Inside Ukraine, Continuing Life-Saving Aid
September 22, 2022
When the first explosions sounded on February 24, 88-year-old Natalia Berezhnaya found herself plunged into a sort of traumatic time travel.
“What am I feeling right now? Fear is not the word. It’s just that I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that in 1941, I had to hide in the basement of this building, and I’m going to have to do it again now,” said Berezhnaya, a Holocaust survivor and retired teacher who lives alone in Odesa and depends on JDC and the Claims Conference for food, medicine, and homecare. “I feel like I’m dreaming, like I’m having a nightmare.”
Berezhnaya is among the tens of thousands of elderly Ukrainian Jews and at-risk children and families — all clients of JDC before the conflict — who stayed in the country as the crisis began and who continued to receive life-saving humanitarian assistance even as rockets fell and air raid sirens blared.
Leading up to this crisis, JDC-supported Hesed social welfare centers began to stockpile food, medicine, and other essential supplies to ensure Jews in need would have what they needed to survive, said Anatoliy Kesselman, director of the Hesed in Odesa.
“We hope that peace will come soon, but we don’t know what’s waiting for us, so we try to look two or three steps ahead, like in a chess game,” he said. “We’re all working at 150 percent. Twenty-four hours a day, day and night, without switching off our phones, we’re in contact with our clients, so that they don’t feel isolated or alone, so they know we’re here for them.”
Across Ukraine, JDC and the Hesed system employ more than 3,500 homecare workers — many of whom have been paired with the same elderly Jews for years, developing a bond that begins to feel like family.
Though her job has now become exponentially more difficult, Valentina Smirnova — a homecare worker in Odesa — said it’s also become more important.
“It’s very hard to get to work between the sirens, but we must work. She’s become a member of my family,” Smirnova said of the 90-year-old woman she’s looked after for more than two years. “We’re all happy we have our JDC, and I’m so grateful to all those who help our ‘babushkas’ — the Jews of Ukraine. Believe me, at this terrible time, that help keeps them alive.”
As for Berezhnaya, she said her homecare worker is “my life — my eyes, my legs, my hands.”
“It’s tough to live in this world alone,” she said. “If not for JDC, I wouldn’t be able to survive. How can I not thank G-d for that?”
In some cities, JDC organized evacuations to help bring Jewish community members to safety in hotels and retreat centers in Western Ukraine — places like Truskavets, about 50 miles southeast of Lviv.
Boris Spivak and his wife lived in the hard-hit Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. When shelling partially destroyed their apartment building, they became internally displaced people (IDPs).
“I’m very grateful to JDC for giving us an opportunity to stay here — in great conditions, with good food and medical support,” he said of his time in Truskavets. “It’s very, very hard, but the most crucial thing is when we’re given human kindness and understanding — that’s the greatest relief, as is the feeling that JDC will always care about us.”
The Truskavets group also included a number of Jewish educators and communal professionals from the besieged Black Sea city of Mykolaiv — like Iryna Pavlishcheva, who continued to run online Shabbat celebrations, programs for children and parents, and psychologist sessions for the elderly from the IDP camp.
She said the facility gave her and others the chance to “rest and work at the same time.”
“It meant we could continue our work and feel that we were all together, even though so many people have left the country or moved to other parts of Ukraine,” Pavlishcheva said. “It gave us the opportunity to continue all of our efforts from peacetime, and it was a quiet environment for our grandchildren — giving them the feeling of a real summer vacation, even during war.”
Also critical to JDC’s continuing operations inside Ukraine are a number of warehouses and hubs located across the country, storing tons of humanitarian aid flown into bordering countries and then brought into Ukraine on trucks.
“We’ve gathered often-used staple foods that can be stored for a long time and can help our clients survive in case of the closure of supermarkets, like we experienced in the first weeks of the crisis,” said Oksana Galkevich, the head of JDC’s humanitarian aid team and deputy director of operations in the former Soviet Union. “Even a basic 10-kilogram package can save someone’s life.”
The central Ukrainian city of Dnipro emerged as a key site for both evacuations and humanitarian aid distribution, said Oleg Rostovtsev, director of the city’s Hesed Menahem social welfare center.
In the process, facilities that used to house concerts and clubs for the elderly were transformed into critical components of JDC’s relief effort, he added.
“People used to perform here and recite poems. You’d hear laughter. Now it’s humanitarian aid, diapers, everything you need to rescue elderly people, everything we’ve received thanks to JDC and its partners,” Rostovtsev said. “We’re doing all we can so that people can live, so that they can stay healthy. If we don’t help them, who will? We thank G-d for everything we can do, and we’ll continue to save lives because it’s only us together who can do it.”