On the Frontline in Ukraine

A Jewish community hangs on, despite the uncertainty

BY DOVID MARGOLIN | The Weekly Standard 

Mariupol, Ukraine

It is late evening as we approach the second of three checkpoints on the road to the frontline city of Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine. A vital port on the Azov Sea, Mariupol is heavily fortified by land and by sea.

“I try not to drive these roads after dark,” says Gena, who is taking me and my cameraman from Zaporizhia to visit the Jewish community of Mariupol. “It’s more dangerous at night.”

Gena flicks the lights on in the car, turns his headlights off and his hazards on. “They need to see us coming,” he explains. “Otherwise, they could mistake us for an attack.”  

Our car rolls to a stop in front of a painted concrete barrier planted in the middle of the highway. Bright lights illuminate sandbags, Ukrainian flags, camouflage tarps, and a group of very youthful soldiers holding big machine guns, smoking as they talk.

The checkpoints become progressively stricter as you get closer to the industrial city, and for good reason. The second-biggest city in the war-torn Donetsk region, Mariupol changed hands between government and separatist forces repeatedly over a period of a few months last year, ultimately remaining under Ukrainian control. That was followed by a pro-Russian separatist offensive in September, which brought the deafening boom of rockets and shelling to the edges of the city. Although the frontline has since been pushed back by Ukraine’s army, it remains mere kilometers away from the city of about a half-million. A January rocket attack left at least 30 people dead, with body parts strewn across Mariupol’s eastern Vostochniy neighborhood.

At the checkpoint, an especially young soldier sticks his head in through the car window and demands our passports. After searching through every bag and suitcase, inspecting our GoPro camera with particular suspicion, he finally waves us through.

“That moron was a volunteer,” says Gena matter-of-factly as we head back into the pitch darkness. Thousands of recruits have joined the Ukrainian military since the war began last spring, but civilians—no matter their personal political leanings—are most frightened by the volunteers, or dobravoltsi. Often ill-tempered, poorly trained, and trigger happy, they’re viewed with distrust by locals, who see them as little more than armed bandits. “Dovid, you’ll see what’s going on in Mariupol, the soldiers driving around in confiscated civilian cars. Sometimes they haven’t even had time to paint them in camouflage.”

After Berdiansk, the last sizable city before Mariupol, only one other car travels in the same direction as ours. When we finally get there before midnight, the city is eerily quiet. 

“You see? It’s dead,” Gena tells me. “Everyone’s afraid.”

Mariupol is a city unlike any other still under the control of the government. Here, the war is not some far-off headache, one that affects citizens only because they fear being drafted (as men of almost all ages do in Ukraine) or are suffering from the severe economic crisis. For Mariupolites, war is the storm just beyond the trees.

“You had nothing to be afraid of coming here,” assures Aron Kaganovsky, the assistant rabbi of Mariupol’s Jewish community. “But the truth is it can all blow up here at any moment.” Throughout my time in Mariupol, I kept hearing the same thing: “It’s too quiet now. That means something big is coming.”

That’s exactly what has happened in the few weeks since my visit. The thud of heavy artillery, officially banned by the long-forgotten Minsk Agreement, has returned, louder than ever. And the ones paying the heaviest price are the innocent civilians stuck in the middle.

If nighttime in Mariupol gives the impression of a ghost town, in the light of day, life goes on as usual. Down the block from the Hotel Spartak, popular with reporters, NGO staffers, and Ukrainian military figures visiting from Kiev, is Mariupol’s modest synagogue and Jewish community center. Affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FJC) and directed by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Mendel Cohen, who moved to Mariupol with his wife, Esther, in 2005, the center is the lifeblood of the city’s estimated 2,500 Jews. While the city Cohen arrived in was a quiet and unassuming one, circumstances have changed drastically since the disturbances started in May 2014. 

On this morning, the synagogue’s courtyard and dining room begin swelling with Jews of all ages coming to pick up the regular medical and food aid they receive through the center. Sponsored by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, large plastic bags filled with staples such as buckwheat kasha and oil are piled up neatly in the dining room; medicine is laid out on a table in the sanctuary. Working through the FJC, the fellowship provides similar help to Jews throughout Ukraine.

While many in the crowd are elderly, a significant number are young men and women, university students and graduates who not too long ago would have been embarrassed to receive handouts. The Jewish community has undoubtedly shrunk in the last year, but the vast majority has stayed put, hoping to ride out a storm with no visible end.

“A lot have gone to Israel,” acknowledges Cohen, adding that those who flee are usually closely involved in Jewish communal life. “But there are many Jews who are now appearing, people who might live on the next street but never came to anything before. Because of the situation, people are starting to understand how valuable it is to be a part of the Jewish community.”

Breakfast is served after the distribution. At a corner table, eating scrambled eggs downed with hot tea, is a boy of 17 named Jenya Yakovenko. Although Jenya—who also goes by his Jewish name of Moshe—is a Mariupol native, he is dressed in the white shirt and dark pants typical of a Hasid. Jenya’s stepfather is an ethnic Ukrainian and he has seven non-Jewish stepsiblings, but Jenya, whose mother and younger sister are Jewish, studies at a Chabad yeshiva in Moscow. “I’m going back to Moscow in a week,” Jenya tells me. 

On break from the yeshiva, Jenya travels to the synagogue every day, a half-hour trolley ride from his parents’ home in one of Mariupol’s poorest neighborhoods. That area, not far from the massive Ilyich Steel and Iron Works and adjacent to a particularly harsh checkpoint on the road to Donetsk, is also one of the most vulnerable to attack.

“I’m not afraid of getting any stares here,” says Jenya of the reactions he gets dressed so obviously as a Jew in Mariupol, let alone in the rougher neighborhood where he grew up. “Let them get used to it.”

Jenya’s parents, Natasha and Grisha, live with their 11-year-old daughter Nelli in a tiny house in the ironically named Mirny neighborhood (mir means peace in Russian), just on the other side of the Ilyich factory. The warm summer day and blooming vegetable patches mask the harshness of life in this broken part of town. 

Natasha emerges from the house, the wooden door slamming shut behind her. At 43, she is a jolly, smiling woman, the daughter of a Jewish mother and ethnic Russian father who moved to Mariupol in 1989 from Kazakhstan to avoid growing nationalist sentiments there. Her smile and laughter belie the hardships her family goes through regularly these days. Sitting on the eastern edge of town, Mirny has experienced rockets and mortar shells flying overhead as the Ukrainian Army and separa-tists fire at each other from their positions.

“We’ve felt this war since the beginning, since September 4, when this all began for the first time,” she tells me as we sit in the small living room, which doubles as Jenya’s bedroom when he’s home. “My daughter has started wetting her bed since then. I’ve turned to a psychologist.”

From their window they regularly see and hear Ukraine’s antiaircraft guns and artillery firing away. “Basically, it’s pretty festive over here.”

The Yakovenkos were never well-off, but now their circumstances are worse than ever. They receive fellowship aid packages through the synagogue and medical help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Hesed social services center. Natasha says they only survived last winter because Cohen and the synagogue provided them with enough money to buy the four tons of coal needed to heat their home. For the last nine years, Natasha’s husband, now 60, has been working on an addition to their home, but since the war they’ve directed their limited resources towards building a makeshift bomb shelter out of a well in their small yard.

“If something happens, [our only option is] to jump in there, and that’s only going to save us from shrapnel, not a direct hit,” states Grisha of the cramped, dank space, which has just enough room to fit a crude wooden bench. “You can sit through a shelling, but you can’t live in there.” 

Grisha has a tough exterior, but Natasha is open about the emotional and physical toll the last year has taken. She goes to doctors for her nervousness and says she now has problems with her thyroid. “If our couch is jumping up right from underneath us, how can we not feel it?” she exclaims. “Grads were whistling right over our heads! You know how frightening that is? Very!”

The Yakovenko most affected by the crisis, though, might be the brilliantly blonde-haired little girl, Nelli. Her favorite place in the family home is the shelter, to which she runs at the slightest provocation. As Natasha and I talk, the harmless sound of a bell can be heard ringing from the street outside. A moment later, Nelli runs into the room and throws herself into her mother’s arms, crying.

“What, sunshine?” Natasha asks her daughter softly. “You got afraid? Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, it’s just the garbage collector. .  .  . Everything is okay.” She sends Nelli out to the garden to join her brother, Jenya. 

“And she says she’s not afraid,” sighs Natasha. “We once heard a sound outside and thought it was the garbage, but it was a warning siren from the factory. .  .  . The factory promised that if there’s strong shelling they’ll turn on their siren.

“Come, let’s go outside, I’ll show you where Nelli hides.” 

In mid-August, shelling began anew around Mariupol, with the village of Sartana, less than 10 kilometers away from Mirny, among those hit hardest. Natasha and Nelli spent the night of Sunday, August 16, in their tiny bunker, while Grisha took his chances in the house. Jenya, meanwhile, is safely back in Moscow. 

“We went to the sea on Sunday, it was beautiful,” Natasha says by phone. “Then we came back and it all started. I don’t remember it ever being so loud. I was on the phone, and I screamed when I first heard it. But I’m okay now. The hysterics are gone.”

The first number on her phone, Natasha tells me, is the rabbi’s, followed by those who work in the community and in Hesed. “The first minute I heard a hit, I called the rabbi. I apologized right afterwards; it’s not right that I call him whenever something goes wrong here. But he told me I should always call him and not to worry.

“You see, we’re not needed by anyone, we’re dispensable. The only ones who care for us is the Jewish community. I can’t tell you how much that means to us.”

Both the synagogue and Hesed have urged Natasha to at least consider moving to Israel, but she and her husband are adamant on staying put absent full-scale war. Citing everything from fear of missing home to health problems to lack of Hebrew language skills, Natasha says she and her husband are happy Jenya is learning Hebrew at the yeshiva and want Nelli to follow in his footsteps.

“This way they can move there and have a better future,” says Natasha. “I can go visit them there.” 

When I visited the Yakovenkos in late July, I asked Natasha if she felt abandoned by the world.

“You can’t be offended, but of course I would want that people understood a little and looked at people like us, who have gotten caught in such circumstances, with compassion. We’re living on a powder keg.”

Make a difference! Click here to Join our Ukraine Jewish Relief Fund  


Dovid Margolin is an associate editor at Chabad.org.

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