Helping Holocaust Survivors in Odessa

by Nathan Roi

The Hebrew writer, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who won Israel’s first Nobel Prize (for literature in 1966) was born in 1888 in the small Ukrainian town of Buczacz in the province of Galicia. He visited the town again after the First World War in 1930, 22 years after he had left Buczacz via Odessa to Jaffa in 1908.

His monumental novel, Oreach Nata Lalune – “A Guest for the Night” was published on April 7, 1939, five months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee noted in his award speech that the book showed Agnon at the peak of his genius, and Prof. Dan Laor, head of the department of Hebrew Literature at Tel Aviv University, maintains that the book is the best creation of Hebrew literature in the 20th century.

In the opinion of many, the book is the best ever written by an Israeli author on Eastern-European Jewry, and I tend to agree. Why do I mention this?

First, for the book’s unique description of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe in general and in Ukraine in particular, a community which was effectively erased during the Holocaust. The Jewish shetls (small Jewish townships) were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators, and most of the residents were killed; only a few managed to escape and join the partisans or other underground anti-fascist movements. Agnon later wrote a short story about the community of Buczacz and its demise: its diverse community was destroyed, and its residents – whether Hassidim, Mitnagdim, adherents of the Enlightment, Zionists, Territorialists or Autonomists, all met the same fate.

Second, thousands of Jews who arrived in Odessa during or after the Holocaust, are now the last witnesses of that devastating period. Many of them are supported through the Hesed organizations set up and administered by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (the Joint) with funding from the Conference for Material Claims against Germany (the Claims Conference) Some of these survivors took part in a memorial ceremony in the city center, organized by Limmud FSU during its recent conference in Odessa, at the place where the Jews were gathered together before being deported to the death camps. Among the participants in the ceremony were Greg Schneider, Vice-President of the Claims Conference, Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, past Chief Rabbi of Romania and an ex-Knesset member, Chaim Chesler, founder and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Limmud FSU, Baruch Shub, Chairman of the Israel Organization of Partisans, Shira Ganish, representative of the Joint in Odessa, Baruch Din-El, the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Yoram Dori, senior advisor to President Shimon Peres, and several others from Israel, the USA and Russia.

Earlier that day, in the framework of the Limmud FSU conference, two home visits to elderly survivors, clients of the local Odessa Hesed, were organized with the participation of l the visitors from abroad. Schneider explained that the Claims Conference supports some 88,000 out of 160,000 Holocaust survivors in the FSU. Most of the money (more than 100 million dollars) comes from the German government. The Claims Conference negotiated with the Germans and it was agreed that the local survivors in Ukraine will receive the same support as their counterparts elsewhere in Europe: namely, 24 weekly hours of homecare for those in very poor physical health, and some ten weekly hours for those whose health is better.

On our way to the home visits, Rabbi Hacohen tells me that when he was chief rabbi of Romania he would visit the local survivors and it seems that Romanian survivors live in extremely poor circumstances and that in Odessa, the situation is somewhat better. Schneider points out that “There is an agreement with the German government until the end of 2014: those incarcerated in the camps will receive a pension and homecare services, and those residing outside the European Union will receive homecare services. At the moment we are negotiating about financial support for survivors residing outside of the EU.”

These survivors represent the generation that was described so poignantly in the works of Shai Agnon.

The participants in the Limmud FSU conference learn about their roots and heritage, listen, discuss and take part in sessions on Jewish history, culture and tradition. Rabbi Hacohen tells me, “I see in Limmud a cornerstone for the building of revived Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The support for the elderly survivors is a deeply human gesture and being Jewish, first of all, means being human.”

photos courtesy Nathan Roi