• Semyon and Bassya fled the hail of rockets and joined friends in a holiday home far from the city | Photo: C4I
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Celebrating Life in the Midst of War

Anemone Rüger - 28 August 2023

Holocaust survivors in Ukraine are deeply thankful for the support they get from Christian sponsors.

We are driving through a beautiful country at war. What a strange mixture. Terrible things happen; miracles happen. These two realities stand side by side in Ukraine as our team tries to bring hope and joy to the many Holocaust survivors who depend on local help. For every smile on their faces, the effort is worth it.

“Here in this village is where the Russian troops stood,” my colleague Kolya tells me as we head to the outskirts of Kiev for our next visit with Holocaust survivors and Jewish seniors in need. “They came in via Belarus, all the way here to Busovar. From here, they were going to take the capital. See that apartment block over there? That’s the one they hit.” Again and again, Kolya points to a destroyed bridge, a damaged house.

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You have to look closely, as many of the country’s wounds are hidden behind nature’s lush green. Colourful flowerbeds line the simple houses in the villages. It’s hard to imagine that just a few hundred kilometres to the east, life has been hell for many months now.

On the eve of the outbreak of war a year ago, Kolya says, he returned tired from a trip and considered putting off refuelling until the next day. “But I felt prompted to do it right away. The next morning, around five, we woke up to war. As terrible as it was—we were prepared. We grabbed our things and were able to escape to a quieter area with our car filled up just before the big panic traffic jam.”

“What you do for us cannot be measured!”

Today, the Jewish community of Belaya Tserkov is waiting for us. We have invited the mobile seniors from our programme to a restaurant—an unaffordable luxury for most and, for us, a good opportunity to spend some quality time with many of our elderly friends simultaneously.

People are approaching from all directions of the little square, welcoming us with a big hug and radiant smile. A wonderful sense of anticipation is in the air. I see a wheelchair arriving. Ludmila, a warm-hearted survivor who lost her mother in the Holocaust, embraces me, hardly wanting to let me go. “How happy I am, I cannot tell you!” It’s the first time we see each other since the Covid19 pandemic and the outbreak of the war.

“When we asked our people who would like to have coffee with Anemone and Alina, we could hardly manage the overwhelming response,” says Tanya, our contact person. “Ludmila can barely walk, but she was determined to be here!”

Team member Anemone with Holocaust survivor Ludmila | Photo: C4I

Slowly, the room is filling up. The long tables are getting set with vareniki (Ukrainian corn dumplings), blinchiki (stuffed crepes), salads and pastries. Tanya opens our gathering and a trio of musicians begins to play nostalgic coffeehouse music.

I take a moment to look around and study the faces of all the needy and elderly, who are usually just happy that we help them survive with some extra food and medication, and I realise what a special afternoon it is for everyone.

I convey the greetings of hundreds and thousands of sponsors and friends to these war children of yesteryear grown old. They have become so dear to our hearts, and I encourage them to draw hope from the Psalms for each new day. Soon, I begin to eat as well, expecting the music and fellowship to continue at ease for the rest of the afternoon.

Then the first lady stands up and asks for attention. “What you do for us is beyond measure!” she says, her voice breaking. She wipes her eyes and hands us a bouquet of flowers.

One woman thanked us for the hairdresser who restored a bit of dignity and joy to her life with her home visit. Another praises the medical foot care, thanks to which she can now walk again. A Holocaust survivor calls me over and says in German for all to hear, “We love you!”

A well-dressed older gentleman approaches me and says, “If one of our officials had spoken here, he might have made big words, but people don’t care about such things. You spoke from your heart, how you believe and how you help practically—that went straight to our hearts. You gave such hope to the people here! It’s so important that we hear words like that now!” Then the music plays a well-known Ukrainian love song, and the seniors invite the ladies to dance.

The tears often come afterwards when I put these precious moments on paper. I received so much love and gratitude on behalf of you, dear friends and supporters when all I really wanted was simply to bring a ray of joy to the orphans and widows who had grown old. Everyone wanted to shake my hand again, to say thank you again; many were in tears. A moment of heaven on earth in the middle of the war.

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Escaped from Slavyansk

At the very end, Mr Abramov approaches me. He recites a poem full of warmth and gratitude and asks Alina to record it so that I can look at it again and again. He fled from Slavyansk, located in the middle of the war zone in eastern Ukraine, a year ago. Tanya asks me to write down his story—maybe we can include him in our programme.

Team member Anemone with Ivan Abramov | Photo: C4I

Ivan was born in 1948, the year Israel was founded. “I didn’t have a father; I never knew anything about him,” Ivan begins his account. Instead of ‘unknown,’ the authorities simply put ‘Ivan Ivanovich’ on his birth certificate. “But I know quite a bit about Mom’s family,” Ivan continues. “They lived in a village near Izyum, not far from Kharkov. There was a Jewish estate manager there before the revolution. When my grandfather Samuil lost his wife in 1908, the estate manager adopted his three sons. Grandpa then married his maid and had three more children; one of them was my mother.”

When World War II began, Pawel, the beloved brother of Ivan’s mother, had to go to the battlefront; Grandfather Samuil had already died. Pavel ended up a prisoner of war in Germany. He spent four years in a camp; he barely survived. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, Stalin sentenced him to another ten years in the Gulag, punishing him for having fallen captive.

“Mom and Grandma didn’t escape,” Ivan reports. “Somehow, they managed to survive. They hid here and there in the villages. Grandma had destroyed her Jewish papers. Those were horrible times. They went through so much there that neither of them ever talked about it.”

In 1949, the family went to Slavyansk. Ivan became a mechanic, started a family, and helped build two businesses. A year ago, his whole family had to flee the burning Donbass. The Jewish community in Belaya Tserkov took them in.

Except for a tiny pension, Ivan has no income, and his children who fled have not yet found work. All expenses, especially those related to health care, have to be paid privately.

Many families find it difficult to leave as long as their conscripted relatives are not allowed to leave the country due to the ongoing war. For the elderly, it is an almost insurmountable hurdle to start over somewhere else in their advanced age.

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Thank God for the local Jewish community workers who continue to be there for those in need in all the cities in our programme. And thankfully, there are always people in peaceful and more prosperous countries like yours who make room in their hearts and budgets to give to the needy—one survivor at a time.

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