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After 547 days of war, I am ready to leave Ukraine again — this time, with sadness

Helen Chervitz helped desperate Ukrainians and connected with the country’s Jewish community. But the war has taken its toll on her.
Helen Chervitz, before she immigrated to the U.S., as a student at Kyiv Sports University. Courtesy of Helen Chervitz

KYIV–My family immigrated from Ukraine to Boston in the late 1980s because the country was no place for Jews. I vowed never to return. Those of you who have read my dispatches from Kyiv since Russia’s invasion last year know that my husband and I eventually did return — a quarter century later, with American citizenship.

I found a different Ukraine, one in which Jews were welcome, even celebrated — a country that would elect a Jewish president and stand behind him as he marshaled all its strength against the invaders. I have been part of that resistance for these last 547 days of war. Friends, family, and the U.S. Embassy have urged my husband and me to leave. But we were determined to remain in Kyiv to wage our personal war for democracy and peace and help those in need. 

I tutored children when the schools closed. I donated blood. I have gone on countless grocery runs for the elderly and others too afraid to leave their apartments. I volunteered in any capacity I felt I could be useful.

Connecting Jews to Jews

Helen Chervitz with some of the appliances and devices purchased by American Jews and synagogues. They will be given to Ukrainian Jews and others who lack heat and electricity. Courtesy of Helen Chervitz

On assignment for the Forward, I met Rabbi Reuven Stamov, who has helped build Conservative Jewish communities across the country. I connected him and his congregants with synagogues in the U.S. which raised money for generators, flashlights, electric heaters, and other items so necessary here when the electricity fails. Some of these recipients, and their parents, survived the Holocaust and remember the bombing of Kyiv by the Nazis.  Some of the money raised paid for medical care for Jewish soldiers wounded in battle.

My husband helps Ukraine in a different way, through a successful start-up that produces large-diameter polymer pipes. Even when a missile hit close to a production facility in May, he stayed, unwilling to abandon his employees. 

But now we have decided we will leave Ukraine — again. This time, though, it will be with sadness. We feel tied to this city, country and its people now — Jews and non-Jews alike. 

Air raids and dark winters

Life has felt more precarious. Since the beginning of May, Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Kryvyi Rih have come under attack almost every night. We had looked forward to summer, with longer daylight hours, warmer temperatures, and less war. It was not to be.

A woman in the frontline town of Avdiivka, Donetsk region on April 25, 2023. Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

The gruesome Russian air attacks persist. Most of the enemy’s missiles are detected and destroyed by the Ukrainian Defense Forces. But some get through, taking lives and livelihoods in every quarter of the city. The remnants of even intercepted missiles and drones cause heavy damage.

The suffering Ukrainians have endured since February 2022 is hard to comprehend: lost lives, wounded soldiers, separated families, Zoom fathers, sleepless nights, and constant fear.

My husband doesn’t understand how I stay calm through screaming air raid sirens. But what really scares me is the thought of the coming winter, when the electricity will again falter. I am not prepared for more dark evenings and freezing nights, and having to thaw ice on our balcony for water. 

And I miss my daughter, my only child, who is in New York and hasn’t seen her father and me for more than two years. “Why do you stay?” she continues to ask. We haven’t been able to take a “break” from the war to visit her. It takes several days to travel to the nearest airport in Poland by train or bus. The wait at the border can take hours. And the same challenges await you on the return journey. I have not left the country since the war began. My husband has taken several business trips to Europe, though, and has returned utterly depleted.

Destination unknown

Since she returned to Ukraine 10 years ago, Helen Chervitz has become a fashion writer and frequently lectures on the subject. Courtesy of Helen Chervitz

So we are ready to leave. Where will we go? Perhaps back to New York, where we lived before we returned to Ukraine. Perhaps somewhere safe in Europe since the European Commission, which funds my husband’s venture, has recommended that it be relocated.

My work I can do from most anywhere. I am a fashion writer and only began writing about war because I found myself in the middle of one. 

But leaving will feel nothing like it did in 1988, when a customs agent confiscated my daughter’s baby spoon and barked at us: “This is how you, damn Jews, are looting the country’s wealth.”

I will miss many friends, Jews and non-Jews. I will worry about the elderly and others who have counted on me to deliver food, medications and warmth. 

But I will leave this time without the bitterness I felt when I was a young mother with a baby. I refused to raise her here, where she would have been, as I was, insulted and denied employment simply for being Jewish.

This time I will leave proud of our struggling and heroic motherland. I will miss Ukraine.

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