As I’m writing this, my cousin Sergey’s funeral is being held. He was killed on March 8 near Mykolaiv, Ukraine, while he and his unit were attempting to evacuate civilians. The military was unable to recover his body until yesterday due to shelling carried out in the region by Russian troops. Today, Sergey is receiving a hero’s tribute just as the roughly 1,300 other soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in the past 19 days will receive.
Ukraine has been the focus of every news outlet and social media platform since Feb. 24. The full-scale invasion we are now witnessing has been labeled by Russia as a “de-Nazification” operation. Sadly, I see other Americans promoting this lie and even questioning whether the war in Ukraine is “real.” Ask my friends and my family that question. Ask the people who have lost their homes and loved ones that question. Ask me that question.
I asked my loved ones last Friday if they would be comfortable with me sharing their stories. Each of them said, “Yes, we need a voice.” From the comfort and safety of my current home in Subotica, Serbia, I have spent the past 19 days consumed by their situations, worried by the unknown and stricken with fear by the thought of what could happen not just to them, but to everyone, to an entire nation.
The morning of Feb. 24, I woke up at 4:15 feeling ill and filled with dread. I reached for my phone to check my messages. What I hoped was just a nightmare was real—the war had started. I messaged everyone and waited for their responses. Each minute without a reply seemed like an hour. Thank God each of them was safe. As the days passed, rather than messaging incessantly, I began scrolling through their social media accounts. If there’s a recent tweet or a Facebook post, I breathe a sigh of relief. After the first week, I subscribed to a variety of Telegram channels that provide information and alerts from the Ukrainian military about the regions they live in. Before reading the alert, I check the emojis. A Ukrainian flag and flexed forearm are met with a sigh of relief. The red exclamation points chill me to the bone.
English translation for the first alert: “Missile threat from the north!!!! Attention!!!!!!! Head to the nearest shelter!!!!! Our air defense is already working!!!”
English translation for the second alert: “The siren has stopped! Everything worked perfectly. Everything will be Ukraine!”
This is the daily reality for the 44 million people, including roughly 350,000 Jews, who call Ukraine home. It was the only country outside of Israel to have a Jewish president and prime minister at the same time, when Volodomyr Zelenskyi won the presidential election in 2019 and Volodymyr Groysman was still prime minister. The birthplace of Hassidism, with a rich history of Yiddish culture but also a tragic past that saw the loss of 1 million Jews during the Shoah, is now home to thriving Jewish communities throughout the country. Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odessa, Kyiv, Kherson and Zhytomyr are some of the larger communities these days. Many people have been evacuated, or have made aliyah (immigration to Israel), but many have stayed behind either to fight or support their communities. Rabbis have remained in the war-torn areas. Kharkiv and Kherson come to mind—they’re ensuring people have food and supplies, risking their lives not only for their immediate communities but anyone they can help.
One of my dear friends is currently with her family in the suburbs of Kyiv, not far from Boryspil Airport. The bombings and fighting are happening only 20 miles from their home. The military will be evacuating their neighborhood on Wednesday, but her mother is refusing to leave. What my friend will decide, I don’t know, but I do know she doesn’t want to leave her mother behind. What would any of us do in her situation? God willing, they will make it out safely and together, along with their pets.
Other friends are alone, unable to make it to their families. They still have to work and carry on with their lives. Those who work online often stay in their homes even when they should be in their basements or a bomb shelter so they don’t lose their Wi-Fi connections. They are sitting in the dark at night with their windows covered so the enemy doesn’t catch a glimpse of light emanating from their windows. When I receive a message like, “I’m scared, the shooting is so loud,” my heart breaks. I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness.
The nighttime is the worst. The bombings intensify, and the messages from those dear to me brings me to tears. I try to think of the right thing to say, some reassuring words to make them feel better. The best I can do is remind them that I’m praying for them and so is most of the world. I want all of Ukraine to know that they’re in our prayers. That each of us is doing all that we can to help. I send each of them screenshots of fundraising campaigns that our communities are involved in, showing them the support that’s coming from every corner of the earth, knowing that we haven’t forgotten them, that they aren’t alone.
My cousins, thank God, are safe for now in Volochys’k, which is in the western part of the country, but four men from their town have lost their lives in the past 19 days. The locals have rallied together to make camouflage netting, flak jackets and Molotov cocktails. They’re united in their fight to keep Ukraine independent and free. Each of us must try to help them in their fight.
Many people around the world, particularly back home in America, hope for peace, but Ukrainians know that peace with Russia is only possible through victory. Surrender would likely mean the end of the Ukrainian nation.
Want to help vulnerable Jews in Ukraine? Here are a few resources.
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