World Jewish Relief brings hope to Ukrainian community

By Marcus Dysch, May 21, 2009
Ukraine's got talent: Krivoy Rog's younger community members are to the fore in a Eurovision-style concern in the Centre's theatre

Ukraine's got talent: Krivoy Rog's younger community members are to the fore in a Eurovision-style concern in the Centre's theatre

At first glance, Krivoy Rog is a grim, soulless city.

Mile after mile of empty fields are interspersed with drab tower blocks. The wide, potholed streets are largely devoid of traffic. Only occasionally does a pedestrian wander by.

This sprawling former steel mining city in south Ukraine, 200 miles from the capital Kiev, is home to 12,000 Jews, most of whom are, like the other 700,000 residents, in dire need of medical and financial assistance.

Its suffering has been compounded by the collapse of the region’s steel industry. Thousands are unemployed, living in squalid conditions with little or no support from the state.

Last week, more than 20 World Jewish Relief supporters visited the city as part of WJR’s largest-ever mission to witness the official opening of the £2 million Beit Graham community centre.

WJR adopted Krivoy Rog as part of its “Our Town” project in 2005, beginning the process of uniting community and welfare services under one roof.

Work began on the building in August 2007 and was completed earlier this year. It offers a wide range of services for all ages, incorporating a theatre, gym, computer room, classrooms, crèche and lounge.

It is expected that more than half the city’s Jews will use the centre’s facilities on a regular basis.

Among the British party was the centre’s main donor, property developer Richard Graham, who first visited Krivoy Rog with WJR in 2005. Mr Graham, a New North London Masorti member, grew up in Sheffield and sees a connection between the two steel cities.

Major donor Richard Graham (right) at the opening ceremony

Major donor Richard Graham (right) at the opening ceremony

“This city’s Jewish people are committed and have the skills that any charity seeks,” he observed. “This was an investment, not just donating a cheque.

“The elderly people here have lived a horrific life and suffered so much for being Jewish. It’s remarkable that now, towards the end of their lives, being Jewish has offered them this chance.

“It’s about bringing the community back to life. There is a spirit here that most British communities can’t ever hope to achieve, perhaps because we have so much and here there’s so little.”

Yevgeniya Shapiro and her family epitomise the hardship experienced by Krivoy Rog’s Jews.

The 21-year-old lives with her four-year-old son, Ivan, and mother Elena in a single room at a state-run dormitory. The floor and ceiling are damp, damaged and in desperate need of repair.

There is no lock on the door and the Shapiros cannot afford to buy one. It does not concern them though, as they possess nothing worth stealing.
They share a squat toilet with five other families, along with a small bathroom and kitchen.

Elena previously worked as a pharmacist but is now unemployed and dedicates her time to caring for her grandson. Ivan spends his days playing in the block’s long corridors, kicking a ball or chasing his cat.

Yevgeniya, who has a bone marrow disease, previously studied in Arad, Israel, but moved back to Ukraine before Ivan’s birth.

The family now survive on £120 a month. However, if either mother or daughter were to find a job, they would forfeit much of Yevgeniya’s disability allowance.

She admitted to harbouring hopes of one day living in Haifa, but scoffed at the prospect of the family making aliyah to escape their plight. “I love Krivoy Rog. It’s my native town,” she said.

Back at Beit Graham, the donors are watching the centre’s opening celebrations. The children’s wing has been dedicated to WJR supporter Tony Brooks, who died in January 2006.

His widow, Bonnie, and other family members watch toddlers perform Ukrainian nursery rhymes and dance routines.

After being presented with a painting by the children, Mrs Brooks said: “It is very emotional and amazing to see the finished centre. It gives these children a lifeline and some hope. Tony always said if it wasn’t for our forefathers leaving, we could have been living here like this.”

Most of the youngsters are in the “at risk” category, either through special needs, living in abject poverty, or even as victims of parental abuse.

“We can play here and have fun,” said six-year-old Mila, wrestling with a balloon. “We learn how to read and write and everyone is very friendly. I would be sad if I could not come here.”

In the room next door, pensioners are meeting for an afternoon social class. Taking centre stage is 93-year-old Lisa Kushnir, the matriarch of the community.

Her companions crowd round as she performs Yiddish songs in operatic tones belying her years. In a parallel universe she would be the front-runner in Ukraine’s Got Talent.

Ms Kushnir’s friend Kila Matova said: “We come to the centre twice a month. There are good seminars and we learn about our traditions and history. The doctor comes and tells us about health issues.

“Most of us are lonely and so it’s important to communicate and see each other here. I could not live without the welfare services.”

As the brass band plays in the grounds outside, WJR chairman Nigel Layton watches hundreds of community members pour through the gates for the opening ceremony.

“Having started this project years ago, this means everything,” he said. “We are making such a difference. If we had tried this 15 years ago, we would have been locked up.

“Their Jewish life was suppressed for so long and now it’s bursting out.”

Rarely can Krivoy Rog’s Jews have taken part in a celebration like this. Dressed in their finest outfits, their excitement was such that when confetti canons were set off, many collected the coloured fragments to take home as souvenirs.

In bright sunshine, the band opened the ceremony with a rendition of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, before moving on to the national anthems of Ukraine and Israel.

Quietly watching was 15-year-old Ilona Kaplyn, one of the few English speakers.

“Sometimes it is very good to be Jewish here, but sometimes very hard as well,” she reflected. “Some people here do not like Jews.

“I often come to the centre and I know a lot of the people. It is a lot more beautiful than a few years ago. We are like a big family.”
Ilona would like to go to Israel to train as a doctor, but her family cannot afford to send her. She is resigned to staying in their “not very comfortable” flat for the foreseeable future.

“I learn Jewish dancing and I like it very much. When I was younger my mother would sing songs like Havah Nagilah to me in the kitchen.”
The centre offers her only Jewish involvement. She longs to find somewhere she can buy a Star of David necklace.

With the action moved inside, the locals staged a Eurovision-style concert in the high-tech theatre.

Asked to say a few words on behalf of the British visitors, donor Ashley Mitchell expressed admiration for the efforts of the Ukrainian community, saying his grandmother, who was born there, would have been “overwhelmed by what is being done”.

Beit Graham has also been welcomed by the city’s authorities — perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it has been opened at someone else’s expense.
Sergei Nezhendsv, former assistant to the mayor, believes Krivoy Rog is more tolerant of its Jews than elsewhere in Ukraine. “I’m not Jewish by birth, but I like the culture,” he said. “I have a lot of Jewish colleagues and friends so I wanted to help.

“We have thousands of families with Jewish roots. There are many examples of families which years ago lost their identity, but now the children are using Jewish names.”

It is the community itself which will ultimately drive the project forward. The centre’s finances are structured so that it will be self-sufficient within five years, allowing WJR to reduce its fiscal and administrative input.

WJR chief executive Paul Anticoni is confident that a volunteer and leadership ethos will be instilled in users. “The people are taking pride in being part of the Jewish community.

“In the former Soviet Union, governance of your own community is still largely an alien idea.

“We cannot be lavish, we have to help those most in need. Parts of the community are almost entirely dependent on us. Credit crunch or not, we have to be there for them.

“It is largely an older community. They have mostly sat at home, unwilling and unable to get out. Their enthusiasm has always been there. Now it will grow.”

For Richard Graham, the completion of the building does not mark the end of the charity’s work in Krivoy Rog. He said: “Twenty years ago I don’t think anyone thought a community could be resurrected here. But now there is a future.”

Desolate, and only poetry for company

Life is hard for Yakov Vacks.

The 61-year-old Krivoy Rog resident has been unemployed for years after losing his job as a mechanical engineer.

For the past 17 years he has lived alone in a cramped flat on the seventh floor of a dilapidated tower block. The two cramped rooms were last decorated two years after he moved into it.

There is no carpet and few items of furniture. A tiny stool doubles as a table. The seat is detached and Yakov uses one side as a desktop. The other for dining.

He is so embarrassed by the state of the flat that he never invites people to visit. With no family to call on his time, he fills the endless empty hours by writing poetry and keeping fit.

“Writing is my hobby and a great support in life. My main topics are Judaism, love and philosophy.

“From time to time I try to learn languages — a bit of English or Yiddish.

“I used to box as a boy because I was a very weak child. At my school in west Ukraine there was a lot of antisemitism, much worse than it is here now.

“So I attended boxing classes in order to protect myself.

“In a morning I try to do some sports training — running for an hour maybe. Or I concentrate on a topic I want to write about.

“I have to keep fit because there is no one to care for me and I cannot buy medicine.

“I feel like I live in a vacuum. I’m very ashamed of my living conditions — they are awful. But I have no money; I cannot even afford new teeth. I’m ashamed I do not have a better appearance.”

Yakov’s only social interaction is at the Beit Graham centre, where he reads his poems and gets feedback from other users. He lives for his visits and the “spiritual atmosphere and Jewish life” he experiences there.

After reading a poem he has written about Anne Frank, Yakov’s voice shakes with emotion.

“I do not consider myself as very religious,” he says. “But without religion and belief my life would be empty.
“Maybe I have not succeeded in life. I have no car and not enough money, but I do not want to stop my writing. What God gave me is all I have.”

Last updated: 3:20pm, May 21 2009