Ukraine Holocaust survivors relive nightmare of war

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Ukraine Holocaust survivors relive nightmare of war

KYIV, Ukraine — Jewish leaders are desperately struggling to get their elderly community to safety — an already excruciating task complicated by the fact that many are Holocaust survivors terrified of reliving the nightmares of their past amid the Russian invasion.  

Outside the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, cars line the road with signs taped to their windshield that say “A child is inside” — a desperate attempt to keep their vehicles from being targeted by gunfire.

For Ukraine’s Jewish minority, it is a strange and surreal throwback to the wars fought in the early 20th century, and members worry they will be wiped from the map in what until a couple of weeks ago was a relatively comfortable place to live.

Kyiv's Brodsky Choral Synagogue,
Kyiv’s Brodsky Choral Synagogue.
Hollie McKay

“I never thought this could happen in Ukraine,” says the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Azman, who hails from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s native city of St. Petersburg, Russia. “I feel like I am in a bad dream, and we are back again in the center of the biggest crime against humanity.”

The 55-year-old rabbi has been working tirelessly in the past few weeks to assist his embattled Jewish community in evacuating, with families fleeing to neighboring nations.

The exodus gained momentum early in the invasion, when a Russian missile hit a TV tower in Kyiv, killing five people and damaging the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial. An estimated 34,000 people were slaughtered over 48 hours in 1941 at the site, one of the Nazi regime’s deadliest massacres.

Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Rabbi Moshe Azman
Moshe Azman is the chief rabbi of Ukraine. He is in shock about the state of the nation.
Hollie McKay

The onslaught served as the ultimate tipping point for those unsure whether to go or stay since war broke out Feb. 24.

“All we can do is try to save people, to send them out to safe places,” Azman says of the Herculean evacuation task ahead of him and other community leaders. “We have organized buses all over Ukraine to take them, but this is not a simple process.”

The community knows full well that members may never return to Ukraine, leaving them with nothing but memories of the lives built there. For the older ones, there are more immediate concerns, too.

“In Kyiv, we have many old people, they are very scared and begging for food and medicine, and nobody can reach them. I am receiving calls every day,” Azman says. “We can’t even bury people. People die, and it is not safe enough to bury them, to hold a special service for them.”

Kyiv's Brodsky Choral Synagogue.
Members gather outside singing at Kyiv’s Brodsky Choral Synagogue.
Hollie McKay

As Russian troops draw closer to the city center, a group of jovial Jewish men join hands to belt out upbeat Hebrew songs on the synagogue’s steps, drawing smiles from some as they stand defiant against the looming evil. 

But the moment of levity is short-lived.

“My husband is fighting, and I will take my children out from Ukraine,” says a distraught woman, who asks that her name not be used for security purposes. “I do not know if we will come back. If Putin can do this once, how do we know he or someone else will not do this again and again?”

The risk of the community losing its Ukrainian foothold is so real that one of the first things Azman did when war broke out was remove the synagogue’s Torah scrolls, the holiest object in Judaism, fearing they would be a target of the Russians.

According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Jewish Ukrainians make up just 0.13 percent of the population, around 43,000 of the 144 million. Other estimates have pegged the figure closer to 3 percent. Either way, the numbers have sharply declined in recent decades — and will only drop further if the country’s Jewish refugees don’t return.

Sign in a car outside Kyiv's Brodsky Choral Synagogue indicating “a child is inside.
Many people put signs inside their cars in an attempt to keep them from being targeted.
Hollie McKay

The Ukrainian Jewish population numbered 2.7 million in 1941. By the end of World War II in 1945, in Ukraine alone, nearly 1.5 million Jews had been killed by the Nazi regime.

The Jewish population’s numbers fell to 840,000 a decade after the end of the war and to 500,000 by the time the Cold War ended around 1990. More than 250,000 people fled with their newfound freedom in the 1990s, and the number has steadily declined since. 

Since the outbreak of the all-out invasion in late February, scores of buses and vehicles have transported Jews to neighboring nations, along with Israeli officials easing the red-tape restrictions and calling on the embattled population to immigrate “home.” Tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews are eligible to relocate under the 1950 Law of Return and receive Israeli citizenship. At least half a dozen immigration processing facilities have been established for those fleeing to Romania, Poland, Moldova and Hungary. 


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Ukrainian Jews huddle together inside Brodsky, all wanting to share tales of their tormented collective history even through their evident exhaustion. One elderly man, Leonid, tells me that the synagogue was shuttered by the Soviet authorities in 1926, ripped to ruins during the war more than a decade later, and underwent reconstruction in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Several others say they plan to meet family in Israel and establish new lives.

Ukraine map.
Since the start of the invasion in late February, scores of buses and vehicles have transported Jews to neighboring nations.

Until safe passages and transportation can be arranged, families remain inside the synagogue or sleep nearby at Anatevka, a village name that alludes to Tevye the Dairyman’s fictitious hometown in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

Azman and others say they want to see more military support from Israel.

“They don’t even want to sell Ukraine weapons, not even defense weapons,” Azman laments. “We need countries to help Ukraine; Ukraine is by itself. Every house, every man, and every woman needs help.

“We pray that Kyiv will be free, without the aggression and the separation,” Azman says. “Everything I know about World War ll is that we had German fascists, and now Russian fascists. Yet people in Russia, they don’t understand this.”

But there is an unmistakable hint of personal pride when he speaks of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has transformed into a global icon, leading his nation despite the persistent threats against his life.

“I am very proud of our president; he is Jewish. Before, people around the world may have been, ‘Ah, a Jew.’ But now people see him as somebody who is strong,” Azman says. “All of Ukrainians are for him, and the whole world can see his strength.”

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