No End In Sight: The War in Ukraine – One Year Later




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    No End In Sight: The War in Ukraine – One Year Later

    More than a year passed since Russian forces invaded Ukraine and were met by unexpected resistance. Beis Moshiach spoke to several of the Rebbe’s Shluchim in the war-torn country and heard from them how they are coping with the situation with no end in sight, as well as what they see as the silver lining of even this shaky and unstable situation • By Menachem Ziegelbaum, Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    By Menachem Ziegelbaum, Beis Moshiach Magazine

    A year has passed since the war began in Ukraine. When war broke out it surprised the world but now it seems as though even in Ukraine, people are used to it. Not that you can really grow accustomed to life with nonstop bombing, without electricity, without water, without a demarcation between the rear and the front lines, but all Ukrainians agree about one thing – they are not giving in, not giving up, no matter the cost.

    Life in Ukraine is not at all easy considering that forty percent of the infrastructure, electricity and water, was bombed since the beginning of the war which makes meeting even the most basic needs for normal living exceedingly difficult.

    Millions of people were uprooted from their homes. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands were injured and the bloody war in eastern Ukraine still seems far from over.

    Lemaan Yilmidu Chosson Kallah

    Take for example one of the cities that became a symbol of the war, Cherson, which is still licking its wounds. Lots of demolished homes. In some of them there are already workers fixing the damage caused by missiles. Russian occupation of Cherson lasted eight months. Leaving the house, even for food, was dangerous.

    Before the war, Cherson was a bustling port city of 180,000 people. When the Russians came to Cherson one year ago, they took everything which represented normal life and turned it into something else. The exclusive hotel was turned into command headquarters for Chechen forces. The international airport was turned into a logistical base for rearming troops and eleven police stations were turned into facilities of imprisonment and torture for those who opposed the invading regime.

    It is three months now that Cherson is free of Russian occupation but they are still in constant danger. Just about any given moment, you can hear the sounds of shelling, but the sirens, which operated continuously all day, have stopped.

    Even during the war, large public menorahs were put up in the streets of Ukrainian cities.

    Ironically, and even somewhat heartbreaking, it is now that masses of citizens are fleeing, with less than a quarter of the population remaining. Under Russian occupation, the Ukrainians did not bomb this city because of their own citizens, but the minute the Russians withdrew a few hundred meters from the city, all was fair game and there is hardly a residential street that was not hit. Every day, people are killed.

    The destruction of Cherson’s international airport says a lot about the question everyone is trying to answer since the outbreak of war: How was it that the Russians did not conquer Kiev, and Ukraine did not fall in three days, as expected? This place, with all its destruction, has become a Ukrainian symbol of victory and the shift of power in the battle.


    The situation today on the eastern front is complicated. After a series of Ukrainian victories, the Russian wanted to take back the reins. They counted on a lack of manpower and weapons on the part of the Ukrainians. There hovers the fear that the Russians will mount a massive attack with new manpower due to arrive in the near future, a year after the start of the war, and in retaliation for the Ukrainians refusal to surrender.

    The Rebbe’s shluchim are on the front lines of communities throughout Ukraine, with astonishing Jewish pride. During the initial days of war, many of them left their place of shlichus because of danger to their lives in light of the Russians advance and fear of absolute chaos. However, as soon as the danger subsided somewhat and the Russian advance was repelled, they returned to their homes and communities, one after the other.

    מרכז סת”ם 720

    Even at the height of the panic and tremendous uncertainty, many shluchim did not leave their posts. These include Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, shliach and chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipro); Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, rav of Ukraine; Rabbi Meir Stambler, founder and director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine.

    The Federation is responsible for 180 Jewish communities in Ukraine including small cities which don’t have permanent shluchim. The Federation has excellent connections with government offices and with the president of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky. In the general media it was reported last Pesach about the shmura matza that the Chabad organization provided the Jewish president at the height of the siege on the Ukrainian capital.

    For R’ Stambler, the question whether to remain or not did not even come up. He was convinced that a shliach does not leave, no matter what. He understood the practical ramifications of leaving tens of thousands of Jews whom the Federation supports. In addition, R’ Stambler, with the approval of a rav moreh horaah, was even constantly available by telephone during the first Shabbosos of the war, in order to extricate Jews from the inferno. The heroic extrication operations were breathtaking and sometimes endangered the lives of the rescuers.

    During the first months of war, the shluchim, together with other Jewish and Israeli organizations, worked to rescue Jews from cities on the front lines to the interior of the country. Many of them moved to refugee camps in countries surrounding Ukraine. Some of them moved to Eretz Yisrael.

    “We rescued 35,198 people, mostly Jews, from 322 areas of residence in Ukraine. This was in close collaboration with the Ukrainian army,” said R’ Stambler to Beis Moshiach. “The rescue operations, some of which were very complicated, were executed by trains and we paid for all the cars, buses, taxis, etc.”

    About 3000 of those rescued stayed in the Hilton hotel in Warsaw, on their way to Eretz Yisrael. The hotel turned into a refugee camp and transit camp. Another 12,000 of those rescued went to camps set up by the Federation in Moldava, Romania, Germany and Hungary. The camp in Hungary, on the banks of Lake Balaton, is active now too, and has 525 refugees with the help of the Hungarian government and the organized Jewish communities in Hungary.

    About 20,000 refugees rescued by the Federation moved to transit camps in relatively safer Ukrainian cities and then continued to other cities in the country like Kiev, Dnipro, Lvov, Chernowitz.

    Zaluzhnyi meeting with Rabbi Asman (Photo by general staff office of Ukrainian army)


    One of the ‘iconic’ figures at the beginning of the war was R’ Asman. One of the first days of the war, he went to the aron kodesh and removed the Sifrei Torah which were taken to a safe place as he cried out bitterly for divine assistance.

    Today, a year later, how do you look back at the poignant moment which you removed the Sifrei Torah and the prevailing mood was one of panic?

    I look back and I see that Ukraine in general and the Jews of Ukraine in particular, experienced a great miracle. I removed the Sifrei Torah at that time because we were in a situation where we were hovering between life and death. I was there with the children, with the grandchildren, and a few hundred other Jews. We were bombed day and night and it was impossible to get out. We didn’t know which was more dangerous, to leave and get shot at on the roads or to remain in the community under the constant artillery shelling. That cry was a scream of the soul, a cry from the heart.

    “Now I look back and thank G-d for getting us out of danger. Although there is still danger now, it’s nothing compared to what was. Back then, we rescued thousands of Jews from Ukraine. We went through a great test, and it’s nearly impossible to believe that we went through all that…

    “By the way, I remember writing to the Rebbe in those difficult times and the answers always mentioned Chag HaPesach. I hoped that the war would end by Pesach. That didn’t happen but I think that on Acharon shel Pesach the Russian suddenly left the entire Kiev area when all their plans to conquer Kiev quickly failed. After that, everything became much easier, relatively speaking.

    “Even now, we are still under threat of large rockets which fall in the center of Kiev. On numerous occasions, there was heavy bombardment here. There were times I had to take my family out of here because of the palpable danger.”

    Preferred Sewer-and drain

    Like other shluchim, R’ Asman devoted a lot of time to providing humanitarian aid to Jews, including under heavy fire.

    “The day after the liberation of Cherson, I was there with a large truck with food and medicine. When Bucha was liberated, the world was horrified to see how the Russians butchered several hundred innocent citizens including a member of our community. I was there one day and saw their war crimes for myself. Appalling.”

    Was there a time you thought you were in imminent danger? Were you scared?

    “There were moments like that. One of them was when we were in Anatovka, a village near Kiev. We didn’t know what would happen; we were being bombed from all sides. We had families with young children and we didn’t have normal bomb shelters. There was nonstop bombing and we didn’t know where to move people. Those were the most difficult moments. I wasn’t afraid for myself but more for the hundreds of community people who were with us, including children.

    “During the first ten days of the war, I couldn’t eat. It was only after I managed to get several hundred Jews out that I began to get back to myself. That was a very tough situation.”

    Now, a year later, you sleep more calmly at night?

    “Yes, although nearly every day there are sirens, day and night. We don’t know what the siren is for and what happens afterward. Sometimes there is bombing and sometimes not; it’s a situation you can’t get used to.

    “I must mention that the tremendous work being done here is not thanks to me but thanks to a large group of volunteers here in Kiev. There is also collaboration with shluchim in other cities. I want to thank them all; each one is doing terrific work. We work together to help Jews and save whoever we can.


    R’ Asman’s tremendous work for the community in Kiev and the Jewish community in general, earned him recognition by the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba approached him after meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister, hugged and kissed him and said, “Thank you for all that you do. We know what you are doing for the community in Ukraine.”

    General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s commander in chief, had a warm meeting with R’ Asman.

    “The general is the busiest man in Ukraine this past year and yet he found it important to meet and talk,” says R’ Asman. Among other things, they discussed having a rabbinic chaplain in the Ukrainian army. Since this was before Rosh Hashana, R’ Asman blew the shofar “for the victory of Ukraine in its war against Russia.”

    “I explained to him about the Rebbe and what our ‘mitzva tank’ is. The general surprised me with his interest in spiritual matters and he also asked questions, wanting to understand things in depth. He is a humble, nice man.”

    How many Jews remain in your community?

    “Many Jews left and I can’t know how many remain. There are also more Jews who come to shul, those who did not identify as Jewish until now and were not registered in the community. The war woke something up in them. Tomorrow, we have three or four brissin, one for a man of 85, one for a 57-year-old and one for a 60-year-old, who lived on the block of the shul but never came to shul. The war made him come closer, like many other Jews.”

    Why is that?

    “Maybe the war gave a push to people to get closer to their Father in heaven. I am also in touch with many Jews who are in the army. My assistant, Dovid Millman, has now become the official chaplain of the army and he works with Jewish soldiers. He visits military units and helps Jews. Last Chanuka he visited many units and lit the menorah with soldiers, brought them tefillin and kosher food. There are many things he does which cannot be publicized.”


    Nikolaev, where the Rebbe was born, is one of the most heavily bombed cities in recent months. The city was the home of 7000 Jews until the start of the war. Nikolaev blocked Russian soldiers from reaching Odessa.

    In Nikolaev the situation is dire. There is no drinking water.

    “It was very hard, to the point that when the water supply stopped we looked for water hydrants where water had accumulated and numerous people came to take water in pails,” says a community member.

    It’s mainly the elderly who remained in Nikolaev. Some of them were unable to escape and some chose to return even when the war continued.

    “Today,” said the shliach, Rabbi Sholom Gottlieb, to the media, “about half remain. The community helped about 1000 Jews leave the city but despite this, there are still hundreds of Jewish families here. We are in direct contact with each one. Every Friday we give out 600 packages with challos, wine for kiddush and candles. There are still many Jews here who didn’t leave for many reasons such as: those who don’t want to leave their elderly parents; families whose father is in the army or under conscription whose wives and children don’t want to leave without them. On the other hand, 150 new Jewish families, who weren’t in contact with the community previously, contacted us when they wanted to feel a part of something, and realized that being part of a unified community would help to endure the war in the best possible way.”

    According to R’ Gottlieb, “We provide significant aid on an everyday basis. There are those whose houses were hit and we made sure they had alternative housing. We also had windows and doors replaced. We have a system of distribution of food and medication, especially in neighborhoods where residents cannot leave their homes because they are in range of constant danger.

    “We have given out about 100,000 water bottles which I bought with donations. People went to draw water from the river with pails… We started distributing water from trucks at several points in the city, but it is too salty and you can’t always drink it or even wash with it.”

    An hour and a half drive south from there is Odessa, the third largest city in Ukraine. Rabbi Avrohom and Mrs. Chaya Wolf are the shluchim. She runs the Chabad preschools and schools. The couple was seen in the media at the beginning of the war. At that time it wasn’t yet clear what the fate would be of 200 orphaned children.

    Rabbi Stambler with Ukrainian Religion Minister and Rabbi Rutman, Deputy Chairman of the Federation

    “We need miracles. We pray to G-d. We cannot get up and take our eight children and say, ‘I’ve saved myself,’” they said.

    A few days after the war began, they finally were able to extricate the orphans from Ukraine to Berlin. Mrs. Wolf remained with them for eight months while her husband stayed in Odessa. Two months ago, she decided to return to Odessa. “When you hear how many weapons America is sending here, you realize this isn’t something that is going to end tomorrow.”

    R’ Wolf continues to preserve community life at the shul in Odessa between sirens and bombs. Their 11-year-old son Shmulik also appeared in the media last year when he declared that he and his family would stay. “My father is the rabbi here and he cannot leave. Either we stay in the house or in some bomb shelter.”

    Today, he is 12 and alone; the only child from his class who stayed in Odessa.

    “It definitely changed me. It’s not every day that you go through a war,” he said to the media. “Now I know how to manage in various situations. At first it was really very hard, when the lights suddenly went out, no electricity, no nothing. Night begins at four o’clock.” He described the hardships but remained calm and explained that there are solutions. “They brought emergency lamps and a generator. You slowly get used to the situation; you can’t be in shock all the time.”

    The lack of electricity and heat in the Ukrainian winter which can reach twenty degrees below zero, exacts a price, mainly from the weak. Despite R’ Wolf’s great efforts, those who survived the Holocaust are unable to survive this. “For eight years here, there was not one death of the elderly. During the war, eighteen seniors died, men and women.”


    Berditchev is another Jewish city whose Jewish population dwindled greatly during the war. The rav of the city, shliach Rabbi Moshe Thaler, told Beis Moshiach that the thousands of Jews who visited Berditchev every month in order to daven at the kever of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, hardly come anymore. The dearth of Jewish tourists is critical, particularly after the massive renovations that he did to the grave-site with the help of generous people and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine.

    Most young Jewish families left for Eretz Yisrael. Today, only a few hundred Jews are left, most of them elderly, who are helped by food packages that the shliach provides them with the help of the Federation and others.

    When we spoke with him, R’ Thaler was in Eretz Yisrael while his oldest son, Mendy, was in Berditchev giving shiurim, making minyanim and providing aid. Mendy, a dedicated shliach like his father, said, “Just today, I did a tahara for an old Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who died last night. I had no choice. With guidance from my father over the phone, I did the tahara together with another local Jew.”

    Despite the war conditions and the smaller Jewish population, R’ Thaler continues to move forward. He is in the midst of renovating the “Shul of Cobblers and Tailors,” which was the main Jewish artery for the Jews of Berditchev for 150 years.

    The elders of the city relate that the shul was too small for the tefillos of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before World War II and the area in front was full of people. Under the communists, the women’s section housed the underground Chabad yeshiva. During the past thirty years, the place is a central hub for the Berditchever community and for guests visiting the city.

    “We are praying and hoping that the war will end any day. I know that when that happens it will be hard to find construction workers and building materials because everyone will be busy rebuilding the enormous devastation to the country. We decided to hurry up and renovate the shul so it will be the nicest in Ukraine.”


    The problems that the war has caused this past year are challenging for the shluchim and they are constantly looking for creative solutions. For example, at the beginning of the war, when there was a tremendous shortage of gasoline and other petroleum products, the Federation, knowing people would die without gas, thought out of the box and bought forty electric vehicles, some of them already distributed for free to communities in the large and medium-sized cities in the center and east of the country to use for regular provision assistance. The criterion that was established for distributing the vehicles is, the Jewish community in that city needs to provide food and medication at least three times a week.

    “We are living through and keeping tabs on the situation and respond as needed to each new development,” says R’ Stambler. “We try to respond to every need and stay one step ahead. Before the war, we managed to get organized with large food storage including dozens of tons of vegetables and basic food items which saved the lives of thousands of Ukrainian Jews. In the middle of the war, when we realized that the goal of the Russians is to undermine the infrastructure, we imported electric cars so as not to leave the old and sick without medication and basic food items. In recent months, electric outages every day, we bought generators that were provided to shluchim.

    “That’s not all. Every month, we send food packages to 36,000 families on lists through the shluchim and through communal centers in cities where is no rabbi. There are 180 distribution points throughout Ukraine. Every package consists of four boxes with water, hygiene products, fish, oil, flour, canned goods, sugar, salt, honey, coffee, tea and other basic items. It’s 900 tons of products that are packaged by hundreds of volunteers and our workers and are sent by truck all over the country.”

    How much have you spent this past year?

    “The costs to date are tens of millions of dollars, most of which was spent on humanitarian aid,” says R’ Stambler, “a large chunk for rescue operations and the rest on maintaining refugee camps. We look less at costs and financial considerations and more at saving lives – and every hour is critical from that perspective.”

    Presumably, the shluchim’s finances have taken a hit…

    “Right. The shluchim’s financial situation, as well as that of the Federation, is far from satisfactory. Many of the shluchim’s wealthy supporters lost their money because of the war. I know of quite a few people who used to show up at shul with nice cars and gave tzedaka who are now coming to get food. It’s heartrending.”

    What will be?

    “The question that is asked again and again is what will be in the coming year. Millions of Ukrainians are grappling with this question as well as military pundits around the world who are following the goings-on.”

    R’ Asman: “I am sure that Ukraine will win. How will that happen? I don’t know but Ukraine has basically won already. Russia tried to take control of Ukraine and set up a government and it wasn’t successful. They are unable to achieve real territorial conquest, despite all their plans and this is already a great victory.

    “The people of Ukraine showed tremendous strength. Many military people as well as government officials come to me for encouragement and to ask, ‘What will be?’ Not just Jews, but non-Jews. I give them whatever one can give non-Jews and bolster their spirit.”

    R’ Stambler, who along with his work in saving lives, also devotes his time to shiurim which he gives in Chassidus, sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

    “We went through a hard, complicated, challenging year, but the concept of Moshiach and Geula has become part of the language of every person in Ukraine, even if he words it differently. The bottom line is that we are living miraculously here; the inyan of Geula is part of nature and this is precisely what is happening here. The miracles here have become something natural. This is the revelation of G-dliness.

    “Zelensky – we haven’t had a political leader like him since Churchill – took a downtrodden people who never had real independence and got them to believe in themselves. Despite the difficult and despair-inducing galus situation, being in constant danger, and with problems with basic things like gas, water, heat and electricity, you won’t find anyone who has despaired. Everyone is happy with the victory. All are confident that they will win. If Zelensky has managed to instill a Geula mindset and belief in victory in 40 million people, that’s a lesson for us, the Chassidim of the Rebbe in the seventh generation. We need to learn from this and live with the Geula even within the darkness of galus. We need to instill this within our families and acquaintances.

    “I must mention the Dvar Malchus on parshas Mishpatim 5752 on ‘they will grind their swords into plowshares.’ Although now it looks like the opposite, it is specifically today that everyone realizes that war destroys the world, both the fighter and the one being fought, and that war destroys everything that is good. This is unlike the past when countries were busy with war. People’s way of looking at things has changed.

    “At a recent farbrengen with some shluchim in Ukraine, one of us mentioned the fact that since the world is bringing weapons here, it is here that we will see ‘they will grind their swords into plowshares and will not teach war anymore.’ In the meantime, until this happens, we are on the Rebbe’s shlichus and will not forgo any Jew.”


    Despite all the hardships which the war has heaped upon the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainians are doing everything they can to demonstrate to the Russians and themselves that life goes on and that which was destroyed is being rebuilt. In some cities, when the siren sounds, nobody stops.

    This year, which changed the course of world history and the lives of tens of millions of people, taught us about the abilities to adapt and inner strengths that people have.

    Nobody has the answer as to when all this will end but if Putin’s plan was to subdue the soldiers and break the spirit of Ukrainian citizens, he lost on both fronts.


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