In Second Year of Ukraine War, Odesa's Jewish Community Endures, Yet sees No End in Sight
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ODESA, Ukraine – When Russia invaded Ukraine, many Jews fled to Israel and other countries. Some of the sick and elderly, however, couldn't leave.
As the war enters its second year, CBN News traveled to Ukraine to see how Jewish communities there are surviving.
Billboards lining the streets of Ukraine send encouraging messages to the war-torn people. One reads, "All together for victory. God will give strength to His people."
A second billboard proclaims, "Ukrainian National Guard: all Ukraine is with us."
In Odesa, everything is quiet for now, but life is not normal. There are military checkpoints along the highways, sirens sounding at night and sometimes during the day, which keeps people in shelters. Streets remain unlit at night and power is periodically cut to homes and businesses on an almost daily basis.
English teacher Anna Derenko remains in Odesa with her two children. She told CBN News, "My husband is on the war (front) and he's trying to protect our motherland. He's far from our home."
Many people lost their work," she explained. "And many people had to leave the country and go abroad, especially women with children. Even my husband wanted me to go somewhere with children but I said I can’t do it without him."
So, Derenko puts her life on hold, waiting for her husband to return.
"Now we are waiting for the end of the war," she said. "Maybe, you know, we don’t have plans. We have only dreams and we are afraid of making plans. That’s why we don’t know what we will do after this."
In the meantime, organizations such as Tikva are helping Derenko and many others here. Tikva provides food and medicing, with support from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
Chabad Rabbi Avraham Wolff, the chief rabbi of Odesa, and his community are also helping the Jewish community during this trying time. He says war has changed how they operate.
"We moved from giving lessons and studies to saving lives – and simply to allow people to survive, to pass through the war, to recover anew and to return to normal," he said.
Rabbi Wolff can help meet those needs, handing out food boxes to 7,000 families a month.
"People lost their income. They lost all possibility to live, in a short time. If we don’t give them food, if the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews wasn’t giving food here, people would die one after the other. It’s simply the minimum we can do for them," the rabbi explained.
CBN News visited a distribution center as they provided food to Holocaust survivors.
"Those are the basics that keep them all month – flour, sugar, macaroni, sardines, oil, everything that’s possible," Rabbi Wolff said. "There are months when there are four boxes, there are months when there are two boxes, depending on the budget and the possibility."
Holocaust survivors – 187 of them – remain in Odesa, including Elena Kuklova, whose father was Jewish.
"The female janitor who lived in the basement said to my mother, 'Luba, if you won’t give me your room, I’ll inform the occupation authorities that you have a daughter by a Jew,'" Kuklova recalled.
Elena’s mother began hiding her when she was three.
"They put me in a trunk," she remembered. "They drilled little holes there. I was an obedient child. …When there was enough time, they hid me in the broom-closet of a family with many children, a mother of 10 children. And she risked the lives of her children – I understood this only later – to hide me."
The fear that Elena might be killed took a toll on the young mother.
"For the rest of her life until her death, she had this fear. She became disabled and couldn’t work anymore. But I survived because of all these efforts," Kuklova said admiringly.
Kuklova became an actress at age 25 and devoted her artistic life to the Holocaust theme.
"I always used to tell my friends, 'I'm afraid of war more than anything else in the world,'" she said. "And here it is. My generation is framed, so to speak, with this black paint. We were born, some a bit earlier, others a bit later, into the war and now we’re departing this world with the war. Of course, we live in fear. But we get so much help. They don’t leave us."
While there seems to be no end to the war in sight, Kuklova and others still hope to see peace again before they leave this world.
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