Ukrainian Jews recount stories of survival, endurance, escape after year of war

Thousands of Jewish refugees have fled to Israel, while others have remained behind, subject to Russian bombing and a lack of electricity, water and food

Eli Hopstein, left, gazes over his neighborhood in Mykolaiv, Ukraine; Alexey Shkurat, right, smiles upon arrival in Israel, a year after the rest of his family left Odessa. Both men have been aided by Jewish nonprofits. (Deborah Danan)
Eli Hopstein, left, gazes over his neighborhood in Mykolaiv, Ukraine; Alexey Shkurat, right, smiles upon arrival in Israel, a year after the rest of his family left Odessa. Both men have been aided by Jewish nonprofits. (Deborah Danan)

JTA — Most of the passengers on the flight from Chisinua, Moldova, to Tel Aviv earlier this month were subdued.

Some had just witnessed scenes of hardship on a tour of war-torn Ukraine organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Others, about 90 in all, were Ukrainians in the process of moving permanently to Israel, talking in hushed tones about being on a plane for the first time, their uncertain future and the loved ones they left behind.

Alexei Shkurat was not subdued.

Bespectacled and bearded, he was standing in his seat, making wisecracks that caused the elderly woman in the seat next to him to guffaw despite herself.

“I like joking and communicating. It’s my life, why waste it being nervous?” Shkurat told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“And anyway, I’m happy, happy, happy I will soon see my sons again,” he added, speaking in English.

Switching to Russian, Shkurat’s brow furrowed and his voice lowered when he recounted how, on February 28, 2022, he had risked his life to transport his sons, 14 and 12, to the border with Poland with their mother and grandmother. From there they would move to Israel.

Shkurat could not go with them. The borders were closed for military-aged men, so Shkurat was forced to drive back to his hometown of Odesa. What happened next, as he recounts it, was harrowing: As he passed an empty field near Lviv, he encountered two Ukrainian soldiers, their AK-74 rifles trained on him. Shkurat raised his hands and was told to step out of his vehicle. He knew that if he made one false move, he would be shot.

The soldiers searched the car and interrogated him, asking him why he was traveling alone after curfew and even asking if he was a Russian spy. Shkurat later learned that 40 Russian paratroopers had recently landed in the area and had stolen ambulances and police cars. He answered the soldiers in Russian, which only raised their suspicions. Ukrainian is the dominant language in western Ukraine, but as a Jew from Odesa, Shkurat’s native tongue is Russian.

“I was terrified. I know that they were only doing their job, but the situation was so scary. Everything I ever knew in life had changed,” he said.

By a considerable stroke of luck, Shkurat, a street artist, was able to prove his identity by showing the soldiers his Instagram page, filled with posts of his art in locations all over Odesa.

Jewish immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the immigration and absorption office, at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But according to Shkurat, the story was far from over. The next chapter of his life was far more hair-raising, he said. Pressed on the details, Shkurat grinned and switched back to English.

“I can’t tell you a thing,” he said. “I want to sell the story to Netflix.”

Whatever cinematic experience Shkurat might have had, his fellow passengers surely had made-for-the-movies stories of their own. They had made it through nearly a year of war before deciding to move to Israel, making them the latest of 5,000 new immigrants from Ukraine facilitated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), working in collaboration with Israeli government entities such as Nativ and the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption. Approximately 15,000 Jewish Ukrainians in total have immigrated, or made aliyah, in the last year.

According to IFCJ’s vice president, Gidi Schmerling, if there is any upside to the war from Israel’s perspective, it’s that many middle-class Ukrainians — doctors, engineers and high-tech employees — who wouldn’t have otherwise made aliyah are now choosing to do so.

But IFCJ’s mandate also includes the Jews who stayed behind. Since Russian tanks first rumbled across the border a year ago, the group has raised more than $30 million dollars — primarily from evangelical Christians from North America and Korea — for the main Jewish organizations in Ukraine including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, and Chabad. (Both groups do extensive fundraising of their own.) This week, the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, it announced another $4 million in planned spending.

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)

In Odesa, more than 7,000 people currently receive aid from IFJC via local Jewish groups. The Jewish community, once 50,000 strong, now stands at 20,000, according to the city’s chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff. Seven thousand food packages are distributed every month in Chabad centers. Many of the beneficiaries are older — among them some 187 Holocaust survivors — but not all. Several hundred are people who were displaced from surrounding cities, such as Mykolaiv, which was hit much harder by Russian shells, and some are the so-called new poor, those for whom the war has plunged into poverty from loss of income and rising inflation.

Ala Yakov Livne, an 86-year-old widow, is one of many who lined up recently to receive a box with oil, flour and other basic necessities. For Livne, the part that stings most about the last year is the sense of betrayal.

“[The Russians] were our neighbors. Many of them were our friends,” she said.

“Times have changed but some things never change,” Livne went on. “Back then, we were under occupation under the Nazis, back then, they tried to kill us, and now again, we are under occupation and they are trying to destroy us.”

It was a refrain that would be repeated several times over the ensuing days. In a trembling voice, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Yelena Kuklova, who as a child was hidden by her non-Jewish neighbors in a suitcase in a closet, echoed the sentiment.

Yelena Kuklova survived the Holocaust by being hidden by non-Jewish neighbors. “We started our lives in war and we’re finishing them in war,” she said. (Deborah Danan)

“They killed us then because we were Jews. They are killing us today because we are Ukrainian,” she said, a slow cascade of tears spilling over her cheekbones. “We started our lives in war and we’re finishing them in war.”

And so it was in battle-scarred Mykolaiv, 140 kilometers northeast of Odessa. “What the Germans never managed to do, the Russians did,” said Eli Ben Mendel Hopstein, standing in front of his building, pockmarked from the shrapnel of a Russian missile.

Inside his home, Hopstein rifled through decades-old photos of himself in the navy. “I know danger,” he said, “and I don’t feel it now.” He describes himself as a proud Jew. “First, I am a Jew, then I am Ukrainian, and I never once hid this from anyone.”

Mykolaiv, pro-Russia before the war and now a vanguard of the south, has become a source of pride for its residents because of Russia’s failure to occupy it. Even before the war, Mykolaiv was a desperately poor city. But now, following eight months of daily explosions, destruction is everywhere and the city’s critical infrastructure has been badly damaged.

Damaged buildings are a common sight in Mykolaiv, which Russian troops pummeled during the first year of the war. So are people lining up for potable water. (Deborah Danan)

Like Odesa, the city has no electricity for up to 22 hours a day. For more than half a year, large swaths of the city had no water at all. Today, residents can turn on the tap and get a murky brown liquid known as technical water, but it is far from potable. For drinking and cooking, they are forced to collect safe water in plastic gallon bottles at water stations all over the city, many of which were installed by the Israeli nonprofit IsraAID.

Scenes of people placing buckets outside their houses in the hope of catching rainwater became ubiquitous in Mykolaiv. For its Jewish contingent, Chabad provides truckloads of bottled water. Hopstein credits the IFCJ and Chabad for keeping him alive.

“If it wasn’t for their help, I would have nothing,” he said.

Across the road from Hopstein, 82-year-old Galina Petrovna Mironenko, who is not Jewish, is not so lucky. A Russian S300 missile that appeared to be targeting a nearby university missed its mark and struck Mironenko’s home, decimating all of her possessions. Mironenko said the only help she gets is a weekly loaf of bread from the government. Standing in her charred kitchen, her red and blue checkered headscarf offering the only color, Mironenko’s expression is almost childlike — a jarring contrast to the words she utters.

“I have died three times in my life,” she said. “Once when my father died, again when my son died and a third time after the 20 minutes it took for my house to burn.”

Galina Petrovna Mironenko stands in the wreckage of her home in Mykolaiv, destroyed by a Russian missile. Her Jewish neighbor credits aid from Jewish organizations for keeping him alive. (Deborah Danan)

Back in Odesa, the sun has set and the city is cloaked in darkness, a cue that soon it will be time to head indoors for the nightly curfew. But first, a visit to the Orlikovsky family who are packing their suitcases ahead of their emigration the next day. On the couch in the tiny living room sit four generations of Jews: Alina; her daughter, Marina; her grandson Andrey; and Andrey’s wife and daughter Viktoria and Sofiya.

Andrey recalls February 24, 2022. “I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. I heard a terrible blast and grabbed my daughter and told my wife, ‘Let’s get out!’ I thought my house was going to collapse like a doll’s house.”

But it would take nearly a year to finally make the move, because of Viktoria’s late mother who was sick and because, in Andrey’s words, “you get used to the bombs.”

“We live without power, we live without heating, very often there is no hot water. We are living like insects,” Alina said. “My children told me, mama, we need to go.”

When the family finished speaking, the electricity came back and the lights turned on. Sofiya, 5 years old, laughed into her mother’s chest.

The first anniversary of the war marks two weeks since Shkurat and the other 89 new arrivals were greeted on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport by Israel’s new immigration minister, Ofir Sofer. Shkurat is on the lookout for a permanent home in a place where he can sell his art.

“I am getting to know the country and looking for new friends,” he said. “I want to do a lot of beautiful and bright projects. I want to draw a lot,” he said.

He deeply misses Odesa, which he called an amazing city, but being reunited with his sons has soothed the pain.

“Meeting with my children was the best event of the last year,” he said.

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