• Rabbi Mendel Cohen | Photo: C4I
SOS Ukraine

The Joseph of Mariupol

Marijke Terlouw - 16 June 2022

Rabbi Mendel Cohen is in the Netherlands for a short visit when I have the opportunity to speak to him. His hometown Mariupol, the extremely besieged city in Ukraine, does not exist anymore. Some buildings are still there, but can one speak of a city? And its citizens? Perhaps the sight of the city provides the best representation of its population. Wiped out, damaged, desolate and without hope. 

Can you tell us what kind of city Mariupol was?

Rabbi Mendel Cohen recounts with some melancholy: “It was the ninth largest city in Ukraine, with a metal industry, located on the coast. As a Jewish community we had a day care centre, a school, synagogue, mikveh, there were courses, we gave a lot of help to the people. It was a city on the rise that welcomed you. The city is no longer exists.”

You were not in Mariupol when the war broke out. How did that happen?

“I had had corona some time before – it was very serious. I was then treated in Israel. I was back in Mariupol, but to recover I needed surgery in Israel and I kept postponing it. Everybody knew about the threat, but nobody thought that there would be a real war. So in February I went to Israel to have surgery. A few days later the war started.”

What did you feel or think when you heard about it?

“It was a torn feeling. On the one hand I was happy and relieved for my family, because they were with me in Israel and therefore not in danger. But my thoughts, my heart and soul were in Mariupol. It’s terrible to feel caught between two worlds. You keep thinking: are the people still alive? How are they coping? Do they have enough food? And because contact was impossible, the uncertainty remained. There was no water, no electricity, no natural gas, no internet. Very rarely, we received a short text message. But basically we knew nothing.”

Yet you found a way to help?

Chief Rabbi Jacobs of the Netherlands, who sat with us during the interview, said: “He was like a Joseph to the people. Advanced to be able to care for the people of Mariupol from that very place.” Rabbi Cohen: “The question of the people was: how do I survive, and: how do I get out of here? I want to say something about both. Thanks to Christians for Israel, many have been able to survive. Because we have been receiving food parcels through Koen Carlier for years, we have an active community in Mariupol. Not just names on a list, but people who are part of the community. We had already received four extra deliveries food parcels ‘just in case’. Many were able to survive thanks to those parcels. I would like to add that the refugees from Syria that now live in the US also supported us generously, before the war and also in these difficult times.

Getting out of Mariupol was extremely difficult and dangerous. At the beginning of the war I tried to arrange a bus. I didn’t care about the cost, because a person’s life cannot be expressed in money. I offered 100,000 dollars for anyone who wanted to drive, but nobody dared. Still, we managed to find a way. One by one, people came to a safer area, using all kinds of routes. So we started hearing more and more about the situation and what the options were. It was as if the ‘doors of grace’ were opening. As a result, hundreds of people were able to leave. Hundreds. And then Christians for Israel also helped the Jews of Mariupol. As soon as they were in a safer area, you helped with shelter and transportation, with the first steps to Israel.”

Can you tell us more about the situation in Mariupol. now that the city is no longer besieged, but the war is not yet over?

“About fifty families have remained in Mariupol. For different reasons. But it is mainly elderly and sick people and their families. A small ray of hope is that you can now buy some supplies again at shops in the city. It’s not much, but it’s something. They try to live, but they depend on everything. The place is in ruins. I don’t see any future. So I really hope that these people will also decide to make aliyah (leave for Israel).”

Photo gallery: Destruction in the city of Mariupol (click on the right of the photo to see more)


Is it still possible to help now that the area is occupied?

“Yes, certainly! Actually, even more help is needed than before. There is nothing left. The people are totally dependent on aid, far more than before the war. But fortunately they can withdraw money again and buy something. That’s how we can help people.”

You are a man of faith. In what way have you seen God in these difficult times?

“There were so many miracles”, and while Rabbi Cohen says these words, I see and hear that, beneath all the worries and sadness, this is a certainty for him that cannot be questioned. “A lot of people died in Mariupol. But then I also heard about the very old people, the survivors of the Holocaust who managed to escape, people who miraculously got away, and about the many people who assisted us. The miracles were many.”



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