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First Home – The last Jew of Ugniv Went Home

editor - 28 January 2020

The last Jew going home became reality for the small Ukrainian town of Ugniv. The last Jewish family of Ugniv left for Israel in December 2019! Presently this family is in kibbutz Merhavia, in their First Home in the Homeland. I’m writing this article just before the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the family of Valeriy and Lesya, as well as for their son Yuri this day is quite special. It reminds them of the miracle and the good will that saved their ancestors.

Rachel Weinblatt, Valeriy’s mother, lived in a small village in Ukraine when the Second World War started. In 1942 Nazis entered the village and occupied it. At night a German soldier was sent for inspection, to see where Jews were hiding and the next morning he was supposed to gather and kill the Jewish inhabitants of the village. When he entered the house of the Weinblatt family, something touched his heart. He warned them of the danger and late at night one Jewish lady and two of her daughters left the village. They were the grandmother, mother and aunt of Valeriy. Some fifty years later Valeriy tried to find the German soldier who saved his mother, but without success.

The family hid in the woods until its evacuation to Uzbekistan. There, far away from Ukraine, Rachel Weinblatt and her sister were sent to an orphanage, and their mother after much struggling, got a job in that same orphanage. As the mother of Moses, the mother of Rachel and Raya Weinblatt took care of her daughters secretly and no one knew why she had so much empathy exactly towards these two girls. After the Holocaust the family returned  their Ukrainian hometown.

Isaiah 43: “Fear not, I’m with you, I will bring your offspring from the east and gather you from the west.”

Ugniv has an official title of being the smallest town of Ukraine. In the XIXth century the population of the Austro-Hungarian town of Ugniv was quite different from today: 1,500 Jewish citizens and 1,500 German-Austrian-Ukrainian citizens. After the pogroms and the Holocaust the number of Jews in Ugniv was 0.

In the nineteen sixties Rachel, the mother of Valeriy, together with her husband and their son came to this remote small town near the Polish border. As in every small village or town where everyone knows each other, people found out straight away, that their new neighbours were “strange” and “different”. Rachel worked as an accountant, she was accurate and diligent. She was awarded several times as the best employee, but when the company had to trim down, the directors
preferred to dismiss her and she had to find another job. For the local children small Valeriy was known as “this Jew”. Valeriy dreamt to be a veterinary surgeon, but his family couldn’t afford his studies and after school he started to work at the factory.

When I first spoke to the family of Valeriy and Lesya, some months before their aliya, they asked me not to mention Israel in front of their five year old son Yuri. “He can be beaten in the kindergarten by the other kids if they hear “Jewish” or “Israel”. Now Yuri is in an Israeli Jewish kindergarten and no one dares to beat him for this! He is a happy kibbutz boy and while his parents study Hebrew so hard, he learns riding a bike and knows already every small path in the kibbutz. Valeriy is one step closer to his dream of becoming a veterinary surgeon. Every week he serves as a volunteer in a veterinary clinic in Afula. It is such a long way  – hard studies, becoming a technician and then becoming a doctor! But Valeriy believes that they took the right decision, and now they are finally home!

Christians for Israel went deep into the Ukrainian interior, to the remote town of Ugniv to take the family to the consular
check and then to the airport. Valeriy, Lesya and Yuri spent the night in the shelter of Christians for Israel near Kiev.
Valeriy loves to talk about Ugniv, his hometown. During dinner in the shelter he shared much about his family’s history and the history of Ugniv. The only place that reminded of the Jewish heritage of Ugniv was an ancient Jewish cemetery. But the local population decided to take the stones from the graves for the new buildings and the cemetery was officially re-modeled into a parking lot. The local population actually took the gravestones for their houses. There is literally no trace left of the Jewish past of the town of Ugniv. And now also the last Jewish family left.

Kolya, one of the drivers of Christians for Israel in Ukraine was the last person who accompanied the family to Borispil airport near Kiev and gave them a goodbye hug and waved them off. Valeriy, Lesya and Yuri left Ukraine with the words from Isaiah 43. “Fear not, I’m with you, I will bring your offspring from the east and gather you from the west.” And also from Ezekiel 39:27-29 “… I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind”.

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