Observant Ukrainian Jewish refugees find peace at Hungarian resort complex

A Chabad-affiliated camp on the shores of Lake Balaton hosts 700 religious Jews; hundreds of others are on a waiting list

Ukrainian Jewish refugees are seen in a newly opened kosher camp on the southern shore of Lake Balaton in Balatonoszod, Hungary, on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP)
Ukrainian Jewish refugees are seen in a newly opened kosher camp on the southern shore of Lake Balaton in Balatonoszod, Hungary, on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP)

BALATONOSZOD, Hungary (AFP) — With kosher food, debates on the Torah and a women’s section on the beach for swimming, Ukrainian Rina Jalilova is finally feeling safe again at a Jewish refugee camp on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary.

“I feel amazing here. It’s very important for us that there is kosher food, and that I can swim… it’s beautiful and quiet here,” said the 18-year-old, who helps out in the camp’s children’s playroom, playing with about a dozen kids.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many Jews have fled, the latest ordeal for a once large community that has survived a painful history of pogroms, the Holocaust and communist-era purges.

The camp — set up specifically for observant Ukrainian Jews on the shores of Hungary’s largest lake — is “unique,” said one of its organizers, Rabbi Slomo Koves.

“It is the only one for people who want to stick to their religious customs, to the nutrition laws of the Jewish tradition, to be in a community together,” said Koves, who heads the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH).

“This is a calming place for traumatized people to reflect and think about [their] next steps… They can recharge their soul here,” Yaakov Goldstein, a 33-year-old rabbi and father of three, told AFP as swans swam by on the lake’s serene green water.

Rina Jalilova, 18, helps out in the children’s playroom at the refugee camp for Orthodox Ukrainian Jews in Balatonoszod, Hungary on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi / AFP)

Goldstein helped evacuate thousands of Jews from across Ukraine, the cradle of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism, with many coming through the camp after it opened in April at the lake resort of Balatonoszod, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Budapest.

Taking up a Ukrainian rabbi’s call for help to find a refuge for Jews in time for Passover in mid-April, Koves persuaded the Hungarian government to let them use the huge complex, formerly a holiday resort for government officials, that had lain disused for a decade.

EMIH, a group affiliated to the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement — which was founded by a Ukrainian-born rabbi — maintains close ties with nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, known for his anti-refugee and anti-immigration stance.

Orban sparked a storm of criticism last month, including from Jewish groups, after he warned against mixing with “non-Europeans” and creating “peoples of mixed-race.”

Rabbi Slomo Koves, head of the EMIH (Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities), speaks during an AFP interview in Balatonoszod, Hungary, on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi / AFP)

Orban defended his comments as a “cultural standpoint” and insists he has zero tolerance for antisemitism. After Russia’s invasion, Hungary kept its border with Ukraine open and has helped house tens of thousands of Ukrainians.

About 2,000 people have passed through the Machne Chabad camp since it was set up, some only for a few days before traveling onward to the US or Israel. Others have stayed longer, with some eager to return to Ukraine.

A new row of mobile container houses means the camp, which is funded mainly by US and western European private donors, can handle up to 700 people.

“Now we are full. There are about 500 people waiting to come, but we don’t have enough place for everyone,” said Alina Teplitskaya, director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, which manages daily life in the camp.

Men pray in the dining room of a newly opened kosher refugee camp on the southern shore of Lake Balaton in Balatonoszod, Hungary, on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi / AFP)

While fish is being prepared in the kitchen for lunch according to strict kosher rules, bearded men pray in the dining room. Downstairs, teenagers make handcrafts and dance, while a group of scarved women in long skirts discuss the Torah near the lakeshore.

Margarita Yakovleva, a 40-year-old filmmaker, told AFP that she fled with her dog Yena after a Russian airstrike in March near Kyiv’s Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial — the site of a Nazi massacre in which over 33,000 people were killed in 1941, most of them Jews.

“I was inside my apartment near Babyn Yar when the bombs fell. It was terrible, like an earthquake,” she said while queueing to register with visiting Hungarian immigration officials.

Ukraine refugees eat a meal in a newly opened kosher camp on the southern shore of Lake Balaton in Balatonoszod, Hungary, on July 29, 2022. (Peter Kohalmi / AFP)

The Drobytskiy Yar Holocaust memorial in Ukraine’s Kharkiv was also damaged by Russian shelling in March.

Many in the camp don’t know what the future holds.

“We don’t have plans, so we will see,” said Jalilova from Odesa, who arrived with her family at the camp in May after three months in Berlin.

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