evacuation train at a railway station in Kherson, Ukraine, June 6, 2023, after the destruction of a major dam and hydroelectric power station in a part of southern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Nina Lyashonok)

About 80% of the Jewish community had already left the war-torn city, with only about 600-700 people remaining, said Wolff, who returned to the city in March following a year-long absence.

Kherson was the first major city conquered by Russia as it launched a war against Ukraine in February 2022. In October, Ukraine retook the city, which has remained on the frontline separating the Russian occupation troops from the Ukrainian ones.

With the water continuing to rise, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry urged residents of 10 villages on the Dnieper’s right bank and parts of the city of Kherson to gather essential documents and pets, turn off appliances, and leave, while cautioning against possible disinformation.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on June 5, 2023. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

The Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said it was being evacuated as water poured in.

Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s President’s Office, posted video showing the flooded streets of the city, which was home to about 45,000 people in the Kherson region before the war.

Ukrainian authorities have previously warned that the dam’s failure could unleash 18 million cubic meters (4.8 billion gallons) of water and flood Kherson and dozens of other areas where thousands live.

The World Data Center for Geoinformatics and Sustainable Development, a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization, estimated that nearly 100 villages and towns would be flooded. It also reckoned that the water level would start dropping only after 5-7 days.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “Russian terrorists” were to blame for the dam rupture. Other Ukrainian officials said that Russian forces had caused an explosion at the Russian-held facility.

This image made from video provided by Ukraine’s Presidential Office shows the damaged Kakhovka dam near Kherson, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russian forces of blowing up a major dam and hydroelectric power station in a part of southern Ukraine that Russia controls, sending water gushing from the breached facility and risking massive flooding. (Ukraine’s Presidential Office via AP)

But the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, blamed Ukrainian forces for the dam’s destruction, calling it a “sabotage” that could result in “very severe consequences” for locals and the environment.

The rupture raised concerns about the six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which draws its water from a reservoir that the dam helps keep in place. The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that it was “closely monitoring” the situation but that there was “no immediate nuclear safety risk” at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

Further downstream from Kherson is Mykolaiv, an industrial city with a significant Jewish heritage because it is the birthplace of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty. Before the war, thousands of Jewish tourists visited Mykolaiv annually.

It also had about 2,000 Jews, but today only 150 families remain, according to Sholom Gotlieb, a Chabad rabbi who has lived in the city for the past 25 years. There are no signs of damage from flooding, Gotlieb said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a speech to the media in Kherson, southern Ukraine, November 14, 2022. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

“It’s interesting and heartening to see that, through all the hardships, and despite so many members of the Jewish community leaving, the ones who remain not only stick together but even bring out new families, who had not sought contact with the Jewish community before the war,” Gotlieb told The Times of Israel.

This development, he conceded, could be due to do with the aid that Jewish groups like Chabad have extended to the Jewish community since war broke out.

“But it’s not only about aid, and we see it in participation. It’s about the feeling of togetherness that people need especially in hard times,” he said.

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