OPINION: Against the odds, Jewish life survives in Ukraine

OPINION: Against the odds, Jewish life survives in Ukraine

Paul Anticoni, Chief Executive, World Jewish Relief 

Paul Anticoni, Chief Executive, World Jewish Relief
Paul Anticoni, Chief Executive, World Jewish Relief

It’s quarter to seven in the evening in Kharkov, eastern Ukraine. The city is now home to thousands of people who have fled the fighting elsewhere.

The sun shows no sign of setting on another relentlessly hot day. A haze spreads far and wide across the parched earth.

On the eighth floor of a soulless Soviet-era tower block, temperatures are sweltering.

There’s no air conditioning, and no breeze to offer respite. The electricity has gone again and, with it, the power to the lift.

My thighs ache after climbing flight upon flight of stairs. Marathon training was easier than this.

The heat doesn’t seem to bother Lyudmila. “Would you like a cup of tea?” she asks, firing up her coal stove.

Another layer of soot cakes the living room ceiling. Her world consists of just two small rooms. A living room-bedroom houses everything Lyudmila owns.

There is clutter everywhere, signs of a life gone by.

Classics of Russian literature from the 19th and 20th centuries surround her bed. Piles of yellowing newspapers reach to the ceiling. Faded photos show her now grown-up children, who have long since left Kharkov.

A small menorah sits proudly on a shelf; a significant statement in a country where Jewish life still twinkles against the odds.

Next to this room is her tiny kitchen, devoid of the Kenwoods and fancy utensils I’m used to.

Lyudmila struggles to walk because of a chronic leg condition but she gingerly goes over to the sink to fetch some glasses for tea.

Despite her suffering, she is, as we at World Jewish Relief find with so many of the people we support, endlessly hospitable.

Her communal apartment has other residents, but they’re not related. They’re noisy and play loud music at night.

When I last visited Lyudmila, she was using the eighth-floor’s shared bathroom but as she grew older she found she felt less comfortable with the other residents around.

The communal toilet is dark and dirty. We built her a private toilet behind a curtain in her kitchen. It probably wouldn’t be what we’d choose for ourselves, but what else could we do?

Lyudmila, beaming, tells me about the improvement this has made to her life.

The good news continues. After years of being surrounded by other people but finding herself always lonely, she’s started having guests round again.

Lyudmila has joined our ‘Warm Homes’ programme where older people that we support meet up regularly in one of their homes.

They can settle down to have food and a natter.

Sometimes the gathering is themed around a Jewish holiday, or someone’s birthday. Sometimes they meet with medical and social-care professionals.

It may not sound fancy, but its effect is transformational. The tired Lyudmila of old has been replaced by a chatty and warm personality.

She is 82 and has lived through some of the most significant moments in world history.

Having survived the horrors of Nazi Germany, she’s seen off communism and witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain.

She saw Ukraine’s independence declared in 1991 and later the Orange Revolution of 2004.

Recent times have been just as unsettling, as months of protest led to another revolution and the fall of another government.

Though Ukraine has new leaders, it does not yet have lasting calm.

As we know from the news, violence has displaced more than a million Ukrainians from their homes.

Hundreds of thousands are seeking refuge elsewhere in Ukraine.

We know of at least 2,000 Jewish individuals in need of shelter. Residents who stay put are not immune from danger.

The psychological impact is beginning to take its toll. Many are suffering trauma, having lost relatives in the fighting. Others are isolated, having lived without electricity or water for weeks.

The common thread is that they feel abandoned.

The cost of fresh food has more than doubled in Zaporozhye, eastern Ukraine.

In Kiev, the price of fuel has risen by 48 percent.

Medicines are 70 percent more expensive in Kharkov.

As the crisis goes on, we expect such basic goods to become even less affordable.

The political turmoil has taken its toll on Lyudmila. She worries about her family and about paying her gas bill ahead of a bitter winter.

We’ve been able to support her at this difficult time. But as winter approaches, there is much more work for us to do.

• You can support World Jewish Relief’s emergency appeal for the Jews of Ukraine by going to https://www.wjr.org.uk/ or calling 020 8736 1250

You can follow Paul HERE and World Jewish Relief HERE.

read more: