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‘We’re in Hashem’s hands,’ say Ukraine Jews

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A man gets his wife and baby into their car at the crack of dawn while bombs fall around him. In a state of shock, he drives for 17 hours non-stop while the scenes around him unfold like a horror movie.

Another couple defiantly refuses to leave in spite of the bombs raining on their city, saying they need to help those who can’t help themselves. These are just two of the many scenarios of the Jewish community in Ukraine.

In the days since the Russian bombardment of Ukraine began, people have witnessed the devastation of their country. Even the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv was hit.

Ronnie Apteker lived in Johannesburg for most of his life, but has found a true sense of home in Kyiv. There, he got married, had a baby, and renovated a beautiful apartment. He felt at peace. All that was shattered the moment the Russians invaded on 24 February. He’s now a refugee, leaving everything behind and embarking on a harrowing journey with just the clothes on his back. On the evening of 1 March, he managed to cross the border to Poland.

Rebbetzin Rochi Levitansky was born in Johannesburg. Now she’s a Chabad shlucha (emissary) living in Sumy, Ukraine – just a half hour’s drive from the Russian border. She and her husband refuse to leave their community. They’re now sleeping in basements and searching for food.

Ilya Bezruchko was born in the small village of Konotop in the Sumy region, and lives in Kyiv. His grandmother still lives in their village, and refuses to leave. “The town still has about 200 to 300 Jews. Most are Holocaust survivors. People there are lying down in bathrooms and basements. Fighting with Russians is happening face to face in guerrilla warfare,” he says.

Meanwhile, Bezruchko has fled Kyiv. “When the Russians invaded, we woke up at 05:30 to a lit-up sky. We live on the 14th floor, so it was dangerous to stay. We went to our office basement. We were joined by about 50 friends, colleagues, and clients.”

He organised food, water, and security for people who could hide in the basements of the buildings he owns across the city. “But the next day, I told my wife we needed to go West. We left on the morning of 25 February, aiming to get to Lviv, to the Israeli embassy, to try send my wife and kids to Israel.

“The whole city [Kyiv] was blocked with traffic jams. We took back roads, driving for 10 hours. There were Ukrainian jets flying 50m above us to avoid enemy radial scanning. There were many checkpoints organised by local self defence.” They eventually reached Lviv.

Bezruchko is the Kyiv representative of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, and is working to aid Ukraine’s Jews. “I’m also trying to arrange some kind of refugee camp for Jews, and I hope to work with the Israeli government on this,” he says. He would like Israel to airlift more Jews out of the country. “We’re working to create humanitarian corridors, and are ready to assist.”

According to Israeli media, more than 5 000 Ukrainian Jews have already put in calls to a special Jewish Agency hotline to help those interested in leaving the country for Israel. Dozens of Ukrainian Jews arrived in Israel around 21 February.

Since Russian troops began amassing on Ukraine’s border in November, a steep rise in the price of daily essentials has forced tens of thousands of needy Jews to make a desperate choice between buying food or keeping warm through the freezing winter.

Jews who were already living in dire poverty – some on only $2 (R31) a day – are now facing even more impossible costs thanks to the war. Humanitarian organisation the Joint Distribution Committee is working around the clock to provide aid and support, and arrange transport and accommodation for displaced Jews in western Ukraine, Moldova, and across Europe.

Sana Nelina has remained in her hometown of Odessa. When the siren sounds, she hides in a corridor. “The Russians are really close, two hours from us. They are bombing civilians,” she told the SA Jewish Report on 1 March. “It feels like we are in the waiting room, but we’ll do all we can not to lose our beautiful city. The Jewish community is strong. Every day, Jewish organisations are helping people evacuate, or providing food and medicine.” She has stayed to help.

Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, Alon Apteker says his brother, Ronnie, is “crushed and devastated”. “They locked their place, gave the key to a friend, and fled. They headed to his wife’s family in Lviv,” he says. After driving for 17 hours without stopping, they made it there.

Apteker says that on the morning of 1 March, his brother got on a bus reserved for women, children, and foreign men. The family hoped to make it to Poland. For hours, they were out of contact. Finally, he heard that they had made it across.

Just before Shabbat on 25 February, Rabbi Levi Silman in Cape Town wrote on Facebook, “I just got off the phone with my older sister, Sora Levinson. I called to say, ‘Good Shabbos’. It doesn’t sound so extraordinary except that her country was invaded. She, along with her husband, Rabbi Chaim Eli, moved to Kharkov in the late 90s as Chabad shluchim to serve the local Jewish community.

“They have chosen to stay. It has been pointed out that the 150 Chabad shluchim families in the Ukraine all have foreign passports and could easily have jumped ship. But none of them did.”

Adam Kuleshov, who is from Ukraine but now lives in Israel, says Kharkov has been hit by missiles, and 70% of the city is in ruins. Friends there aren’t answering phone calls. He fears for their safety.

Silman hasn’t heard from his sister for about three days (as of 2 March), but knows she’s safe and says there have been no Jewish casualties in the city. In fact, some Jewish men have joined the army.

Meanwhile, “Just two hours ago, my 13-year-old son crossed the border to Moldova,” said Kuleshov on 2 March. “He waited in a queue for 24 hours, where there was lots of panic and uncertainty. Russia is using propaganda to spread fear.”

Speaking on a webinar with the South African Jewish community, Rebbetzin Levitansky says, “People here believe that tehillim from around the world are keeping them safe.”

Her husband, Rabbi Yechiel Levitansky, says, “Thursday morning felt like doomsday. Many don’t have a way out, and we’ll never leave them. They say that if you [the Levitanskys] are here, we feel safe.”

Thanks to their networks, the Levitanskys can provide food, supplies, and medicine, but supplies are running low. There has been rationing, and stores are becoming emptier. “Every penny [of donations] counts,” says the rabbi.

He says when he heard the sirens, “I thought it was the shofar of the Moshiach.” Though that day didn’t come, “We know that G-d is watching over the doors of the Jewish people. We feel your spiritual support on the ground. We’re in Hashem’s hands.”

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