Ukrainian marchers in Kiev chant ‘Jews out’


Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev chanted “Jews out” in German at a New Year’s Day march celebrating the birthday of a Nazi collaborator whose troops killed thousands of Jews.

Thousands attended the event in the center of the Ukrainian capital celebrating Stepan Bandera, a leader of Ukraine’s nationalist movement in the 1930s and ’40s. They held up his portrait while an unidentified person shouted the anti-Semitic slogan on a loudspeaker, prompting many participants to repeat it, a video published by the Federal News Agency showed.

Bandera’s movement included an insurgent army which fought alongside Nazi soldiers during part of World War II. Supporters of Bandera claim they sided with the Nazis against the Soviet army, believing that Adolf Hitler would grant Ukraine independence. Bandera was assassinated in 1959 by Russia’s KGB in West Germany.

Oleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian Jewish lawmaker and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, called on authorities to investigate the march and prosecute those responsible for the hateful slogans.

“I still can’t get over hearing it at the rally in honor of Stepan Bandera’s birthday,” Feldman wrote in an emotional post on Facebook Tuesday. “I admit, I’m choking up with tears. I love Ukraine, love the Ukrainians.”

Adding that the chants came from a “gang of a few idiots who don’t represent anyone,” he nonetheless wrote: “I can’t ignore it when I, a man who worked so much for my country and city, created the hundreds and thousands of jobs, am being screamed at by some bastards to leave my homeland.”

Feldman also accused the Svoboda party, a far-right movement whose leaders and followers often have engaged in anti-Semitic hate speech, of being responsible for what he termed “a provocation” during the march.

Bandera is being celebrated across Ukraine as a national hero. In July he had a street named after him, also in Kiev, despite protests from the Jewish community.

Several other Ukrainian nationalists with ties to anti-Semitic acts and policies before and during the Holocaust have been the subject of veneration in Ukraine in recent years, especially after the ousting in 2014 of President Viktor Yanukovych in a bloody revolution over his alleged corruption and ties to Russia.

The chief of staff behind Portman’s come-from-behind 2016 victory


His father’s first trip outside his small village on the Ukrainian-Slovakian border was when the Nazis shipped him to Auschwitz in 1944. His mother spent the tumultuous years of World War II secretly stored away as a hidden child in Central Europe. Against all odds, this child of two Holocaust survivors, Mark Isakowitz, rose to become the influential Chief of Staff for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “The idea that a mere few decades after my parents stepped off the boat that I could do jobs like this, I was deeply honored,” noted Isakowitz to Jewish Insider in a wide ranging interview from his Capitol Hill office.

A graduate of Ohio State University and father of three children, Isakowitz played a critical role in one of the most important Senate races of 2016. With the Democrats pushing to take back the Senate, Portman’s seat appeared vulnerable. In the first public poll of the race, the Ohio Republican’s challenger led by nine points, but by the night of November 8, Portman coasted to victory by an astounding 21 percent.  Working with Campaign Manager Cory Bliss, Isakowitz and the team orchestrated a strategy of reaching out to groups generally distant from the Conservative party: achieving a tie with Democrats among millennials and obtaining the endorsements of labor unions. Isakowitz and his staff highlighted the Senator’s work, which they believe directly improved the lives of Ohioans such as combatting heroin addiction and protecting local steelworkers.

Isakowitz cites his father for pushing him towards the Republican Party. With no more than a middle school education, the elder Isakowitz, who was trained as a plumber in Europe, managed to create a small business that lasted his entire adult life. Mark emphasized, “Having an economic system under free enterprise where people have a chance to do that, I think is the greatest kind of system that you could set up.”

In addition to his public sector service, Isakowitz worked as a lobbyist for over a decade as President of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock. When Portman asked him to return to Capitol Hill and run his Senate office, Isakowitz walked away from an almost $7 million salary, according to a Roll Call report. What motivated the Ohio native to abandon such a lucrative salary? Isakowitz explained his passion for public service, but as with many in Washington, relationships are critical. “I was a friend and a huge admirer of Rob Portman, and I always had in the back of my mind that if he asked me to do something for him, I would need to find a way to do it,” he added.

Judaism and Israel remain important elements of his identity. Having visited Israel approximately 20 times, Isakowitz proudly displays pictures with former President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu on his office wall. He is fluent in biblical storytelling. As if recalling details from yesterday’s legislation, Isakowitz enumerates various biblical examples of Jewish leaders from Abraham to heroes of the Purim story positively interacting with local political authorities. Isakowitz cited how Joseph counseled Pharaoh to “make the Egyptian economy work,” which sounded almost like a GOP campaign advertisement.

Colleagues are quick to praise Mark. Vincent Harris, CEO of Harris Media and former Chief Digital Strategist for Senator Rand Paul, highlighted the Chief of Staff’s commitment to public service. “To be involved in politics out of conviction rather than selfish ambition is rare in the Beltway,” Harris noted.  Nathan Diament, Executive Director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, who has collaborated with Isakowitz on Israel and religious liberty issues, praised his Capitol Hill experience. “Mark has a mastery of the politics and policy around the issues. He’s a great partner. “

Off Capitol Hill, Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, emphasized Isakowitz’s lighter side. He recalled the times their joint passion for the sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” watching the comedy show together when on work trips overseas. On a more serious note, “He is an uber-Mensch, the definition of a giving and caring person,” admired Brooks. “Mark represents the very best that Washington has to offer. He is a consummate professional…  and a great listener,” gushed Norm Brownstein, a prominent attorney and lobbyist active in national Democratic politics.

Climbing the ranks and running the Senator’s office, Isakowitz remains staunchly loyal to Portman. “I work for a really good United States Senator,” he asserted when describing the role of Chief of Staff. “I feel that a big part of my job is help set up his day so he can achieve what he wants to achieve.”

At Senior Center, She Learns ‘Nobody Can Compete With Putin’


Until recently, Nadia Luzina gave lectures on culture and politics to her fellow elderly Russians at a senior center in Mar Vista. 

In one talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in the takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine, she called him “dictator.”

The audience quickly became annoyed with her and accused her of anti-Putin sentiments. One woman warned Luzina, an 84-year-old Russian Jew, that her anti-Putin comments might offend ethnic Russians. Someone called Luzina a traitor. The following week, not a single person showed up at her lectures.

“Everyone turned away from me that day,” she said.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of the mutual admiration between Putin and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the United States. The annexation of Crimea and prosecution of opposition leaders turned some world powers against Putin and many Americans have expressed dismay at Trump’s laudatory remarks about the Russian president, but not everyone shares that skepticism. 

Among many Russian-Jewish expatriates in Los Angeles, the second most populated Russian-speaking community in the United States, Putin gets high marks.

“Nobody can compete with Putin,” said Leonid Ivanov, who moved to L.A. from Belarus 15 years ago and now lives in West Hollywood. “With him, the unemployment rate went down and many people got a job.”

For decades, the fate of Russian Jews depended on the czar’s will. Before the Bolshevik revolution, they were segregated in the western part of the Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement, terrorized by Cossacks’ pogroms.

Under Soviet control, synagogues were shut down and Jews were banned from any administrative positions. But in recent years, Jews have seen anti-Semitism weakening in Russia, a change many attribute to Putin’s peacemaking efforts.

“With Putin, there is less anti-Semitism,” said Victor Petrov, a West Hollywood resident who emigrated from the Black Sea port city of Odessa 25 years ago. Of course, that could be due to changing demographics, too. “Maybe it’s because there are not that many Jews left,” he added. 

For many Russian Jews who remember economic hardships of the post-Soviet era, Putin symbolizes times of economic stability and growth, when Russia finally got up from its knees.

The country hit rock bottom in the 1990s in the time of financial collapse, political crisis, war in Chechnya, and the bombing of residential buildings in Moscow.

“It’s mind-blowing that someone would want a dictator until you lived through 1990s in Moscow,” said Robert English, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. “If you lived through a decade of President Boris Yeltsin and his efforts to make democracy work, it would make sense. Those efforts produced crime, corruption and criminals.”

Those turbulent times also made many Russians reluctant to support building a Western-style democracy.

“They had such a bad experience in the 1990s that they gave up on democracy,” English said. “A lot of people said, ‘If I have to choose between democracy and freedom of press or stable society with less crime and steady income, I choose the stability.’ ”

Russian-Jewish expatriates also believe Putin protected Russia’s sovereignty by taking over the Crimean Peninsula, historically populated by Russians. 

“Crimea belongs to Russia because everyone speaks Russian there,” said Victor Tankelevich, who moved to Los Angeles from Moscow in the late 1990s, fleeing economic turmoil. “Ukrainians are trying to eliminate Russian culture in Crimea. So why would we need to give it to Ukraine? Crimea has always belonged to us.”

Since the day of the heated discussion, Luzina has stopped giving lectures at her Mar Vista senior center, but has continued the political debates with her 94-year-old Russian Jewish boyfriend, who is a big supporter of Putin.

“He saved Russia from destruction, and I respect him for that,” said Isaac, who asked that his last name not be used. Isaac moved to Los Angeles from St. Petersburg 24 years ago. “Putin was able to keep the country together.”  

Luzina came here from Moscow in 1990 with her husband Lev, who passed away a few years ago. To distract herself from the grief of losing her husband, she started spending hours at her laptop digging into Russian history and politics. A friend suggested she give lectures on politics and culture at the Universal Adult Day Healthcare center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Luzina sat at a table covered with a clear tablecloth, along with four fellow seniors. Sitting next to Isaac, she wore a long black skirt. Her pearl necklace matched white sandals and a white top with large blue leaves and sparkling buttons. 

Their square table was in a long auditorium, and as the group waited for breakfast, their conversation shifted toward Russian politics.

“Putin is a dictator and Russia needs the dictator because it has the slave mentality,” said Anna Z., who declined to give her last name. “Russia needs a person like Putin to keep the country together.”

A woman wearing a brown apron served, and the group started breakfast. Black-and-white plastic jars with signs “coffee” and “tea” sat on the table next to bowls of steamy oatmeal and a glass vase with artificial roses.

A large painting of a fountain decorated the yellow walls. On the opposite wall, a sign that read “Happy Birthday” hung next to an American flag. 

Luzina has been coming to the senior center for several years, but since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, she said, she has had trouble connecting with fellow Russians. 

“I read news on the internet, and those old fools watch Russian channels, which is nothing but propaganda,” she said. 

Ukraine city names street for Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson


The city of Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine named a street after Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last and most prominent Lubavitcher rebbe, who fled the city in 1927.

Communist agents arrested the rebbe’s father there in 1939.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson Street was unveiled in Dnepropetrovsk Friday morning by its chief rabbi, Shmuel Kaminezki, who is one of the Chabad movement’s most senior envoys to Ukraine. The change came amid a larger national policy to replace the names of Soviet-era figures with Ukrainian national heroes.

“This is a very important event for the city and for the country in general,” Kaminezki said at the renaming ceremony for the street, along which a Jewish school is located.

“I want to note that it is not the Jewish community that initiated this name change: The proposal to name a street after the Rebbe was received from the Ukrainians, who know the history of their city and its country and are proud of it,” he said in a statement published on the community’s website.

Dnepropetrovsk, which is one Ukraine’s most important Jewish hubs and has a Jewish community of 50,000, already has a Sholem Aleichem Street, named for the Yiddish writer. The community owns a giant, 22-story menorah-shaped complex there that was opened in 2012 and cost $100 million to build.

The Jewish community of Ukraine has been less appreciative of other name changes.

Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, last month condemned a plan to name streets for Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, nationalists who are widely believed to be responsible for lethal violence against Jews during the Holocaust.

“My countrymen should know that Bandera and Shukhevych considered me and all of the Ukrainian Jews — children, women, the elderly — enemies of Ukrainians,” he wrote on Facebook.

The director of Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance, Vladimir Vyatrovich, said in a statement that Kiev will soon name a street for the nationalists while another street is to be named for Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish Jewish teacher who was murdered in Auschwitz.

Bandera and Shukhevych collaborated with Nazi forces that occupied what is now Ukraine and are believed to have commanded troops that killed thousands of Jews. Once regarded by Ukrainian authorities as illegitimate to serve as national role models because of their war crimes against Jews and Poles, Bandera and Shukhevych are now openly honored in Ukraine following a revolution spearheaded by nationalists in 2014. The revolution was against a government whose critics said was under Russian control.

Many in Ukraine view Bandera and Shukhevych and other suspected war criminals as heroes for their opposition to Soviet domination.

 

Lviv Ghetto memorial vandalized in anti-Semitic attack


A monument to the victims of the Holocaust-era ghetto of Lviv in western Ukraine was vandalized in what police suspect is an anti-Semitic incident.

Unidentified vandals on Friday threw several gallons of green paint on the memorial, which was erected in 1992 in memory of tens of thousands of Jews who were kept in the ghetto after the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941.

“We called law enforcement officers, and later maintenance services in the Shevchenko district to wash away the paint,” Lviv City Council spokesman Roman Dach told the news website Fakty.

In 1939, approximately 110,000 Jews lived in Lviv, where they constituted one-third of the city’s total population, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Nearly all of them were murdered by German soldiers and local collaborators.

Throughout the summer of 1942, 50,000 Jews were sent to Belzec and Janowska, a camp within the city. In September, the remaining Jews were moved into a smaller ghetto, and in November of that year, “unproductive” Jews were either sent to Janowska or other camps to be murdered.

30 years on, Ukrainians remember victims of Chernobyl disaster


Ukraine held memorial services on Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of theChernobyl nuclear disaster which permanently poisoned swathes of eastern Europe and highlighted the shortcomings of the secretive Soviet system.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine triggered a meltdown that spewed deadly clouds of atomic material into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

President Petro Poroshenko attended a ceremony at the Chernobyl plant, which sits in the middle of an uninhabitable 'exclusion zone' the size of Luxembourg.

“The issue of the consequences of the catastrophe is not resolved. They have been a heavy burden on the shoulders of the Ukrainian people and we are still a long way off from overcoming them,” he said.

More than half a million civilian and military personnel were drafted in from across the former Soviet Union as so-called liquidators to clean-up and contain the nuclear fallout, according to the World Health Organization.

Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, most from acute radiation sickness.

Over the past three decades, thousands more have succumbed to radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, although the total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.

Nikolay Chernyavskiy, 65, who worked at Chernobyl and later volunteered as a liquidator, recalls climbing to the roof of his apartment block in the nearby town of Prypyat to get a look at the plant after the accident.

“My son said 'Papa, Papa, I want to look too'. He's got to wear glasses now and I feel like it's my fault for letting him look,” Chernyavskiy said.

The anniversary has garnered extra attention due to the imminent completion of a giant 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) steel-clad arch that will enclose the stricken reactor site and prevent further leaks for the next 100 years.

The project was funded with donations from more than 40 governments and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Even with the new structure, the surrounding zone – 2,600 square km (1,000 square miles) of forest and marshland on the border of Ukraine and Belarus – will remain uninhabitable and closed to unsanctioned visitors.

The disaster and the government's reaction highlighted the flaws of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy. For example, the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said he considers Chernobyl one of the main nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed in 1991.

There’s no place like home, even in the Chernobyl disaster zone


Some people found life away from home so unbearable they decided to return, even when home was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

Maria Lozbin was one of tens of thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes after the Chernobyl accident in April 1986, but returned with her family six years ago, to live off the land inside a 30 km (19 mile) exclusion zone where the risk of radiation poisoning remains.

A 69-year-old with a ready laugh and a green shawl wrapped round her, Lobzin said the village to which she had been evacuated was full of drunks and drug addicts.

The house into which she was moved was so shoddily constructed, with a huge crack running from the roof to the basement, that she was afraid of being killed or maimed by a falling object.

“Living there was like waiting for death,” she said.

Now she lives with her son and his family back in Chernobyl, in a zone that can only be reached by crossing a checkpoint and where guides accompany curious tourists with radiation meters.

By contrast, a deathly silence hangs over the nearby abandoned town of Prypyat, where a rusting fairground wheel, and a kindergarten with toys, dolls and small beds are a grim testimony to the scale and speed of the disaster.

Lozbin keeps chickens, geese and ducks, grows potatoes and tomatoes, and goes foraging for mushrooms in nearby woods.

“There is no radiation here. I'm not afraid of anything,” she said. “And when it's time for me to die, it won't happen because of radiation.”

BIRD SONG

Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine, caused by a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant that sent clouds of nuclear material across much of Europe.

The disaster and the government's handling of it — the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident — highlighted the shortcomings of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy.

Mikhail Gorbachev has since said he considered Chernobyl one of the main nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union which eventually collapsed in 1991.

The accident killed 31 right away and forced tens of thousands to flee. The final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses such as cancer is subject to debate.

A Greenpeace report ahead of the anniversary cites a Belarusian study estimating the total cancer deaths from the disaster at 115,000, in contrast to the World Health Organisation's estimate of 9,000.

The Greenpeace study also said people living in the area continue to eat and drink foods with dangerously high radiation levels.

In particular, “the 30 km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor remains highly contaminated and unsuitable to live in,” it said.

But that matters little to Lozbin, one of around 160 people estimated to have returned to the zone. “What's there to be afraid of?” said Maria's daughter-in-law Oleksandra Lozbin.

“I don't want to go to Kiev. Why would I leave such nature? Where could you hear cuckoos? Where could you hear the nightingale?”

Oleksandra's husband, who grew up in a village 7 km away, started coming to Chernobyl in short bursts starting in 2008 and the family settled back there permanently in 2010.

“My husband had wanted to come back to his homeland all his life,” she said. “He came back when it was all closed here, when it was prohibited to come here. He crossed through barbed wire.”

Oleksandra said police initially tried to force them to leave, but the family refused.

Oleksandra hopes to inspire others to move back. To remind people what life was like before the accident, the family has created a makeshift museum in a house across the street with objects collected from nearby abandoned cottages.

There are books, a doll in a cot, a rusty wheel, an abacus, and a black-and-white photo of two people. One day, she hopes, someone might see it and recognize their great-grandparents.

“We decided to save the history of Chernobyl,” she said. “We hope that people will come back here and will live here, and their children and grandchildren will see what life was like here, in what kind of cots people were raised here, in what kind of boxes people stored their personal belongings and books.”

On a bench lies a Soviet newspaper from Jan. 24 1986, four months before the disaster. The front page headline reads: “No to nuclear testing”.

Dutch voters snub EU-Ukraine treaty supported by Ukrainian Jews


A treaty to increase European Union-Ukraine ties was dealt a blow when 60 percent of Dutch voters in a national referendum on the deal voted nay.

The leadership of Ukraine’s Jewish community had lobbied hard in favor of the treaty.

In an apparent expression of anti-EU sentiment, 60 percent of those who voted in the referendum Wednesday came out in opposition to the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. The treaty would remove trade barriers and promote military and scientific cooperation between the EU and Ukraine.

Ukrainian Jewish leaders had tried to publicly counter opponents’ claims the treaty would eventually bring Ukraine into the EU and thereby further burden the cash-strapped bloc.

In a Dutch-language plea for Dutch support of the treaty published in February, 19 Jewish community leaders from Ukraine cited the need to encourage Ukrainian democracy and oppose Russian expansionism, among other arguments. They also said Ukraine was essentially anti-Semitism free.

Prominent figures within the Dutch Jewish community disagreed and urged voters to consider Ukraine’s Holocaust-era record and what they described as its failure to seriously grapple with anti-Semitism today. Some 1.5 million Jews were killed on Ukrainian territory by Nazis and local collaborators during the Holocaust.

At a debate about the treaty Tuesday at an Amsterdam Jewish center, Tamarah Benima, a Reform rabbi and columnist for the NIW Dutch Jewish weekly, alleged Ukraine had not confronted its anti-Semitic past. She noted Ukrainian currency carries the portrait of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a 17th century Cossack leader responsible for pogroms against Jews, and city streets are named after Stepan Bandera, an ally of Nazi Germany.

“This is not a country that’s ready to join the family of European nations,” she said.

But Josef Zissels, the head of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jewish communities, dismissed Benima’s examples as expressions of nationalism, not anti-Semitism. He argued there are almost no anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands, compared to 100-odd incidents in the Netherlands every year.

Zissels was in the Netherlands as part of a last-ditch effort by Ukrainian Jewish leaders to lobby for a yea vote. Last week, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Ya’akov Dov Bleich visited the Netherlands for a string of meetings on the referendum.

Ronny Naftaniel, chairman of the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, said at the debate that Ukraine’s anti-Semitism problem was irrelevant to the vote. “If this were the parameter, then Greece, Hungary and chiefly Germany, our biggest friend, are also untouchable,” he said.

Speaking to JTA, Bleich highlighted geopolitical considerations in favor of a yea vote, namely the need to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia under Vladimir Putin, which in 2014 annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

“Putin is a bully, and you have to stand up to bullies,” Bleich said.

Ukraine has failed to stand up to its own bullies, who are guilty of anti-Semitism, corruption and human trafficking, argued Nachshon Rodrigues Pereira, a Dutch-Jewish cantor and political science student who opposed the treaty and organized the Crescas debate.

“Ukraine will bring 45 million people with values that we really don’t need in the EU,” he said, noting that Transparency International last year ranked Ukraine as the world’s 45th most corrupt country.

My queasy night at Lviv’s controversial ‘Jewish’ eatery


There’s a Jewish-themed restaurant attached to the ruins of the 16th-century Golden Rose Synagogue here. It first caught my eye last month when I was taking photographs of Meylakh Sheykhet, a haredi Jewish man who is fighting to preserve what’s left of the once beautiful structure.

Sheykhet insisted I train my lens in a different direction.

“I don’t want this anti-Semitic restaurant in the background,” he said.

At first glance Pid Zolotoju Rozoju, Ukrainian for “At the Golden Rose,” isn’t a particularly remarkable restaurant.  But if “Jewish themed” makes you think of a kosher-style deli in Miami Beach or a Montreal bagelry, think again: Peddling Jewish food and culture with a combination of nostalgia and stereotypes, the eatery has been widely pilloried.

Since it opened in 2008, the restaurant has faced allegations that it crassly perpetuates anti-Semitic stereotypes, particularly in a place where Nazis and locals wiped out nearly all traces of Judaism – including the very synagogue after which it is named.

I wanted to check out those allegations for myself. So I posed Sheykhet against a different background and decided I’d return later that evening for dinner.

Pid Zolotoju Rozoju looks like many other restaurants in this city near the Polish border, which has changed names and hands over the centuries as it fell under Russian, Polish and Austro-Hungarian control.

The joint is dark and small, with low ceilings, no windows and only nine tables. Its decor, such as it is, consisting of Judaica and Yiddish theater posters, could practically be considered tasteful, even if the restaurant serves non-kosher dishes such as rabbit kidneys.

But after sitting down and seeing the menu, I understood the uproar. There are no prices. That’s because “it’s Jewish tradition to haggle and bargain afterwards,” said my non-Jewish waiter, who instructed me to call him Moishe — though, when pressed, he revealed his name was Vlodymir. He then told me he’ll be right back and went into the kitchen.

I was left alone to survey my surroundings in the quiet dining room.

The cheap-looking wooden tables had stained crocheted tablecloths. Juxtaposed with the greasy, retro interior was a plasma television showing a slideshow of images from 1930s Lviv, when the city had 110,000 Jews — a third of its total population.

Back then, Lviv (in Russian it’s Lvov, in German Lemberg) was teeming with Jewish life and the Golden Rose was considered one of the finest synagogues in Europe. Lviv had five Jewish publishers, six Jewish schools and many small haredi schools. Among the Jewish newspapers sold here were the Togblat (Yiddish) and Chwila (Polish) dailies.

But it all came to an abrupt end in 1941, when the Germans invaded. They blew up the synagogue in 1943. Only a few hundred Jews survived. Today the Jewish community numbers 1,200.

While I was contemplating my people’s sad history in the city, Moishe came back with a bowl and a copper jug. He had covered his brown hair with a black hat adorned with fake peyot, the sidelocks typically grown by haredim. He cheerfully shook his head to make the fake hair jiggle.

“It’s Jewish tradition to wash your hands before eating. We are a very clean people, as you see,” he said, gesturing, ironically or otherwise, at the somewhat grubby surroundings.

Playing the part of an unknowing tourist — a persona I decided would make the staff feel most at ease — I obliged with a smile. I then asked whether he had any pork schnitzel.

“No!” Moishe replied in horror. “Jews don’t eat pork!”

“But if you pay extra, maybe we can arrange something,” he added with a mischievous smile.

Such antics are the trademark of the Lviv-based !FEST chain of concept restaurants that operates Pid Zolotoju Rozoju. Its properties include Kryjivka, which was built like a partisans’ bunker and accused of honoring the legacy of a Nazi collaborator. Another celebrates the life and writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose kinky works inspired the term “masochism.”

Across Eastern Europe there are restaurants paying uncomfortable homage to communities decimated by the Holocaust. Several of these “Jewish,” pork-serving restaurants operate in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of the Polish city of Krakow. In Kiev, Cimes (its name a variant of tzimmes, the Ashkenazi carrot dish) boasts a neon sign featuring a caricature of a hook-nosed Jew.

But the Golden Rose restaurant has been the most controversial. Sheykhet, the Ukraine director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, told me it “panders to, and thereby enhances and legitimizes, anti-Semitic attitudes.”

Andriy Khudo, a co-owner of Pid Zolotoju Rozoju, has frequently faced such accusations. In 2012, he told Agence France Presse that he and his partners “studied the history of Jews in Lviv for three months and worked with the main Jewish organization in the city, which gave its approval for the project.”

Khudo was referring to an endorsement reportedly given by Ada Dianova, who runs the local Jewish Hesed charity. In an 2008 interview, Dianova said Hesed gives “gifts and printed material” to Pid Zolotoju Rozoju to distribute to patrons. (I only received a magnet with the restaurant’s name as a souvenir.)

“We do maybe use stereotypes, but the customers like it,” Khudo told AFP. “And Ukrainians, too, like haggling. There’s nothing offensive in it.”

During my visit, a group of young Ukrainians drank plum liquor at the bar. They burst into laughter when the barman told them the drink was made by squeezing juice out of Jews’ peyot.

I asked one of them whether she had heard that some Jews find the place objectionable.

“I never met any of them, so I don’t know,” said the patron, who identified herself only as Marina.

Despite the owners’ insistence that it’s all good-natured fun, the restaurant’s menu refers to Jews as “zhids” — the Russian equivalent of  “kikes.”

The price-free menu carries a long-winded disclaimer explaining that zhid is a neutral word in Ukrainian. The reality, however, is more complicated. Many Ukrainians use it matter-of-factly, but many others use it as a slur. Ukraine’s official Jewish community staunchly opposes its use, arguing it should be dropped altogether.

When the check finally came, Moishe’s opening bid was 450 hryvna — approximately $17. That’s more than triple an acceptable price in Lviv for what I had ordered — a stewed beef brisket with polenta that to my unsophisticated palate tasted pretty good.

Aware of the irony of the situation — I was accepting Moishe’s challenge to act according to a racist stereotype of, well, me — I offered to pay 30 percent lower than what I estimated to be fair, hoping to settle on it.

But Moishe had another trick under his black hat: If I could sing a song in Yiddish for him, he said, I would get a discount.

Deliberating over my small repertoire of Yiddish songs, I reflected on the nearby Jewish ghetto that in 1943 was converted into a labor camp where more than 15,000 of my brethren were murdered.

So I sang “Partizaner Lid,” the heartbreakingly optimistic partisans’ anthem written that year by Hirsh Glick, a young Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto. Like many Israelis, I had studied its Hebrew-language version, but I know a part of the Yiddish original thanks to my Lviv-born bar mitzvah tutor.

“Never say this is the final road for you, though leaden skies may cover over days of blue,” I sang in Yiddish.

But I had to switch to Hebrew because I could no longer remember the lyrics in the language that the Nazis had done their best to erase. My voice cracked with emotion.

Moishe didn’t seem to notice.

“Very nice,” he said, and knocked 50 hryvna off the bill.

In real-life Anatevka, Ukraine’s Jewish refugees build a community


At the age of 53, Sergey and Elena Yarelchenko fled their native city of Lugansk with three suitcases and moved into a wooden room in a muddy refugee camp outside Kiev.

Like hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine’s war-torn east, life for this Jewish couple in 2014 went from a normal bourgeois existence to a hellish struggle for survival and flight from a city that within days became the arena for vicious urban fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists.

But unlike many refugees, the Yarelchenkos’ story is no tearful account of rootlessness.

Thanks to one rabbi’s unique project for Jewish refugees from the east, the Yarelchenkos are part of the nascent community of Anatevka, a small village that sprang into existence six months ago near the capital, where 20 families are now building a future based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance.

Named after the fictional hometown of Tevye the Dairyman from the famed Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – and the iconic Sholom Aleichem short stories on which it was based – Anatevka is a tribute not only to that town but to the real Jewish shtetls that dotted Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Spread on a plot the size of three football fields, Anatevka features a wooden synagogue with two mikvahs. A rickety path made of splintered wooden pallets connects the three-story synagogue building to a dormitory-style residence with 20 apartments and a central kitchen. A ways off is a school newly built from concrete with 25 classrooms.

“Our son in Israel is pressing us to make aliyah, but Anatevka looks like a better option for us,” said Elena Yarelchenko.

Jewish refugees at Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community's new synagogue on Feb. 29, 2016. (Courtesy of the office of Rabbi Moshe Azman)Jewish refugees at Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community’s new synagogue, Feb. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Office of Rabbi Moshe Azman

Her husband, Sergey, is a carpenter making a small salary in Anatevka, which is largely built from wood. As she helps prepare food for all the other residents, Elena gestures at her husband’s small workshop outside the residential complex.

“Sergey’s a workaholic who either sleeps or works,” she said. “Do you think Israel’s holding its breath for a 53-year-old carpenter who doesn’t speak Hebrew?”

Between the school — the only structure in town that is not made of wood — and Anatevka’s muddy access road are the fresh concrete foundations for a clinic and rehabilitation center that workers, some of them local residents like Sergey, are laying under the watchful eye of the man who created Anatevka: Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev.

A burly man with a bushy gray beard and a full head of hair, the 50-year-old Azman comes into the residential complex and peels off several layers of thick snowy clothing in the foyer of the building, whose design is reminiscent of a rustic ski lodge.

“It can get pretty hot in here,” he notes with satisfaction at the effectiveness of the central heating system.

Working with money from his own pocket and private donors — they include the Moscow-born kosher food supplier Michael Zelman of London and the Dubinsky family from Kiev — Azman has spent more than $1.5 million on Anatevka, which he designed not only to serve as a refugee center, but as a living, breathing community.

A maverick rabbi who remained influential here even when he broke with the official institutions of the Chabad movement over a contractual dispute, Azman says he is “trying to survive from day to day” because of debts he incurred while realizing his plan for Anatevka, which critics doubted would ever come to pass.

“I’m aware of the risks I’ve taken,” Azman said solemnly, adding that he recently had to borrow money from a friend for gasoline so he could remain mobile throughout this week.

“I’m in debt to my eyeballs, but I’m not afraid because this is God’s mission. Besides, each day that Anatevka is running is another day that my community lives in dignity. Builds a future. You can’t put a price tag on that,” he said.

Carpenter Sergey Yarelchenko at his workshop in the Jewish refugee community of Anatevka near Kiev on March 13, 2016. (Cnaan Liphshiz)Carpenter Sergey Yarelchenko at his workshop in the Jewish refugee community of Anatevka, near Kiev, March 13, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz

To keep Anatevka running, Azman has relied on donations also from members of his own community in Kiev, whose children account for the majority of the 150 pupils attending Anatevka’s school.

While residents provide much of the labor force at Anatevka, not all of them can work. Isaak Mohilevsky, an octogenarian from Lugansk who used to be the caretaker of that city’s synagogue, can barely walk. But he, too, is pulling his own weight: On Feb. 29, he received the keys to Anatevka’s new synagogue, which opened that day in a ceremony attended by Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Eliav Belotsercovsky.

“When I left, I never thought I’d have another synagogue under my care,” Mohilevsky said.

In its present (and unfinished) form, Anatevka is a confounding mix of novel and antiquated. The central heating system, for example, uses wood as fuel – not out of nostalgia but because it is cheaper than either gasoline or gas in a country that has been under sanctions from mineral-rich Russia ever since the 2013 revolution that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin regime and triggered the fighting in the east.

The wooden logs that were used to build the walls of Anatevka’s synagogue and residential area are sealed with fireproof chemicals and high-tech insulation from Germany that help keep the place warm in winter.

Still, Anatevka isn’t for everyone. Noisy, dirty, inaccessible and devoid of even basic amenities such as a grocery shop and postal services, it is deemed unsuitable to their housing needs by even some of the refugees involved in the project.

“I’m a city person,” said Svetlana Koznitsova, a refugee from Lugansk who helps Azman run Anatevka but lives in a rented apartment in Kiev with her daughter. “I need to stay in the city and I will for as long as I can earn a salary.”

In one of the first-floor apartments in Anatevka, Meshulam Kolesnik, a web designer who was forced to leave Crimea after its annexation from Ukraine by Russia, is using Anatevka’s fast WiFi connection to improve thewebsite he built to solicit new donations for the project.

“I’m not a carpenter like Sergey, but I build what I can for this place,” said Kolesnik, an observant Jew who lives here with his wife and has an office in the room of their two boys, 5-year-old Yitzhak and his little brother, Leib. Their colorful drawings are plastered all over the wooden interior of their room.

Kolesnik, 35, left his apartment in Simferopol last year because he had refused to trade in his Ukrainian passport for a Russian one. When his children were prevented from attending school, Kolesnik broke down and asked for the Russian nationality, but by then he was deemed ineligible because he wasn’t in the country when a majority of the population voted for annexation in a referendum that was deemed illegal by the international community.

When he moved to the Kiev region, Kolesnik left behind a successful business and a central apartment in sunny Crimea. But he says he is not bitter over the loss.

“We are once again living among equals in our own Jewish community and country,” he said. “And like this, I think we can face whatever lies ahead.”

Ukrainian Jewish leaders appeal to Netherlands voters to approve EU trade pact


Ukrainian Jews appealed to the population of the Netherlands to vote in favor of a referendum over a trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.

The appeal by 19 leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish population was published last week on the website of Vaad, a large organization representing Ukrainian Jews.

In the letter, they stressed Ukrainian Jews’ support for closer ties between Kiev and the European Union, which the undersigned wrote would be strengthened if a majority of voters in the April 6 referendum indicate their approval of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine.

The referendum over the trade agreement, which removes some taxes on imports from Ukraine into the European bloc, was scheduled amid opposition to the pact in the Netherlands – the only EU country that has yet to sign off on the accord so it can go into effect.

The Dutch parliament already ratified the accord, but its approval has been put on hold following the collection of 427,000 signatures on a petition opposing it. Dutch law favors a referendum on such issues if it is demanded by at least 300,000. Opponents of the accord fear it may lead to EU membership for Ukraine and a new burden for Dutch taxpayers.

“This is not about EU membership, but only about an association enabling Ukraine to retain its European course of development and finally throw off the Russian dictate,” wrote the cosignatories, including Vaad leader Joseph Zisels and Yaakov Dov Bleich, Ukraine’s chief rabbi.

They noted the agreement was the trigger to the 2013 revolution that led to regime change in Ukraine. Then-President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign it, prompting a revolution amid accusations that he was a corrupt Kremlin stooge.

Russia responded by arming Ukrainians rebels and annexing some of Ukrainian land, citing a need to protect minorities, including Jews, from the alleged anti-Semitism and xenophobia of the revolutionaries. While some Ukrainian Jews welcomed this move, many others opposed it, calling accusations of anti-Semitism part of Russia’s propaganda war.

“Ukraine has one of Europe’s lowest levels of anti-Semitism,” wrote the cosignatories, adding Jews had “an important role” in the revolution.

Russian-Israeli director takes Ukraine revolution to the Oscars


When Evgeny Afineevsky began filming his Oscar-nominated documentary about Ukraine’s revolution, he thought he was in for a fun project full of song and dance, oddly enough.

Afineevsky, a 43-year-old Russian-born director who served in the Israeli army, says his first days in Kiev in 2013 were “one big festival,” with people singing and playing musical instruments in Maidan, the square that was the birthplace of the upheaval.

Yet as the fighting intensified in the winter of 2013-14, Afineevsky found himself risking his life amid savage urban fighting that he documented in “Winter on Fire,” a Netflix production in contention for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.

“When the bullets started flying, I saw the courage of the people around me who stayed, and realized I could not leave, either,” he told JTA.

Afineevsky, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1999, spent three months filming the urban battlefield where some 150 people died and thousands were wounded in a war that wound up toppling the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Over the course of 97 minutes, the film offers a day-by-day account of the conflict’s escalation to the extreme violence that Ukrainian police used against protesters.

After Netflix purchased the film and offered it to millions of subscribers in dozens of countries in October, Afineevsky became something of a national hero in Ukraine. In November he received the Cross of Ivan Mazepa from President Petro Poroshenko, whose ascent to power in 2014 was precipitated by the Maidan protests.

Evgeny Afineevsky, second from right, in Kiev's Maidan Square in 2013. (Courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky)Evgeny Afineevsky, second from right, in Kiev’s Maidan Square in 2013. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky

As a Russian Jew, Afineevsky concedes he is not the obvious choice as spokesman for the Ukrainian revolution. Sparked by resentment over Russia’s creeping influence over the Yanukovych regime, the revolution was supported by many Ukrainian Jews who wished to see their country draw closer to Europe. But others opposed it out of concern that surging Ukrainian nationalism could provide a platform for anti-Jewish sentiment, a fear aggravated by the glorification of Nazi collaborators at Maidan as national heroes.

Despite the polarizing debate provoked by the uprising, Afineevsky, who launched his career in the movie business working with the late Israeli-born Hollywood producer Menahem Golan, says he tried to focus on the unity achieved at Maidan instead of the cultural fault lines it exposed.

“I saw and filmed Ukrainian imams, priests, Jews and nationalists working as one to build a better future for themselves and their country,” said Afineevsky, who served in the Israel Defense Forces for three years after immigrating to Israel in 1991 from Kazan, 450 miles east of Moscow. “As someone who comes from Israel, I think that message of solidarity is a sign we in the Middle East can also overcome ethnic and religious differences.”

“Winter on Fire” has many scenes that demonstrate Maidan’s role as a melting pot. But perhaps the film’s most striking element is its sequences documenting the wanton use of force by the Berkut, the black-clad special police units that Yanukovych unleashed on the protesters.

In one scene, six troops are seen brutally beating an unarmed man while he lies on the ground covering his face. As additional troops pass him, each officer pauses briefly to hit the man with his baton. The man eventually loses consciousness and is left for dead.

Lati Grobman, right, and Christa Campbell, co-producers of the Oscar-nominated documentary Christa Campbell, left, and Lati Grobman, co-producers of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Winter on Fire.” Phto courtesy of Lati Grobman

In another, a boy of 13 is seen participating in the revolutionaries’ fight against police, hurling stones at them as they respond with a volley of live ammunition.

“The brutality in ‘Winter on Fire’ puts into perspective attempts to demonize Israel as an oppressive regime bent on using force simply by showing what such an evil regime really looks like,” said Lati Grobman, the film’s co-producer and, like Afineevsky, a Russia-born Israeli-American.

“Winter on Fire” is hardly a balanced take on the events of 2013-14. It offers no insight into how the Berkut troops feel about being ordered to fire on their countrymen. Nor does it examine the participation of child combatants in the fighting or the massive involvement in the protests of the xenophobic Ukrainian far right.

And it faces stiff competition at the Oscars — not least from “Amy,” the acclaimed documentary about the British-Jewish singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011 of problems connected to her drug and alcohol addictions. Afineevsky is also up against “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — a film about the singer Nina Simone directed by the American Jewish filmmaker Liz Garbus.

“We are at a bit of a disadvantage at the Oscars,” Grobman conceded. “These other films are driven by stars with powerful, relatable personalities. Our only star is the Ukrainian people.”

Ukraine leader mocks Russia’s call for anti-terrorism coalition


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday derided Russia's call for the creation of an international antiterrorism coalition, saying the Russians inspire terrorism on their own doorstep and back bellicose puppet governments.

Russian President Putin on Monday called for the creation of a broad international coalition to fight Islamic State and other militant extremist groups.

Poroshenko used his speech at the annual gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly to blast Russia and suggest its call for global action against terrorist threats was hypocritical.

“Over the last few days we have heard conciliatory statements form the Russian side,” he told the 193-nation assembly. “Cool story, but really hard to believe. How can you urge an antiterrorist coalition if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door?

“How can you talk about peace and legitimacy if your policy is war via puppet governments?” he added. “The Gospel of John teaches us, 'In the beginning was the word.' But what kind of a gospel do you bring to the world if all your words are double-tongued like that?”

He referred to the fact that Russia is accelerating military support to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has been locked in a civil war with rebel forces seeking to oust Assad for 4-1/2 years.

“These days the Russian 'men in green' tread on Syrian land,” he said. “What or who is next?”

Poroshenko renewed accusations that Russia finances, trains and supplies pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, while sending heavy weapons and Russian troops, with insignias removed from their uniforms, to help battle Ukrainian forces loyal to the Kiev government.

Speaking later at Columbia University, Poroshenko called on countries that support Kiev to help his government secure modern weapons to defend itself.

Moscow denies the allegations and accuses the United States of having orchestrated the ouster of Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin president early last year.

“For over 20 months, Russia's aggression against my country has been continuing through financing of terrorists and mercenaries, and supplies of arms and military equipment to the illegal armed groups,” Poroshenko told the General Assembly.

All but one member of Russia's delegation left the assembly hall while Poroshenko spoke. The full delegation returned after he finished his speech.

The United States and European Union support the Kiev government and have imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko said that if Russia does not implement the Minsk peace deal reached last year, under which both sides were to hold fire and withdraw heavy weapons, international sanctions of Moscow should remain in place.

Poroshenko and Putin will meet with the leaders of France and Germany in Paris on Friday to discuss the fragile Minsk ceasefire agreement.

A representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said earlier that Ukraine and the separatists have now agreed, in talks in Minsk, Belarus, to extend a pullback of weapons in east Ukraine to include tanks and smaller weapons systems.

Important quotes from President Obama’s U.N. speech


President Barack Obama addressed a range of global topics in a speech to the annual United Nations General Assembly on Monday, including the war in Syria, where he said the United States was willing to work with Iran and Russia to end the conflict. 

The following is a selection of quotes from the speech:

SYRIA

“We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights … information is strictly controlled, the space for civil society restricted. We're told that such retrenchment is required to beat back disorder, that it's the only way stamp out terrorism or prevent foreign meddling. In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children because the alternative is surely worse.”

“When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation's internal affairs.”

“There is no room for accommodating an apocalyptic cult like ISIL (Islamic State) and the United States makes no apology for using our military as part of a broad coalition to go after it.”

“We have demonstrated over more than a decade of relentless pursuit of al Qaeda, we will not be outlasted by extremists. But while military power is necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria. Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”

“Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL WITH SIX WORLD POWERS

“If this deal is fully implemented, the prohibition on nuclear weapons is strengthened, a potential war is averted, our world is safer. That is the strength of the international system when it works the way it should.”

UKRAINE and RUSSIA

“We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. If it happens without consequences in Ukraine, it can happen to any nation here today. That's the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia, it's not a desire to return to a cold war.”

CLAIMS BY CHINA AND OTHERS ON SOUTH CHINA SEA

“In the South China Sea, the United States makes no claim on territory there, we don't adjudicate claims, but like every nation here, we have an interest in upholding the basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce and in resolving disputes through international law, not the law of force.”

CUBA EMBARGO AND RESTORED U.S. DIPLOMATIC TIES

“As these contacts yield progress I'm confident our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore.”

LIBYA AFTER GADDAFI

“Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should done more to fill a vacuum left behind. We're grateful to the United Nations for its efforts to forge a unity government.

“We will help any legitimate Libyan government as it works to bring the country together, but we also have to recognize that we must work more effectively in the future as an international community to build capacity for states that are in distress before they collapse.”

For aliyah promoters, Ukraine’s troubles provide a boost


Until April of last year, Julia Podinovskaya felt like she had a pretty good handle on where her life was going.

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Podinovskaya, who is in her 20s, was volunteering with the local Jewish community while preparing to finish her bachelor’s degree in education at a local university.

Moving to Israel, or anywhere else, was not on her mind.

“Everything was planned,” she said in an interview at a Jewish summer camp near Tbilisi, the capital city of this republic. “On my father’s birthday, I already knew what I would give him the following year.”

But Podinovskaya’s life was turned upside down in the spring of 2014 when her city — and its Jewish community — were ripped apart in deadly fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. When the university shut down, Podinovskaya began helping the Jews of Donetsk, restarting the besieged city’s cultural activities for Jewish children after their shuttering because of the war.

In February she left for Kharkiv, a city located 185 miles northwest of her hometown, joining hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians.

Now, after spending the summer at the Zionist camp in Georgia, Podinovskaya is considering leaving Ukraine for Israel.

While not “instinctively attracted” to the idea of living in the Jewish state, Podinovskaya said, “I need to weigh my options because of the circumstances of my life.”

The summer camp she attended, Tchelet, is run by the Kiev-based Zionist Seminary, or Midrasha Zionit. It’s part of an effort by the Jewish Agency, which works to facilitate immigration to Israel and co-funds the camp, to reach out to Ukrainian and other Russian speakers who once had been resistant to the idea of moving to Israel.

“Generally speaking, those who wanted to leave left in the ’90s,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, referring to the approximately 1 million Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

But war has driven thousands more to Israel, or at least to consider the possibility. From January to August, 4,204 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel — a 50 percent increase over the corresponding period the previous year. That’s on top of a nearly 200 percent increase in immigration to Israel, or aliyah, between 2013 and 2014. In the latter year, 5,920 Ukrainians moved to Israel. Only France, whose Jewish population is about twice that of Ukraine’s, sent more immigrants to Israel in 2014.

War and instability are also contributing to aliyah from neighboring Russia, where the economy is suffering from international sanctions connected to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists. The conflict also has unleashed a nationalistic resurgence that is making many Russian Jews uncomfortable.

Aliyah from Russia in the first seven months of 2015 was 3,756 people — a 52 percent increase over the same period last year. Sharansky told JTA that he expects 6,000 Russian Jews and 7,000 Ukrainians to make aliyah this year. The European Jewish Congress estimates that there are 260,000 Jews in Russia and 380,000 in Ukraine.

“In Russia there’s a serious increase from Moscow and St. Petersburg that we haven’t seen in the past, and that’s mainly businessmen, intelligentsia, people who are afraid to find themselves closed off from the free world,” Sharansky said.

Amid the increased interest in aliyah from Ukraine and Russia, the Tchelet camp expanded this summer to include families in addition to its usual groups of teenagers and young adults. This was also the first summer that Tchelet was taking place in Georgia; from 2008 to 2014, the camp was situated in Ukraine, near Kiev, where the Zionist Seminary was established in 2006.

The move to Georgia was part of a push by the Jewish Agency to relocate nearly 1,000 youths from Jewish summer camps in Ukraine. Recognizing an increase in demand for aliyah among populations of Ukrainian and Russian Jews, the Jewish Agency sent in dozens of extra workers to facilitate the influx.

Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry, meanwhile, responded to the Ukraine war by simplifying aliyah procedures for Jews in eastern Ukraine. And the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — a Christian-funded group that has facilitated aliyah as well as community life in the former Soviet Union and beyond — stepped in with extra funding of millions of dollars for relief operations and special aliyah flights from Ukraine.

At Tchelet, 140 participants — most of them young, single adults, but also some families — stayed for one to two weeks this month at a rustic mountain resort. The visitors — the majority were from Ukraine and Russia, but also some from Belarus, Israel and even France — attended mandatory discussion and workshop sessions led by a mostly modern Orthodox staff about the Jews’ biblical connections to the Land of Israel and their longing for it in the Diaspora.

But at the end of each day, groups of young men and women, many wielding guitars and sometimes a bottle of vodka or two, went down to the lake or stayed indoors as they sang a repertoire of Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian pop songs until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the counselors’ declared commitment to promoting aliyah, some participants came in the hope of strengthening Jewish life in Ukraine, not Israel.

“This year I came here with the goal of finding a bride,” said Itshak Reynish, a 28-year-old Orthodox Jew from Kiev who has attended Tchelet for seven consecutive years.

Reynish said he does not intend to leave.

“Who said all Jews should leave? I think we should stay and make a strong community,” he said. “At least I intend to.”

Tchelet instructor Efraim Bogolyubov, who grew up in a secular home in Kiev but became religiously observant and made aliyah in 2012, said that despite the aliyah push, “we also give them the feeling it’s legitimate to stay and be Jewish back home.”

(The Zionist Seminary sponsored Cnaan Liphshiz’s trip to Georgia. It had no role in the writing or editing of this story.)

Poroshenko to visit Israel for first time as Ukraine president


In a move that may anger Russia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly scheduled to visit Ukraine soon and host its president in Jerusalem.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Hennadii Nadolenko, announced the plans for the visits in an op-ed published this week ahead of Ukraine’s 24th independence day, on Aug. 24.

“We expect in the near future a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Kiev, and by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Jerusalem, in a new milestone in bilateral relations that will further deepen cooperation between the two countries in all spheres of mutual interest,” Nadolenko wrote in his op-ed, which was reproduced on Wednesday by the news site evreiskiy.kiev.ua.

Resisting American and Russian pressure, Israel under Netanyahu has remained tight-lipped and neutral on the bloody conflict that, after Ukraine’s 2013 revolution, erupted between that country and Russia. That year, Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, was swept from power by revolutionaries who accused him of being a corrupt Kremlin stooge.

Russia then invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea, citing concern for minorities under the country’s new leadership, which Russia has accused of being a terrorist-harboring, pro-fascist regime.

Poroshenko, who was elected last year and has not yet visited Israel as president, has accused Russia of land theft and state-sponsored terrorism over its arming and support for separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where they are engaged in a bloody war with Ukrainian government troops.

He came to Israel last year on a clandestine visit, in which he reportedly urged officials to support Ukraine in the conflict.

Israel has protested the planned sale of advanced Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. In April, Israeli defense officials told the news site nrg.co.il that Israel may respond by selling arms to Ukraine and Georgia.

Will Russia’s missile deal with Iran end Israel’s silence on Ukraine?


After Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2014, Israel resisted pressure to join the United States and its European allies in condemning the move — citing in particular its concern not to antagonize Russia for fear it could provide Syria with a powerful anti-aircraft missile called the S-300.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was eager to mollify the Obama administration’s anger over Israel’s refusal to endorse sanctions on Russia or support a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, according to an Op-Ed published last year by Israel’s former U.S. ambassador, Itamar Rabinovich, and noted concerns about the possible missile sales in a meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

But if Israeli silence was indeed designed to keep S-300s clear off its doorstep, then that policy has clearly failed.

Ignoring vociferous Israeli protests, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on April 16 that he would would sell S-300 missiles not to Syria, but to Iran — a move that defense analysts say is guaranteed to complicate any aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and tip the military scales in favor of the Middle East’s Shiite axis.

“By charting its own appeasement policy on Russia, Israel under Netanyahu and Liberman further alienated the United States, our strongest ally, with little to show for it,” said Roman Bronfman, a Ukraine-born former Israeli lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz party and a television commentator on Russia-Israel relations.

Until now, Russia and the former Soviet states had been a rare foreign policy success for Israel amid its escalating crisis with the Obama administration and growing isolation in Europe.

Israel maintained relative silence on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, even as some of its closest allies were ramping up their criticism. As recently as last year, Israel pulled out of a deal to supply Ukraine with military hardware to avoid angering Russia, Israel’s Channel 2 reported at the time.

Russia reciprocated by muting its criticism of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, according to Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador in Kiev and Moscow, and now a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“Both sides were careful,” Magen said. “For years Russia refrained from supplying balance-disturbing weapons like the S-300 to the region; not to Iran, Syria or Egypt.”

The arrangement now appears to be in tatters.

Within hours of Putin’s announcement, Netanyahu said that Israel “views it with utmost gravity” and several Israeli media outlets quoted unnamed defense officials threatening to sells arms to Ukraine and Georgia, which has also had a territorial dispute with Russia. Even the United States, despite its harsh criticism of Putin, has thus far held off supplying arms to Ukraine, though it has recently begun training Ukrainian military personnel.

Putin responded publicly to the Israeli threats with a message of his own, saying in an April 18interview with Rossiya 1 TV that Israeli arms sales would merely increase the death toll from the conflict without changing the outcome.

“It’s a choice for the Israeli leadership to make,” Putin said. “They can do what they see necessary.”

Russia’s silence, and its refusal to alter the military balance in the Middle East, were not the only dividends Israel drew from the rapprochement Liberman led with Russia and other Eastern bloc countries.

Under Liberman, Israel signed visa waiver agreements with nearly all the countries that once made up the Soviet Union, paving the way for improved business ties and luring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel. Those successes were part of a broader policy that saw Israel invest in new and lucrative partnerships — including with Japan, India and China.

But to Bronfman, the crisis in relations with Russia is proof that those efforts have their limits and that Israel overreached when it charted an independent course on Ukraine.

“Israel’s foreign policy is dependent on its best strategic partner, the United States,” Bronfman said. “Israel needs that partner if it is to exist in its problematic neighborhood, and these crises will just keep occurring as long as Israel doesn’t accept that.”

Magen, however, says the crisis with Russia is a limited one and could even offer Israel a potential silver lining.

“Putin is pushing the S-300 deal not because he wants to harm Israel, but because he is advancing Russia’s interests,” Magen said. “Putin does not want relations to be ruined, and that means that the Russians could offer some compensation for the sale of S-300s … [by] using the Russian vote at the U.N. Security Council to Israel’s advantage when it comes to the Palestinian issue.”

Survivor: Josef Kreitenberg


As the transport from Tacova, Czechoslovakia (then called Tecso, Hungary), pulled up to the Birkenau platform in late May 1944, the doors of the cattle cars slammed open. “Raus, raus,” the SS shouted, directing those fit for work into separate men’s and women’s lines. The others, mostly children and the elderly, were steered to another line. Josef Kreitenberg, 14, followed his mother and twin sister, Sura, to the group of nonworkers. Then he abruptly switched lines, joining his father, two brothers and other male workers. He stood on a stone he found nearby to make himself look taller. Josef doesn’t know what prompted him to move. “I guess I wanted to be with my father and brothers,” he said. 

Josef was born on Oct. 31, 1929, in Tacova, Czechoslovakia (now Tyachiv, Ukraine), to Elias and Chaya Kreitenberg. He had three older brothers — Sam, Yitzhak and Mendy — as well as his twin. 

The family struggled financially, living in two rooms in half of a house that had no electricity, sharing space with Elias’ shoe repair business and Chaya’s dressmaking shop. Josef’s maternal grandparents and three aunts, his mother’s younger sisters, lived in the other half of the house. “Life was not easy,” Josef said.

The family was traditional Orthodox, as were the thousand or so other Jews in their small town. Josef spent mornings in the Czech public school and afternoons and evenings in cheder, where he studied Torah. 

Anti-Semitism was always present, and Josef remembers running from boys calling out “dirty Jew.” But the Kreitenbergs also coexisted peacefully with the town’s Christians, people who patronized his parents’ businesses. 

In March 1939, Hungary occupied Tacova and Josef’s school became Hungarian.

Around 1943, Josef’s oldest brother, Sam, was taken to a Hungarian forced labor battalion. And Elias, because he was Romanian-born, was imprisoned for six months, until Chaya succeeded in securing his release.

On March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. And although it was Hungarian, rather than German, soldiers who entered Tacova, “Life quickly changed,” Josef said. The Kreitenbergs feared even to step outside of their house, because soldiers were beating up Jews. 

Then in mid-April, Tacova’s Jews were relocated to a ghetto at the end of town. Josef, his parents, Yitzhak, Mendy and Sura, along with two of his aunts, moved into a barn. His grandparents, meanwhile, had died, one aunt had moved to Budapest, and Sam remained in the forced labor battalion. 

In late May, the ghetto residents were marched to the train station and crammed into waiting boxcars. 

After arriving at Birkenau, Josef and the other men were taken to a barracks. The next day, they were processed, including being tattooed. Josef became 10192. 

They were then marched to Auschwitz and lined up as Germans called out for volunteers to work as muhlfahrer. Because muhl sounded like mel, the Yiddish word for flour, Josef, Elias and Mendy volunteered, thinking they would be working in a flour mill. Instead, they found themselves toiling in a garbage dump, and discovering that muhlfahrer meant garbage men. 

Yitzhak worked elsewhere with his friends. “We never saw him again,” Josef said. He later learned that Yitzhak, always fussy about his food, had refused to eat and died of starvation. 

In the garbage dump, which was located outside the camp, Josef, Mendy and Elias, along with 35 or so other inmates, sorted wagonloads of trash as well as debris from arriving transports. But the work had its benefits. “Sometimes we could find things to eat,” Josef said.

After a transport from Lodz, Poland, arrived in August 1944, Josef came across a large cookie with a gold bracelet hidden inside. Through a connection in the camp bakery, he traded the bracelet for seven loaves of bread and some sugar. He hid the food in the barracks and also filled a canteen he found with a mixture of breadcrumbs and sugar. 

Then, in a selection that took place in late December 1944, his father, Elias, was taken away. “I never saw him again,” Josef said. 

Around the same time, as the prisoners were returning from work one day, a Gestapo guard gratuitously smacked Josef across his face. “I saw fire in front of my eyes,” he said. 

In the very early morning of Jan. 17, 1945, the prisoners were ordered outside and evacuated, walking all day and all night. “Anyone who couldn’t make it was shot,” Josef said.

They arrived at Gleiwitz, Poland, the next morning and were loaded onto open boxcars, so crammed they had to stand almost motionless. “I was lucky to have my brother. He watched over me,” Josef said of Mendy. They traveled for several days with no food or water, trying to catch the falling snowflakes. Josef, however, still had the canteen with breadcrumbs and sugar, which he shared with Mendy. “That’s what kept us alive,” he said.

Finally they arrived at Dora-Nordhausen in Germany. Thirsty after exiting the train, Mendy drank some water that made him ill. After a week or two in the barracks, he couldn’t even stand, and Josef was forced to leave him.

In early April 1945, as the war was winding down, the prisoners were loaded into closed boxcars and transported to Bergen-Belsen. There, they found no food or water, just hundreds of prisoners sick and dying from a typhus outbreak. 

On April 15 the prisoners were summoned to roll call and informed that the British had liberated the camp. That was a relief to Josef. But, he said, “Mainly what went through my mind was, ‘Where and what do I get to eat?’ ”

The prisoners were transferred to a former German army barracks in the nearby town of Celle, which became the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp. 

Josef was later trucked to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where he caught a train to Budapest. There, in a refugee center, he unexpectedly encountered Mendy. 

The brothers headed for Tacova, where they found their three aunts and Sam, who had spent the war in a labor battalion. Eventually they all made their way to the Gabersee displaced persons camp near Wasserburg, Germany.

In Gabersee, Josef and Mendy, who were both 18 or younger at the time, qualified to receive special orphan visas to immigrate to the United States, arriving in January 1947. They were sent to Los Angeles, where they rented a room, paid for by Vista del Mar. 

In 1949, Josef and Mendy (now Mike) brought Sam to Los Angeles. Their three aunts, by then married, also joined them.

Josef attended Roosevelt High School, graduating in January 1951. After high school, he attended Los Angeles City College, hoping to become a teacher. But the Korean War had broken out, and he was drafted, assigned to a heavy-weapons company in Metz, France, where, from 1953 through ’54, he taught English and arithmetic to soldiers.

In 1954, Josef visited Israel while on furlough. During his return to France by ship, he met Marlene Laufer, who was joining her sister in South America. Josef and Marlene corresponded for three years while Josef returned to the U.S. and earned a degree in accounting at Los Angeles State College.

Marlene came to Los Angeles in 1957, and they married on Aug. 31 of that year. Josef worked as an accountant for several electronics companies and then, in the 1960s, he and Marlene’s brother formed K & L Construction, building apartments and condominiums. 

Josef and Marlene have three sons: Irv, born in December 1959; Steve in April 1962; and Mordechai in May 1967. 

Sam died in 2008. Mike is alive, but has Alzheimer’s.

Josef retired in the late 1990s, but, now 85 and the grandfather of 18, he continues to manage some properties. He also occasionally speaks to school groups. 

The tall young man on the right is Yitzhak Kreitenberg. On his right is Mendy Kreitenberg and next to him, in the hat, Elias Kreitenberg. The child in the center, partially seen, is Josef.

Around 1979, Josef learned that a trove of photographs from Auschwitz had been discovered and compiled into a book called “The Auschwitz Album.” Josef ordered it, discovering that the photographs specifically chronicled the arrival of his transport. “When I opened the book and I saw the pictures of my family, I cried. I cried very hard,” he said. These are his only photographs of Sura and his parents.

The girl in the top left is Suri Kreitenberg, Josef’s twin sister. On her right is their mother, Chaya Kreitenberg.

Josef doesn’t know how or why he survived. “Even when I was in Auschwitz, when I was going to work, I used to pray, whatever prayers I knew by heart,” he said.

Jewish-Christian charity helps Ukrainians move to Israel


Tatyana Orul would have moved to Israel years ago if not for her job as a television journalist in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which interested her too much to give up.

But when bombs started falling next to her house last year, she reconsidered. The war between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist forces in the region had also put her husband out of a job. The airport where he worked now lies in ruins.

Last week at a hotel in the Ukrainian capital, Orul and her husband waited with packed bags for the plane that would take them the next morning to Israel to begin a new life. She would leave behind her newly married son; Orul said Ukrainian law prohibits newly married couples from emigrating.

For Orul, Israel was the only place she and her husband could go.

“My soul is in Israel,” Orul, 55, said through a translator. “It’s a very practical state. It has very warm people. It’s our historic home. I have no home to return to — for now.”

Orul and her husband were two of about 100 Ukrainian Jews brought to Israel on a March 24 flight sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), the charity run by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Since its launch in December, IFCJ’s Ukraine operation has brought more than 500 Ukrainian Jews to Israel — four-fifths of them refugees from the east. The operation’s goal, director Ofer Dahan said, is not just to get Jews to Israel, but to help them stay there.

“To move to Israel, or a new country, or even a new house in the same neighborhood, is not easy,” Dahan told the immigrants at a briefing just a few hours before they departed for the airport. “So we offer you a network of absorption that will make it easier for you in the first days.”

The network includes a stipend of $1,000 per adult and $500 per child — in addition to the $17,000 that the Israeli government gives a Ukrainian immigrant family of four. The group also provides a head-hunting service that promises to find immigrants a job within three weeks and provides a phone number to call if they have questions. IFCJ follows up with the new arrivals a month after the move.

“The direction is to have them be more connected to the places they live,” Dahan said in an interview on March 26. “When you’re connected to your community, your culture, your decision to leave or stay is easier.”

Many of the Ukrainians are steered toward towns in Israel’s so-called periphery that have especially active immigrant absorption departments and substantial populations of fellow Ukrainians. More than two dozen Ukrainians who arrived on recent IFCJ flights were resettled in Ramla, a city south of Tel Aviv that is 30 percent immigrant and is home to 1,000 Ukrainians. Local authorities provide the immigrants with additional assistance, including workshops on business entrepreneurship and civics, as well as tours across Israel at a token cost. The city also has Russian-speaking staff in municipal offices and schools, and psychologists are on hand to help them adjust.

“Ramla is a city that absorbs aliyah,” said Liron Carmeli, head of the city’s immigration and absorption division. “Our knowledge in dealing with aliyah comes from years of experience, especially with Russia, Ukraine and the Commonwealth of Independent States.”

Despite the assistance, life isn’t easy for the new arrivals. Many have left behind relatives and come with no Hebrew skills or familiarity with Israeli culture. The refugees from eastern Ukraine often have already migrated through other Ukrainian cities. Marina Eifchanker, who manages Ukrainian aliyah for IFCJ, said that couples on the verge of divorce usually split after moving to Israel.

“Aliyah is no small crisis,” she said. “Aliyah does not make anything easier. There are problems of language, housing. Kids go to school, don’t know a word of Hebrew. They were in a [refugee] camp for half a year, far away from everything.”

Before December, the vast majority of Ukrainian Jews brought to Israel were facilitated by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helped resettle 6,000 Ukrainian Jews in 2014. Some 1,400 others have come since January through the Jewish Agency, which also runs preparatory programs in Ukraine before departure and absorption services in Israel once they arrive.

IFCJ once was a major donor to the Jewish Agency. But in December, the fellowship split from the Jewish Agency, claiming that its bureaucracy made the immigration process too lengthy and that IFCJ’s support was not sufficiently acknowledged.

“In general, we consider it our responsibility to prepare immigrants for all aspects of life in Israel, teaching them Hebrew while they are still in Ukraine, ensuring that they are aware of their rights and benefits as immigrants, and helping them go through as much of the bureaucratic process as possible before they board the plane to Israel,” a Jewish Agency spokesman wrote in an email. Some of the immigrants leaving Ukraine on March 24 had few illusions about how hard the transition would be. But having escaped a place where bombs were killing their neighbors, they were happy to move to a country where they felt welcome.

“When you open your eyes every morning and your place is ‘boom, boom, boom’ every time,” said Andrew Segal, 28, who left Donetsk last year, “if you have the possibility to leave this place, to go to a place where you are safe, you have to do this right this second.”

Ukrainian Jewish surgeon claims attackers shouted anti-Semitic epithets


 A Jewish physician from Ukraine was severely beaten in what he said was an anti-Semitic assault.

Oleksanr Dukhovskoi, a chief pediatric neurosurgeon in the east Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, told the television station 9 TV that he believed the assault Sunday was ordered by competitors. He did not name a suspect.

“I was beaten up by three men on the street who shouted at me: ‘Jew face, get out of town and out of the country’,” Dukhovskoi said. “This is blatant anti-Semitism. I told this to local journalists, but nobody wanted mention this aspect of the attack.”

The assailants fractured Dukhovskoi’s skull and ruptured at least one of his kidneys. He will remain hospitalized for at least a month. He said he was also hit in his hands and that he estimates he will remain partially disabled because of the beating. He was flown from Ukraine for treatment in Jerusalem earlier this week, 9 TV reported.

Oleksander Feldman, a Ukrainian-Jewish lawmaker and founder of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, said he is following the investigation into the assault.

The attack came after several incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in Ukraine and Russia, where anti-Semitic rhetoric has proliferated amid an armed conflict.

On March 22, vandals drew a swastika and the initials of the Nazi party on a monument for Holocaust victims in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress reported. It is the fifth time the monument has been defaced since it was built in 2011.

Separately, unidentified individuals wrote “death to the Jewish rule” near the offices of the Hessed Jewish charity in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkassy, the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitismreported on March 18.

On March 23, vandals painted Nazi symbols on a monument for Holocaust victims in the Russian city of Volgograd, approximately 400 miles east of the border with Ukraine, Volga Media reported.

In eastern Ukraine, a unique matzah factory puts food on Jewish tables


With one eye on a digital countdown timer, Binyamin Vestrikov jumps up and down while slamming a heavy rolling pin into a piece of dough.

Aware of his comical appearance to the journalist watching, he exaggerates his movements to draw laughs from a dozen colleagues at the kneading station of Tiferet Hamatzot — a factory believed to be Europe’s only permanently open bakery for handmade matzah, or shmurah matzah.

But Vestrikov’s urgency is not just for entertainment.

Rather it is designed to meet the production standards that have allowed this unique bakery in eastern Ukraine to provide the Jewish world with a specialty product at affordable prices. The factory here also offers job security to about 50 Jews living in a war-ravaged region with a weakened economy and high unemployment.

Each time Vestrikov and his coworkers receive a new chunk of dough, the timers over their work stations give them only minutes to turn it into a 2-pound package of fully baked matzah — a constraint meant to satisfy even the strictest religious requirements for the unleavened crackers that Jews consume on Passover to commemorate their ancestors’ hurried flight out of Egypt.

“The faster the process, the more certain we are that no extra water came into contact with the dough and that it did not have any chance of leavening,” says Rabbi Shmuel Liberman, one of two kashrut supervisors who ensure that the factory’s monthly production of approximately eight tons complies with kosher standards for shmurah matzah.

The time limitation means the entire production line has only 18 minutes to transform flour and water into fully baked and packaged matzah.

Still, the workers are not complaining. They are happy to have a steady, dollar-adjusted income in a country whose currency is now worth a third of its February 2014 value — the result of a civil war between government troops and pro-Russian separatists that has paralyzed Ukraine’s industrial heart and flooded the job market with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the battle zones.

“It’s hard work, sure, but I am very happy to be doing it,” Vestrikov says. “I don’t need to worry about how to feed my family. There is very little hiring going on, and every job has dozens of takers because all the refugees from the east are here.”

Rolling up a sleeve over a throbbing bicep, he adds, “Besides, this way I don’t need to go to the gym.”

Despite working under pressure in a hectic and overheated environment — the ovens at Tiferet Hamatzot remain heated for days, preventing the building from ever cooling off even at the height of the harsh Ukrainian winter — the factory’s workers form a tight community whose social currency is made up of jokes and lively banter, mostly on cigarette breaks.

Workers like Vestrikov say they receive good wages, but production costs and taxes in Ukraine are so low that the factory can still afford to charge customers significantly less than its competitors in the West, said Stella Umanskaya, a member of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community and the factory’s administrational manager.

A 2-pound box of Tiferet Hamatzot costs approximately $10 locally and $15 abroad compared to more than double that price for shmurah matzah produced in bakeries in Western Europe, such as the Neymann matzah bakery in France, or those operating in Israel and the United States.

Shmurah matzah, Hebrew for “guarded matzah,” is more expensive than regular matzah because it requires manual labor by people whose task is to guard that it does not become leavened bread — a concept derived from a verse in the book of Exodus that states “You shall guard the matzot.” Some consider it a mitzvah to consume shmurah matzah because it upholds that commandment of devoting special attention or effort to guarding the matzah.

For this reason, traditional Jewish law requires that the handling of matzah and its ingredients be done by Jews only. But the factory also employs more than a dozen non-Jews who perform other tasks, including distribution.

To Rabbi Meir Stambler, the owner of Tiferet Hamatzot, this means the bakery “not only puts matzah shmurah on Jewish tables, but also helps build bridges and do mitzvot with non-Jews.”

Stambler, an Israeli Chabad rabbi who lives in Dnepropetrovsk and opened the factory 12 years ago, said his father used to bake shmurah matzah in secrecy in Tashkent, when the Uzbek capital was still part of the Soviet Union and subject to its anti-religious policies.

“Back then, matzah used to be smuggled from Israel into the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1990,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable that now, some years later, we bake matzah in Ukraine and send it all over the whole world.

For Ukraine Jews, Purim holiday merely a respite


Jewish perseverance, and more than a bit of chutzpah, lies at the heart of the Purim holiday we celebrate this week. It is one of the reasons we are instructed to mark this raucous holiday with boundless joy and why thousands of Ukrainian Jews, despite the odds they face, will join together across their country for Purim spiels and hamantaschen and to enjoy a much-needed respite from a conflict now simmering under a tenuous cease-fire.

These celebrations are but a momentary break from conditions facing thousands of Jews who remain in separatist controlled regions of Ukraine or who are internally displaced.

For the displaced — now living in cities around the country like Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa – concern for food, housing, medical care and jobs are overwhelming. Making matters worse, many face discrimination from potential employers or landlords who suspect them of loyalty to the separatists or worry these refugees will return home when peace sets in. Many of the displaced, especially the children, suffer from post-traumatic stress.

For those who remain in the Luhansk and Donetsk areas, conflict-related unemployment and general economic distress compound the bite of spiking prices for increasingly scarce goods and widespread devastation to property and industry. The elderly, many of them homebound, are not receiving their meager pensions and are experiencing acute fear and worry. Working- or middle-class families, who were just getting by before the conflict, now find themselves desperately in need, suffering a total reversal of the proud economic advancement they enjoyed in previous years.

Since the crisis began last year, 2,700 people have been added to the 69,000 Jews in Ukraine whom the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee already cared for through our network of Hesed social welfare centers. In January alone, 800 new people applied for aid. Our annual winter relief budget for Ukraine this year increased nearly sevenfold from the original planned budget, to $1.7 million.

These critical needs, worsened by a plummeting local currency and an economy near collapse, will not disappear any time soon. And all the work done by Jewish groups on the ground to date, while laudable, remains unfinished, whether or not the cease-fire agreed on last month continues to hold. We predict that millions of dollars in aid will be needed in the next six months to continue to provide the relief needed by thousands of Jews in distress.

Jewish aid to Ukraine — provided by local Jewish communities, Chabad, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish federations, World Jewish Relief, the Claims Conference and my organization, the JDC — has paid for a wide range of emergency services. Among them, the provision of extra food, medicine and medical care; crisis-related home repairs; extra winter items such as warm bedding, clothing, utility stipends and space heaters; and a full aid package, including trauma services and emergency housing, for displaced Jews.

The beneficiaries of this assistance are members of Jewish communities revived after the fall of Communism. This week Jewish community institutions in Donetsk have been holding Purim activities for the beleaguered Jews that remain. In places like Kharkiv, displaced Jews are receiving gift baskets delivered by local Jewish volunteers.

But these Jewish communities, and our ability to provide ongoing aid to them, are strained after more than a year of crisis management and aid distribution. And if Bloomberg News’ recent ranking of Ukraine as the fourth most miserable economy in the world is any indication, we must redouble our efforts now to care for our people in Ukraine.

We must first educate and remind our Jewish communities about the challenges facing the Jews of Ukraine. And then we must put support in place to address current needs and ensure the future vitality of this community that has emerged from the ashes of history.

We have a track record of doing this together — in Argentina, when Jews faced economic ruin; in Europe, when the continent suffered through an enormous financial crisis; and today, in Ukraine, where war has given way to a humanitarian crisis of untold proportions.

So as we continue the legacy of Esther and Mordechai, of Jewish action in the face of insurmountable challenges, let us wish our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ukraine a hearty chag Purim sameach. May their brave resolve inspire our work on their behalf.

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Kerry: Russia is lying when it denies its troops are in Ukraine


Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday Russia was lying when it said there are no Russian troops or equipment in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting government troops.

Fighting has abated in eastern Ukraine in recent days, raising hope that a ceasefire that was due to start on Feb. 15 can finally take effect after the rebels initially ignored it to storm the government-held town of Debaltseve last week.

Western countries have not given up on the ceasefire deal to end fighting that has killed more than 5,600 people, although they remain suspicious of the rebels and their presumed patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Asked during U.S. congressional testimony if Russia was lying when it says it has no troops or equipment in Ukraine, Kerry replied: “Yes.”

Kiev and its Western allies say the rebels are funded and armed by Moscow and backed by Russian military units. Moscow denies aiding sympathizers in Ukraine and says heavily armed Russian-speaking troops operating without insignia there are not its men.

The chief U.S. diplomat later elaborated on the need to push back against Russia's stance it is not involved in the conflict.

“Russia … tragically is sort of reigniting a new kind of East-West, zero-sum game that we think is dangerous and unnecessary,” Kerry told U.S. lawmakers when testifying about the State Department budget.

“The question asked earlier about … how they present things and the lies about their presence in Ukraine and the training, I mean, you know, it’s stunning but it has an impact in places where it isn’t countered,” he said. “Propaganda works.”

Jewish woman killed by shelling in eastern Ukraine


A Jewish woman was killed in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk when shells fired by pro-Russian insurgents hit her home.

Irina Gregoryivna Shelkayeba, a retiree, was killed Tuesday night, Donetsk community chairman Yehuda Kelerman told JTA.

She will be buried Thursday in the Jewish cemetery of Donetsk, Kelerman confirmed.

The attack came less than a day after two rockets hit the nine-story building housing the Hesed social welfare center in the eastern Ukraine city of Kramatorsk. The rockets failed to explode and no one was hurt.

EU official: Tensions with Russia must not muddle Holocaust record


Political tensions with Russia must not be allowed to obfuscate the historical record on the Holocaust, a senior European Union official said.

Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — made the plea Monday at an event in Prague commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet troops.

“It would be horrible to have a debate about who liberated Auschwitz,” Timmermans told JTA during an interview at a commemoration event titled “Let My People Live” that the European Jewish Congress and the Czech government  organized for hundreds of dignitaries at venues across Prague.

Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, was reacting to a Jan. 21 statement by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, who infuriated Russian officials when he said during a radio interview that “Ukrainians liberated [Auschwitz], because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day.”

Relations between Russia and its western neighbors have deteriorated drastically following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory last year and its arming of rebels against the government in Kiev, which some formerly communist states perceive as a threat.

The soldiers who liberated Auschwitz belonged to a Red Army unit named the First Ukrainian Front because it was deployed in Ukraine, “but the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, that’s a historic fact,” said Timmermans, who in the past has harshly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

“I would feel very bad indeed if it were to be claimed by some, or if others were excluded from this. It would be terrible.”

Historical accuracy is crucial now, he said, because “anti-Semitism is rising in Europe.” As Holocaust survivors die out, “we will no longer have people who can show you tattoos on their arms.”

The EJC’s Moscow-born president, Moshe Kantor, reacted to Schetyna’s remark when he presented the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy — himself a harsh critic of Russia — with the memoirs of a Russian who participated in Auschwitz’s liberation.

“In this book by Anatoly Shapiro, you will see who really opened the gates that read ‘work sets you free,'” Kantor said.

Rebels press Ukraine offensive, Obama promises steps against Russian-backed ‘aggression’


Pro-Moscow rebels, backed by what NATO says is the open participation of Russian troops, pressed on with their offensive on Sunday after restarting the war in eastern Ukraine with the first all-out assault since a truce five months ago.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Washington was considering all options short of military action to isolate Russia. The European Union called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers of its 28 member states.

“We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the ceasefire and the aggression that these separatists – with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops — are conducting,” Obama told a news conference during a visit to India.

“I will look at all additional options that are available to us short of military confrontation and try to address this issue. And we will be in close consultation with our international partners, particularly European partners.”

NATO accuses Moscow of sending troops to fight on behalf of rebels in territory the Kremlin has dubbed “New Russia” in a war that has killed more than 5,000 people.

In some of the strongest language ever from Brussels, Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who now presides over EU summits as European Council president, denounced “appeasement” of Moscow, a word with unmistakable World War Two connotations.

“Once again, appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence. Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions,” Tusk said on Twitter.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine had mainly died down since a September ceasefire, but in recent days the war has returned in full force, with the rebels announcing the effective end of the truce and an offensive to expand territory under their control.

On Saturday rebels attacked Mariupol, a strategic Black Sea port of 500,000 people and the biggest city still in government hands in the two rebel-dominated eastern provinces. Kiev said 30 civilians were killed in shelling.

Rebels launched new attacks on Sunday against government positions elsewhere along the front line that winds through the two restive provinces, the Kiev army said.

“Rebels are attacking the positions of anti-terrorist operation troops extremely intensively, using artillery, mortars, grenade launchers, tanks,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.

He said four Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 17 injured in the past 24 hours and that rebel attacks on the town of Debaltseve, northeast of separatist-held Donetsk, had been particularly fierce.

“Because of constant shelling in the past few days, there are dead and injured among local residents. Around 60 homes have been destroyed or damaged,” he said without giving a figure for the number of casualties.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on Saturday the separatists planned to encircle Debaltseve, which has a population of around 26,000.

NEW SANCTIONS

After months in which European politicians had been debating whether it was time to start rolling back sanctions, the talk now is of how to tighten them.

“If the Russian government cannot prove that it is making verifiable progress towards a de-escalation of the situation, we'll have to talk about more severe sanctions unfortunately,” said German politician Karl-Georg Wellmann, a foreign policy specialist for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Merkel called the attack on Mariupol “a clear and totally unjustifiable violation of the ceasefire” in telephone calls with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia on Sunday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said, and asked Russia's Vladimir Putin to prevent further escalation.

The rebels say government forces have been hitting cities with artillery, killing civilians and forcing them to advance to push Kiev's troops further from population centers. Moscow blames the West for failing to force the Kiev government to talk to the rebels.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on Sunday to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini. He told both the escalation in violence was a result of Kiev refusing a proposal laid out in a letter from Putin to Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko to withdraw heavy weapons away from the demarcation line.

Lavrov blamed the escalation of violence in east Ukraine on what he called “constant shelling of populated areas by Ukrainian army”. He called on Kerry to press Kiev to renounce “betting on the military scenario.”

Mogherini called an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers for Thursday to discuss Ukraine and the Mariupol assault.

Russia says it has not sent troops into Ukraine, and any Russians there are volunteers. NATO says this is nonsense.

“Russian troops in eastern Ukraine are supporting these offensive operations with command and control systems, air defense systems with advanced surface-to-air missiles, unmanned aerial systems (drones), advanced multiple rocket launcher systems and electronic warfare systems,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“I strongly urge Russia to stop its military, political and financial support for the separatists, stop destabilizing Ukraine and respect its international commitments,” he said.

Last week Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russia had 9,000 troops stationed in his country.

In Lugansk, an icy Ukraine winter tests a war-torn community


In an unheated synagogue with no running water, a dozen Jews are trying to keep warm as temperatures here veer toward the single digits.

Not moving too much helps keep the warmth under their thick coats, they say, a technique developed as the group gathered at least once a week to maintain a sense of community in a city torn by ongoing conflict between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army.

“We usually stay for about two hours,” says Igor Leonidovich, the synagogue’s gabbai, or caretaker. “We pray for peace. In this cold, two hours is enough.”

Half of Lugansk’s population of 425,000 has fled since July, when the fighting that claimed some 4,500 lives erupted in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Among those who fled were two-thirds of the city’s nurses and doctors, according to the World Health Organization, rendering medical services almost nonexistent.

Earlier this month, a psychiatric institution in the Lugansk suburb of Slavyanoserbsk reported that 50 of its patients died from cold and exhaustion. Like many parts of Lugansk and the surrounding area, the hospital had no electricity, heat or water.

About 2,000 Jews remain — a fifth of the Lugansk prewar community — but even that determined group is struggling now that the winter cold has arrived.

“We stay because it’s our birthplace, our land,” says Leonidovich, who draws encouragement from the fact that fighting in Lugansk proper has largely died down in recent weeks after a truce went into effect in September. “We don’t want to leave, but it’s getting harder to stay because of winter.”

Near the synagogue, a few elderly people rummage for blankets in heaps of uncollected garbage on a street scarred by mortar craters and littered with the carcasses of abandoned pets. In the distance, explosions can be heard echoing from the suburbs.

As they face these hardships, Lugansk Jews have received assistance from international Jewish groups, including food from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, or IFCJ. The distribution of the packages has been coordinated in part by the Lugansk Chabad emissary in exile, Rabbi Shalom Gopin, who is in Israel.

Earlier this month, some 300 people gathered at the synagogue to receive food packages from the IFCJ, the second such distribution in recent weeks. The donation of a generator last month provided the synagogue with lights for the first time since the power went out in August.

On Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday evening, the community plans to light candles in the synagogue during the day because of a rebel-imposed curfew that restricts movement after dark. Traveling at night also increases the chance of falling prey to the robbers and looters who have emptied the city’s supermarkets and car rental agencies.

Being openly Jewish in Lugansk is not particularly dangerous because the rebels who control the city generally do not display anti-Semitic attitudes, Leonidovich says.

Asked whether Lugansk was in any way extra dangerous for Jews, a rebel officer who identified himself only as Vladimir tells JTA, “There is no racism here. If a person, Jewish or Christian, is law abiding, they will not be harmed.”

Even without being specifically targeted, the dangers in Lugansk are evident. In July, the Jewish community lost two of its members, Svetlana and Anna Sitnikov, in the fighting. The mother and daughter died instantly when a mortar round exploded outside a grocery where they had gone to fetch food for Anna’s 5-year-old son.

Like many septuagenarians here, Ernst Kuperman, one of the synagogue regulars, has not been able to collect his pension for months. He gets by thanks to JDC’s Hesed program, which provides the needy with food and medical services.

Others, like Anna Sosnova, who was wounded over the summer by an explosion near her home, would have left but stayed because of family obligations. Sosnova’s house has electricity, but she still had to get a generator to administer drugs to her mother, a bedridden diabetic with only one leg.

“There is no way currently to safely get her out,” Sosnova says.

During the fighting, a mortar round exploded near the small house that the Sosnovas share with three cats and a puppy left behind by neighbors. The explosion weakened an external wall and the house has been slowly collapsing, developing cracks and shifting. Some doors can’t be closed.

“I hope it won’t collapse on us,” Sosnova says.

Across the city, many buildings carry similar scars from the shelling that brought life here to a halt this summer. The situation is even worse in the outskirts, where vast sunflower fields that should have been harvested in the fall are withering in the snow along roads dotted with burned-out tanks that lead to shelled ghost towns.

Before the fighting, the Beit Menachem Jewish school here had more than 150 students. But they never returned to school after the summer vacation and now are scattered across Russia, Israel and Ukraine, according to Sergei Kreidun, the principal.

Although the school is empty, Kreidun still arrives daily to deter looters. He shows off the spacious campus, which has a small Holocaust museum and kosher kitchen, with a mix of pride and melancholy. Pride for what he has helped build over the past 15 years with funding from the Ohr Avner Foundation, melancholy over what became of the school.

“As you can see, we’re ready for the kids here,” he says, gesturing toward a locker containing a former student’s books and hairbrush. “Now all we need is the peace that will bring them back.”

 

Where are the bodies, MH17 families ask


Daisy Oehlers and Bryce Fredriksz, a Dutch couple in their early 20s, were sitting near the left wing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on their way to a holiday in Bali, when “high energy objects” – as officials later called them – struck the plane over eastern Ukraine.

Their bodies were torn apart and scattered across miles of the conflict zone below.

Three months later, Daisy's cousin Robby checked into a cheap hotel in Donetsk to start searching the area for any trace of his relatives. “There was a crater from a rocket impact just next to the nose part of the aeroplane,” he said. “I found a blue suitcase. It wasn't hers.”

Oehlers, a singer, and the relatives of as many as 50 other victims are growing increasingly frustrated by the fact that the authorities have not helped them trace loved ones lost on July 17, when the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot out of the sky.

All 298 passengers and crew – two-thirds of them Dutch – were killed. The Dutch government, a leading Russian trading partner, still hesitates to call it an attack.

Attempts to recover parts of the aircraft and human remains have repeatedly been called off due to fighting on the ground. Families also say the Dutch government is not giving them enough information. One law firm has said it is preparing to sue the government for negligence over its handling of the case.

Bryce and Daisy's relatives have Bryce's foot and part of a bone for Daisy, but no more. Relatives of nine people on board the Boeing 777 have no remains at all. Some families are waiting for enough body parts to hold funerals.

“How much do you need?” asked Oehlers. “30 percent? 40 percent?”

He spent three days searching the site between Donetsk and Luhansk, the rebel-held eastern Ukrainian towns that have been flashpoints in the conflict, and took a TV crew to draw attention to his family's mounting anger. He said he saw signs of bombardment on the field, where stray dogs wandered. Winter is approaching. As fighting persists, the families' hopes diminish.

“You just wonder; what are they doing?” he said of the authorities. “If it was another country, they'd just grab their stuff and head out there. I don't know what the spirit of Dutch politics is, but I think they are too soft.”

HELD TO ACCOUNT

The Dutch are conducting two parallel investigations: one into the cause of the crash, and a criminal inquiry – the single largest in Dutch history. There are now 100 Dutch law enforcement officials involved in that case, including 10 prosecutors, said spokesman Wim de Bruin.

But no forensic investigators have made it to the crash site. That makes the recovery of evidence nearly impossible.

Washington says it has intelligence that overwhelmingly backs the theory that the plane was shot down by a missile fired by pro-Russian separatists. Russia denies any involvement.

Many Dutch also believe the plane was downed by rebels using missiles provided by Moscow. But their leaders, mindful of the country's heavy reliance on Russian energy, have never assigned blame. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to assert his influence over the rebels.

Pieter Omtzigt, legislator with the opposition Christian Democratic Appeal party and a member of the foreign affairs committee, says the government is not being open enough.

He submitted a list of 43 questions about the disaster, of which he said 29 went unanswered, including one about Russian and Ukrainian cooperation and whether crash investigators had access to key U.S. intelligence.

“On all these questions, we haven't had an answer,” he told Reuters in an interview. “I want to see full proof – if you kill 298 people you have to be held accountable.”

“COME GET ME!”

The challenges facing the Dutch investigators are extreme.

The closest comparison is the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which killed 254 people. The investigation, conducted in peacetime Scotland, took three years, during which 4 million pieces of evidence were recovered from a crash site spanning 770 sq miles. It took a decade to go to trial.

“We searched rivers, lochs and reservoirs and recovered many personal effects, pieces of aircraft and debris, as well as other much more difficult 'recoveries' I'd rather not go into here,” said one police diver involved in the search.

Even then, the trial of two Libyan intelligence agents, at a specially constituted Scottish court in a disused Dutch military base, secured only one conviction. To this day, many relatives are convinced that the man eventually convicted was innocent.

In the Netherlands, Rutte is under growing pressure: his popularity has dropped since the MH17 crash.

Silene Fredriksz, Bryce's 51-year-old mother, said she is having difficulty sleeping. “It is simply taking too long,” she said. “I hear him call: 'come get me!'”

Edited by Sara Ledwith

Worst east Ukraine shelling for month; cease-fire looks in doubt


East Ukraine's rebel stronghold Donetsk was pummeled on Sunday by the heaviest shelling in a month, and the OSCE said it spotted an armored column of troops without insignia in rebel territory that Kiev said proved Moscow had sent reinforcements.

A two-month-old ceasefire to end a war that has killed 4,000 people has appeared shakier than ever in the past few days, with each side accusing the other of having violated the terms of the peace plan.

Reuters journalists inside Donetsk, who have been there throughout the fighting, said the shelling sounded more intense than at any time since early October. Sunday's strikes appeared to come from territory held by both government and rebel forces.

Ukraine's military said its standoff with the Russian-backed separatists in the east had intensified in the past week, which saw the rebels swear in new leaders after elections the government says violated the terms of the truce pact.

Ukraine has accused Russia of sending a column of 32 tanks and truckloads of troops into the country's east to support the pro-Russian rebels in recent days. Moscow has long denied its troops operate in east Ukraine, although many have died there.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes Russia and Ukraine as well as the United States and NATO countries, operates in East Ukraine with the blessing of all sides and is widely seen as neutral.

Its statement that it spotted an unidentified armored column in rebel territory helps support Kiev's position that Moscow has been sending in reinforcements to protect separatist enclaves the Kremlin now refers to as “New Russia”.

NO DOUBT

In one 40-vehicle convoy, “19 were large trucks – Kamaz type, covered, and without markings or number plates – each towing a 122 mm howitzer and containing personnel in dark green uniforms without insignia,” the watchdog said in statement.

Ukraine said it had no doubt the new troops were Russians.

“Although the OSCE did not specify to whom the equipment and soldiers belonged, the Ukrainian military has no doubt of their identity,” said military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

“The past week was characterized by an increase in the intensity of shelling and the transfer of additional force: ammunition, equipment and personnel, to terrorist groups,” Lysenko said.

Reuters reporters in rebel-held Donetsk said intense shelling by heavy artillery continued throughout the night and into the early hours, and then picked up again later on Sunday morning. The shelling could be heard in the center of the city, which had a pre-conflict population of more than 1 million.

“There have been rumors for a while that one of the sides is getting ready to break the ceasefire and go on the offensive,” local businessman Enrique Menendez said, describing Saturday's shelling as a “night of wrath”.

Large clouds of black smoke could be seen over the ruins of the airport, which is still under government control but which the separatists are seeking to seize.

Lysenko said three Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours and a further 13 injured. The media service for the military operation said two policemen and one civilian had died in shelling on Sunday.

The White House National Security Council said on Sunday it was “very concerned” by the intensified fighting and reports, including from the OSCE, that separatists were moving large convoys of weapons and tanks to the front lines.

“Any attempt by separatist forces to seize additional territory in eastern Ukraine would be a blatant violation of the Minsk agreements,” NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement, referring to a ceasefire deal reached on Sept. 5.

“We reiterate our call on the Russian Federation to honor all of the commitments it made in Minsk, including ending its military supply to the separatists and the withdrawal of all of its troops and weapons from Ukraine.”

OSCE Chairman Didier Burkhalter has also urged both sides to stick to the Minsk agreements.

TENSIONS

Lysenko said Ukraine's military believes Russia could stir up tension to provide grounds to “send in so-called Russian peace-keeping units”.

The United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine since March, when Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. Moscow has since backed separatists who rose up in east Ukraine, while denying the presence of its own troops.

The sanctions have hurt Russia's economy, already facing a fall in the price for its oil exports, and have helped drive a crash in the value of the Russian rouble.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday the United States and Russia had agreed to exchange information about the situation on the Russia-Ukraine border due to some “some disagreements about some of the facts on the ground”.

Although Russia blames the crisis on Kiev and the West, NATO has said it has overwhelming evidence that Russia has aided the rebels militarily in the conflict.

On Saturday, investigative journalists published a report on the downing of a Malaysian airplane over rebel territory in July in which 298 people died.

The Bellingcat report said there was “strong evidence indicating that the Russian military provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Buk missile” believed to have brought down the plane.

Reporting by Anton Zverev and Kazbek Basaev in Donetsk, Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Alexander Winning and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Andrew Roche

Survivor: Jack Nierob


It was a beautiful winter’s night in early 1944 when Jack (then Icek) Nierob, 19, left his night-shift job in the steam room of Skarzysko’s Camp C to use the latrine, an outdoor shack near the labor camp’s barbed-wire fence. On his way back, a Ukrainian guard shouted for him to halt and accused him of trying to run away. He hit Jack with his gun, stuck the gun’s cleaning rod up his nose and ordered him to return to the fence. “You can shoot me here,” Jack said, refusing to move. Instead, the guard smacked him so hard across the head with his gun that Jack fainted, falling headfirst into the snow. When he awoke, the guard was gone, and he returned to work. Later, as daylight broke, Jack saw the guard enter the steam room and he began shaking. The guard just smiled at him. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” he said. 

Jack was born in Plock, Poland, on Jan. 1, 1925, to Abraham and Regina Nierob. He and his twin sister, Teresa, were the fourth and fifth of eight siblings; Teresa died when she was just 1.

Abraham was a tailor, and the family, which was quite poor, lived in a two-bedroom apartment, along with Jack’s very devout maternal grandmother, Fajga Pencherek.  

Jack attended a public school for Jewish students. But more than academics, he adored sports, particularly soccer.

When Jack was 12, his mother died. He still remembers lying on her breast while she scratched his head. “I never could forget that feeling,” he said. A year later, in 1938, his father remarried. 

In early September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, most of Plock’s 10,000 Jews fled the city. Jack and his family walked to Gombim, his stepmother’s hometown, a 12-mile trek through the forest. There, the family, now numbering 11, including Jack’s brother-in-law and baby niece, lived in one small room.

About a week later, after the Luftwaffe bombed Gombim, Jack bicycled back to Plock to get food for the family. On his return trip, the Polish military stopped him, charging him with being a German spy. Jack cried as they placed him against a tree, preparing to shoot him. Finally, after proving to the soldiers that he had been circumcised, they released him. 

After a month, the family returned to Plock. The Germans controlled the city, confiscating Jewish businesses and valuables and terrorizing Jewish residents on a daily basis with roundups, torture and even death, especially for the sick and elderly. A ghetto was established.

Work became mandatory for men and women. Although Jack was too young to be required to work, he often substituted for his father.

On one work detail, German soldiers ordered Jack and three others to dig graves, “their own graves,” they said. When the prisoners finished digging, they were told to walk up a nearby hill where they watched the soldiers bring out two political prisoners and formally execute them. The Jewish prisoners were then called back to bury them. 

On March 1, 1941, in the second and last deportation from Plock, Jack’s family and about 3,000 other Jews were lined up and loaded onto trucks. Jack, then 16, was in charge of helping his grandmother, Fajga, who was 93 but who disguised her age by wearing a wig over her gray hair.

The group arrived at Dzialdowo, a transit camp. As Jack held on to his grandmother, a German soldier wielding a bullwhip tipped with lead balls began striking her. Fajga, who talked to God every day, looked up at the sky with an angry face. She then put her finger in her mouth, as if regretting having said something disrespectful.

After three days, the prisoners were transferred to Bodzentyn, where they lived in an open ghetto with the village’s small and indigent Chasidic population. Again, Jack’s family shared one room. 

Food was scarce. To help feed his family, Jack found work living on a Polish farm, taking care of the cows. But when the illiterate farmers suspected he was Jewish, because he was reading the newspapers to them, Jack bolted and returned to Bodzentyn. 

Then one night in June or July 1941, Polish police who were working for the Germans entered the Nierobs’ room. “You’re coming with us,” they ordered Jack and his brother-in-law, Moshe Blumert. They were placed in an open truck and driven to Skaryzsko, though Moshe, who had a wife and child, bribed his way back to Bodzentyn.

Jack and the other prisoners lived in preliminary barracks, working long days cutting down trees for the permanent barracks, which were built in three separate factory camps run by HASAG, a German company. Camps A and B produced ammunition. Camp C manufactured ammunition powder, which required prisoners to work with a toxic powder that usually killed them within three months. 

After the permanent barracks were built, Jack was sent to Camp C. But he was assigned to assist two Polish plumbers, digging ditches and carrying their tools and supplies. 

After working with the plumbers for more than two years, Jack was moved to the steam plant, to shovel coal into the three furnaces. 

Around Aug. 1, 1944, the camp was evacuated. Jack’s group was sent by cattle car to Sulejow, a labor camp in central Poland, where they dug trenches for fortification against the approaching Russian tanks. 

Conditions were terrible, with little water and heavy dust, and Jack didn’t know if he could survive. One night, he sneaked into a nearby camp for Christian Poles. He fit in seamlessly with his blond hair and fluent Polish, working with them and fortifying himself with rations of soup and bread. But after three days of listening to their anti-Semitic rants and delight in the torture and murder of Jews, he returned to his Jewish barracks, convinced it would be better to die there. 

Three days later, in late December 1944, Jack, along with other prisoners, was relocated to Czestochowa, where HASAG operated two labor camps. He repaired damaged tanks and other machinery.

Then, on Jan. 17, 1945, as the Russian army advanced, thousands of Czestochowa prisoners were loaded into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps. 

Jack’s group arrived at Buchenwald, where he was processed and assigned to a barracks. During the day, he and other prisoners were taken into the nearby city of Weimar, where they cleaned up debris caused by Allied bombing.

On the morning of April 11, 1945, Jack watched as German SS guards fled from their posts in the watchtowers. Later that afternoon, American troops liberated the camp. Jack was 20.

Jack remained in Buchenwald for about 10 days as relief organizations arrived. He then moved to Weimar, where he met Sidney Berger, an American soldier from New York. Jack told Sidney about his mother’s brother, Abraham Pencherek, who was a furrier in New York. Sidney’s father was also a furrier, and Sidney promised to write him.

Jack moved to Frankfurt and then to the nearby Zeilsheim displaced persons camp. 

In 1946, Jack met a friend from Plock who informed him that the entire Nierob family had perished in Treblinka. He also received news that Sidney’s father had located his uncle, who was sending him visa papers. 

Finally, in April 1949, Jack boarded the hospital ship Mercy in Bremerhaven and sailed to Boston. He traveled by train to New York, where he lived with an aunt.

Jack moved to Los Angeles in early 1951. There, he met Henrietta (Kate) Hirshfield, a widow with a 3-year-old daughter, and they married on Feb. 6, 1954. Their daughter, Renee, was born in January 1956, and son Alan in June 1957. 

In 1959, after apprenticing for four years at a plumbing company and earning his contractor’s license, Jack opened his own business, Jack Nierob Plumbing. 

Kate died on Jan. 1, 2003. Less than three years later, on Oct. 23, 2005, Renee was murdered. Jack retired in 2008.

Now almost 90, Jack walks every day. He takes great joy in his family, including five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 

“What saved me?” Jack still wonders. “Is it luck, destiny or faith?” He has asked these questions of rabbis, priests and other educated people over the years. “Nobody can give an answer,” he said.