JEWISH NEWS recently returned from a trip to Ukraine with World Jewish Relief. Our report on pages six and seven of this week’s newspaper showcases the work of a charity that began life in the 1930s, evacuating vulnerable people from Europe, including organising the Kindertransport.
How apt, then, that it now finds itself doing the same in Eastern Europe, where war rages.
Today, Britain’s elderly kinder may more ably relate to the suffering in Ukraine. Then, as now, people were forced to leave their lives behind, often at a moment’s notice, carrying only what they could fit in a bag. Twenty years ago, Bosnian Jews had to do the same. As a people, we know a thing or two about packing in a hurry. We’ve had 2,000 years’ practice. Yet today’s flight is nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
Often that fighting is stoked by nationalism and ethnic hatred. Try as we might, these two old foes never seem to die. They just lie dormant in changed clothes, waiting for the right podium to become free.
In this particular conflict, the West sees Putin as an autocrat using language, ethnicity and nationalism as an excuse for his involvement. He, in turn, sees Western meddling in Russia’s backyard, and “fascists” in the capital Kiev.
For those whose houses lie in ruins, geopolitics is the last thing on their mind. Ukrainians are proud people. Taking handouts is anathema. But when it’s a choice between pride and food, there is no choice.
Like the kinder, many have been through hard times before. Some elderly Ukrainians lived through Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine that killed up to seven million people.
For others, such as Larisa and Alexander, both in their 70s, this is the second conflict they’ve fled, the Azerbaijan-Armenia war in the early 1990s forcing them out of their first home.
Now, this defiant couple say Russian-backed rebels are using their granddaughter’s school as a missile base, and that, before they left at the suggestion of their rabbi, they felt the waves of an explosion shatter every window in a five-storey building.
Yet ask them what they want, and their thoughts echo those of others, sat in temporary bedsits, surrounded by memories, keepsakes and rumours
of the latest bombing run. “We just want the aggressors to leave,” says Larisa, before weeping.
Unfortunately, that shows no sign of happening any time soon. This week saw the worst fighting since February, despite a supposed ceasefire.
WJR may need to stay a little while longer yet.