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Telling the Story of Ukraine’s Jews: An Interview With ‘The Jerusalem Post’s Sam Sokol

Telling the Story of Ukraine’s Jews: An Interview With ‘The Jerusalem Post’s Sam Sokol

A question of survival for Jewish communities devastated by war, fear and a failing economy

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A Jewish refugee from eastern Ukraine reacts emotionally as she tells her story.
A Jewish refugee from eastern Ukraine reacts emotionally as she tells her story.

Ukraine has been in turmoil for almost two years, flooded by cascading waves of crisis that have yet to let up. Protests in Kiev led to a revolution. That was followed by invasion, unrest, war and a surge of refugees rushing to escape shelling and battle. Nearly 9,000 people have died in the conflict. Ukraine’s economic collapse has taken a severe toll on citizens throughout the country.

Amid this chaos live at least 350,000 Jews, making Ukraine, behind only France, home to the second-largest Jewish community in Europe.

The Jews of Donetsk and Lugansk have seen their communal infrastructure disintegrate; many have left the country for good; others remain, struggling to survive. Ukraine’s Jewish communities face an uphill battle to keep their doors open.

The Jerusalem Post’s award-winning correspondent Sam Sokol has been one of the most vocal and consistent voices calling attention to the plight of Ukraine’s massive Jewish community. For his voluminous work on the Jews of Ukraine, Sokol was awarded the 2015 B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage, and he is now working on completing a book telling this vital story.

Here, Sokol reveals what drew him to the country’s plight, why he felt it necessary to continue coverage and what he hopes to accomplish by focusing on Ukraine’s Jews.

Q: How did you initially come to write about Ukraine?

A: At first, I covered Ukraine like I would any other Jewish story in France or Hungary or England, but several unique trends started to show themselves.

Both sides in the conflict accused the other side of anti-Semitism, saying they were protecting the Jews from the enemy, but the fact was that the Jews in Ukraine were not, for the most part, suffering from anti-Semitism. It came to a point where they were being harmed most by a war that was claimed to be fought for them. The story had been covered extensively during the Maidan Revolution, but there was little follow-up interest because anti-Semitism didn’t materialize.

Sam Sokol in Donetsk with the ruins of the city's ruined sports center behind him.
Sam Sokol in Donetsk with the ruins of the city's ruined sports center behind him.

Very quickly, Ukraine became a situation where you had Jewish refugees—we saw the first Jewish refugee camps in Europe since the aftermath of the Holocaust. Seventy-five percent of Donetsk’s Jewish community became refugees. So there was a level of suffering without a corresponding level of interest within the Jewish community.

In pure numbers, more Jews are suffering in Ukraine than anywhere else. But since it’s not Jews, per se, the story didn’t resonate. Many people that I spoke to hadn’t even heard of the issue.

Q: Could you have imagined that you would still be covering this story almost two years later?

A: Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the Chabad rabbi in Donetsk, took a large group of his community last summer and fled to Mariupol, and then when Russia and separatists invaded and it looked like Mariupol would be coming under attack, they fled again to Kiev. When you have a rabbi taking a core of his community and fleeing a city, and then fleeing again, that’s showing you that the fabric of Jewish life itself is starting to unravel. I saw then this would not be a one-off feature. That’s when I realized I needed to document this because otherwise, these refugees’ stories would be lost.

Sokol, far right, at a Ukrainian military position near the southeastern city of Mariupol.
Sokol, far right, at a Ukrainian military position near the southeastern city of Mariupol.

Q: Were you familiar with Jewish life in Ukraine? Were you surprised by the extensive size of the community?

A: I wasn’t surprised by how big Jewish life there was, but I was impressed. I had a theoretical knowledge of what had been done in the former USSR, especially by Chabad. It’s one thing to know, and another to go into the field and see the shluchim [emissaries] who went there and are rebuilding Jewish life.

In Kiev, you have a Modern Orthodox community and Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich’s community, as well as a very large Chabad community. But in eastern Ukraine, the entire Jewish-community infrastructure is Chabad. There just isn’t anything else. It’s incredibly inspiring to see the work that Chabad is doing there. These shluchim spent years reweaving the fabric of Jewish life, and this war has frayed that, scattering people all over.

Q: Ukraine was at times very dangerous. Can you describe some of your experiences?

A: What scared me at first was seeing the ultranationalist Svoboda Party flags in Kiev during the Maidan; I even saw painted swastikas. During the revolution, I took a Svoboda flag as a souvenir and forgot I was carrying it. I walked into the office of a Jewish organization still holding it and the secretary started screaming; she thought a pogrom was starting. The director heard the yelling, came out and calmed her down.

At the end of last May, I traveled to Donetsk after fighting had begun. Fierce combat had broken out right before I left for there—50 men had been killed in fighting at the Donetsk airport. When I went the rail lines hadn’t yet been cut off, so I took a train from Kharkov to Donetsk via Dnepropetrovsk. I refreshed

Donetsk on Twitter just before I got there, and the first thing I see is a picture of a dead woman lying in the parking lot of Donetsk’s train station; she had been shot dead there. I couldn’t think of anything else as I walked through that parking lot. Going there then was a nerve-racking experience.

The burnt remains of a branch of Privat Bank in Mariupol.
The burnt remains of a branch of Privat Bank in Mariupol.

Q: What has been the reaction to your work on Ukraine within the general Jewish community?

A: People who are aware of the situation have been very supportive for the most part, in a moral sense at least. But there’s a pretty vocal minority opposed to what I do. Some people say the Jews of Ukraine deserve what they’re getting because they didn’t come to Israel after the Soviet Union fell.

Others are surprised and curious as to why they don’t know anything about it, or why they haven’t heard about it. It’s more of a passing curiosity; they’re not compelled to learn more or take action, and that’s upsetting.

People who become upset and take action when things happen elsewhere don’t show that same vigor when it comes to Ukraine’s Jews. The story doesn’t resonate as much because it’s not just “good us, evil them.” It’s not some bad people against the Jews; it’s just a situation affecting Jews, but not because of anti-Semitism.

Q: Is this a story for the world at large or the Jewish community in particular?

A: To the world, the Jewish refugees will be a part of the greater narrative of what happened to Ukraine. As the story of the disintegration of Jewish communities, however, that should interest the Jewish community. There’s been some discussion of anti-Semitism in the wider arena, but that’s about it.

There definitely hasn’t been real interest and not a lot of help has come.

Pro-Europe demonstrators wave a European Union flag on an embankment in Kiev during the winter 2013-14 Maidan Revolution.
Pro-Europe demonstrators wave a European Union flag on an embankment in Kiev during the winter 2013-14 Maidan Revolution.

Help has come from Chabad, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, founded and directed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. And then you have organizations such as the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, which has a long-standing relationship with Ukrainian Jewry and the Dnepropetrovsk community, in particular.

But on the whole there hasn’t been a lot of help, and that’s been a huge problem.

One aspect often overlooked is the economic collapse in Ukraine. The Jewish communities there need an influx of capital to stay solvent. The middle-class donor base has dried up, and there’s a limit of how much the Jewish oligarchs can keep it going.

You can see the effects of the war on the existing community that are not within the war zone. The schools, infrastructure, mikvah, synagogues—all the institutions of Jewish life are struggling.

Q: What does the future look like for the Jews of Ukraine?

A: I’m wary of prognostications, but many people are worried that when you have so many Jews who are scattered with no Jewish infrastructure and support, it’s going to become harder to maintain a Jewish community. In Donetsk, they don’t have a critical mass to keep the community going. How many people will return? What will it look like? Many will be old, many poor. The families have mostly left; what happens to those who return? What happens to those who have left?

Pro-European demonstrators build a barrier in Kiev during the Maidan Revolution. Some 100 protesters were killed in skirmishes with government troops trying to quell the protests, which ultimately led to President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine in February of 2014.
Pro-European demonstrators build a barrier in Kiev during the Maidan Revolution. Some 100 protesters were killed in skirmishes with government troops trying to quell the protests, which ultimately led to President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine in February of 2014.

Q: What message would you share with broader Jewish community especially community leaders?

A: We need to make a cheshbon hanefesh [an “accounting of the soul”]. What are the long-term problems the Jews of Ukraine will be facing now? We’re past the main events; we’re now at how do they survive? How do they maintain a viable semblance of a community?

It behooves us to take responsibility for our brothers, and there are numerous things people can do. People can help Chabad, help the Joint [JDC] or help me tell this story. Jews should feel that they need to do something, even if it’s just to share a Facebook post. They can write a letter to a Jewish organization asking for a grant to a Jewish school in Ukraine or an orphanage in Odessa. People can spend a winter volunteering. There are enough things people can do to help; unfortunately, that’s not going to run out anytime soon.

More than 8,000 people have died due to the war, which has displaced more than 1 million others.
More than 8,000 people have died due to the war, which has displaced more than 1 million others.


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Anonymous Baltimore November 17, 2015

A Call To Action Please tell us how our communities can sponsor Ukrainian Jews who wish to emigrate to the U.S. You may pm me with information. I live in Baltimore. Reply

Micheal Montreal, QC November 12, 2015

Wow I literally had no idea this happened. This is crazy. Thank you Mr. Sokol and Chabad.org for opening our eyes Reply

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