Live from Ukraine: A tale of three cities

Roman Pol image

Polonsky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel's Unit for Russian-Speaking Jewry, visited Ukraine in early May. These excerpts from his reports originally appeared on Polonsky spoke at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago in May.


"This is the calm before the storm," many say. "What will we do in case of emergency? How will you save us?" My answer: This is the entire reason of my visit. It is why we increased the number of our shlichim (emissaries) in the area, and why we are doing all the work necessary to prepare for the worst. You are not alone; not only is the Jewish Agency with you, but all of Israel and the entire Jewish world.

* * *

It was not easy to reach Donetsk on the day of the referendum on the independence of Donetsk Republic. 

Yet somehow-miraculously-I managed to get a ticket and here I am on the way to Kiev, where on May 11, the Jewish Agency will host a traditional celebration (especially poignant this year) of Israel's Independence Day with the Jews of the city. 

In Kiev, hope is mixed with despair, optimism with anxiety. Yulia, 22, a student, says that because of the revolution, she feels much more a citizen of a free Ukraine, a country she can now be proud of. Lena, 21, thinks that the attitude toward Jews has changed for the better as their active participation in the revolution has earned the respect of many Ukrainians. 

This attitude stands in stark contrast with the moods of the elderly and the middle aged, who speak of anti-Semitism, a scourge they feel has never truly dissipated from Ukraine's atmosphere, especially among schoolchildren. Nina N. told me about her young daughter, locked in a restroom by her schoolmates. They wrote on the door: "Don't enter! There is a k*** here." 

Galya, who works at a sewing factory, told me that an age-old accusation was hurled at her: "You k***s have come and taken all our best jobs!" 

Aliyah numbers from Kiev have grown by 50 percent as compared to the same period last year, while the numbers from the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine have skyrocketed: 315 percent growth in Odessa, 266 percent in the Dnepropetrovsk regions, and 200 percent in the Kharkov region. …

People are afraid of a possibility of war with Russia, of anarchy, of an unruly crowd that can be turned against Jews on a dime: "Here are the ones to blame!" 

* * *

Later, I traveled to Donetsk. It does not look like a city undergoing a revolution-no crowds of protesters or armed patrols in the streets. 

On the contrary, the city is striking in its emptiness. We pass through the main streets-the building of the local administration is surrounded by barricades of tires. A destroyed police headquarters is visible; there are broken windows in the building of a new governor. 

While there are no checkpoints in the streets, neither are there people. Fearing riots, many residents left the city on the eve of May 9 (Victory Day) and the referendum (May 11). 

The main concern … is personal safety and the fear of coming war with Russia, which many see as inevitable. …

Many gun shops have been recently looted; police are not interfering and are observing benevolent neutrality toward pro-Russian formations. At the same time, according to some reports, crime has increased 300 percent in the city. 

The situation in Mariupol and Lugansk is even worse-jewelry stores are being robbed, cars confiscated, and shooting in the streets has become all
too common. 

* * *

I am going to Odessa and my heart is beating heavily-I was born in the small Jewish town of Belgorod-Dnestrovsc, 70 kilometers from here. Never, even in my worst nightmares, did I imagine that in the enlightened 21st century I'd be returning here under such terrible circumstances.

Odessa has always been a safe, cosmopolitan and modern city. On the one hand, life in Odessa goes on as usual: there are cars in the streets, people are walking in the parks, and they still sit in the famous Fankoni cafe. On the other hand, just below the surface, the city is filled with fear; it is in the air, palpable.

People live from rumor to rumor … But the reality, too, is hard to believe. Rabbi Baksht told me of a car that was driving in the city quite recently, calling through a loudspeaker for the Jews to leave the city. … 

Society is now divided, split into opposing groups. Neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, son against father. The front line here runs in families. And Jews-Jews in trouble either way.

* * *

My conversations with the Jews of Odessa are not encouraging: a cemetery desecrated, a Holocaust memorial in Nikolayev (a small town not far from Odessa) also desecrated; Molotov cocktails thrown at the synagogue in Nikolayev; graffiti on the walls saying "Jews and Moscovites, get out of Odessa." A group of young Odessites met our shaliach, who wears a kipa, shouting "Zeig Heil!" near
our office.

…The shock that struck Odessa on May 2, when over 40 people were burnt alive as the result of riots and unrest, still
feels fresh.

Kiev, Donetsk, Odessa-three different cities, three different points of view and, at the same time, similar realities. What awaits them? 

And the most important question, from our Jewish brothers and sisters: "Will you save us in case there is a need?" First of all, we hope, there won't be such a need-we want people to come to Israel of their own free will. … But in case there is such a need-Yes! We will be there! 

JUF is urging donors to make their increased pledge to the 2014 Annual Campaign, which is the funding source for all of these efforts. Visit to learn more and make a donation. If you would like to make a special donation to help the Jews of Ukraine, contact Ariel Weiss at or (312)

The Jewish Agency for Israel is one of JUF's primary oversees agencies.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.