The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After decades of building their lives in Ukraine, Jews are once again fleeing the country

Anna Galicina, 38, and her son, Sheerbak Semen, 5, are shown in Korczowa, Poland, on March 3, after fleeing their home city of Kyiv. They are Ukrainian Jews who are heading to refuge in Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel. (Kasia Strek for The Washington Post)
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Ukraine’s Jewish community was on the up.

After centuries of pogroms and emigration driven by antisemitism, followed by the devastation of the Holocaust in World War II, and then Soviet repression, recent decades brought a flourishing of synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers. Estimates of how many Jews remained vary, in part because of differences in how Jewish communities define who is Jewish. But Jewish aid organizations estimate that 200,000 Ukrainian Jews — some religious, many more not — were integrated into the life of the country. The most notable part of secular President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewishness was that it was barely considered a factor in his 2019 campaign.

Then Russia invaded.

In videos and photos, a timeline of Russia’s war on Ukraine

With an exodus from Ukraine underway — more than 2 million people, mainly women and children, have fled — Ukrainian Jews are pouring out of the country or digging in to fight, and the turmoil could spell the beginning of another ending for what was so meticulously rebuilt.

Amid the general devastation, many of the pillars of Jewish communities have left or are under threat. Rabbis have fled with their congregants, and synagogues, community centers and schools are closed. Some Ukrainians are relocating to Israel, which offers many Jews the chance to immigrate, and under revised rules will allow temporary residence for others. Many fear that much of what once was will be lost in the war.

“Over 30 years we built an amazing community,” said Avraham Wolff, 52, a rabbi who moved from Israel to Odessa, Ukraine, in 1992, as an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which is known for global outreach. “And it’s a shame that it has come to this.”

Last week, Wolff was at home in Odessa helping to evacuate anyone who called and otherwise help those who wanted to stay. But by March 4, at the end of the war’s ninth day, as Russian forces advanced, he boarded a bus with his family for Moldova.

He is determined to return and rebuild, but he does not know how or when.

“We are praying very, very hard that we will wake up from this dream very, very quickly,” he said Sunday. “More quickly than we left.”

Facing a growing humanitarian crisis, European countries in the war’s first week took an unprecedented step: helping Ukrainians by easing strict immigration rules intended to limit the flow of refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan.

Suddenly welcoming, Europe opens the door to refugees fleeing Ukraine

Jewish aid groups, and Israel, also have been helping Jews leave Ukraine.

A consortium of Jewish groups at six border crossings has shepherded at least 3,000 Ukrainians who identify as Jewish into neighboring Moldova and an estimated 3,000 more into Poland, Hungary and Romania, Michael Geller, the director of media relations for the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization involved in the effort, said Sunday.

In addition, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which supports Jewish migration to Israel; the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Jerusalem-based organization; and Chabad, which is headquartered in New York, are among those who have teamed up to help Jews fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Israel is planning to set up a field hospital in Ukraine, in the relative safety of the western city of Lviv, to serve Ukrainians who have fled there.

Like most Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60, Jewish men are being conscripted and barred from leaving. Others of Jewish heritage are making the choice to stay and fight or help otherwise. And for some, including many of the elderly, the exit journey would be too arduous. But thousands more are still trying to reach safety.

Many who make it out of Ukraine are likely to remain dispersed across Europe indefinitely, some housed and supported by Jewish relief organizations and local communities, Geller said.

But a subset will travel on to Israel: Some will become citizens under a law allowing all Jews to immigrate. About 5,000 will be able to stay temporarily if they do not meet the criteria, under revised rules that Israel announced Tuesday.

Some in the latter category may still consider themselves Jewish. Strict Jewish law bases Jewish lineage on maternal descent. Other Jewish traditions include people with heritage tracing back to other family members.

As of March 9, the Jewish Agency said it had vetted and helped more than 1,000 Jews migrate to Israel so far. Overall, some 2,000 Jewish Ukrainians had come to the agency’s Israeli immigration centers set up along borders in partnership with IFCJ. The agencies rented over 4,000 beds near the borders to temporarily accommodate refugees.

Israel considers aid options for possible Jewish refugees from Ukraine if war comes

Many more may pursue that route over the course of the conflict: Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday that Israel also was preparing to absorb up to 100,000 Jews and non-Jewish close family members from Ukraine, Russia and other Eastern European countries who may flee as the war deepens.

Jews in Ukraine have known a long history of strife.

Odessa, Ukraine’s third-most-populous city, once was a pillar of European Jewish life. In the city of Uman, a shrine to a famous early-19th-century rabbi remains a pilgrimage site.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, pogroms — riots incited to terrorize and kill Jews — led many across the Russian Empire to emigrate.

Periods of relative calm did not last. During World War II, Nazi Germany and its allies killed an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, out of the 6 million Jews who died across Europe. One of the Holocaust’s worst massacres occurred in 1941 in a ravine called Babyn Yar on Kyiv’s outskirts. In several days, Nazi death squads killed more than 30,000 Jews as part of campaigns across the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule in the decades that followed, Jewish life, including holidays and the study of Hebrew, was effectively banned. Jews were barred from emigrating and excluded from fields such as the arts and politics: Many, such as Zelensky’s parents, gravitated to careers in the sciences, a more accessible field.

In the Soviet Union, “you were not allowed to be a Jew,” said Gal Beckerman, a journalist and historian of Soviet Jewry. But on Soviet identification cards, their nationality would be listed as Jewish, “so that singled them out,” he said.

In the years before and after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, many Ukrainian Jews left.

Zelensky’s family was among the few hundred thousand Jews who stayed in the hope that they would have more opportunities in the new Ukraine.

In the post-Cold War decades, Chabad and other Orthodox Jewish groups made an effort to help revive Jewish and religious life in Ukraine.

Putin says he will ‘denazify’ Ukraine. Here’s the history behind that claim.

Last week, the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro emerged as a tentative haven from Russian shelling. The city’s massive, decade-old Menorah Center, a complex hailed as a symbol of persistence after centuries of challenges, reportedly became a warehouse for food stores as the people of the city braced for whatever came next.

In an address to American Jewish organizations Monday, Zelensky likened the threat posed to Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin to that posed by Nazi Germany. Putin has claimed falsely that Zelensky and his government are Nazis, a refrain that resonates with parts of the Russian public.

“All of these millions of people are going to be exterminated,” Zelensky said. “And this is a big tragedy.”

Max Bearak in Korczowa, Poland, contributed to this report.