In late 2013, hundreds of thousands of angry Ukrainians took to the streets to demand the resignation of Viktor Yanukovych, their country’s corrupt, pro-Russian president. Following months of violent clashes in which dozens of people were killed, Yanukovych fled to Moscow and by March 2014, Russian forces had occupied the Crimean Peninsula and began fomenting separatist uprisings in the Ukrainian east.
During the revolution, the Jewish community of Kiev had been subjected to a series of anti-Semitic attacks and in the aftermath of the revolution, many worried that their situation would deteriorate further. However, despite a Russian propaganda campaign warning about the rise of Ukrainian fascism, the real threat to the country’s Jews came not from domestic ultranationalists or anti-Semites but rather from Russia itself. In April 2014, Russian-backed separatist fighters declared a People’s Republic in the city of Donetsk near the Russian border, setting off a war that still rages to this day.
Over the course of the conflict, more than a million and a half people were displaced, including many Jews living under separatist occupation. Among those who fled the war zone were the overwhelming majority of Donetsk’s estimated prewar population of 11,000.
One of them was Pinchas Vishedski, a diminutive Israeli Chabad Hasid who had arrived in Donetsk soon after the fall of the Soviet Union and had worked for decades to rebuild Jewish life in the city.
It was a warm August afternoon when Vishedski finally left Donetsk. Several factors conspired to push the rabbi out of his adopted hometown. Above all, Vishedski was worn out by the constant shelling. He realized that, if he wanted to “stay a sane person” who could help those looking to him for assistance, he would have to leave and find a “quiet and calm place” to continue his work. Staying in Donetsk was becoming counterproductive. “I understood that, if I remained there, I wouldn’t do any good for the Jews of Donetsk, but the opposite,” he later recalled. “I couldn’t help them anymore.”
For months, he had been struggling to maintain his equanimity.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, you couldn’t sleep at night from the sound of the bombardment,” he recalled. “You can’t think, your head ceases to operate. And think about this as well, that I sat there for months alone, without my family. And when you’re alone, it’s much more difficult for you to deal with all these things, you know?”
Many of those closest to Vishedski had already fled and were begging him to follow. One member of the community, whose wife had given birth to a boy after they left Donetsk, went so far as to threaten not to circumcise his son unless the rabbi was present. Vishedski’s family was due to arrive back in Ukraine around this time anyway, and, buffeted by rocket fire and the pleas of his congregants, he decided that a war zone was no place to bring his wife and children. It was decided that he would evacuate for two weeks and then reassess the situation.
“We thought we were in a bad dream and we didn’t believe what was happening in front of our eyes,” he told me.” Our city was a booming city and suddenly everything falls apart before our eyes. We assumed that we needed to find a city of refuge, a temporary city of refuge, and then return and everything would continue as it was. It was very, very traumatic. I was certain that I would return within two weeks and my family, at maximum, in another month. I already started to think about what we would do for the holidays. I would send my family to Israel and be alone there for the holidays.”
Acting on that assumption, Vishedski barely packed anything for the trip to Mariupol. He only brought with him a bag with his personal papers, his tefillin and letters and dollars from the Lubavitcher rebbe, as well as a few changes of clothes. Despite his faith that he would soon return, the decision to leave was wrenching for Vishedski. As the hour of his exit approached, the rabbi attempted to distract himself from his troubles by engaging in busywork. He didn’t want to think about everything he had built and was leaving behind.
As in much of Eastern Europe, the Jewish community of Donetsk (then known as Stalino) was virtually destroyed during the Holocaust, and while Jews managed to reestablish an active community following the war, the renaissance wasn’t to last. By the late 1950s, the Soviet authorities shuttered the synagogue and banned the practice of ritual slaughter. Decades of enforced atheism, followed by mass emigration after the fall of communism, had left the Jewish community of Donetsk all but defunct when Vishedski arrived to revive it in the mid-1990s. Now it was dying again and there was nothing he could do.
Fully aware of that history and what he had done to revive a dormant community, Vishedski couldn’t bring himself to leave and continually procrastinated, pushing off his inevitable departure. His phone rang. It was his driver calling to ask when he wanted to go. Give me “a little bit, a little bit,” he replied, playing for time. “It’s already 4 in the afternoon, we have to leave,” the driver insisted. He reminded Vishedski that in several hours it would be dark, increasing the risk of an already dangerous trip through the lines. With a heavy heart the rabbi assented.
“This is the synagogue to which I gave 21 years of my life,” he later recalled. “This is the synagogue I built. When I arrived it was a ruin, and I built it with my strength and my blood. I arrived 21 years ago in a community that was nothing and built it and reconstructed it and it became a strong and vibrant community. [Now] everything is destroyed. You can’t live with this.”
Heaving himself up from his chair, the rabbi made his way downstairs for one last look at the synagogue. He entered the sanctuary—a long room with wooden floors, green and pink walls, and an arched, coffered ceiling—and made his way past row after row of pews to the aron kodesh. Standing before the ornate red-brown ark, light streaming in from the stained-glass windows on either side, Vishedski drew back the curtain to face the Torah scrolls and began to sob.
“I cried as I stood near the ark across from the Torah scrolls, and I requested mercy from God. ‘Have mercy upon us, we don’t know what we are doing.’ And I requested a blessing, that he would watch over all of us, that he would watch over all of the members of the community, that he would watch over the synagogue. That he would watch over everything.”
Vishedski then closed the curtain, turned away from the ark, and was driven into exile.
Another one of those who left during this period was Yaakov Virin. Short and slight with thinning hair, glasses, and a prominent nose above the obligatory unkempt Chabad beard, Yasha, as he was known to his friends, was a pillar of the Donetsk community who had edited its Jewish newspaper for two decades.
On July 10 he was in Kiev, inspecting a company for Vishedski’s kosher certification agency, when he received a call from his wife Rachel. The situation was dire, she said, announcing that she was taking their 13-year-old daughter, Miriam, to Dnipropetrovsk. Virin, who had unfinished business in Donetsk, came home to an empty flat but he was sure that he could cope with the loneliness. For nearly two weeks, he lived a solitary life under fire. By day, he would frequent the synagogue, and at night he would lay awake, thinking frenzied and panicked thoughts as he listened to the crump of incoming artillery. Mostly he prayed and hoped that the conflict would pass so that he and his family would be able to resume their lives. During this period, Virin kept himself busy producing one last issue of the community newspaper. He didn’t think it would be the final edition, but he never returned to publish another.
By July 22, he had finally had enough. Pushed by Vishedski to leave, Virin packed a small suitcase and hopped on a trolley bus headed to the central railway station. As he approached the station the sound of an explosion rent the air. A separatist stepped out into the road, halting traffic. Snatching up his belongings, Virin descended from the trolley and began to make his way down the street on foot until he encountered a rebel checkpoint and could go no further. He had chosen to escape in the middle of a battle. The day before, government forces had retaken the airport and were currently in the process of tightening a noose around the rebel city. Fighting in Donetsk had already led to several civilian deaths, and the municipal government was warning residents living near the train station to stay inside their homes. “The sounds of shooting and explosions were quite loud,” Virin would later recall, describing the sight of tanks and buses full of armed men making their way past him to the central station. The fighting went on for hours, with civilians scrambling for shelter in basements to avoid the apparently random rain of heavy ordnance.
As the sounds of battle drifted across the city, Virin, unable to escape, returned to his office at the JCC. He booted up his computer and went online to look for an alternate escape route. As luck would have it, trains were still running through a small station just outside the city limits. He had his way out.
Hours later, after a long and grueling overnight journey, Virin finally found himself alighting on a dim platform in Dnipropetrovsk. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and he was beyond exhaustion. But he wasn’t yet in the clear. An unidentified man, presumably linked to local law enforcement or one of the newly raised volunteer battalions, approached him, demanding to know who he was and why he had come from Donetsk. Virin identified himself as a Jewish refugee. The man was unimpressed and demanded proof. He opened his bag and produced his tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), which appeared to satisfy his interlocutor. Tired and stressed, Virin cast about, spying Rachel standing on the platform. Overjoyed to see his wife, he hurried over to her, and together they left the station. Within a day, the Virins were on their way to a Chabad-run refugee camp in the western Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr.
In the camp, he was finally able to decompress, taking long, meditative walks in the forest and day trips with his family to museums in Vinnytsia. In the evenings, Virin and the other displaced would sit together, laughing, reminiscing, and talking about what the future would hold “but nobody had any answer to that question.”
Walking up the steps of Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue several months later, I ran into Virin. It seemed like we kept running into each other during each stage of the war. I had met him in Donetsk during the initial occupation, in Dnipropetrovsk after he fled into exile, and now in Kiev where he was attempting to reassemble the shattered remnants of his previous life. His exodus was emblematic of that of the Jews of Donetsk, Luhansk, and other cities engulfed in the conflict. As I caught up with my fellow newspaperman, he related that he was happy to have arrived in the capital, where Vishedski had set up shop.
Vishedski and I had remained in touch ever since our first meeting in Donetsk that April, and I had come to Kiev to follow up on his story for the Jerusalem Post. Shortly after my fortuitous meeting with Virin, I made my way to the rabbi’s new office in the Gulliver Center, an upscale shopping and office complex a short walk from the capital’s central Maidan square, the site of the revolution. It was from a glass-enclosed office high up in the 35-story tower that he was attempting both to coordinate aid efforts for his former congregants scattered across the country and to refashion a demoralized group of internally displaced people, or IDPs, in Kiev into a coherent community.
Greeting me warmly in the building’s spacious polished wood, tile, and glass lobby, Vishedski took me up to his 12th-floor office. It was a large and imposing space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a commanding view of Kiev’s bustling downtown. Ignoring the beautiful panorama just outside, several community members sat engrossed at their work, typing on their computers and making phone calls in a coordinated effort to feed, house, and support their coreligionists spread across the country.
At the time, Vishedski believed that as many as 3,000 of Donetsk’s Jews, many of them elderly, remained trapped behind the lines. He said that since arriving in Kiev his days were mostly spent caring for those left behind and those who had fled. He and his staff of 10 were consumed with the challenge of sending supplies through the lines and coordinating the provisioning of community members scattered throughout the country.
One of the rabbi’s most important assistants was community director Nadiya Goncharuk. A blond 29-year-old with wide, prominent cheeks that dimpled when she was happy, Goncharuk had been put in charge of coordinating the organized community’s aid efforts. Her work didn’t give her much to smile about. When I met her, she had just returned from a long road trip checking in on Donetsk Jews scattered across the country.
“I visited 10 cities all over Ukraine [including] Novgorod, Kremenchuk, Poltava, Cherkassy, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kirovohrad, and Zhytomyr,” she said sadly. “Jews from Donetsk now live all over, and it’s hard even to tell you what we are seeing. People who had everything—their homes, their stuff—who had a good life in Donetsk now live in bad conditions.”
Many Jews who fled Donetsk have no income with which to pay rent or fill their refrigerators, she continued, describing how many of those living in government-controlled territory exploited and discriminated against refugees from the east. Smaller cities were cheaper than the big urban centers like Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk, but even in such places rents were extortionate. Staying in Mariupol prior to her arrival in Kiev, she had to pay $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a region where the average monthly salary is only several hundred euros. “They’re broke. They have no food, no money to pay for rent,” she said of the refugees. “They don’t know what to do next. Nobody cares. Not the Ukrainian government, nobody. They moved from Donetsk and our government didn’t [provide] them [with housing], money or jobs. Nothing.” Many refugees with families felt unable to provide for their children and consequently “are depressed [and] don’t know what to do next.”
She recalled one family whose husband had not been paid in months, one in which the children play on top of bags packed for continued flight at a moment’s notice, and one whose fridge was starkly empty. The children of another family she met with, the Kaiminoviches, were playing in their garden when the bombing started. The parents grabbed their children, stopping only to take one bag and a menorah, and got on the first available bus to Poltava, where the entire family ended up crowded into a small one-room apartment.
“When I see these people, I want to give everything that I have,” she said.
“The Kiev authorities didn’t help us with work or with anything else,” Ilya Tokachov told me, sitting in a cramped one-room apartment he was sharing with his wife, 1-year-old son, and mother-in-law. A 26-year-old white-collar professional from Luhansk, Tokachov was Jewish on his father’s side and said he was planning on moving to Israel shortly after our interview, joining more than 10 of his friends who had already left. Meanwhile, things were tough. According to Tokachov, many local businesses only paid refugee hires half of what they would pay those hailing from government-controlled territory. “When you look for work here they call you a terrorist and if you should be paid 4,000 [hryvnias] they will only pay you half and say ‘it’s enough we will find someone else from Luhansk who is looking for work,’” he explained.
Even for those earning full salaries, life was difficult. The precipitous decline of the Ukrainian economy since the outbreak of hostilities meant that it was growing increasingly challenging to make ends meet. Vadim Dorofeev, another IDP, said that he had found work in Kiev paying roughly what he had made before the war but that inflation had made it nearly impossible to survive.
By early 2016, Vishedski had managed to rebuild part of what had been lost, recreating a cohesive religious community out of his fellow escapees who had made their homes in the capital. And while Chabad rabbis are usually not big promoters of aliyah, Vishedski told me that he had been pushing the Israel option as a good solution for many in the Donetsk émigré community. “We, my family and I, are living without certainty. I can’t say that we have found our place and will live in the future in Kiev. I don’t know what will be tomorrow [but] I don’t have the privilege of giving up on the community.”
In the end, more than 32,000 Ukrainians have made aliyah to Israel since late 2013, according to Jewish Agency data. It’s not hard to see why. Between the war and its resultant economic instability, life in Ukraine has been incredibly hard. The Jewish hegira was only part of a much larger exodus, with millions of Ukrainians leaving the country for greener pastures such as Poland.
And even now, with the war in the East settling down into a stalemate and the economy beginning to rebound, things are still tough.
One refugee with whom I spoke in 2016 seemed to sum up the feeling of many in Ukraine, including the Jewish community, when he told me that “we have no plans for the future. We are finding a way to live without making plans.”
Adapted from Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry, by Sam Sokol. Reprinted with permission of the author and ISGAP.