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The new Exodus: how Jewish refugees from the ATO live

Over 614,000 citizens of Ukraine now have the status of refugees. Among them are Ukrainian Jews living in the East who have fled from the territory that is officially designated as “regions of temporary occupation”. A JewishNews correspondent visited the village of Krymki in the Cherkassy Oblast, in the former children’s camp “Olimpiya”, where hundreds of Jews from the Lugansk Oblast have found shelter, a home, safety and protection.

Daniil doesn’t know the times table yet, but he’s learnt to count. Not while preparing for school, but by sitting in a cellar and counting the explosions that he heard near his home. This summer he didn’t play in the yard of his native Pervomaisk and didn’t go to the first class at school there. He will always remember the two weeks of his life when his grandmother hid him in the bathroom during the bombing and covered him with her body, when in the basement of the building that became a shelter for them, a militia man burst in shouting “Everyone on the floor!” and missiles started flying into the building.

Olya Smirnova: “The first shooting started when I was in the town of Popasnaya. A plane was flying at the height of a nine-story building. In front of my eyes, militia in the plane opened fire on people. I knew that my grandson was at home. By a miracle I got in the last bus that was leaving Popasnaya for Pervomaisk (about 15 km). We spent two days in the house. We heard that military operations were continuing in Popasnaya. On Monday, my daughter went to work. Then soldiers started firing on the Karl Marx electro-mechanical factory where she worked. My daughter rang from the bomb shelter, crying, and asked for me to look after her son. I knew that we could hide in the bathroom. When my daughter came home, the explosions intensified. We went down into the basement, like everyone else. We lived there for a week until a shell hit the house, and all the balconies fell off, as if they had been cut with a razor. Before this a militia man ran into the basement and shouted: “Lie down and block your ears! Quick! Now this house is going to be fired on, if you don’t want your eardrums to burst.” We fell to the floor. We blocked our ears, but the noise was terrible! Everyone was frightened: there were over 70 people in the basement, a lot of children, and babies crying. My grandson cried and said: “Grandma, you’re an adult, do something!” The bullets started flying… People began running out of the shelter in panic, and I only managed to grab the blanket lying nearby and cover my grandson, so he didn’t get hit by concrete in the explosion – and I covered myself. Then the same militia man came in: “You’ve got 30 minutes to get out of here! Otherwise you’ll all be buried.” People scattered. I ran to a taxi. For a considerable sum of money he took us to Stakhanov by taking detours, risking his life. There were nine people in this taxi. We didn’t have time to get our things: just what we were wearing, I only took my cat Lyova.”

From Stakhanov they reached Kharkov, then went to relatives in Komsomolsk, and in despair, without money or belonging, they found a message of rescue in social networks from a member of the Jewish community. The community looked for the Smirnov family for some time: they wrote who to contact and where they were expected – in a camp in the village of Krymki, which the Jewish community had equipped for refugees.

The family travelled over 1,000 km, fleeing the explosions in search of a peaceful life, from a bombed house to a quiet refuge in the Cherkassy Oblast. A former children’s camp became a true “Noah’s Ark” for hundreds of Jews from South-East Ukraine, where for several months now refugees have been received and provided for.

In 1979 this territory was an Oblast sanatorium for family holidays of party workers, and was later reorganized as the children’s pioneer camp “Olimpia”. At one time, every parent dreamed of sending their child to this camp, and places could only be obtained if you had the right connections. The surroundings are beautiful… the summer camp is located in the middle of a forest, and there are natural springs in the area.

Less than a year ago, the Jewish community of Kiev [Choral synagogue] purchased the camp for children of the community. Rabbi Moshe Asman said: “The camp was in such a bad state that we didn’t even know how to repair it! And we didn’t have the funds required to do this” The issue was simply postponed, but several months later the Kiev community was already doing repair work. Not for children, but for families from the East: when they heard that Jewish refugees had nowhere to go and that people had been left on the street, Rabbi Moshe decided to open the camp. They began looking for funds so they could at least create basic conditions for the refugees. In an interview with JewishNews, Rabbi Moshe has already talked about how the camp was renovated.

When you see the work done by the community to create these “basic” conditions that the rabbi talked about, it becomes clear how serious it all is. The surrounding nature really is stunning, but perhaps this is the only thing that soothes the eye. Everything else was simply “Oy, vey!”, and only faith, the help of the Kiev community and the work of the refugees made it possible to gradually turn ten houses in the forest into a peaceful and comfortable shelter for refugees. All the buildings are summer residences, they had not been repaired for a long time, and had no heating, with the toilet was outside, and in general the camp was absolutely unsuitable for living in during the winter.

Yelena Yarylchenko remembers well how the camp was renovated. Half a year ago, she was the head of the “Simkha” Jewish holiday home for children in Lugansk. Now she is a refugee, and has been in Krymki since August 2014 (the second wave of refugees). “When I arrived the camp was already beginning to prepare for winter. There were a lot of problems. With the help of Rabbi Asman, we replaced windows in inhabited houses, redesigned the planning of the houses, so that there were inside showers and toilets, and we installed boilers to provide hot water. The water supply for the camp was completely renovated: new pipes were brought in and our husbands laid them, and they were connected to the houses [the pipes were old and at a depth of 30 cm, the water would simply have frozen in winter – L.L.]…”

Yelena Grigorievna is in charge of catering at the camp: “Kosher products are brought to us from Kiev, the Brodsky synagogue makes sure that people receive decent, regular meals three times a day. We buy fruit and vegetables from local farmers.”

When you go into the canteen, where children came for their holidays just a year ago, you can’t understand how they came to live in these conditions for many years from all over the Cherkassy Oblast [a holiday at the camp cost 1,700 hryvnia in 2012]. The camp canteen is an enormous separate building. It has yet to be fully reequipped for traditional Jewish life: there are no wash basins and lavatory in the building, so people wash their hands over bowls; there are several cookers and a few Soviet-era “technical wonders”, which stand idle, as they cannot be used for kosher cooking. Heating was also only installed in this building when Jewish life began here.

We found the canteen almost the way it was originally, but this didn’t last long. After the renovations of the houses in the camp, work began the canteen and kitchen. Talking about the kitchen, Yelena recalls her holiday home in Lugansk, where conserves were made last year for the children. These supplies fed many people in the community: 15 people hid in the basement of the home for two months. Like a ship’s captain, Yelena stayed at the home until the very last. She and her husband decided to leave when the water supply in Lugansk was cut off, and to get water you had to walk two kilometers and carry buckets with bullets flying around you.

Only Nelya Kulakova stayed at the holiday home in Lugansk: “She stayed at Simkha throughout the bombing, and hid in the basement. Only there was there a feeling of protection: shells were flying, there was shooting all around, but the mezuzot preserved us. They are everywhere there, and the Almighty protected this house – it survived, and so did I, inside it. I worked for 13 years there. There are still children in the city who studied at this house. Sometimes they came to visit. I called Yelena Grigorievna, our head, and said that people had come here who had nothing to eat. We gave the children left in the house the remaining supplies of food. I waited for everything to calm down and everyone to come back: the children would run about and life would go back to normal. But a month ago I realized this wouldn’t happen. That’s how I came here!”

Nelya was put in a room that was already renovated. This house was one of the first in the camp to have a boiler, running water and a toilet. Now three families live here. Most of the houses have four rooms [from 20 sq.m. each], and everything necessary for living. Additional “cosmetic” renovations, painting the walls and so on, are planned for summer: so people don’t choke on the fumes, this work has been postponed. And there are not sufficient funds for everything. Today 60 refugees live here on the full support of the Brodsky synagogue, but the number of residents constantly changes: some arrive, others leave.

Galina and Yury Retelnikov have been in the camp for a month now. For the first time in six months, they have received their pensions: banks in their native Lugansk ceased working a long time ago. Next year the couple celebrates their golden wedding anniversary – 50 years together, and so many experiences! The community helped them and many other residents of the camp not only to get their pensions back, but also a number of other documents that they left at home. The majority of refugees simply fled in what they were wearing, only saving what was most valuable – the children.

Andryusha cannot talk yet, but at the age of one year and two months he already knows what bombing is like, and he still shudders at loud noises. His mother Lida walked to the next village to save her child’s life: “We’re from Bryanka. One day I looked out the window and saw missiles flying towards us. I didn’t wait for the building to collapse. I grabbed the children, and started running in what I was wearing. I didn’t have any money, where could I go? They said that refugees were being give free rides from Stakhanov. But there was no transport there from Bryanka. I didn’t have any choice – I walked around 4 km with three children to Stakhanov. We reached the transport. There were old people waiting in line… I started crying, because there was nowhere for us to go back to. The driver took us. He drove us through the forest. So we reached Kharkov. And there we contacted the Jewish community and came here.”

There are now six schoolchildren at the camp. “The children are taken every day to the nearest Jewish school –in Cherkassy [80 km from Krymki]. Thanks to Rabbi Dov Akselrod, he created all the conditions for the children to continue studying,” says Moshe Asman. “We try to provide people with everything they need, and at the same time provide a spiritual component – there is active Jewish life going on at the camp. For example, we built a sukkah on Sukkot, and at Hanukkah children from our yeshiva went there, to light the Hanukkah candles together.”

The refugees also organize little joys for themselves. For example, in his spare time Sergei builds boats. He has had this hobby for several years, not as a way to earn money, but for fun. Sergei already has pupils at the camp: adults and children watch Sergei at work and wait for the first boat in the camp to be completed.

Local residents also wait for peace in Ukraine, and every day they thank the Almighty for saving their lives, and the chief rabbi of Lugansk and the Lugansk region Shalom Gopin and the Jewish community of Kiev for a peaceful sky above their heads in the warm houses of “Olimpia”, which they call a “camp of salvation”.

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