For Ukraine’s Jews, the Threat of War Stirs Memories of Past Horrors

In Odessa, Jewish leaders are preparing for the worst: hiring security guards, scoping out bomb shelters and making plans to evacuate if Russia invades the country.

Prayer services following shabbat at the Great Choral Synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine.
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

ODESSA, Ukraine—Rabbi Avraham Wolff is preparing for war.

He has bought enough sugar, macaroni and canned goods to feed his congregation for a year, he said. He has hired about 20 Israeli security guards in case rioting and looting break out. And if the Russians do invade, he said he has mapped out the city’s bomb shelters and has enough buses on standby to evacuate 3,000 people from the Black Sea port city of Odessa.

“This is why I’m gray at 50,” said Rabbi Wolff, the leader of one of the two main Jewish congregations in Odessa. “God willing, there will be no war, but we don’t have the right to not be prepared.”

Throughout the country, many Ukrainians have been slow to get ready for the gathering threat posed by the estimated 190,000 Russian troops at their borders, partly out of exhaustion from eight years of grinding war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. But some Jewish communities are alarmed, particularly here in Odessa, where successive waves of violence, from Jewish pogroms in the early 20th century to mass executions by the Nazis in World War II, have left indelible scars.

“The Odessa community has been through a lot of trauma,” said Rabbi Refael Kruskal, who runs a number of orphanages and Jewish schools in Odessa and said he, too, had hired Israeli security guards and secured evacuation buses.

“There are people who have seen it, who have been through it, especially the elderly,” said Rabbi Kruskal, whose father and father-in-law survived concentration camps. “So I think that’s why Jewish communities are more worried, more concerned or more prepared than others.”

Last week, Ukraine’s representative for the United Hatzalah, the Israel-based volunteer emergency medical service, visited Odessa to check on preparations for evacuations, and confirm the availability of medical equipment like defibrillators. The director of Odessa’s Holocaust museum said he was taking first aid courses and learning how to shoot a gun.

Svetlana Lisytsina, who is 80 and has faint memories of the horrors her family endured during World War II, said her daughter had asked her to pick up a carrier for their peach-colored cat, Persik, should they have to make a hasty escape.

Svetlana Lisytsina, outside her apartment in Odessa, said she tries “to turn off my internal fear.”
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“I try not to watch TV because when they show all those bodies in Donetsk and everywhere and now they show how they’re shelling Ukraine,” she said. “I try to turn off my internal fear.”

Ms. Lisytsina said that most of all she feared that a war could tear apart her family as happened during World War II. Her grandfather and aunt were killed at Babyn Yar outside Kyiv, one of the most horrific mass executions of Jews during the war. One of her uncles and her father were killed fighting Nazis at the front. She worries that her grandson, Danil, who will turn 18 in March and be eligible for the army draft, will be called to war.

But there is another menace many Jews fear lies hidden in their community, symbolized by the swastika that someone recently scrawled in black marker on the wall enclosing Ms. Lisytsina’s courtyard. Though anti-Semitic violence is relatively rare in Odessa, some Jews are fearful that it could be unleashed by the chaos of war.

“This worries me more than anything,” said Semyon Abramovich, 72, the senior researcher at the Museum of the Holocaust and a lifelong Odessan.

Semyon Abramovich is the senior researcher at the Museum of the Holocaust in Odessa.
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The tragedy of Odessa’s Jews is compounded by the fact that they were once so prosperous.

At the end of the 19th century, Odessa, then a jewel of the Russian Empire, had the third largest Jewish population in the world, after New York and Warsaw. There were Jewish universities and schools, Jewish-owned factories and theaters and about 40 synagogues, said Njusia Verkhovskaya, a sixth-generation Odessan, who runs the city’s Jewish history museum.

The author Isaac Babel, whose short stories brim with the city’s peculiar assortment of aristocrats, artists and swindlers, reserved a special fondness for its “poor Jews” whose refusal to give up their old ways, he wrote, “has created an atmosphere of lightness and clarity that surrounds Odessa.”

Prayer services at the Great Choral Synagogue in Odessa.
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The start of the 20th century, though, began a period of rapid decimation, first through anti-Jewish pogroms under the Russian czars, and then with Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union, which saw many of the city’s most prominent figures, including Mr. Babel, shot. During World War II, Romanian troops allied with the Nazis occupied Odessa, and started a program of extermination, hanging Jews in the streets and murdering them in basements before marching off those who remained to concentration camps. As many as a quarter of a million Jews in Odessa and the surrounding region perished.

“If you look at the map, almost the whole center of Odessa,” said Ms. Verkhovskaya, “is а tomb.”

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Jews, who once constituted nearly half the population of Odessa, made up only 6 percent. There was only one crumbling synagogue.

For the moment, Odessa is far from the rapidly gathering violence in eastern Ukraine.

The city is enjoying an unseasonably warm February, and many residents, rather than preparing for possible war, have been promenading along its cobblestone streets, browsing its funky clothing boutiques and sipping coffee in the cafes. At the 19th- century opera house, resplendent in gold leaf and crystal, Odessans settled into red velvet chairs this weekend for a ballet called “Fates,” about the travails of modern urban life.

“People, if I’m speaking honestly, are a little bit disoriented and maybe this is because the days have been so sunny,” said Odessa’s mayor, Gennady Turkhanov. “They’re going to seashore, walking around and relaxing, enjoying life. They haven’t fully recognized the threat.”

Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov of Odessa, in his office, said the city’s residents “haven’t fully recognized the threat” of a Russian invasion.
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

On Saturday night, the city’s main synagogue was packed with congregants who had come to break the Sabbath. Men in black hats rocked back and forth reciting prayers, while a group of young men in kipas sat in the back row, scrolling on phones hidden behind prayer books.

“At the moment we’re not really feeling threatened, except there’s something in the air,” Isrel Viner said after Saturday’s services. “In the air there’s a tension — what if something happens? — but something could happen or it could not.”

Military officials and analysts agree that any large-scale military action against Ukraine is likely to begin in the east, yet Odessa would present a clear target. It is home to the country’s largest ports and is the headquarters of Ukraine’s Navy. It is flanked by Russian-occupied Crimea to its east and the Russian-backed separatist enclave of Transnistria, in Moldova, to its west, a region along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast that Mr. Putin has referred to using the czarist-era name, Novorossiya, or New Russia.

Odessa also sits just a few hundred miles from where Russian naval forces have been carrying out massive military exercises in the Black Sea, and some ships are close enough to reach the city in a matter of hours.

Like the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Odessa was the site of a pro-Russian separatist uprising in 2014 that sought to create an independent state. Unlike the eastern territories, the independence movement was quashed after a series of pitched street battles pitting the separatists against Ukrainian nationalists and soccer hooligans, which culminated in the torching of a trade union building on the outskirts of Odessa. At least 40 pro-Russian activists were killed.

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not entirely straightforward for the Jews. Particularly in Odessa, most Jews, as well as much of the city, speak Russian rather than Ukrainian, while many Jews have family and congregational ties that stretch across borders. But while some expressed annoyance at the Kyiv government’s recent efforts to enforce laws requiring that the Ukrainian language be used in official settings, they dismissed the idea, repeated often by Mr. Putin and his subordinates, that Russian speakers, Jews or others, might need rescuing by Russian forces.

Pavel Kozlenko, the director of the Museum of the Holocaust, who lost 50 members of his family at the hands of the Nazis and their allies, accused Mr. Putin of betraying the memory of the “common victory” of World War II. Then he told a joke, as Odessans often do in dark times, about two Jews standing on the street speaking in Yiddish.

“A third comes up and says, ‘Guys, why are you speaking in Yiddish?’” Mr. Kozlenko said, “to which one of the Yiddish-speaking men replied, ‘You know, I’m scared to speak in Russian because if I do Putin will show up and try to liberate us.’”

Pavel Kozlenko is the director of Odessa’s Holocaust Museum.
Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Michael Schwirtz is an investigative reporter with the International desk. With The Times since 2006, he previously covered the countries of the former Soviet Union from Moscow and was a lead reporter on a team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for articles about Russian intelligence operations. @mschwirtz 

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 22, 2022, Section A, Page 12 of the New York edition with the headline: Looming Russian Threat Reminds Ukraine’s Jews of Past Atrocities
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