In Chaos of Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk Again Stands as a Beacon of Refuge

A view of the Dnieper River, which cuts through Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and from which the city gets its name.
A view of the Dnieper River, which cuts through Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and from which the city gets its name.

For decades, it was home to the Rebbe’s family; today, the city is absorbing Jewish refugees, as it has in the past.

By Dovid Margolin

Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine – From the viewing deck on the 18th floor of the gleaming, seven-tower Menorah Center in Dnepropetrovsk, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki points to the courtyard of a red brick building far below.

“That is the last address where Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lived in this city,” explains Kaminezki, referring to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson – the mystic, scholar, and father of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – who served as the city’s chief rabbi until his 1939 arrest by Soviet authorities. “It is not an accident that this building stands over the site of his arrest by the NKVD [the KGB’s predecessor] for strengthening Judaism in this city.”

A great rabbi in his own right, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson holds a revered place in Chabad-Lubavitch. He and his wife, Rebbetzin Chana, moved to Dnepropetrovsk in 1909 when he was appointed Rabbi of Yekatrinislav, as the city was then called. It was here that the Rebbe grew up together with his two brothers, Dov Ber and Yisrael Aryeh Leib.

Children at Ohr Avner Levi Yitzchak Schneerson Jewish Day School.
Children at Ohr Avner Levi Yitzchak Schneerson Jewish Day School.

These days, signs of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s presence can be widely felt. Some 700 children attend Chabad’s Ohr Avner Levi Yitzchak Schneerson Jewish Day School, and its affiliated yeshivah and girl’s school, and his former synagogue on Mironova Street now serves as an orphanage for Jewish boys.

With refugees from the war and violence in eastern Ukraine flooding into Dnepropetrovsk – Donetsk is less than 250 kilometers away – the orphanage is additionally hosting refugee families in its facilities, as are at least three other Jewish communal buildings in the city.

The former headquarters of the NKVD, later KGB, in the city. The building is rumored to go many floors underground. Today, it serves as the headquarters of Ukraine's successor security agency.
The former headquarters of the NKVD, later KGB, in the city. The building is rumored to go many floors underground. Today, it serves as the headquarters of Ukraine’s successor security agency.

“Over there,” Kaminezki says, pointing to a building visible in another direction, “is the headquarters of the NKVD, where Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was tortured and held after his arrest. Our educational campus, the school, cheder, yeshivah and the machon (center for Jewish learning) for girls is located right near it.”

And on yet another side, surrounded and nearly engulfed by a modern, European-style shopping center, sits a tiny synagogue building. “That is where he prayed after his synagogue on Mironova was closed down by the government. It was the only synagogue to remain open through all the years of communism.” In fact, he notes that it was still functioning when he was first sent here as a Chabad emissary in 1990.

The sites he distinguishes reflect a time when traditional Jewish life was on the run in Dnepropetrovsk – attacked and vilified by Communist authorities – and its remnants driven underground.

Now Home to Many Refugees

Shacharit at the Golden Rose synagogue.
Shacharit at the Golden Rose synagogue.

Towering over these places today is the Menorah Center, a 500,000-square-foot edifice that sits adjacent to the Golden Rose synagogue. Inside the enormous structure, marble-lined hallways lead visitors to kosher restaurants, a kosher supermarket, Judaica store, florist and other stores. A flight of black granite stairs brings visitors into a two-story Holocaust museum. The complex includes two hotels, a concert hall, two convention halls and offices – one of them housing the city’s Israeli consulate and not all of them necessarily Jewish.

A tour guide in the Menorah Center's Holocaust museum describes a visual exhibit.
A tour guide in the Menorah Center’s Holocaust museum describes a visual exhibit.

Yet only a few hours east of this city of 50,000 Jews – a city that has since the fall of communism experienced a remarkable Jewish renaissance culminating in the construction of the largest Jewish center in the world – a war rages. Shells and mortars fall on both military positions and civilian neighborhoods, and the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists battle for control. Thousands of Jewish refugees from Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol are now in Dnepropetrovsk, among them the elderly and many families. This school year started with some 70 children from affected areas attending the city’s Jewish schools.

“We have, of course, welcomed in many refugees. We are the closest big city to the conflict; we have many, many refugees here,” acknowledges Kaminezki. “A 95-year-old woman was brought here recently from Donetsk; doctors in our clinic saved her life.”

Nevertheless, Kaminezki does not believe that the war will hit Dnepropetrovsk.

“I think most people here are not in panic mode,” he says. “I would say that in August, people were more worried than they are now. Now, those who are panicky have become more used to the uncertainty, and others don’t think about it. But there is a lot of business being done in this city; it is a very big business town, and people are investing, putting money down. We think the worst of it has passed.”

Ukrainian Patriotic Fever

Property development in Dnepropetrovsk has transformed this industrial city from a drab, post-Soviet factory town into a shiny, almost European showcase city, with modern apartment buildings, office complexes and shopping malls. One unlikely spot of blight on the contemporary skyline is the old shell of the Hotel Parus, a project that was stopped midway through construction years ago and stands abandoned on the banks of the Dnieper River. For years, it served no purpose; now, an enormous yellow-and-blue Ukrainian coat of arms covers 16 of its floors, painted by a team of young volunteers in May.

Heroes of Maidan Square, formerly Lenin Square. The square spot is where the towering statue of Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin used to stand before being razed in March.
Heroes of Maidan Square, formerly Lenin Square. The square spot is where the towering statue of Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin used to stand before being razed in March.

Although situated itself in mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk has embraced Ukrainian patriotism. In March, a statue in the city center of Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin, which many saw as a symbol of Moscow’s former grip on the area, was toppled, and the name of the square surrounding it changed from Lenin Square to Heroes of the Maidan Square.

The Jewish governor of the region, Igor Kolomoyski, who together with fellow philanthropist and president of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community Gennady Bogolyubov funded construction of the $100 million Menorah Center, is strongly pro-Ukrainian. He is also credited by much of the city for heading off any possible separatist activity in Dnepropetrovsk.

“Here, a few months ago, there was also a strong fear that things would go [the same way] as the rest of eastern Ukraine,” explains Zelig Brez, stirring his drink at a table in the Menorah Center’s Coffee Life, a Starbucks-like Ukrainian coffee chain that has its only kosher branch at the center. “I have to give credit to the governor, Igor Kolomoyski, who is also a member and a founder of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community, who really put all of his abilities and resources to make the region peaceful. You can’t imagine how popular his image is among all the people, which is a wonderful bridge that removes barriers from the old Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Here, everyone – Jew and non-Jew – prays for his health and success.”

A city taxi driver seems to echo Brez’s pronouncement, pouring blessings on Kolomoyski and crediting him for keeping the city secure. The driver, a Georgian by nationality but a long-time resident of Dnepropetrovsk, says that he has moved from country to country before, and would rather he be the one moving and not the city he is living in. “If I want to live in another country, I pick myself up and move there. I don’t decide to make a revolution to change my whole area into another country.”

Both Kaminezki and Brez say that instability could have occurred in the city had the situation not been brought under control from the outset. However, they add, Dnepropetrovsk could only have been destabilized as a result of outside forces because separatism has little or no support locally.

Brez also speaks of the thousands of refugees taken in by the community, and explains that it’s not the first time that his hometown has found itself in the position of a city of refuge. “There is a historical irony in the fact that exactly 100 years ago, the Jewish population of Yekatrinoslav doubled in a few months when tens of thousands of Jewish refugees flooded into the city from Lithuania as a result of World War I.”

Among those who took in those refugees (“bezhentzi”in Russian) were none other than Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana, whose home became a crowded hub for the refugees. Rebbetzin Chana would stand at the stove cooking while her three sons, the Rebbe among them, served as waiters.

“Sadly, a century later, we are experiencing a similar situation here,” says Brez, “but we are definitely continuing the tradition of accepting refugees with open arms.”

A few minutes later, he rises to join the outdoor chupah ceremony of a young couple who met at the community’s Shiurei Torah/Lubavitch Youth Club and are getting married at the Menorah Center.

The Blessing of Beis Baruch

A 20-minute drive from the center of town is the Beis Baruch Retirement Home. Named after Bogolyubov’s father and built in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston – Dnepropetrovsk is its sister city, as part of the former Partnership 2000 program – Beis Baruch is airy and clean, with medical and dental clinics in-house to care for its residents. Their doctors and nurses have traveled to Boston to learn from some of the world’s greatest medical experts there. In short, it’s a home not many in the twilight of their lives once living in the former Soviet Union could have ever dreamed of.

Ida Tzipkina, 92, has lived at Beis Baruch since it opened in 2002. Born and bred in Dnepropetrovsk, she’s lived in the city her entire life, save for World War II, when she and her family were evacuated to Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, in Russia Tzipkina proudly tells of her school years, where she graduated with honors, narrating her life all the way to the present. She says she loves Beis Baruch, the care she receives and the warm Jewish atmosphere it fosters.

“We have Shabbat here every Friday night, and we sing Yiddish songs,” she relates proudly. “We have a choir, too; we started it right away when we moved in. We may not be that young or very healthy, but we like to sing. Every holiday, we get together and sing songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Ukrainian. August 24th was Ukrainian Independence Day, and we sang in Ukrainian.”

Sitting in a wicker chair near Tzipkina, Beis Baruch’s head nurse adds that whenever Tzipkina sings A Yiddishe Mamme in its original, everyone weeps.

Since the beginning of the summer, however, the residents of Beis Baruch have been joined by refugees from the east – an emergency expense, Kaminezki notes, helped greatly by contributions from CJP in Boston. In one room lays Yelena Kimbanovsky, a 78-year-old who broke her leg at home in Donetsk and only with great effort was spirited out of the war zone there. Plans are being drawn up to transport her to Israel, where she will be operated on and eventually resettle.

Asked whether she has been treated well at Beis Baruch, and her weary face breaks out into a smile: “And how!”

But along with fellow seasoned citizens, Beis Baruch is now home to multiple families as well. There were, at last count, 41 refugees living at the home, and Beis Baruch’s residents are not used to the sounds of children running through their hallways.

It’s evening, and on the second floor Ania, from Lugansk, is chasing one of her three children, attempting to finally get the little girl into bed after a long day.

“On Shavuot, there was shooting right under the window of our home,” Ania recounts, after giving up on catching her daughter for a few minutes. “The next day, nobody came to the synagogue; they were afraid. That Monday after the holiday, we left.”

Ania and her husband, David, and the kids went by train, leaving their car in Lugansk. Thinking they would be gone for only a week or two while the storm passed, they brought with them only summer clothes.

“Now, it’s cold. Our friends drove to Lugansk recently and brought out some of our things. We have no idea when we’ll be able to go back. They’re saying the gas and lights are back on, but who knows when they will go out again.”

Children at the Beis Tzindlikht preschool;  named for the grandparents of Ukrainian Jewish philanthropist Victor Pinchuk, who funded the project.
Children at the Beis Tzindlikht preschool; named for the grandparents of Ukrainian Jewish philanthropist Victor Pinchuk, who funded the project.

For the time being, their two daughters are enrolled in the Jewish community’s preschool, with their youngest, a boy, still home with Ania. As for her family’s future, Ania says returning to Lugansk is not just a matter of waiting for the shooting to stop, but of a real government to assume control of the area.

“Even without shooting, it’s lawless there. There’s no government; there’s no one to talk to. We think we want to leave, but it’s hard to decide.”