Shalom didn’t lose his cool. He made some phone calls, I’m not even sure who he called, and he somehow was able to secure the house we are currently staying in. They say if you apply yourself, it might take up to six people to find the actual person who will help you. With today's technology, it seems four people are enough … .

Here in Iasi, Romania, there is a hospitality house belonging to a religious Jewish organization. The home operates in the summer, catering to groups of tourists who come to visit the graves of righteous tzaddikim buried in the region. The home is closed now, but the owners were happy to help and hand us the keys. They are allowing us to stay as long as we need without paying rent.

Who knows, I thought, maybe there is even some kosher food still in the freezer… . After a quick calculation, we realized the food we had brought from home would be enough for dinner as well, so we decided to set out for Iasi. Worst comes to worst, if we needed food, we’d leave for Bucharest the following day.

Had I been making decisions on my own, I probably would have done differently. Instead of going to Iasi, I might have searched for a safer space, even if it was further away. But, the Baal Shem Tov taught, everything is Divine Providence, and this is where we were meant to end up.

The irony of fate! My son Yossi wrote that my dreams were coming true. For years I’d been dreaming of renting an RV and taking a trip through Europe with the whole family, and here it was, certainly in a different form, but at least I know it’s possible. How I wish we could do it again during times of peace.

Yisroelik fell asleep. When he woke up, he said that had he not known we’d crossed the border, he would have thought we were still in Ukraine. According to the view from our windows, he was right.

We got to Iasi, parked the car, found the key they’d left us and entered the house. I tried imagining we were on a family vacation in Romania. They say imagination can exert as much influence as real life, so I tried … we went in and were greeted by intense cold. Amidst all our conversations with them we’d forgotten to ask the crucial question: was the house heated? Turns out it wasn’t. We sat on the couches wrapped in coats while Shalom made some video calls with local people. With a mixture of English and Russian, he tried to understand how to turn on the heat. We were unable to obtain heat, but we definitely nailed the freezing part. Finally, we went with another option and called a professional. While we waited, we went for a drive to warm our frozen selves in the car.

The professional got it on. We now had heat and were able to find something to eat too.

The following morning, we heard that our dear neighbors from Obolon, a Jewish family that had crossed the border, had arrived in Iasi and were looking for food, so we were lucky enough to have them over for breakfast. We sat together, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

Enough. I’m off to go do something. Not long ago, I read that when things are tough, and all you want to do is curl up under a blanket and sleep, it’s best not to fall into that rut. Trying to escape will only deepen the feelings of hardship and hurt. What to do instead? Anything else. Even routine tasks to keep busy and get our brains working again.

I remembered the pile of laundry from six days of travel. Alas, our clothes are not yet disposable. I turned on the washing machine and got myself into gear as well.

I’ve been trying to find time to sit and write, but I keep seeing the pile of large pots and pans. No matter, I will not give up. I head to the computer. I’ve promised myself to write. To confront my experiences head-on and work through them one way or another. Give myself therapy … .

I thought we’d be under a different flag today. That’s how it is when you’re always busy crossing borders. We are still in Romania though, perhaps we will stay, perhaps not.

One week ago today is when our movie began. There are situations where you see the beginning, but not the end—that’s when the fear seeps in, eating away at your energy and will.

This morning I’m watching video clips of families arriving in Israel. “Arriving” is the wrong term: they are escaping, running away. You would know if you saw them. Most of them without any luggage, with meager backpacks. Some hold only plastic bags. Some had been living on rice cakes and crackers, and some haven’t seen a shower in days. Each one has their own story. I don’t want to compare it to the Holocaust, lest anyone say I am minimizing it, but during the Holocaust they did not only annihilate the body, but also killed the soul. They separated the individual from every connection and every home they’d ever known. Thank G‑d, we are not experiencing what the Jews of Europe did then, but we, too, have been ripped away from every connection and home we’ve known, as are the members of our Jewish community and the millions of other Ukrainians leaving their lives behind.

I see the embrace given by the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The exuberant greetings at the airport, the singing, the food and drink, the look in people’s eyes. This is taking place not only in Israel, but worldwide. The Jewish people at its best. Chabad Shluchim all over, but particularly in Europe, are on an unprecedented drive to help the Jews of Ukraine who are forced to leave their homes. No matter where they end up—Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Holland, or wherever it may be—a home awaits with warm food to revive the soul, and finally a feeling of safety.

We constantly receive messages of support from Jews all over the world, and offers of help. They want to send toys, clothing, food, and anything we might need.

The situation is hard on everyone … . There are families from our community that were split up. Take Chana, for example, who went to the Moldovan border with her family hoping to cross there. Her husband and son-in-law were not allowed to cross, because Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 must stay in the country. Chana thought they would be able to leave somehow, but she now found herself in a quandary: should she stay in Ukraine with the men, despite the real danger, or cross the border and thus divide the family? Must it be all or nothing, or are there shades of gray, the opportunity to save herself, her mother, her mother-in-law, and her daughter, who was seven months pregnant … .

They crossed.

I’m sure Chana could not sleep at night, worrying about the half of her family on the other side of the border. What can one do, sometimes the brain makes decisions even at the cost of a bleeding heart … .

We all need to take care of ourselves one way or the other, whether we have arrived safely in Israel or some other secure location, but the inner turmoil continues.

Why are we still in Romania? We have a loving family in Israel who would embrace us unconditionally. However, I can’t help but think of the day after our arrival—what then? What would our days look like in Israel, with all that leisure time? We love to visit and be with family, to laugh and talk and lounge on the couch. To travel, breathe in the fresh air and the atmosphere. But it’s different now, our wounds are open and would not allow us to truly laugh or hike at leisure.

Shalom, who smiles a lot and is the family optimist, has stopped smiling. I asked him to join our close family group chat, if not to make others laugh, then to laugh himself, or at least smile. Laughing can be as freeing as crying. But Shalom is not there yet. How can one smile when the heart bleeds?

I don’t know. I didn’t think it would be this hard. I thought we were already broken in and would be less surprised by the sharp turns our lives have taken lately. It turns out our soul is more vulnerable than we thought … it seeks permanence, attachment and belonging. When the ground is torn from underneath you can’t help but cry … you are allowed to cry. If you don’t, other parts of you will cry out.

I’m struck by the fact that we just brought our furniture from Lugansk to Kiev not too long ago … that fact in itself deepens the pain.

After leaving Lugansk, we lived in Israel for two years. We moved from apartment to apartment until finally settling in for a short period. After some family discussions, we resolved to move to Kiev and start over. There is the concept of a new chapter in shlichus as well. The partners are the same, only the place has changed. So we started over in Obolon, a Kiev neighborhood that lacked a Jewish infrastructure.

Quiet family moments in Lugansk, before 2014.
Quiet family moments in Lugansk, before 2014.

A year-and-a-half ago we moved into a new apartment in Obolon; it was lighter and more spacious. Life went on until we decided to bring our furniture from Lugansk and feel truly at home again. Why had we waited so long? Because Lugansk has been swallowed by Russian forces. In order to leave it, you must enter Russian territory then re-enter Ukraine from a different spot. There is a price for all this and it is exorbitant.

Nonetheless, we decided it was time and anyway, not everything in life can be measured in money … so we got our furniture and the beloved contents of our home. We walked around the apartment in tears … there are tears of sadness but also tears of joy.

I sought Shalom's opinion on whether to bring my mug collection from Lugansk. At some point, I’m not sure when, I started collecting mugs and I have hundreds from all around the world, some of which we purchased and many of which were gifted by friends. Shalom thought we should leave them in Lugansk, we had no use for them in Kiev. But I decided to take them. At worst they would remain in a crate on the porch. Maybe someday we would have a nice home in Kiev, like the one we’d built with sweat and tears and lots of money in Lugansk. Like the home that was once filled with the joie de vivre of children and their parents, and is now standing empty and forlorn.

When we got our things from Lugansk, my daughter Chaya and son-in-law Mendy were visiting with our little grandson Levik, the sweetheart. Together, we removed the mugs from the protective newspapers and arranged them lovingly in the kitchen cabinets, while reminiscing about life back in Lugansk. At that very moment, something occurred to me. Not some small matter, but something deep and cutting.

When we left Lugansk amidst deep feelings of pain, I decided to stop looking back. Looking back just served to wound me over and over, keeping me from moving on in life. That decision enabled me to move forward as if reborn. I preferred not to watch video clips from our life in Lugansk—better to let my wounds heal first.

When the mugs arrived, I noticed Chaya was thinking about the past, reliving everything again, but without tears. Instead, it was a happy sort of nostalgia, thoughts of the sweet life filled with love that we had back home.

That’s when it occurred to me that there is no need to erase the past. There is no need for a firm division between past and present. Lugansk represents childhood for 50 percent of my family—I shouldn’t separate the children from their memories. That’s where they were born, grew up, and flourished. I must think of the past with respect, if only for the children. This realization was truly enlightening. I understood our puzzle is elaborate, and each piece has meaning. Removing pieces is like removing limbs … nobody deserves to feel disconnected.

One of the Gopin's children baking happily in Lugansk.
One of the Gopin's children baking happily in Lugansk.

So, we brought our furniture and arranged it over the next few days. We made some renovations as well, and our house changed. Anyone who came over noticed the new warmth our home now generated. It was not only our guests who felt it, but we as a family. We were finally getting back to normal and even beginning to generate new family memories.

Perhaps that’s why it feels so painful now. We had only just started to feel at home, and we are without a home once again. We hope to go back one day, please G‑d, but we know anything is bound to happen and who knows, we might even have to repack the mugs and bring them to a new place.

This is the fourth installment of Chana Gopin’s diary of the current war.

You can support the continued work of Chabad of the Obolon district, Kiev, here.

Click here for a prayer you can say and a list of good deeds you can do in the merit of the protection of all those in harm’s way.