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Ukraine — stories from one year of war

The world on Feb. 24 will mark a sad anniversary — a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, a once-fellow republic in the Soviet Union. 
 The last year has produced as many stories as there are men and women and children in Ukraine and in the neighboring lands where Ukrainians have sought refuge; and altruistic volunteers from abroad who have given their time to assist the displaced citizens on Ukraine.

Karina Sokolowska, JDC director for Poland and Scandinavia sits in her office down the hall from a hotline room, in early March, 2022. (Toby Axelrod)

Hundreds of thousands of people have become refugees, uncounted ones have lost their homes, and no one knows yet how many soldiers and civilians have died.

The war is not a specifically Jewish issue, but with a rich Jewish history in Ukraine and and a current Jewish population estimated to number in the tens of thousands, the war in Ukraine offers many Jewish stories.

Here are a few:

Medical volunteer: ‘I was needed there’

Once the war started and the media in the US began reporting on the escalating medical emergencies, Dr. Enrique Ginzburg decided he had to go to Ukraine. 
 He is a trauma surgeon, and there was plenty of trauma in Ukraine.

Dr. Ginzburg, 65, professor of surgery at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine and its division of trauma and surgery critical care, and medical director of the Jackson South Ryder Trauma Center, has already lent his specialized expertise in such places as Haiti, Argentina, Kurdistan and Iraq, in various emergency situations.

This was his first time in a war zone.

Why Ukraine?

“I was needed there,” says Dr. Ginzburg, who became a doctor because of his early interest in science and biology and because “it fit my personality . . . high energy.” He specialized in trauma care because “you save lives every day.” And because he nearly drowned at 23, and he felt “I had to pay back” for his extra years of life.

He went to Ukraine twice, teaming with fellow medical volunteers under the auspices of the nonprofit Global Surgical and Medical Supply Group, in April and July, and plans to go again sometime in early 2023.

He took time from his full time job, he says, because “I wanted to do something.”

And because of a more personal incentive: his grandfather is from Kiev; his grandmother, from nearby eastern Poland.

Dr. Ginzburg called Dr. Aaron Epstein, founder of Global Surgical, an old friend, and offered his services.

“Get yourself a flak jacket, a helmet, a gas mask and come on over,” Dr. Epstein told him.

His base was the Lviv Clinical Emergency Hospital — 25 miles from the Russian border.

During his stints in Ukraine — accompanied the first time by his wife Barbara, an occupational therapist; and supported by the local Jewish federation — he consulted with front-line Ukrainian physicians (many of them young and inexperienced) and hospital administrators, watched the doctors in action and visited patients in their hospital wards.

He helped treat gunshot wounds and assorted combat injuries.

He brought some medical supplies, mostly specialized catheters requested by his Ukrainian peers.

A native of Cuba who grew up in Miami, he studied in yeshiva while young; he does not consider himself Orthodox, but packed his tefilin, which he put on each day in Ukraine.

No close calls during the war, he says — he was several miles from the fighting, but he could hear air raid sirens and the explosion of the Russian missiles, and he felt the earth shake.


“You think twice,” he says in a telephone interview.

But he kept working.

“You do what it takes.”

When intelligence reports warned Dr. Ginzburg’s medical team of impending missile attacks, they sought refuge in safe houses.

“Today,” he told the Miami Herald in June, “I was calling my life insurance [company] because I have young sons and my wife, so I’m trying to make sure I have good coverage.”

The hospitals where the doctor served and the hotel where he stayed weren’t hit by Russian missiles.

“But, you don’t know” what the next day will bring, he says. “What if a rocket hits . . . ” He leaves the sentence unfinished.

How many people did he directly or indirectly help while he was in Ukraine? How many lives was he responsible for saving by training Ukrainian doctors there?

“I have no idea,” he says. He was too busy working to keep track. “I’m sure it’s hundreds.”

No sleep for JDC director in Poland

For residents of Poland, the threat of war in neighboring Ukraine changed in their lives. Some Ukrainians literally became their neighbors. 
 For Karina Sokolowska, full time director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s activities in Poland for 14 years (her portfolio also includes Norway, Sweden and Denmark), the changes began a few months before the war began.

Knowing that there would be an influx of refugees crossing the border, in need of everything that suddenly displaced people require, Sokolowska started concentrating on what the JDC, the overseas arm of the American Jewish community, would do.

It would welcome the newcomers. About eight million Ukrainian refugees made their way to Poland, the bordering country that accepted the most refugees.

Sokolowska contacted — and visited — Jewish communities throughout Poland, investigating the availability of places where the soon-to-be-homeless people could be housed. She travelled to some of the border crossings where the Ukrainians would enter her country, to arrange transportation to venues in Poland and to see the conditions in which the refugees would begin their new lives.

A year of nights without sleep began for Sokolowska, much of whose family has roots in present-day Ukraine.

“I have a personal connection” to Ukrainian Jews, she says in a Zoom interview from Warsaw, where her JDC work is based.

Sleep was not an option at the start of the refugee crisis. “If I fell asleep — what if I missed a call from somebody? The phone was ringing all the time,” she says. “There was no time to sleep.”

Sokolowska adds, “It was the first time in my life I started taking sleeping pills.”

“What I have neglected is my work in the Scandinavian countries,” she says.

At first, she worked with the refugees on a non-sectarian basis. Then, as other humanitarian agencies in Poland took care of the non-Jewish refugees (100,000 people per day were coming early in the war), the JDC concentrated its efforts on the thousands of Ukrainian Jews — mostly women and children, and the elderly, including Holocaust survivors — who needed assistance.

It wasn’t just the JDC, she stresses. “The whole country shifted to working with refugees.”

According to JDC statistics, the organization “provided essential supplies and care” to 43,000 Jews in Ukraine, and had “aided 22,000-plus people” there with “winter survival needs . . . more than double the amount served in previous years.”

JDC also “provided life-saving services” to more than 40,000 refugees in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and other European locations; and the JDC helped evacuate about 13,000 Jews from Ukraine.

Sokolowska, who had no estimate about the latest count of how many Ukrainian Jewish refugees are still in Poland, used the connections she had built up in her native country in her work with Chabad, Poland’s chief rabbi, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish community of Warsaw — and with the municipality of Warsaw — to meet her responsibility for the JDC’s outreach to the Jewish refugees.

The new responsibilities she coordinated included greeting refugees at the border, arranging legal advice for the people who arrived with few identification documents, lining up medical care and drugs, finding short-term and long-term housing, providing psychological counseling for those dealing with separation anxiety, providing kosher meals, offering limited financial help to people suddenly bereft of jobs, giving them SIM cards for their cell phones, arranging jobs for those qualified to work, running summer and winter camps, initiating Jewish holiday programming, enrolling children in Jewish classes, starting a bilingual hotline, taking care of transportation in and through Poland, and caring for the refugees’ pets (“dogs and cats with no documents”).

It was a sudden transition from the quarantine of the pandemic that dominated the JDC’s work the previous two years.

“We went straight from the COVID mode of work (remotely) to the war mode of work,” she says.

With the support of a JDC fundraising effort, Sokolowska expanded her staff, bringing on 20 new employees, “from two and a half people in the office.”

“My monthly budget” at the height of the flood of refugees “was more than my annual budget before the war started.”

Sokolowska, the granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, became active in Jewish life during college, when a classmate heard her pronouncing some German words with a Yiddish accent, and persuaded her to lead the Polish Union of Jewish Students — which eventually led to a career with the JDC.

As the JDC’s country manager, she typically organizes educational conferences, helps Jewish families learn about traditions they had not learned while growing up in communist Poland, coordinates summer camps, and assumes responsibilities for the other activities that the JDC offers in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

One of her strongest memories of the last year was an elderly Ukrainian couple she met at the border in late spring. The husband was in a wheelchair. Sokolowska helped push him . . . toward the border.

“They were going back to Ukraine,” she says.

The man’s wife told her, “We had to run away from Putin, however, “we realized we cannot go looking for jobs, we cannot restart our lives. We are too old.

“If they are to die, they’d rather die back home,” Sokolowska says.

She found such stories of seniors particularly affecting. “It’s a story of hopelessness. They are so vulnerable.”

“This is our new reality” in Poland, she says of the JDC work with Ukrainian refugees. “This is our life now.

“Everything changed when war came to Ukraine — there is less hope,” Sokolowska says. “It’s a totally new everything. Every aspect of our life changed.

“Our hope for this to be over soon is going down, down, down. Nothing will change.”

Volunteering in his grandfather’s honor

Sometimes in the late 1890s, Harry Fellman, about 20 years old, an army sharpshooter, left his home in Ukraine. According to family legend, he was about to be sent to an area where active fighting was taking place, where his life would be in danger; instead, he emigrated to the US and settled in Omaha, where he became a peddler.

Tom Fellman, his grandson, doesn’t know all of the 120-year-old details, but he knows that he is grateful that Harry Fellman decided to come to this country.

“It could be me,” Fellman, a successful real estate developer and philanthropist in Omaha, says of his contemporaries in Ukraine who are now living as refugees outside of their homeland or staying there without heat or electricity, “if my grandparents had not left when they did.”

Six months ago he made the reverse trip across the Atlantic.

Fellman traveled to Poland to pay what he sees as a debt to the memory of his late grandfather and to help the current generation of Ukrainian Jews.

He and his wife Darlynn served as volunteers for a week at the JCC in Cracow, joining countless volunteers from overseas who have gone to the region to participate in humanitarian programs on behalf of Ukrainian refugees.

Fellman, healthy at 78, worked nine hours a day with a half-dozen fellow foreign volunteers in the basement of the JCC, transferring the contents of “big, big” sacks of items like potatoes and sugar into small containers, to be distributed to refugees in the building’s first-floor food pantry.

His wife spent her time in an art therapy program for the refugee mothers and children to raise their spirits.

He and his wife chose to volunteer at the JCC when Suzanne Horwich, an Omaha-native friend who was raising funds for the art program, contacted the Fellmans to raise funds. Inspired by what she described taking place at the JCC, Fellman wanted to give more than his money; he wanted to give his time.

“I want to do something myself,” he told Horwich.

He and Darlynn couple stayed in a hotel — “it was very nice, maybe four or five star” — within walking distance of the JCC, in the center of the city.

No touring; they were there to work. “We never left Cracow.”

Semi-retired — “it depends on your definition of ‘retired’” — and now a resident of Aspen, Colorado, Fellman spends his leisure time skiing and biking. “I didn’t give up anything” to go to Poland. “I didn’t do anything heroic.”

The best part of his time in Cracow? “Meeting the Ukrainian people, seeing how appreciative they were.” Fellman doesn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian; an interpreter helped out.

A former president of Omaha’s Jewish federation, Fellman is a contributor to many Jewish and civic causes. “I support anything Jewish.”

What did his friends think of his septuagenarian volunteer stint?

“They thought it was cool,” he says.

Fellman says he plans to return to Poland in June for the JCC’s annual fundraising bike ride from Auschwitz to Cracow.

His volunteering among contemporary Ukrainians is a fitting way to honor the memory of his prescient grandfather, Fellman says.

“It’s a way to say thank you” to Harry Fellman and his generation of Ukrainian Jews who ensured better lives for their descendants by leaving their homeland for the US.

The music of survival in wartime

As a child in a Jewish family in Sumy, in the northeastern flank of Ukraine during the final years of communist rule, when where Jewish education was not permitted, Elizaveta Sherstuk was exposed to Jewish life at home.

Her parents infused her with a Jewish identity, she says, and “my grandparents used to talk and sing songs in Yiddish.”

This inspired Sherstuk to a career as a singer; she studied to be a music teacher. First at a high school, then, as a member of the Jewish community, she formed a Jewish ensemble, Aviv, which toured the region.

Later, she joined Sumy’s branch of Hesed, a network of welfare centers in the former Soviet bloc (18 of them in Ukraine) funded by JDC.

Eventually, in 2015, she became Hesed director, responsible for overall administration, programming, fund-raising and “conducting general Jewish life in Sumy.”

“The work provided satisfaction,” she says in a recent Zoom interview.

Then war came to Sumy, an industrial city of 300,000. The city, 30 miles from the Russian border, was one of the Russian Army’s first targets. In the days before the pending invasion, Sherstuk stockpiled food, which was certain to become scarce in case of war, and arranged bus transportation to safer parts of the country for 150 vulnerable civilians, mostly the elderly and disabled, who would wish leave; this fell through, because of operators’ fear for the bus drivers’ safety.

As soon as the bombing started, and it became dangerous for members of the 1,000-member Jewish community, many of them elderly, to venture outside of their apartments.

Sherstuk, working out of a bomb shelter, assisted by a Hesed network of volunteers, coordinated food and medicine deliveries.

When it soon became clear that the Russian occupation would make life in Sumy more dangerous, she coordinated the Jewish community’s participation in a brief humanitarian corridor evacuation of vulnerable civilians that the Russians permitted.

She communicated with Sumy residents mostly by smartphones provided by the JDC — the Russian attacks had cut the landlines.

She accompanied the busloads of Sumy Jews to western Ukraine, some of them eventually moving on to Israel, Germany or other nearby countries, she said.

Her words were interpreted by Anna Pavlova, from Kharkiv, the JDC PR and Missions coordinator.
Sherstuk stayed in western Ukraine for a while (“The humanitarian corridors are only for one-way trips”), moving from place to place, keeping in touch with the Jews of Sumy, not returning until the Ukrainian Army gained control over most of the country.

But Sumy, like many Ukrainian cities, has come under frequent Russian rocket attack.

“Everything was a risk,” she says. “We were following whatever our hearts told us to do. We had to save people. I was the one who had to do it.”

Her schedule?

“The first two weeks, there was no time to sleep. All my team members worked the same, 24/7.”

Is she a hero?

“The whole team [of volunteers], everyone who provided assistance, despite the danger — they are the heroes.”

In May, she was among 12 men and women (the sole one from the Diaspora) who lit a torch at the start of Israel Independence Day on Mount Herzl.

She was nominated for the honor by the JDC as a representative of the Hesed leaders doing life-saving work in Ukraine.

During two weeks in Israel, she spent some time with members of her family, and held a series of meetings with JDC officials, government ministers and donors.

“It was not a vacation,” she said. “I don’t plan to come here again until after the war is over.”

She returned to Sumy, from the safety of Israel because the remaining several hundred Jews, some of whom had returned later in the war — needed her. 
 Back home, she has resumed her schedule of coordinating Hesed cultural and social service activities, including the delivery of challahs to community members every Thursday.

“The winter relief [funding for utility bills, or coal or wood for clients with stoves but no central heating] that was provided in previous years has turned into winter survival,” because the Russian bombing eliminated apartments’ heat, electricity and water.

In the winter of 2022-23, Hesed — in Sumy and in the rest of Ukraine — also provided warm clothing and blankets, as well as radiators. “Everybody became vulnerable.”

To improve the morale of fellow Sumy residents, she organized concerts, in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian — some in person, some in a bomb shelter, in the city’s central square. And online.

“At least COVID-19 taught us to work remotely,” she told the Times of Israel.

And, she says, she has resumed her music classes. “I do it all the time.”

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IJN Contributing Writer

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