‘We are that united family’: Russian war uproots Ukrainian Jews amid false Nazi claims

CHISINAU, Moldova — Olena Khorenjenko rolled her eyes at the thought of the Nazis controlling her homeland, the baseless Russian claim President Vladimir Putin to defend its deadly military assault on Ukraine.

A Kyiv-born Orthodox Jew, Khorenjenko said she has never experienced organized or even occasional discrimination in daily life. And she certainly never saw any evidence of Nazi activity.

“There were boys fighting at school, but it wasn’t because they were Jewish. They fought because they are boys,” said Khorenjenko, 33, whose Jewish great-grandmother fled Poland before the German invasion in World War II.

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Tatiana Larina, 73, from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, tells Olena Khorenjenko, right, about her journey to refugee accommodation at Bukoria Pension in the resort suburb of Vodola-Veda.
Tatiana Larina, 73, from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, tells Olena Khorenjenko, right, about her journey to refugee accommodation at the Bukoria pension in the Vodola-Veda Holiday suburb near Chisinau, Moldova. Image by Michael G. Seamans/USA Today. Moldova, 2022.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said of Putin’s claims.

In a speech announcing the attack on Ukraine, Putin said he wanted to “denazify” the country, a statement that many found confusing and bizarre. Ukraine is a democratic country led by a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose family was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust.

Zelensky said three of his grandfather’s brothers were victims of the Holocaust, executed by the German occupiers. His grandfather fought in World War II in the Soviet army.

Putin’s war uprooted thousands of Ukrainian Jews, including about 5,000 refugees who flocked to neighboring Moldova. They found safety and comfort in shelters that once served very different purposes, including a Soviet-era sanatorium and a wedding hall with crystal chandeliers and velvet chairs.

“We had a good life. We had jobs and homes. Nobody wanted to leave,” said Viktoria Fikhman, 37, who escaped the bombardment of Odessa with her husband and two children, including a young girl with chickenpox.

They are staying in a shelter supervised in part by members of the Jewish community of Moldova. They don’t know where they will go next – apartments in the capital of Chisinau are either unavailable or too expensive.

Women cling to the head
Tatiana Larina, 73, from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, describes packing her Soviet-era suitcase by candlelight as bombs fell around her. She fled to safety in Moldova. Image by Michael G. Seamans/USA Today. Moldova, 2022.

At another shelter, 73-year-old refugee Tatiana Larina from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, recalled how she saw anti-Semitism in her youth, but never since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Her father changed name to be less Jewish, she said, and that helped reduce some of the hateful attention.

“Nobody painted stars on the doors or the walls. It was more of a rotten attitude at the time, she said through an interpreter. “But after the Ukraine became an independent country, I haven’t seen anything like that.The attitude has changed.

Sitting on her narrow bed as an aging television played clips of reality shows, Larina said she was grateful she left safely when the bombardment began. She recalls packing her tan leather suitcase by candlelight when the power went out and how some reporters who saw her struggling to carry the bag helped her load it onto a refugee bus . Her husband died of COVID-19 a year ago and she hopes to emigrate to Israel, at least temporarily.

Among Millions of Ukrainian Refugees, Jews Find Comfort in Shelters in Moldova

Khorenjenko, Fikhman and Larina are among about 3.7 million Ukrainians who fled their country after the Russian invasion. Although most left via Poland, a growing number of people are crossing into neighboring Moldova, and those of the Jewish faith have found comfort in the open doors – albeit guarded by a metal detector – of the Chabad synagogue in Chisinau.

There, religious leaders, including Rabbi Mandel Askerold, serve hot kosher meals, attend to spiritual needs, and arrange lodging. Inside the walls of the compound, workers boil eggs and prepare challah.

For refugees, it’s not just food that keeps them warm it’s the friendly faces and smiles, the familiar Hebrew letters on the panels, the finger-sized mezuzah cases hanging from the entrances of the buildings, which worshipers touch in prayer as they pass.

“In our tradition, all the Jews of the world form one family. Even though we’ve never met before, it’s important to show that we’re this united family,” Askerold said. “To these people, that means everything. Because it’s their time of need.”

In search of safety, Ukrainian Jews put their lives on hold and left virtually everything they knew.

Women hold a cup of coffee
Olena Khorenjenko drinks a cup of tea outside the Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue, being renovated in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 24. Image by Michael G. Seamans/USA Today. Moldova, 2022.

Khorenjenko fled kyiv three days before her wedding. Her fiancé lives in New York and they have put the wedding on hold until the fighting stops. She lives in a hotel with her mother and young daughter, translating for other refugees. Many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, and Moldovans primarily speak Romanian, although many also speak Russian or Ukrainian.

“It’s amazing how two weeks can change your whole life,” Khorenjenko said. “This place is like an island of hope – a place of stability. A place of restoration and rest. It’s both sad and amazing.

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