By Deborah Danan
ODESSA — A year after Rabbi Mendy Wolff spirited 120 children and staff away from the Mishpacha Orphanage in this war-torn country to the safety of Berlin, he is preparing to bring them home.
That’s not because the war is over. One year after Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine, fighting grinds on and much of Ukraine has been plunged into destruction or austerity conditions.
The children of Mishpacha are headed back to Odessa because of the high cost of keeping them fed, housed and educated in Germany.
Chaya Wolff, Mendy’s mother and the wife of Odessa’s chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff, said the price tag was 750,000 euros — close to $800,000 — a month.
They’ll join other Ukrainians who have returned to their homeland as it became clear that the war would not end quickly.
“We could have bought seven buildings for the [Jewish] community in Odessa with that money,” she said from Odessa, where she stayed along with her husband after the Russian invasion to care for remaining Jews in the city, where the Wolff family operates Chabad of Odessa.
“But now the money is finished and it’s time to bring our children home.”
Mendy Wolff said that when he first headed to Berlin several days after Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, he expected to return home in a matter of days.
He had become the orphanage’s director overnight, when his parents tasked him with getting the children out of Ukraine. He and his wife, Mushky, had instructed their charges to pack two of each item of clothing.
“As I was packing, I remember spotting my Megillat Esther on the shelf and thinking I won’t be needing that because Purim is two weeks from now and we’ll be back by then,” Wolff said, referring to the biblical book read on Purim.
The journey to Berlin took 53 hours and traversed five international borders, but Wolff and his wife tried to make the atmosphere as fun as possible for the children.
“We sang songs all the way and even though most of the children knew what was happening, we made it feel like summer camp — only in the winter,” Wolff said.
Getting the children out of Ukraine meant pulling strings of all kinds, since most did not have passports or even original birth certificates. Most of the children in the orphanage have parents who are unable to care for them; Wolff got the parents’ permission to take the children out of the country, a challenging task in the chaos after the invasion.
“That is why we didn’t escape on the first day of the war,” he told JTA from Berlin at the time.
For 40 children for whom no living relatives could be found, Rabbi Avraham Wolff and his wife, Chaya, signed on as legal guardians.
The Chabad emissaries in Berlin managed to secure VIP status for the young refugees to bring them across EU borders as personal guests of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who greeted them on their arrival in the German capital.
The children and orphanage staff were joined by other Odessians: university students, single mothers and their own offspring. Their flight and warm welcome in Berlin captured headlines.
“Everyone knew there was an orphanage coming,” Mendy Wolff said shortly after the group’s arrival. “It was an unbelievable hug. It made us feel good in our hearts.”
But even then, the high cost of caring for the children in Berlin was weighing on the volunteers who leapt to help them.
“We’ve received an outpouring of support from the community and beyond, lots of clothes and other supplies, but what we really need now are financial donations — only the food for all the children costs about 5,000 euros every day,” one told AP at the time.
Over the course of the next few months, the Hotel Müggelsee, on the banks of Berlin’s largest lake of the same name, would become home to some 300 Jewish refugees.
In that time, the group celebrated not just Purim but a full year of Jewish holidays, as well as the gamut of Jewish lifecycle events, from Bar Mitzvahs to births and brises.
The group recently celebrated the first birthday of the youngest child to make the trek from Odessa, Tuvia, who was just five weeks old when he arrived in Berlin.
For Wolff, the hardest part was grappling with the unknown.
“It was very similar to what people experienced at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. You don’t know who it will infect or how many people will die or how long you’ll need to live like this.”
Like many others, Wolff was certain that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army would crush Ukraine in a matter of days.
“With each passing day we saw that the Ukrainians were far more resilient than we had given them credit for and that the Russians weren’t as much as superheroes as we thought.”
Israel refused to take them
The irony that Germany, and not Israel, became the host country for Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe is not lost on the Wolffs. While Mendy is reluctant to express political opinions of any kind, his mother, Chaya, is more forthright, saying that Israel had refused them entry.
Mark Dovev, the regional director of Nativ, the Israeli government office that facilitates immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union, later told JTA that taking in a minor from another country is “tantamount to kidnapping.”
Brushing off Dovev’s objections, Chaya Wolff said, “Just as Germany turned a blind eye, Israel could have also taken them in temporarily as refugees.”
Since German law bans homeschooling, the children were required to enroll in a local school as well as to learn German. German authorities allowed the student body largely to adhere to the Ukrainian curriculum, however, and they were taught by a handful of the women refugees who were teachers.
The hotel, which functioned as a dormitory, doubled as a branch of the local Chabad school — replete with classrooms and a schoolyard.
But keeping the refugees in Berlin came at a steep price, footed by various donors such as the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews and by private donations.
An online fundraiser netted $685,500 in small gifts from more than 5,000 donors — a significant tally, but far short of its $1 million goal. So it was mostly out of economic considerations, then, that the Wolffs decided to close up shop in Berlin and bring the refugees home in late February.
Not the first to return to Ukraine in the midst of war
While some Ukrainians who fled the country say they have no intention of returning while the war rages, the Wolffs and their charges are hardly the first Ukrainians to make their way back home.
Many of them have cited the high cost of life abroad, along with separation from family and guilt about abandoning their country.
So many Ukrainians were returning last fall that the country’s leaders urged them to wait until this spring to return, lest they tax fragile infrastructure.
According to Mendy Wolff, his group would staying in Berlin were it not for budgetary concerns. Still, he said, there were many positive aspects about returning home.
“Psychologically, it’s not easy being here. You’re not living like a human. It’s like living on borrowed time and in a refugee camp, albeit a luxury refugee camp,” he said. “I’m very excited to be in my own bed and my own blankets.”
With bomb shelters, it’s livable
For both mother and son, the responsibility of bringing the refugees back to a country that is still very much at war weighs heavily. Odessa is faring better than many other southern Ukrainian cities like Mykolaiv and Kherson to the east, which have suffered daily shelling.
Still, air raid sirens sound multiple times a day and there is no electricity for 20-plus hours.
But as long as residents have access to bomb shelters and generators — including the kind made from car batteries that Avraham Wolff recently held a fundraiser to buy — Chaya Wolff describes it as “livable.”
“It’s not an easy decision and we hope it’s the right one,” Chaya Wolff said. “At the end of it all, we’re ‘believers, the children of believers,’” she added, quoting the Talmud.
Toby Axelrod contributed reporting from Berlin.