The fighting in Eastern Ukraine has made hundreds of thousands homeless, and only some of them have a place to go. While both sides resist being labeled anti-Semites, The Jewish Agency has begun an operation to rescue the Jews in the battlezones. Here, a Walla reporter talked to them about what the refugees are leaving behind and the hope of a new life in Israel: “Know that your government cares about its people.”

By Amir Tibon, Saturday, January 31, 2015

Learning Hebrew. Jewish refugees in a Jewish Agency facility in Eastern Ukraine. Courtesy Walla.

Learning Hebrew. Jewish refugees in a Jewish Agency facility in Eastern Ukraine. Courtesy Walla.

The white minibus stopped at the entrance to the refugee camp during the early afternoon hours. The nervous passengers looked around and saw only snow and trees.

The air was frozen. They had been traveling all morning, passing from one roadblock to another, each one manned by an armed militia of one kind or another. Now, for the first time in a while, they feel safe. The group was led by a women in her 50s who wears a red coat and carries two bags that contain as much as could be stuffed into them. She puts the bags down on the road and begins to cry.

We were witness to this sad scene last week in the refugee camp in eastern Ukraine, where one of the fiercest conflicts in the world today rages. Thousands of Ukrainian citizens are “escapees” (the Ukrainian government refuses to call them refugees) because of the fighting. However, the refugee camp we visited is an exception – it is intended for the Jewish population of eastern Ukraine. The camp was created by The Jewish Agency, which over the last year, has helped thousands of Jews leave their homes in the areas of fighting and find a new home in Israel.

“I am going to be a guest in Israel.” Tamara, in the red coat, at the entrance to the camp. Courtesy Walla.

“I am going to be a guest in Israel.” Tamara, in the red coat, at the entrance to the camp. Courtesy Walla.

Tamara, the woman in the red coat, was the first to recover from the initial shock and to enter the gates of the camp. Early in the morning, before sunrise, the group had left in a Jewish Agency minibus from the besieged city of Donetsk, in which dozens of civilians have been killed during the past week. A few hours later, the refugees are now standing at the entrance to a safe haven. A shaliah of The Jewish Agency leads them to where they will register and where they will receive keys to small rooms with heating. The camp was set up at a former family vacation site, on the banks of a frozen river.

“I left behind everything I had,” says Tamara after she registered. During the coming months, this will become her home, until she can make aliyah to Israel. “I already want to go back. I am going to be a guest in Israel, my home remains there. My spouse remained behind. I gave my pets to people who will look after them. It is very difficult to leave one’s pets.” While talking to us, her eyes fill with tears. Despite the pain, she understands that there is no other choice. “It’s impossible to live there. The bombs landed right next to my home, every day.”

Receiving their heated rooms. The refugees in their temporary homes. Courtesy Walla.

Receiving their heated rooms. The refugees in their temporary homes. Courtesy Walla.

About ten thousand Jews live in the battle zones of Eastern Ukraine, between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. During the past year, more than 2000 Jews from this area have made Aliyah, and the numbers are only growing. Maxim and Natalie Lurie, who manage the operations of The Jewish Agency in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, remember their first arrival: “We arrived here ten months ago and were sure that we would mainly be involved in Jewish education and strengthening Jewish identity. In actuality, we found ourselves smuggling people out of the areas of fighting, managing a camp for refugees, and becoming part of the sad human stories we encounter on a day-to-day basis. We never imagined that this is what we would be doing.”

The words “we never imagined” are on the minds of all those staying in the refugee camp. No one had ever imagined until a little more than a year ago that things would turn out this way.

Under the protection of neutrality

The first thing one sees when one arrives in Eastern Ukraine is the snow. At first glance from the window of the plane, everything is white, calm and pastoral. But a few minutes later, from within the civilian airport, one sees combat helicopters and planes, alongside civilian airliners, waiting to take off. Later on, one sees military roadblocks and armored vehicles all along the road. Even for an Israeli, the military presence is ubiquitous.

The war in Ukraine has been going on for more than a year, and last week, it escalated to a new level. As Putin loyalists fight for independence for Eastern Ukraine, and to essentially join Russia, claiming that the Ukrainian government discriminates against citizens of Russian origin, the Ukrainian government defends its sovereignty, fighting to preserve the “integrity of the homeland.” Hundreds of thousands of civilians are caught in between, living in apprehension and uncertainty.

From the early stages of the conflict, the State of Israel has decided to remain neutral to both sides, maintaining close ties with both Russia and Ukraine. While this policy has been criticized by Israel’s allies in the West, from the point of view of The Jewish Agency personnel who are working in the field to get Jews out of the war-torn areas, it is this very policy of neutrality which has created an environment in which they can operate. Both of the sides in the conflict cooperate with Jewish Agency representatives and permit their rescue effort to continue without any interference.

Former vacation site on the banks of a frozen river. The Jewish Agency camp. Courtesy Walla.

Former vacation site on the banks of a frozen river. The Jewish Agency camp. Courtesy Walla.

Former vacation site on the banks of a frozen river. The Jewish Agency camp. Courtesy Walla.

Former vacation site on the banks of a frozen river. The Jewish Agency camp. Courtesy Walla.

Former vacation site on the banks of a frozen river. The Jewish Agency camp. Courtesy Walla.

Former vacation site on the banks of a frozen river. The Jewish Agency camp. Courtesy Walla.

During our visit, there were dozens of prospective olim at The Jewish Agency’s refugee camp. We met some of them in Hebrew classes, where they were learning how to properly pronounce the numbers one to nine. 23-year old Vlad left Donetsk only a week ago. “Donetsk was once a completely normal city. I loved living there,” he says. “But since the beginning of this war, it has become impossible. It is impossible to leave one’s house and go to the store without hearing explosions overhead. There are once beautiful streets which are now completely in ruins. No knows when this will end. As time goes on, the situation only gets worse.”

In contrast to most of the olim, Vlad has visited Israel in the past, as part of an educational program for Jewish youth. He loves the beach, the food and the weather in Israel, but admits that if not for the war he wouldn’t have thought of moving to Israel permanently. We asked him and his mother Bella, who will be making aliyah with him, whether they aren’t afraid to leave one country which is in a state of war, for a country in which rockets explode in the population centers and people are stabbed on the bus. “Israel is at war, we know that, but the government there is taking care of its citizen,” Bella answers. “Besides that, we also know about Iron Dome.”

When Bella used the Russian translation for the name of the missile defense system, we were surprised. But it quickly became clear that the Russian name for the system – “Zaleznei Kopol” – is well-known among the Jews in Ukraine. They have all heard about this incredible defense system that intercepts missiles in the air and prevents them from landing on Israel’s cities. “This is an indication that the government cares about the lives of its citizens and is ready to invest a lot of resources in them,” one prospective oleh tells us. “Apart from that, when an Israeli solider is killed in battle, his name and picture appear in the newspapers. Here, they simple report that a solider has been killed and they don’t even mention his name.”

They have all heard of the system that intercepts missiles. Vlad and Bella. Courtesy Walla.

They have all heard of the system that intercepts missiles. Vlad and Bella. Courtesy Walla.

“Do they like Putin in Israel?”

The aliyah from Eastern Ukraine has jumped by hundreds of percent during the last year, but alongside Jews who want to escape the fighting and find a safe haven, there are also those that are taking the opposite route. In the major city of Dnepropetrovsk, which is about one hour travelling time from the refugee camp, we met Leonid (“My Jewish name is Arye Leib”), a Jew who is volunteering in the Ukrainian army.

For the meeting with us, which took place in the beautiful Jewish Center in the downtown area, he arrived in uniform. When entering the room, he kissed the mezuzah on the doorpost. The scene is incongruous – his uniform is associated with memories of pogroms and the horrors of Eastern Europe, yet there he stands kissing of the mezuzah. His explanation is a simple one: “I am a Jew and a Ukrainian citizen. The Russians have invaded Ukraine and it must protect itself from annexation and aggression.” Before the war, Leonid lived in Donetsk and worked in textiles. When the Ukrainian army increased its activity in the area in an attempt to push back the pro-Russian militias, he volunteered right away. Israel’s official position on the war disappoints him.

“Do they like Putin in Israel?” he asks us. “Israel needs to help Ukraine. We have similar values. Don’t you care about democracy? Russia will fall apart and Ukraine will be victorious. Putin is leading Russia to disaster.”

Arye Leib (Leonid). Courtesy Walla.

Arye Leib (Leonid). Courtesy Walla.

At the Jewish Center in Dnepropetrovsk, we also met Sveta, a young Jewish woman who volunteered to care for the wounded on the front and to bring food and drugs to citizens who have been wounded in the war. In the Hebrew that she learned at Jewish Agency summer camps, she explains: “I am a Jew and I am a Ukrainian, but first of all I am a human being. There is no greater feeling than helping others. I didn’t ask the people who I have helped if they are pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia or anything else. I simply want to make the world a better place.”

Agreeing to Disagree

One of the most interesting and strangest phenomena in the war in Ukraine is that the two sides are trying, at least for now, to show a positive attitude towards the Jews. In the past, every war in Eastern Europe has led at some stage to trouble for the Jewish population. This time, in an attempt to win international legitimacy and positive media coverage, both sides in the war are trying to show that the other side is fascist and racist, and that they are fighting for freedom and democracy. In such a situation, the Jews have great value for both sides. The first side to be accused of anti-Semitism will lose the support of both the international community and the media.

There are many Jews who support Leonid’s pro-Ukrainian position – we met one of them during our visit in Kiev – but there are also those who think otherwise. In the refugee camp, we spoke to a couple in their 70s who were suddenly forced to leave their home in Donetsk to flee the bombings. They said that the current president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, “talks like a fascist” and they accuse the Ukrainian army of “bombing its own citizens.” These accusations immediately initiated a loud argument, which only ended a few minutes later with an angry agreement to disagree.

The only thing that is agreed upon is the need to look for a better life in a different place. Vlad says that he is optimistic about moving to Israel. “My mother always said that Israel is our historical home, and when the war started here, she said to me: The time has come to leave for Israel. Now it is also our future home. I hope to find a good job there and to have a family. That’s all. I have no expectations from the move. I think that Israel will be better for my children than Ukraine.”

This report was originally published in Hebrew by Amir Tibon on the Israeli news website Walla. Translated and reprinted with permissions. 

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