Ukraine’s Jewish Community Fights Back Against Russia’s Invasion — and Against Putin’s Lies

·16 min read
Ongoing Russian attacks on Ukraine - Credit: Andrea Carrubba/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ongoing Russian attacks on Ukraine - Credit: Andrea Carrubba/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Before the war, Rabbi Meyr Stambler never broke Shabbat and never lied to his wife, with whom he had lived for 28 years. Now he has done both.

If there is an emergency, like evacuations, he will answer his phone on Saturdays. In the early days of the Russian invasion, he sent his wife Sarah, his ten children, and his three grandkids to Israel, promising he would join them in a few days. But he lied. He never meant to leave Ukraine.

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Rabbi Stambler, the Chairman of the Chabad-affiliated Council of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, came to Dnipro from New York in 1991. He was nineteen years old. He has lived here ever since. He considers himself Ukrainian.

“On average I sleep three hours per day,” he says. “Now I can devote all my time to helping my community without being worried for my family. I decided it was time for them to flee after the nuclear power plant in Zaporizzhya region — 130 miles away — was overtaken by Russians troops in the early stages of the war. There was a shortage of buses, but I found one. But when I arrived at the stop, other people were already waiting. I felt uncomfortable, as people would say the Rabbi was using his privilege unfairly, so I told my wife Sarah she should deal with that herself and left. Those people were not on the list for the evacuation for that day. I saw such fear in their eyes that I couldn’t think about another reference other than Schindler’s List.”

He sits in a small office in front of a big screen showing an interactive map of military actions taking place nearby — Dnipro, where almost one million people live, the biggest Ukrainian city close to the frontline. Now, it is the major humanitarian and logistical hub, providing backup support for three Ukrainian regions at war. This includes the Eastern Donbas, now home to the only safe road connecting the Luhansk regions and northern Donbas with the rest of the country; the South, including Mariupol — 190 miles away, and occupied parts of Zaporizhya and Kherson regions; and Kharkiv in the North East. On top of that, Kryvyi Rih — President Zelensky’s hometown where his parents still live, making it a likely symbolic target for the Kremlin — is part of the Dnipro region.

Russian bombs have been falling here since the first days of the war. Sirens ring, alerting a possible assault, buildings are fortified, the war is present, but still most of the shops and restaurants remain open. The city lives and feels like a sanctuary for Ukrainians, even if it’s only a temporary one.

As the main Jewish center in Ukraine, Dnipro has also become headquarters for providing aid to the country’s Jewish population, including coordinating international support. Up to 150 volunteers at the call center respond to requests to help find relatives. To identify who still needs help and find correct addresses, they use lists made during the pandemic of people who subscribed for ritual items and kosher food to celebrate Jewish holidays in isolation.

That was the case for the Ivaschenko family, who fled from Mariupol at the end of March. I met with Julia, her husband, their two kids, her parents-in-law, and her mother — Holocaust survivor Albina Avramivna — in the canteen of the communal house run by the Jewish community. The walls are decorated with the drawings of Julia’s seven-year-old daughter Anya. One depicts a boat with the Ukrainian flag floating in the Sea of Azov. Julia, an English teacher, recalls that when the lady working in the shelter suggested Anya draw a house and a school, the girl responded abruptly: “My house was burnt, and my school was destroyed”.

“When the first missile hit our house in Mariupol, we moved to a flat in my husband’s parents’ house,” Julia tells me. “When that one was damaged, we went to my mother’s flat; it also felt unsafe, so we went to the basement. There was no heating, water, or electricity for weeks. We cooked on firewood from the street and melted snow as water. At the end of March, the shelling was everywhere. We had already lost everything, so we decided to risk leaving, not waiting for the corridor. We passed by the Drama Theatre when it was in flames.”

Their experience is strikingly similar to that of dozens of people from Mariupol I talked to.

The Ivaschenko family - Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi
The Ivaschenko family - Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi

Andrii Bashtovyi

Julia knows a 16-year-old boy who died, but it is hard to know what’s happened to many of her friends and neighbors, since there has been no connection to the town since March 2. While speaking, family members keep close to each other, as if they are afraid to be separated even for a moment. They do not plan to go abroad; men under 65 are not allowed to leave Ukraine, after losing everything Julia doesn’t want to be separated from her husband. At the time we spoke, Julia’s elderly brother was missing in Mariupol.

“Where is my son? How could we leave? Why am I here?” Albina Avramivna, 82, cries non-stop. She is not able to talk about anything else. “I was born in this city, Dnipro, then in 1941 my father was killed serving in the war, my mother moved to Mariupol, where I lived my whole life. I am back here to die.”

At the end of April, more than a month after their separation, the Jewish community managed to find a way to Julia’s brother and evacuate him to Dnipro.

For years in his public speeches, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin accused Ukrainians of allowing Nazis to rise to power. The current invasion was announced under pretexts of ‘de-Nazification.’ At first, in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and the Donbas, the Ukrainian Jews — Rabbis, artists, public figures, politicians of Jewish origin — tried to debunk those claims, engaging with their acquaintance in Russia. By 2022 many found Putin’s claims so ridiculous that they preferred to ignore it rather than spend time discussing it, explaining that the Kremlin’s rhetoric often projects own maladies on others. But here in Dnipro, the thriving Jewish community is a daily rebuttal to Putin’s false claims.

Rabbi Meyr Stambler - Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi
Rabbi Meyr Stambler - Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi

Andrii Bashtovyi

Dnipro, founded in the 18th century at the crossroads of trade routes, has been the capital of Ukrainian Jewish life for much of its history. 80,000 people, or 8 percent of the town’s residents, belong to the Jewish community. It was historically the part of the territory of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to settle; many left in the early 20th century facing persecution, many didn’t survive the Second World War.

Rabbi Stambler came to Dnipro in the year of Ukrainian independence and stayed, as part of the movement led by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose movement played one of the biggest roles in the Jewish revival of the city.

“Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, local Jews were frightened, they were ashamed to admit they were Jewish, as if they felt some guilt,” he recalls. “Now, I feel proud to be a Jew here. Look at me? Do you see the hat, the beard? I look quite Jewish, don’t I? And I walk here freely. Before COVID, up to 60,000 people from all over Ukraine, but also the U.S. and Israel, came here to celebrate Passover — that’s how we lived.”

Rabbi Stambler wants to specifically address the American audience, he says he always asks people to see beyond the ugly parts of the Jewish past — pogroms, the Holocaust, WWII: “I want you to also see the Jewish present and future in Ukraine: our schools, our synagogues. There are difficult pages in Ukrainian history, but we have lived here for thousands of years. What’s most important is that people are changing, and the Ukrainians are moving in the right direction.”

More than a million Soviet Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany. Most of them were killed in Ukraine. Nationwide, some 5 to 7 million people perished. Even with the return of forced laborers from Germany, Ukraine’s estimated population of 36 million in 1947 was almost 5 million less than before the war.

The Rabbi understands and respects the traumas and tragedies of the past, but wants to focus on the present and what will be. Openly Jewish politicians had more votes in the Ukrainian parliament than any far-right group.

He waves off Putin’s excuse for waging the war under the name of so-called de-Nazification. “We should understand that this war is simple: evil against good,” he says, anger rising in his voice. “Any normal person understands this. And it’s God’s providence that President Zelensky is a Jew so we can undermine Russian propaganda.”.

The Rabbi encourages me to see Menora — “the biggest Jewish center in the world” — the marble building next to his office. It’s giant, constructed with support of local billionaires in the center of the city. It combines under one roof a Jewish shopping centre, hotel, cafes, barber shops, a cultural center, a Holocaust museum, and the Golden Rose synagogue. Oleg Rostovtsev — who is the head of the board of numerous Jewish organizations, as well as a famous local journalist and historian — shows me around. In the synagogue, there are parcels of food for anybody who comes to make a stop-over before relocating from frontline towns to other parts of Ukraine.

“The Jews are escaping from the Russian world, is it not ironic?” Rostovtsev says, describing the artwork around Menora. It feels like he has a story for every single mural on the wall, showing the Jewish heritage of the 19th century, however, Rostovtsev doesn’t want to only speak about the specific history of Jews in Ukraine. He compares Ukrainian history to one of a family: a father and a mother have their individual stories, but for a kid, it’s a common history. The Holocaust is the history of all Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars — a Muslim indigenous group,” he says. “The Crimean Tatars’ deportation in 1944 should be important for the Jews, while all must see the Holodomor, a famine created by Stalin in 1932-1933 to starve Ukrainian peasants , as important for all Ukrainian citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion. It’s the same with the current days: the tragedies of Kharkiv, Bucha and Mariupol are our own tragedies here in Dnipro.” Rostovstev’s own daughter is an assistant to a Rabbi of Mariupol, but after a few weeks of the siege, she fled to another part of the country, where she now helps the displaced.

Rostovtsev compares this war to the Second World War and refers to the “Z” sign, under which Russia runs the war, as nothing but a ‘half-swastika’.

For many years, the Rostovtsev organization took care of about 600 lonely elderly people in the town. One of them is Eva Abramivna Anpilogova (her father’s name was Morgenstein), a former lawyer. She is 96, born in Dnipro, remembers the Holodomor. She recalls how, in August 1941, she escaped on foot with her mom from Dnipro when the bridges were destroyed and Nazis occupied the town: “For three months, we lived in a train station in a town in Central Asia. We almost starved, I remember I couldn’t wash my hair for three months.”

Eva Abramivna resides on the 5th floor, in a cozy Soviet flat in the heart of the city. It’s hard for her to walk, so she declines to go to the bomb shelter when the air raid sirens ring: “I’ve seen it all, I stay in my flat, I survived World War II,” she says.

She also met her husband in World War II, a Russian military man with whom she lived for 49 years and 10 months, until he passed away. Her love for her husband was the major motivation for her to start helping the Ukrainian military in 2014. She organized collecting warm clothes for the soldiers, sewing the note ‘Dear guys, we wait for you to come back alive and healthy” into them, and cooked for the military hospital – one of the biggest in Ukraine. Most of the soldiers who died in the past eight years of the war came from the Dnipro region.

“I run the operation from this armchair,” she says, proudly pointing out the gratitude letter on the wall from the 93rd military brigade from Dnipro, one of the most experienced and capable units.

Eva Abramivna wasn’t a fan of Zelensky. “He is a comedian, he doesn’t know the military or how to run them.” But now she feels empathy for “how he fights to support Ukraine and suffers for our people. How long can Putin be in power? I wish dogs would eat him.”

Eva Abramivna Anpilogova - Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi
Eva Abramivna Anpilogova - Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi

Andrii Bashtovyi

Many people from the Jewish community either volunteer or are mobilized into the Ukrainian army. The first man I see in the city civic military headquarters has both a kippah and a gun. There, I meet Lieutenant Colonel Pavlo Khazan, from a well-known Dnipro Jewish scientist family. “Shavua Tov,” Palvo greets a colleague, as Shabbat is just over. Khazan’s father is a physicist and a founder of the Ukrainian environmental movement after the Chernobyl disaster. Khazan, who is now 48, became one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Youth Green movement in early 1990s. Now he runs an innovative system monitoring environmental pollution and creating renewable solutions. In 2014 he joined the Ukrainian army and served for a few years, after the invasion he returned to duty in the air intelligence unit. In 2014, the Ukrainian army was under-resourced, so for a while he used binoculars inherited from his grandfather Boris, who fought in the Soviet Army. His son, who is now 22, has also joined Ukraine’s defense forces.

Khazan describes his transformation from a green-movement pacifist to soldier and “a radical”: “I may sound bloodthirsty or uncivilized but I just want to say that a system like Russia’s is inhuman,” he tells me. “It should not exist in the modern world. I believe in humanism, I studied in the West, but today the rule of law doesn’t work. I do not see a possibility to negotiate with your killer.”

The news breaks about possible use of chemical weapons. I ask him, both as a scientist and military man, whether Ukraine is prepared. “We have protective gear, but it should be made clear that there is no way to defend civilians from a chemical weapon” Khazan tells me. “You can not make everyone wear costumes and gas masks. In the whole world, only Israel can be prepared. But they needed decades, and the county is small. Here just in Dnipro region 3.5 million people live.”

Anti-nuclear activist Khazan doesn’t rule out the use of a nuclear weapon by Russia. However, with some level of fatalism, he insists that the only way to stop the Kremlin is to defeat it. He smiles, and believes in victory, but feels enormous pain when we talk about Mariupol — the place where his army career started in 2014. Many of his friends are still there, some were killed.

“Pure heroism — that’s the worst of this war,” he says. “The fact the military is holding the city is against any military book, they shouldn’t be there by now.”

Khazan was a member of the local city council. He opposed President Zelensky, who tried to end the war while negotiating with Putin. According to him, the government should not build roads, but invest even more into the army. But since the first day of the war, he has been in line with the government.

The same is with the local mayor Filatov — one of the most extravagant politicians of the country. Filatov fought against Zelensky’s political party during the mayoral elections in 2020, but he insists there are no political arguments now between either the center and the regions, or within the local political forces in Dnipro.

Filatov has urged the population to leave. Slightly more than 30 percent of residents have fled, but many stream in from war-torn territories. He believes that the Kremlin and Putin especially hate Dnipro, so the major assault is still to come.

Filatov doesn’t see any sense in trying to debunk Russian propaganda about Ukraine: “How can you comment on the delusion of the inflamed mind of Putin? When you talk to a psychopath, you can’t explain his virtual world. I don’t have a drop of Ukrainian blood, I speak Russian, mostly in a Russian-speaking city, and they put me on the shooting lists in Russia. There is another problem here – why did the West try to reach an agreement with him? I think that Mrs. Merkel has been sleeping very badly lately, if she has any remnants of her conscience left. The whole world calmly watched as a new Reich was created and a new Fuhrer grew up in Russia for 20 years.”

Rabbi Stambler’s community has so far evacuated 6,000 people. He regrets that just 20 percent of them go to Israel and that Europe has been more welcoming of the Ukrainian citizens. During the first days of the war, he was on a call with the Israeli Prime Minister and was disappointed by the response of the government in the Jewish state, but he still counts on the support of its citizens. Like many leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community, he thinks that Israel is afraid of Russia and what it may do in the Middle East.

However for everyone, this is the time when choices must be made. And for him, this choice is first of all about true democracy, and he starts to talk of the conflict in terms of a religious war.

“I was born in the U.S. and to be honest, I always thought that democracy was about a better life,” he says. “Now I see it’s about the right to choose. That’s exactly what Putin wants to deprive Ukrainian people of. That’s something for which we, here in Ukraine, give our lives. This is truly a people’s war. It is a war for Justice. For me, this is God’s war.”

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