Jews again forced into exile from beloved Odessa
Odessa (Ukraine) (AFP) – Forced into exile once again, as so many times in their troubled history, Jews are leaving the Ukrainian city of Odessa en masse, threatening the last traces of a once flourishing culture.
The Black Sea port, a place steeped in Jewish history, now sees many joining the crowds as they load buses and trains heading to Moldova or Romania.
Some will go to Germany, the United States or Israel.
Many are old, knowing they may never return.
Some have already experienced exile, like Gallina Dimievitch, 87, “a child of war” who fled the Nazis with her parents in 1942, and who is now returning to Israel with one of her sons.
Her husband died on February 24, the day of the Russian invasion.
“I thank God he didn’t see that,” sighs the former engineer in a seedy little hotel in Odessa where departing Jews are gathered.
“Today I must leave the land of my husband and my parents, leave their graves behind me,” she says.
There was no choice: his town of Mykolayev, 100 kilometers to the east, suffered heavy Russian bombardment.
“I remember my mother telling me that I had to run away from the Nazis. I guess I feel like her today,” says Clara, 72.
For Russia, Odessa has strategic and symbolic importance.
It’s Ukraine’s largest port and a trading hub, but it also holds an important place in Russian history, from its founding by Catherine the Great to its resistance against the Nazis and violent clashes. between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian protesters in 2014.
Odessa was home to a very large Jewish community until the 1940s, when it was decimated by massacres and deportations during World War II.
Some 40,000 Jews still lived there before the last invasion, out of a million residents, according to Rabbi Avraham Wolff, leader of Odessa’s ultra-Orthodox Chabad community.
Since the start of the war, around 20% have already left, the rabbi told AFP by telephone from Germany, where he went to oversee the evacuations.
“It’s been one of the hardest times of my life, to see this disintegration of the Jewish community.
“It happened just when the community was starting to grow again, with nurseries, schools, orphanages, a university…
“The pain is very great, but now the only thing that matters is to come out and save the Jews of Ukraine.”
The century-old Chabad Synagogue in Odessa, closed during the Soviet period, served up to 150 worshipers a day before the war.
Now only two or three come to pray.
Olexsander Klimanov, 64, retired, gray cap on his head, is one of them.
His family was evacuated, but he decided to stay.
“My whole life is in Odessa, I’m old, I can’t adapt like young people, learn a new language,” he says.
“This is not the first time that we see Jews taking the path of exile,” he adds, recalling the discrimination and mass emigration suffered by Jews during the period of Soviet rule.
But to leave is to abandon a history, roots, a Jewish heritage that makes this city and its region “priceless” for the community.
Important figures were born or lived here, such as poet Haim Bialik and Israeli Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, and it is home to a huge Jewish cemetery.
“We must preserve the heritage,” says Anna Bartaret, a young mother about to be evacuated with her two daughters aged 8 and 10.
Marketing manager, she was very involved in the Jewish community of Mykolayev.
Her great-grandfather was a rabbi and she fears for the old synagogue books, including an 18th-century Torah she kept at home.
His face hardens at the mention of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his desire to “denazify” Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself Jewish.
“Putin is sick,” she said simply.
She plans to go only as far as neighboring Moldova, she adds, determined to “walk back to Ukraine when it’s all over”.
© 2022 AFP