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Jewish Voices From the Front Lines of Donetsk

Letters from the besieged city in Ukraine, from which Jews are making plans to flee civil unrest and political turmoil

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At the headquarters of separatist militias of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on June 13, 2014, after it was stormed by Ukrainian forces. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)
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A few months ago, Donetsk was a bustling industrial city, with a thriving economy as eastern Ukraine’s capital of coal and steel industries.

A mere two-hour drive from the Russian border, Donetsk today has become a no-man’s zone of sorts, as the fighting between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces escalates and as the city residents either flee or hide in their homes. Many of the roads leading to the city are blocked and patrolled by masked armed men, and gun battles explode in the streets from time to time. As of this publication, reports tell of Russian gunshots across the border, and NATO has confirmed that Russian tanks have crossed the border into eastern Ukraine as of this past Sunday.

Few personal accounts of local residents have appeared in English-language media. Below, one finds neither foreign correspondents nor local politicians, but rather voices from the streets of Donetsk, from those who have called Donetsk their home for generations, who knew this mining town well before it hit the headlines. These emails, one from Facebook and the other two addressed to Jewish Agency offices in New York and Jerusalem, are reprinted here by permission of the Jewish Agency. They were translated from Russian by Avital Chizhik.

***

Donetsk Today, by Aleksandr Polkvoi

Aleksandr Polkvoi was born and raised in Donetsk, Ukraine. An electrical engineer by profession, Polkvoi works in systems engineering in construction. Polkvoi posted this letter on his personal Facebook page, and the letter went viral in Russian and Ukrainian media. This is its first appearance in English.

June 1, 2014

One cannot imagine how horrible it is to observe the death of one’s city.

Donetsk will never be what it once was. You will never see it as it once had been.

On the surface, of course, the city is blooming, a city in springtime—bursting with greens, children playing in the street, groceries selling fruits and vegetables, flowers lining the wide boulevards, and right outside my window, there is a tennis match going on. Donetsk looks like a chronically ill person who does not yet know his own diagnosis.

Donetsk is almost exactly what it once was. Almost—because suddenly, there appeared checkpoints, the concrete fortifications with sandbags, armed masked men with machine guns. Because suddenly, there are barely cars on the streets. Because suddenly, there is a terrified oppressive silence.

Donetsk is dying. After 10:00, not a single store is open, not a single pharmacy nor café, and not a single soul ventures outside. Only a lone taxi circles the streets.

Step outside to walk a friend home after curfew, at 10 in the evening—and one must take along one’s passport. It’s so dangerous that to walk in the center of the city late in the evening, one must be desperate, drunk, a fool—I am suddenly afraid to walk in my own city, and it is this that I mourn today.

The sound of approaching cars now reminds me of the sound of approaching military helicopters. I turn around and see a truck and, sometimes, a full military convoy. To the sounds of gunshots, children in courtyards scream and run home alongside their mothers and grandmothers. But they’re adjusting, they’re getting used to this by now.

All of the conversations are on one subject: Where do you plan to go to, and when? Some want to go to the outskirts of the city, some to the neighboring villages and towns where there are no gun battles, where there is still peace for now. Others have more permanent plans: Lutzk, Zaporozhye, Herson, Lvov, Dniepr, Russia.

Few want to leave—but everyone understands that it will be necessary soon, because our city is doomed. We no longer believe in miracles, nor in a speedy exodus.

Not war, not peace—what we are living in now is a wild agony, waiting for something terrible to happen. One can live like this for a week, two weeks, but not longer, because then one can no longer pretend that all is well and normal, that nothing unusual is going on here.

Companies and businesses are closing everywhere, and I don’t just mean in the industrial zone, in the metal factories and mines. I mean local businesses, construction companies, groceries, cafés, entertainment places. Donetsk is no longer the bustling capital of the Donbass region. Whoever can, sends workers to other locations, or on holiday till September. “We’ll meet after the war,” we tell each other. Employers who have the ability to, are transferring laborers to other cities: Zaporozhie, Poltava, Krivoi Rog, Odessa, Kiev. But this is a minority. Most people are simply preparing to shut down.

Those who could leave have already left. Some have sent their families away, many others are preparing for the journey ahead. Those who remain are those who have nowhere to go and those who can’t afford it. They stay here and wait, insisting that nothing can get worse than what is now.

People are quickly running out of money, and there’s no way of making an income here. I expect that the banks will run out of money sooner than the people will. These banks won’t be able to stay open for much longer, in case of mass evacuations from here—whether there is war, or whether simply a few thousand armed men are able to take control of two regions with 7 million residents—the moment we lose our banks, we lose our incomes, our pensions, any semblance of a functioning economy.

And this will happen. These days, our constant struggle is not about earning a living but rather about simply surviving. Yes, my friends, this is where our thoughts lie.

No one here believes that we civilians are needed by anyone. The people are abandoned, and Donetsk has become a prison cell from which one may still escape, if one only throws away everything, an apartment, all property, a job, one’s hopes and dreams for the future, because survival is key, it’s most important.

Everyone here knows, instinctively, that this will go on for a while, and it will only get worse, and many will die. Just like this city is dying.

They have killed our futures. They have barraged them with Molotov cocktails, Kalashnikov shots, and the vitriolic hatred on both Russian and Ukrainian television. We are the tiny speck on a grand scale, where grown men of different governments gleefully move their checkers pieces, making decisions based on statistics merely. How much our deaths will affect their statistics—that remains to be seen.

Tears choke me out in shame over this injustice, over this destruction of the future, over my pain in having to take my child far away—and I am terrified that if I don’t move quickly, one day, I will be unable to take him away.

Protect peace. You don’t understand how important it is—more important than anything else. Protect the peace wherever you live, because war is no film, it is here and now. Protect the peace wherever you are. Because we, here, we have failed.

***

Donetsk, ‘Like a War Movie,’ by Sasha Ivashchenko

Sasha Ivashchenko was born and raised in Donetsk, Ukraine. He is a mining engineer, has a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Israel’s Open University, and since 1996, has been teaching Hebrew, Jewish history, and philosophy in Donetsk’s local Jewish Agency center. Ivashchenko is the author of two books, The Tears of the Holocaust (available in English) and The History of the Jewish Community in Donetsk. He lives with his wife Katya and his daughter in Donetsk.

June 3, 2014

Shalom,

I wish you a happy Shavuot. Now, we suddenly understand all too well how important it is that we keep the Ten Commandments—do not kill, do not steal, etc.

When battles ensue daily in the place you live, looting, banditry, terrorism, you suddenly understand the Ten Commandments all too well.

I no longer have the energy to describe the situation here in Donetsk; please read the attached account from a Donetsk blogger, who very accurately describes the city’s condition and its residents’ feelings.

Some personal news and observations:

Last week, Katya and I got married. It was like a movie. We went to city hall early in the morning; on that day there were battles in the city, there was the smell of war in the air, the city was empty of people and cars—and there we are, standing in city hall, getting married. Like a war film. Then we went out and bought the simplest wedding rings in the only store that was open, and rushed home.

We didn’t have a wedding feast. No one was in the mood, and everything is closed in the city, and no one wants to leave the house if it’s not absolutely necessary. Katya’s father and his wife ended up getting stuck in a cut-off region for a few days, as battles went on, and couldn’t make it.

The next day, Katya, Mama, and I traveled to the Israeli consulate. We were quite anxious, as only three days before then there was a gun battle on the railroad, with two civilian casualties who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Trains are irregular now, some go, some are canceled, some change their route entirely. At the train station, it looks like a wartime evacuation, masses of people gathering their possessions and leaving the area. When we came to Dnepropetrovsk, it felt like another country entirely: peaceful, quiet, and yet only a few hours away by train from our Donetsk.

While in our city, in Donetsk. … Well, everything generally is happening as if in a movie. Recently Katya came home and said, “Sasha, they are flying again.” I thought she was talking about house flies, but then I realized she was talking about war planes. There was a whole week that we had thunderstorms here, and the whole city was holding its breath and listening to make sure it wasn’t air strikes.

Last Monday, there were battles in the skies above the city. Yet the Sochnut [Jewish Agency] still took people in, helping people gather their paperwork and get aliyah information. They’re really fantastic, those guys.

I give Hebrew lessons in the evening, and I decided not to cancel it, because it’s a necessary outlet for many people, and just as a lesson is going on, there are reports coming in that there are battles going on in the airport, then in the train station, they’re coming closer and closer, and I—I’m here teaching just a few more verbs, one more grammar role, and then we get a call that they’re evacuating from the center, and then I rush to say, because of the evacuation, let’s quickly summarize the lesson, homework, etc. It’s like a movie about Zionism, when Jews were being taken out of conflict zones.

From morning to evening people are calling, Jews calling in panic, planning to leave but more like flee. And we need to tell them calmly what and how, while we ourselves are reaching our limits in anxiety.

Yesterday in my Hebrew class I announced something I never imagined I would say aloud: From this week forward, our lessons will be 15 minutes shorter because of the new street curfew. And already one hears these phrases—phrases that we had from the last war, “curfew,” “today they say there’s going to be a street sweep after curfew,” punctuated by the occasional aircraft battles and sounds of explosions. All the time there is pillaging and attacks in the street. A group of armed men have suddenly appointed themselves masters of our lives.

Last week, the separatists attacked a vigil tent again, where prayers for Ukraine were being said. The priest was captured and beaten for four hours, and then released; the next day the priest left the hospital and went back to the vigil, to continue praying, despite the separatists’ threats to shoot them. But they continue to gather and pray, people of all religions—like in a book or film about faith.

Judging from the constant conversations, the news broadcasts and talk shows, the worries one hears in the street, we are all in a certain psychological state—a traumatic syndrome we find ourselves in, and it will take time for us to return to normal, even if everything calms down tomorrow.

But for now, it’s not calm, and everything only gets more and more complicated and intense. It would take another whole letter to simply describe the internal divide in society here, in families, the collective, just like Vysotzky sang, “We will continue for a while, choosing who is our own and our enemies.”

In two hours I am going to teach a class, though it’s hard to gather oneself and concentrate. I’ve canceled all my private lessons and will continue teaching only in groups, because people really need that outlet and that sense of community.

Now it’s relatively quiet in the city, but we feel it’s the calm before the storm.

Wish you all again a happy Shavuot. May there be peace in our hearts, our families, and in our cities.

Sasha

***

June 8, 2014

The airport is seriously damaged after many battles and is closed till the end of June. We hope it will open again in July/August.

For now, one can reach Donetsk either by car, via checkpoints, or by train.

And now, after the inauguration of Poroshenko and his meeting with Putin in France, everyone awaits the next few weeks anxiously, because here, only time will tell. Perhaps we will see a gradual peaceful settlement, or the opposite, perhaps we will see an escalation of violence.

Personally we are planning to make aliyah. Mama and I are going as olim, and my wife—given that she is not Jewish, will go as a tourist, and we will then apply for a residence permit for her. By the way, Katya was one of my students. In July, it will be three years since we’ve met, but we only got married now. It very well may be that we will celebrate the anniversary of our meeting in Israel.

That traditional hope of ours, “Next year in Jerusalem,” has become instead for us, “Next month in Jerusalem.”

Shavua tov,

Sasha

***

An Undeclared War, by Alisa Voronova

Alisa Voronova, 26, lives in Donetsk, and has been an active member in the local Jewish community and Hebrew ulpan. She and her husband are moving to Israel in the near future through the MASA program.

June 17, 2014

Whoever is reading this now—I wish them only peace. I have now learned that that is the most important thing.

These days … these days I find myself in Donetsk. I think you know what that means. Here, in my hometown, we are all trying to live our normal lives. But our lives have already changed: Front-line reports tell of shelling, daily air strikes, explosions. The destruction around us is no longer shocking to us—not like it was when the conflict first began two months ago. We have gotten used to the war, though we haven’t seen it with our own eyes yet, but we know it’s coming, it’s somewhere very near, just beyond our city borders. Anxiety and fear has settled in. Every moment is one of loss—one person loses calm, another loses his home, another a loved one, another his own life. We have all become hostages and victims of an undeclared war.

My husband and I were thinking of moving to Israel for a while already and finally decided upon it a year ago. Many of our acquaintances knew about this and reacted all alike: “Israel? But there’s a war going on!” Recently a friend of mine asked me if we really do plan on going, and when I said, “Yes, of course,” she responded with the usual—“But there’s a war going on there!” I laughed at the irony, because here I am, still in Donetsk, and the war has come here. Everything changes so quickly here that we don’t even have the time to fully grasp what’s going on around us. The war has not yet taken to the streets of my city, but it is nearby, breathing down our backs—it has come to the streets of many of my friends in neighboring towns. Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Gorlovka, Mariupol—it spreads like an epidemic, and here too we have contracted this disease.

I don’t know who here is right and who is at fault, who is the hero and who is the enemy. I only know that if you don’t want to kill or be killed—then this is no place for you. Many people understand this, too, they are throwing everything away, whatever they have left, and fleeing to survive. Nothing good awaits one in Donetsk.

We Jews find ourselves in a difficult situation here—we remain in the margins of this war between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, but we live here and suffer through this along with everyone else. And in the meanwhile, we know in the back of our minds that any minute we might be blamed for everything.

But I suppose we have our Jewish “luck”—at least we have somewhere to go. We are not forced to be refugees in a foreign country; we can become citizens in a country of our own. If one day we must fight, let it be for our own war, our own land, and not someone else’s.

***

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Jewish Voices From the Front Lines of Donetsk

Letters from the besieged city in Ukraine, from which Jews are making plans to flee civil unrest and political turmoil

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