by Joshua Tartakovsky
In light of the concern over the fate of the Jews residing in Donetsk, I paid a special visit to the Jewish community there at the end of April 2015 in a trip to Donetsk organized by Europa Objektiv, a German-Russian NGO whose goal is to provide journalists and writers with a closer view of the situation on the ground. At the thriving Jewish community center in Donetsk, a city ravaged by war and bombing, I had the opportunity to interview Rabbi Ari Schwartz, the dedicated rabbi of the community and a native of Odessa. Later on, I also spoke briefly with Mr. Alexander Kofman, the foreign minister of the Donetsk Republic, who is Jewish.
At Rabbi Schwartz’s office in a one-on-one conversation in Hebrew, I had the opportunity to hear from the rabbi directly about the state of the Jewish community in Donetsk. Much to my surprise, the rabbi explained that despite the ongoing war, a lively Jewish community continues to operate with full community services provided along with a Jewish daily school and kinder garden. In the course of the interview I asked him about how the Jews of Donetsk are dealing with the ongoing war, whether enough is being is done to help them, and how does the local government treat the Jewish community. Rabbi Schwartz told me that I was the first journalist to come an interview with him and person. Here is the full interview.
Joshua Tartakovsky: Is the rabbi from Donetsk originally or from Israel?
Ari Schwartz: I grew up in Israel, but I am originally from Odessa in Ukraine.
JT: How many people are part of the Jewish community here in Donetsk?
AS: These days or in general?
JT: These days. Following the wave of aliyah to Israel which took place.
AS: There was no wave of aliyah. People just left the area. Today there are 750 Jewish families living here. If we multiply it by a third then there are about 2,100 or 2,500 Jews living in Donetsk. But before the war there were 15,000 Jews.
JT: So since the war they left to many different places?
AS:Of those who left, 30% moved to Israel, and some left for other parts of the country.
JT: Is the life of the Jewish community continuing as usual?
AS: Yes, the Jewish communal life did not stop for a moment since the beginning of events. Daily prayers in the synagogue continue as usual. Perhaps there was one time when there were no meetings for a period of a week. But the synagogue was never closed down.
JT: In the Western media there was talk about anti-Semitism from the local government of Donetsk…
AS: No. We did not feel throughout this period any… on the contrary. We are in tight relations with everyone.
JT: So the Jewish communal life continues as usual?
AS: As much as possible, yes. On the contrary, there are even Jews who would never come to the synagogue and are coming now. The situation caused some of the people to become more active in the community. But everything continues as usual. You can even come tomorrow and film our minyan (Jewish daily prayer).
JT: In the morning?
AS: In the morning. Every day there is a minyan. In Shabbat 150 people gather here. Every day about 30 Jews gather for prayer. In Passover we had a Seder for 250 people.
JT: In the Jewish community scattered throughout the area or is it concentrated in a particular neighborhood?
AS: Jews live throughout the city, even in the most far-away neighborhoods. But the buildings of the Jewish community are in this area.
JT: What is the general feeling about what is going on? Is there the sense that the war will continue?
AS: We all hope the war will be over. It disturbs all of us. People are afraid to come out of their homes, many want to return to Donetsk and to continue their lives here. But we hope that the war will not continue much longer.
JT: Was anyone from the Jewish community hurt in the fighting?
AS: Yes. We have one who was hurt during the holidays of the month of Tishri.
JT: Due to the bombing of the Ukrainian army?
AS: Yes. He was hurt in the road between Donetsk and Horlivka, his car was hit. Thank God he stayed alive but sharpnel damaged him and the entire car. A Jewish woman was killed, she lived near the airport. A rocket hit her home directly. There are some people who were left without homes, their windows were damaged by the bombing, but thank God they are alive. There is a woman who works here who lived by the airport. She used to have three apartments but now she is left without a home. Another woman too. She lives by the airport.
JT: So the Ukrainian army bombs directly homes here?
AS: Look, I don’t get into politics. Who is bombing, who is not bombing. The fact is people were left without a home. Who bombed? That is already a political issue. The fact is one person was hurt and now is healthy but still wounded. One woman was killed. And several are without homes.
JT: How long ago was the funeral? Several months ago?
AS: The funeral was two months ago [February 2015]. There was a also a major Jewish donor of the community who was killed in the beginning of the war, you may have heard about it. It made the headlines. He was killed in the beginning of August.
JT: I didn’t hear about it.
AS: He wasn’t killed by the bombing. It is still unclear who killed him.
JT: How was he killed?
AS: He was killed here in the city. Due to automatic fire by a rifle.
JT: And it is still unclear who killed him. It is still an open question?
AS: Yes. A very [big] question…
JT: The posters which were posted here against the Jewish community turned out to be fake if I am not mistaken?
AS: It was even before the beginning of the war, here in the city. It took place last year. In April. April 20th if I am not mistaken. It turned out to be just a… I don’t know what it was. No one… It was not by the local government, that is for sure.
JT: And how does the new government treat Jews generally?
AS: Generally we did not have any problems, thank God. So far we did not encounter any opposition.
JT: And the rabbi is in constant contact with rabbis inside in other places? In Kiev and other places?
AS: Yes, of course.
JT: Generally everyone is worried about the situation?
AS: Yes, of course. Everyone calls to see, ask, how are things. Everyone is worried and is trying to help as much as possible. Of course.
JT: And people of the Jewish community at large are in touch with the Jewish community here?
AS: Yes, of course. First of all, the Jews who left Donetsk and are now in other cities, of course they are in contact. Also the local community helps. It’s not that people left Donetsk and now there is no contact with them. Before Passover we supplied them with matsas, before Purim we supplied them with mishloach manot. Before Shavut we will also send them something. They also get assistance. Since there is a branch, an office, in Kiev. There are many who left. So therefore, they get all the support, wherever they may be, they receive all the possible help from the Jewish community. There was a Seder in Israel for the olim of Donetsk. There was a Purim meal, in Israel. Therefore, wherever they are, they get support from the Jewish community, as much as is possible, in light of the situation.
JT: How did they emigrate to Israel? Did representatives come here…?
AS: In the beginning of all the events, representatives arrived, as much as was possible, from the Jewish Agency who helped them migrate to Israel. Today there are, if you heard of the Friendship Committee [the the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews], they have a female representative who tries to help. But [their activity] does not take place here. No one comes to help them. Whom ever wants to emigrate has to leave the area and go to Dniper or Kharkov, and there they hand over the documents and from there they migrate. Because in Russia they don’t approve of it.
JT: They don’t approve of the activity?
AS: No. Because as citizens of Ukraine they cannot hand over their documents in Rostov in Russia, for example. The State of Israel does not approve of it.
JT: Only from here?
AS: Yes. Meaning, if I am a citizen of Ukraine and I want to migrate to Israel. I have to provide documents here, in Dniper or in Kharkov. I cannot hand these over in Moscow or Rostov.
JT: So they are not take into consideration the new realities that formed [due to the war and the inability to travel freely]?
AS: That’s a question for the State of Israel. They do not consider… There are many people who encountered that problem and want to migrate. There are people here, as an elderly man who is 82 years old and wants to migrate to Israel. But he has a problem that he does not have a passport. Just an identification card. So he cannot migrate to Israel. They are not considering his case. And he is stuck here.
JT: Maybe they don’t want to him to migrate because he is elderly?
AS: What do you mean they don’t want? They need to save him. Let’s just put it that way. That is one of the examples. There are some who do not want to leave their apartments. They are afraid to come to Israel without any financial support. So therefore in the beginning some tried to help, such as Natan Sharansky but it didn’t get anywhere. The bottom line is no one helped them. There are people here who want to migrate to Israel. But they cannot leave, they do not have a Ukrainian passport. The elderly man cannot get on the plane. That is the situation. But everything functions, the school functions, the kinder garden functions. We are working as usual.
JT: What are the institutions of the Jewish community in Donetsk?
AS: There is a synagogue, a kosher café, a communal center, a school, a kinder garden, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) for men, a mikveh for women.
JT: How many are studying in the Jewish school?
AS: Today 30 students. There used to be about 100 or 130 students. But these kids left. In the kinder garden there are 30 children.
JT: So many moved to Odessa, to Israel, to many places?
AS: Many moved to different cities, to Germany, to many places.
JT: And despite the war, people still come regularly to the synagogue?
AS: If you would have come to the synagogue at this hour, before the war, you would have seen far more people here. But no one is giving up. We continue to operate as usual. The synagogue today is the place where they unite. Meet together. Exchange things. They would have come here three times a day if they could. If there was an opportunity to come here in the evening, without problems of transportation, they would have come in the evening too. At 8 or 9 PM.
JT: If there was no curfew…
AS: Yes. But unfortunately that is what is going on. It was very difficult for us in the Passover Seder. Because the Seder begins late, at 8 PM. And we had to do it quickly. And at 10:30 PM the people left [right before the curfew at 11 PM, JT], but it was emotionally difficult for people to leave. In a regular year, people would leave the Seder at 2 or 3 in the morning.
JT: So how did the Seder take place this year?
AS: We started it at 8 PM and did it very quickly. Later I did the Seder at home again. 250 people came to here for the Seder. But they had to leave early so they can make it home or order a taxi. In the website of our community there are pictures from the Passover Seder. In a regular year a Seder would be held in five different places. 350 people would have come. This year,the Seder was held in a single place and 250 people came. So in comparison it was much better than in many other communities in the state. If you do a survey between all the communities, I don’t think in many communities there was such a large number in attendance. There was a full hall and we had to order more tables. If you look at big cities in Ukraine, such as Mykolaiv, I don’t think there were 250 people in attendance.
JT: How does the Jewish community here fare in comparison to the Jewish community in Lvov, for example, where there has been prosecution by neo-Nazis.
AS: The Jewish community here was always bigger and more active. We always lived here and never suffered from persecution.
JT: There are rumors that the Israeli government may sell weapons to the Ukrainian government.
AS: I don’t know.
JT: But you would oppose it, if it was up to you?
AS: If it was up to me, let them sell. I am against war. I do not involve myself in politics. If people ask me, am I for a war? I am against any war. A political matter is a political matter. We never involved ourselves in political matters. That is up to them.
JT: The Ukrainian government, the President and others, came out with declarations which appear that they praise Nazi war criminals. My father is originally from Kiev but my great grandparents were killed in Babi Yar. It seemed that Poroshenko praised Stepan Bandera.
AS: Look, to praise murderers is always… not OK… Let’s put it that way. We won’t call them… Look, it’s his issue. We , on the other hand, do not involve ourselves. Although it may not be comfortable to hear about it. There may be communities which involve themselves. We try to not express our opinions here in the synagogue, and especially as the rabbi of the community, not to involve ourselves in this matter. Everyone has their own opinion and can express it.
JT: But this is an issue of Holocaust remembrance, not just a political opinion.
AS: True. Of course we are against it. But unfortunately we cannot do anything about the people who make such statements.
JT: But without getting too much into politics, is there a danger today that the Ukrainian government is adopting Banderism…
AS: Of course there is a danger. But I think that God helped us and will continue to help us. As we say in the Hagaddah, “And as it stood for our forefathers and us [that every year they come upon us to annihilate us but God saves us from them”]. We will withstand this too. We withstand difficult conditions. There was shooting here on the synagogue too. A rocket fell, if you happen to know, in the bus station near by. And on the other hand, it took place at 8 AM in the morning and people were not afraid to come to the synagogue for prayer at 9 AM. And people come even from from far away places. Because people know that whoever will come to the synagogue will not be hurt. And there were miracles. Many cases. I myself was saved. Not long ago, just a month and a half ago.
AS: A rocket fell, if you know, where the head of the republic’s office is, there was a hit by a rocket, near Pushkin. I was only 50 meters away. It was in Shabbat, at 3 in the afternoon. We were walking from the synagogue. But Thank God everyone is well. God helps. And that is not a cause which will push us to leave. Until the last Jew we will remain here and be active.
JT: And there is a big Jewish community here…
AS: Yes, thank God. I’m telling you, I think other communities in these kind of circumstances… I will give you a simple example. Kharkov. Where there is no war. At the morning in prayer there , far less people show up than here. Even though they have a huge synagogue there, two or three times larger than the one here. And in Shabbat not many people show up there. Even in Kiev, in the synagogue of Brodsky, if you come there on Shabbat… We have 80 people here on Shabbat, they do not… which shows you that the community despite the situation continues to operate despite all the difficulties.
JT: It seems that people here are very strong, and really want a connection with Judaism…
AS: people have faith that the synagogue is their home and as soon as they come to the synagogue, it unites them and strengthens them. So every time, they come running here.
After the interview, I strolled around with the rabbi. He proudly displayed kosher wine and kosher meat, and showed me around to a functioning gym and wedding hall. At the center he showed those who accompanied me, who happened to be officials of the Donetsk Republic, an exhibit dedicated to Jews who fought in the Red Army against Nazism. I left the Jewish center impressed with the vibrancy of the community and saddened that it has received such little coverage.
Later I attended a press conference by Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic. I asked him about Israel’s relationship to the self-proclaimed republic. He responded by saying that “it is a sacred duty of Israel to recognize us diplomatically. Your relatives died in Babyi Yar. Some of my ancestors also died there. So, now we fight against the same kind of people as those who killed Jews in Babyi Yar and Lvov, the same kind of people who exterminated whole Polish villages in Volyn. As soon as Israel realizes this, Israel will send us doctors as Cuba already did. It [Israel] may even send engineers.”
“What do you think about the possibility that Israel will sell weapons to Ukraine?”, I asked him.
“You know of my positive attitude to Israel. This is the country where my sister lives. This is the country, where I have a lot of friends. In my circle of friends in Israel, everyone supports me. So, I don’t want to believe that rumors about the shipment of Israeli weapons to the junta are true. This will be a terrible irony of history if Jews will be accused of helping the modern Nazis. It will be a travesty to see Jews next to Nazis among the accused of the crimes now committed,” he said.
After the conference, he sat down with us and played the guitar. When he heard that I am from Israel, he greeted me warmly and played Adon Olam.
The scene in Donetsk was a complex one. Throughout my time in Donetsk I did not see military patrolling the streets although there were checkpoints in some areas. Residents walked around freely and went on with their daily lives. The streets were busy with cars and public gardens were occupied by children playing. On the other hand, those living near the contested airport have come under a constant barrage of rockets and their echo could be heard even in the vibrant center of the city.
Various residential buildings where elderly reside find themselves frequently under bombing by the near by the Ukrainian army. I met elderly people who told me how they have been forced to live in bomb shelters for six months and visited the area where the Jewish woman was killed. In light of the difficulties faced by residents there, the determination of the Jewish community to continue to operate fully is quite remarkable and it is rather unfortunate that it has not received a wider public exposure.
I left Donetsk with deep sadness about the tragic state of affairs there and with more open questions on mind than answers. At the same time, I could not help but be impressed and encouraged by the determination of the Jewish community to keep on going despite receiving little support and in the shadow of the public’s limelight. More people must become aware of the Jews of Donetsk.