A First Trip “There,” Forever Ingrained

As I started putting everything together that I would need for my first trip to Ukraine, my initial venture to the former Soviet Union that I’ve heard inspiring narratives about nearly every day for a year, my eyes drifted to the power converter set my grandmother lent me. Opening it, I saw my grandfather's name etched inside. He’d passed away nearly three and a half years ago, and I was extremely close with him, so my mind was at ease knowing that no matter what experiences awaited me, Grandpa Leon would be with me every step of the way, especially as his parents were from that part of the world.

By Jamie Epstein - JDC's Media Relations Manager | March 31, 2017

(Left) Jamie Epstein, JDC's Media Relations Manager, and a portion of her study group visit Vera Parschukova (middle), in her home in Odessa, Ukraine.
As I started putting everything together that I would need for my first trip to Ukraine, my initial venture to the former Soviet Union that I’ve heard inspiring narratives about nearly every day for a year, my eyes drifted to the power converter set my grandmother lent me. Opening it, I saw my grandfather’s name etched inside. He’d passed away nearly three and a half years ago, and I was extremely close with him, so my mind was at ease knowing that no matter what experiences awaited me, Grandpa Leon would be with me every step of the way, especially as his parents were from that part of the world.

My trip began in Odessa with its stunning Opera House, Potemkin Stairs, and proud Jewish community. My first introduction to everyday life there came through multiple emotional visits showcasing the variety of needy Jews, whether young families to seniors.

Most vivid for me was 88-year-old Vera Parschukova, who reminded me of my own feisty grandmother.

Dressed in a bright pink shirt with freshly painted matching pink nails, Vera began to recount her story, her hands moved wildly. After being evacuated from her hometown of Odessa in 1941 to a small town in Kazakhstan, she revealed that she, along with her two sisters, were far from accepted by locals and were looked at as “animals.”

While her father was serving in the Soviet Army in World War II, her mother died at 42, leaving Vera and her two sisters completely alone.

“No one needed us in the world,” she told us as we sat silently.

Vera shared with us that she was widowed after 50 years of marriage and had been unable to leave her home for 5 years due to her deteriorating physical condition.

She had only one small heater to warm her one room apartment – a space with peeling wallpaper, cracked paint, and a calendar from 2004 – and lives across the street from her sister who is also homebound. Tragically, they haven’t been able to see each other for quite a long time.

Vera keeps her mind active by talking on the phone, watching soap operas on television, and reading the newspaper but needs almost 24 hour care from the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, in addition to the other aid she receives.

“It’s because of the Hesed that I am alive,” she told us matter-of-factly as she continued more tales of a life filled with challenges.

This unforgettable experience with Vera enabled me to see firsthand our work helping Nazi victims, which happens in partnership with The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, as well as through the IFCJ Food and Medicine Lifeline, our operational partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).

From this sober reality, I was then treated to a dramatically uplifting visit to the Beit Grand JCC, one of the central addresses for Jewish life in Odessa.

As I toured the building, it was impossible not to feel the vibrancy and sense of pride exuded by Jews participating and engaging with others in a myriad of activities. From its library and community gym to wide-ranging cultural programming like an arts studio, as well as a Jewish writers and elderly club, the energetic and lively Youth Club was especially poignant for me.

That was where my colleagues and I were invited to participate in activities related to Jewish life with the youth club in a fun, relaxed setting. Mini groups were created by combining a handful of people from our group along with a few of the engaging teens, and we were all directed toward different tables to play games including Jewish Pictionary, where we acted out celebrating our favorite Jewish holidays, designed our favorite Jewish movie scenes with colored pencils, and made play-dough menorahs and other Judaica.

Although it seemed like all the people I met in Odessa were strangers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were part of my extended Jewish family; I just hadn’t meet them until that moment. As we neared the end of our visit at Beit Grand, we were each given a picture created with beads, made specifically for us, by a group of seniors that use the art as a way to socialize and communicate with others.

That picture hangs in my apartment today and I walk by it every day. It’s a daily reminder of the warmth and light I felt from Odessa’s thriving Jewish community, memories that I will always cherish as much as Grandpa Leon’s travel kit, which helped smooth my way despite being thousands of miles from home.

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