Live from Odessa
by Roman Polonsky
My conversations with the Jews of Odessa are not encouraging: a cemetery desecrated, a Holocaust memorial in Nikolayev (a small town not far from Odessa) also desecrated; Molotov cocktails thrown at the synagogue in Nikolayev; graffiti on the walls saying “Jews and Muscovites, get out of Odessa.” A group of young Odessites, met our shaliach who wears a kipa, shouting “Zig Hail!” near our office. Society is now divided, split into opposing groups. Neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, son against father. The front line here runs in families. And Jews – Jews in trouble either way.
I am going to Odessa and my heart is beating heavily – I was born in the small Jewish town of Belgorod-Dnestrovsc, 70 km from here. Never, even in my worst nightmares, did I imagine that in the enlightened 21st century I’d be returning here under such terrible circumstances.
Odessa has always been a safe, cosmopolitan and modern city. On the one hand, life in Odessa goes on as usual: there are cars in the streets, people are walking in the parks, and they still sit in the famous Fankoni cafe. On the other hand, just below the surface, the city is filled with fear; it is in the air, palpable.
People live from rumor to rumor: “A pumping station exploded in a nearby district – there will be shortage of water in Odessa,” and everyone rushes to stock up water. “Israel has sent an Aliyah battalion to protect the Jews of Odessa! Thank God, there is salvation!”
But the reality, too, is hard to believe. Rabbi Baksht told me of a car that was driving in the city quite recently, calling through a loudspeaker for the Jews to leave the city. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he would have never believed it either. People with Israeli flags appeared at a pro-Russian demonstration. “Israeli Insurgent Army” was written over the background of a Magen David. This is the new reality in Odessa.
Society is now divided, split into opposing groups. Neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, son against father. The front line here runs in families. And Jews – Jews in trouble either way.
“We are trying not to talk politics, nothing good in it, but it is impossible: no matter what we start with – the conversation inevitably switches to politics,” future olim told me, when I met them at Jewish Agency headquarters.
- Why are you going to Israel? First of all we want stability and peace.
- But Israel is not exactly a place that can boast of peace. Yes, but you’ve got a government, a country, and a brother doesn’t fight one’s brother!
On the evening of May 9th, when riots were expected in the city, Rabbi Baksht took his entire community (about 1,000 people) for a retreat out of the city. Odessa, like Donetsk, remained quiet, but there is a lot of anxiety.
The Reform community consists of about 280 members in Odessa. “Our door has always been open, literally, and we are glad to see anybody come in; now we’ve put on the security cameras and are trying to keep the new heavy door (supplied by The Jewish Agency) closed, at least in the literal sense,” Rabbi Julia Griss says.
I ask her how the current situation influences her everyday activities.
“We’ve had to cut several programs because people are afraid to leave their homes; we canceled the Lag B-Omer celebrations.”
My conversations with the Jews of Odessa are not encouraging: a cemetery desecrated, a Holocaust memorial in Nikolayev (a small town not far from Odessa) also desecrated; Molotov cocktails thrown at the synagogue in Nikolayev; graffiti on the walls saying “Jews and Moscovites, get out of Odessa.” A group of young Odessites, met our shaliach who wears a kipa, shouting “Zig Hail!” near our office.
No wonder that in these circumstances Jewish children are not very keen to leave for Taglit/Birthright in Israel. On the one hand, the parents don’t want to let children go far away, on the other hand, the children are not eager to declare that they are Jewish.
Indeed, no one has yet captured the Odessa regional administration building, nor proclaimed an independent republic, and there is no shooting like in Slavyansk or Kramatorsk, but the shock that struck Odessa on May 2nd, when over 40 people were burnt alive as the result of riots and unrest, still feels fresh.
Unlike all of the rest of my interviewees, Rabbi Vigler, Deputy Chief Chabad Rabbi of Odessa, is optimistic. “With G-d’s help everything will be okay. A new governor has been sent from Kiev and a new head of police – they will restore rule and order. And this is already happening – for the first time in my life I feel relieved when I see a policeman fining a driver for a traffic violation.” (Chabadniks never lose their sense of humor!)
My three-day trip in Ukraine has come to an end. Kiev, Donetsk, Odessa – three different cities, three different points of view, and at the same time, similar realities. What awaits them? Their future depends only on one thing – the ability of the people, of their leaders, to listen to each other. To what extent will they be ready to accept another point of view? Unfortunately, this is still far away.
And the most important question, from our Jewish brothers and sisters: “Will you save us in case there is a need?” First of all, we hope, there won’t be such a need – we want people to come to Israel of their own free will, not fleeing from pogroms (I cannot resist recalling the terrible Odessa pogrom of 1905 when over 400 Jews were killed in Odessa.
The memory of this pogrom still lives in the hearts of the Odessa Jews and casts its dark shadow on what is happening today.) But in case there is such a need – Yes! We will be there!
We, the whole Jewish family, are thinking about you, are praying for you, and will do everything to protect you!
Roman Polonsky is Director of The Jewish Agency’s Unit for Russian-Speaking Jewry.
courtesy The Jewish Agency