'As gunmen came in, we hid in the cellar'

By Simon Rocker, August 22, 2014
Buses hit by shelling in Donetsk

Buses hit by shelling in Donetsk

Decimated by the Nazis and repressed under Stalin, Jews in Ukraine have been rebuilding their communal life over the past two decades since the collapse of Communism.

But now many face an uncertain future as fighting continues in the east of the country between government forces and pro-Russia separatists.

Two months ago, Valeria Kholodova, 31, fled Donetsk with her husband and seven-year-old son with just a suitcase each of summer clothes.

"When the airport was bombed and the railway station, which is not far from the place where we live, we were frightened," she said. "We heard the blasts all night and after this we decided to leave."

Mrs Kholodova, who is director of Hillel for the Donetsk region and was also working for a Jewish welfare organisation in the city, reckoned that three-quarters of the youth and students from the city's 22,000-strong Jewish community had also left.

Kholodova (left) and Vints

Kholodova (left) and Vints

"A lot of buildings are already destroyed in the centre of the city," she said. "Almost everything is closed - shops, banks and educational institutions. People who had opportunity to leave the city have done it." Her family is now living with relatives in the small town of Truskovets.

Mrs Kholodova was able to find some respite the week before last, having come to London for the annual Israel Dance Institute summer school.

While aid has come from organisations like the Joint Distribution Committee, it is not enough, she said. "It is very strange when you are working for a charity and one day you become the person who needs help," she added.

Teenager Dasha Zavgorodnyaya, together with her parents and four-year-old twin siblings, Ilya and Maria, fled Luhansk, in east Ukraine, as shells rained down near their home which was then taken over by armed men.

Speaking through an interpreter in a telephone conversation with the JC, she said: "The city is in ruins. We hid in the cellar when our house was occupied by separatists and by other people, some of whom I think had mental problems. It was very scary. There was the sound of war. Our home was in ruins. Almost all the other Jewish families had left."

Finally, said the 16-year-old, her family abandoned their home and moved to the northern city of Kharkov where Jewish organisations including World Jewish Relief and JDC are active.

They were forced to take a long route in order to avoid separatist and army outposts but, after a six-hour trip, they reached Kharkov where WJR arranged temporary accommodation for them.

WJR will launch a "Ukraine Winter Crisis Appeal" ahead of Rosh Hashanah.

In Crimea, annexed by Russia in March, life is quieter for Jews. Sonya Vints, 20, from Simferopol in Crimea, who was also in London for the dance school, said: "It's difficult but not there is no war in Crimea," she said. "There is my life, my family, my friends."

Last updated: 3:44pm, August 22 2014