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‘Jewish blood helps’: In Ukraine, what once held people back now speeds them to safety

BUCHAREST — Victoria Astakhova, a 66-year-old construction engineer from Kyiv, grew up in the Soviet era, when the stamp on her identity card subjected her to antisemitism from neighbors and limits on how high she could advance at work. “In college,” she recalled, “when my dorm mate discovered my card was stamped ‘Jew,’ she didn’t even want me as a roommate.”

I met Astakhova earlier this month at the Ramada Parc Hotel in Bucharest, where she was among around 500 Ukrainian refugees whose aspirations to make aliyah were being reviewed by the Jewish Agency for Israel. She was there with her daughter, Olga Marshavka, a lawyer in Odessa before the war, and Olga’s two children, 3-year-old Anastasia and Zachar, who will soon turn 1.

“Now,” said Marshavka, “Jewish blood helps me make a future for my family.”

I heard these sentiments and saw these realities repeatedly during my week-long visit to Romania, where I shadowed workers for the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency as they worked along the Ukrainian border to support a steady stream of refugees.

Ukraine may be a country bloodstained in the imagination of American Jews by a succession of pogroms and centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice. But with more than 10 million Ukrainians displaced by Russian aggression over the past month, those who are Jewish are finding they have advantages over their neighbors.

Thanks to significant investment over the past two decades by these organizations, the Chabad movement and other international groups, there was a communal infrastructure inside Ukraine that mobilized quickly as the war began. Jews were able to join bus convoys at synagogues and JCCs while other Ukrainians scrambled to stuff themselves into packed trains or risked traversing conflict zones in their own cars.

At border checkpoints in Romania and Poland, the very first tents refugees see as they cross into safety are emblazoned with the Hebrew words for welcome – “Bruchim Haba’im” – or Israeli flags. The Joint and the Jewish Agency are sheltering thousands in hotels here and across the border region, providing food, cash assistance, logistical support – locating copies of lost documents, for example – and generally helping people get where they want to go next.

Perhaps most importantly, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is guaranteed citizenship in Israel. Last week, officials from the Joint and the Jewish Agency said that about 40% of those who had left Ukraine so far were choosing that path. Others are spreading out across Europe, which has announced open-door policies allowing employment and enrollment in public schools to all Ukrainian refugees, often with special assistance from Jewish organizations on the ground inside Ukraine and along its borders.

“This is different than World War II – then, no one was helping us,” Astakhova said. “My non-Jewish friends are here,” she added, but “they don’t have what we have. Here, we have someone who will protect us.”

“Everybody wants to be a Jew’

When Diana Simonova, a 21-year-old student, and her parents decided to flee Kharkhiv after eight days in a bomb shelter, they traveled first to Poltava, about 100 miles to the west. As the conflict creeped closer, Simonova decided to leave Ukraine, but didn’t know how to even start. Her mother offered to drive her to Dnipro, about three hours away, where there was a well-organized Jewish community.

'Maybe nowadays, it’s an advantage being Jewish,' said Diana Simonova, a 21-year-old student who fled Ukraine.

‘Maybe nowadays, it’s an advantage being Jewish,’ said Diana Simonova, a 21-year-old student who fled Ukraine. Photo by Larry Cohler-Esses

Jewish organizations had previously helped Simonova’s mother escape from Donetsk, an area near the Russian border where conflict had been raging for years. On March 9, she dropped Simonova off at the Menorah Center in Dnipro, where Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezky was organizing buses to the border.

“I told the coordinator that my grandmother was Jewish and that I wanted to go to Israel,” Simonova said.

I was speaking to Simonova, who had been studying applied computer linguistics in Kharkhiv, as she sipped hot soup near a heater inside the JDC’s tent at the Romanian border crossing of Siret. Outside, it was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

Simonova said she had left Dnipro at 2:30 p.m. the previous day, traveled 15 hours in the bus, then waited in line at the border for two-and-a-half hours before arriving at the tent. Within three hours, the JDC workers had set up housing, food and social support for her and the bus’s 36 other passengers.

About two-thirds of them, including Simonova, wanted to go to Israel. They were pointed toward the Jewish Agency, which verified their eligibility under the Law of Return, and took over the care and transport of those who qualified. The Joint, along with local Jewish communities and groups such as HIAS, would handle the others, providing free shelter, food and counseling as they figured out what they wanted to do next.

Natan Sharansky, the Soviet refusenik-turned-Israeli politician, like Astakhova, noted the ironic twist of history. “When I was growing up in Ukraine, the worst thing to have written in the ID was ‘Jew,’” Sharansky said in an interview shortly after the war started. “In this line, today, everybody wants to be a Jew.”

“When you look at this line of hundreds of thousands of refugees,” he said, “there is only one country whose representative is going through the line, and asking if you want to talk to us. Not Britain, not France, not Germany – they are not coming specifically to take people. Only Israel – a country that didn’t exist during World War II – is doing this.”

That is certainly a major factor. But it’s not the only one. Alongside it are the robust efforts toward Jewish renewal inside Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Experts estimate that there were about 200,000 people with Jewish ancestry in the country at the start of the war.

Reliable access to aid

The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic group has been especially active in establishing synagogues, schools and social service organizations in 32 Ukrainian cities, including Dnipro’s Menorah Center – which bills itself as the world’s largest Jewish building, with seven marble towers evoking the shape of a candelabra. Within its approximately 500,000 square feet are a synagogue, museums, shopping spaces, a publishing house, art galleries, kosher restaurants and cafes and a luxury hotel with conference and banquet halls.

The JDC, meanwhile, has been working in Ukraine since the fall of Communism and today runs 16 “Chesed” centers – the name is Hebrew for “loving kindness” – for Jews in poverty. That meant, among other things, that the group had a database of 37,000 people touched by the program, and copies of legal documents for many of them when the refugee crisis broke out.

“There is no way of getting aid into these cities,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, Chabad’s spokesman at the group’s international headquarters in Brooklyn. “But if you have a network established on the ground, you’re able to find food, shelter and medicines, things people need to stay alive.”

For those who want to leave, Seligson said, local Chabad rabbis are chartering buses, hiring drivers and, with help from Chabad officials outside Ukraine, arranging flights to various destinations once refugees cross the border.

When bombs starting falling in Odessa, the city’s chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff, organized a convoy to bring more than 100 children living in a Chabad orphanage there safely to Berlin. They were personally welcomed by Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Elsewhere, said Seligson, “If people are Jewish, the first place they’re turning to is the rabbi of their local synagogue, even if they had no contact with him before.”

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany had lunch with Ukrainian refugees at the Chabad of Berlin.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany had lunch with Ukrainian refugees at the Chabad of Berlin.

From loathed to lucky

The renaissance in Jewish life prior to the current crisis has been accompanied by a reversal in attitudes towards Jews within Ukrainian society. A 2018 Pew Research Poll found that Ukrainians were far more welcoming of Jews as fellow citizens than the populations of neighboring countries including Poland, Romania and virtually all of Eastern Europe. One year later, they would elect a Jewish president.

David Roskies, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the transformation of Jews in the region – from loathed to lucky – happened in stages, and actually started before the fall of Communism, in the early 1970s. That’s when Jews around the world and especially in the United States started organizing to free Soviet Jews from behind the Iron Curtain, where they were prohibited from practicing their religion.

Roskies, who was an activist in this movement, recalled visiting the Soviet Union which had stagnated economically, socially and culturally under Communism, and finding it “gray, dreary and depressed.”

“Strangely, the only people who had any spark of hope were the Jews trying to get out,” he said. “That’s where I saw this amazing discrepancy. They understood that someone cared about them and was sending people over to meet with them and support them.”

The late 1980s and early 1990s, when Communism fell and the Soviet economy followed it, marked what Roskies sees as Stage Two of this process: mass aliyah. “The whole system of privilege had collapsed,” he said, “and the only people who had a place to go were the Jews.”

And it was not just to Israel – to the consternation of some Zionists, many emigres ended up in the United States. While non-Jews had to jump through many hoops in order to even hope to get a U.S. visa, those with “Jew” stamped on their Soviet identity card were now granted a legal presumption of eligibility for refugee status.

This was due to a 1990 change in immigration law sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Jewish Democrat from New Jersey. Before the change, applicants for refugee status had to prove they had a “well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The so-called Lautenberg Amendment changed this to provide automatic acceptance into the refugee program for Jews, evangelical Christians and members of other religious minority groups that had been repressed by the Soviets.

Under its aegis, some 201,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States between 1990 and 2014, the most recent year for which reliable data are available. Despite the end of state-sponsored antisemitism in the region, Jews from Eurasia and the Baltics remain eligible for immigration as refugees under what the State Department’s immigration website terms “a reduced evidentiary standard.”

Some consider the ongoing privileged status unjustified, given the rise of refugees elsewhere. In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, Bill Frelik of Human Rights Watch termed it a “Cold War anachronism.”

“In a world where people are persecuted in many places for varying reasons,” he said, “refugee resettlement programs should not privilege one category but rather prioritize the most vulnerable with the most compelling need to be resettled.”

Professor Roskies noted that the U.S. is not alone in conferring such benefits to Jews from the former Soviet Union. Germany, too, opened its gates after the fall of Communism. A German embassy official said the policy was motivated by a desire to replenish Germany’s pre-World War II Jewish population after the Holocaust. “They give a golden ticket to Jews to come to Germany,” is how Roskies put it.

Germany’s policy may be a particularly stark example of the transformation in European policies toward Jews, but it is far from the only one. Like Nazi Germany, the city Kishniev lives in infamy in Jewish memory, thanks to the notorious pogrom that took place there in 1903 under the rule of the Russian czar. Forty-nine Jews were murdered and hundreds were raped and wounded in a massacre that reverberated around the world – the first anti-Jewish riot to be photographed and splashed on front pages.

It generated a surge of early Zionist emigration to Palestine and the formation of self-defense militias among many Jews who remained. The Jewish poet Chaim Nachman Bialik immortalized the murderous assault with “In the City of Slaughter,” one of his most famous poems.

Today the city is called Chișinău, and it is the capital of the independent republic of Moldova, which also borders Ukraine. Since the war began, the city has closed its airport to all commercial traffic due to the conflict close by – with one exception: flights for Ukrainian refugees making aliyah to Israel. The government is also working closely with Jewish aid organizations to help other Jews who wish to go elsewhere.

This seeming reversal of Jewish history brought to my mind the famous Yiddish play, “It’s Hard to be a Jew,” by Sholom Aleichem. It was 1920 when the play premiered at the Yiddish Art Theatre on Second Avenue in Manhattan – three years after the Bolshevik Revolution, as Jews were being killed in the thousands in antisemitic attacks from all sides during the civil war raging throughout Russia and Ukraine.

This month, at the JDC tent on the Romania-Ukraine border, Simonova, freshly arrived from a hellish bus ride through dangerous conflict zones offered a revise that seemed all but inescapable

“Maybe nowadays,” she said, “it’s an advantage being Jewish.”

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