The Birth of New Life: In Poltava, This Great-Grandmother Celebrates Simchat Torah and Jewish Community

For Maya C. — a Jewish elder and proud member of the Poltava Jewish community — Simchat Torah is a chance to reflect on the similarities between past and present.

By Maya C. - JDC Client; Poltava, Ukraine | September 28, 2023

Maya C. (far right) enjoys herself with friends at the Women's Club, just one of many programs at the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine.

Year after year, Simchat Torah demands that we “rewind” and go back to the beginning of our most sacred text. For Maya C., 84, the Ukraine crisis has also felt like a return, a difficult journey back to the chaos and uncertainty she once experienced during the Second World War. In this Simchat Torah reflection, Maya thinks about the resonance between these two crises, the strength she finds in Torah, and the powerful Jewish life she’s discovered through JDC. 

Maya C.

When they bombed our train, the carriage stopped, and everyone fled into the cornfield. I was only 2 years old, but I remember the train’s wooden floor and the bucket-toilet used by all the passengers. I’ll never forget the fear, the cold, and the constant bombing. 

When the Second World War began, my father worked on the railway station in Grebinka — an important train hub near Poltava. He was nothing less than a hero, helping to evacuate people from war. During the war, through the fear and the bombing, he continued to drive trains. While he helped evacuate people from war, my mother, frightened and with three young children, was rescued by our neighbors. As the Germans marched through Zheremenka, the neighbors grabbed my mother and us kids and pushed us onto a passing train.  

Because of that courageous gesture, I’m alive, here, telling you this story. My mother didn’t know that many of the Jews in our town were sent to Zherminskii Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre during the Holocaust in Ukraine. Half of my family, including my mother’s grandparents and my mother’s 19-year-old brother, went to that horrible place. 

As for my mother and us three kids, we arrived safely in a place called Bakshiria, more than 1,100 miles from home. We found shelter with a Tatar woman who helped look after us when my mother found work. I have always remembered the good people we found in Bakshiria, people from diverse backgrounds who helped us in our hour of need. When the war ended, my mother and us kids returned and settled in Poltava, and my father, who thank G-d had survived, continued to work on the railway in Grebinka. 

Years later, I would feel like I was back in Zhmerenka in 1941, as if time had rewound itself and the fear and uncertainty I felt as a child had never gone away. 

On that day — February 24, 2022, when the Ukraine crisis began — I was at home. At first, I couldn’t believe the terrible news. A feeling of indignation arose. I wasn’t afraid for myself: I was scared for my granddaughters and great-grandson. I have lived my life, but they still have to live theirs.  

The following days and weeks were stressful mostly because of the uncertainty: We didn’t know what was next. None of my granddaughters wanted to leave, so we remained in Ukraine. During the Second World War, JDC also helped Jews, and they were there again — arranging evacuations and other humanitarian assistance. For better and worse, it felt like nothing had changed. 

Not only was JDC there during the Second World War, they were there for me decades later, and they’ve been by my side all throughout this crisis. 

I didn’t have much of a Jewish life growing up. It was only when I came to our city’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center that I realized what I was deprived of for so many years. From the very first days of our community’s renewed existence, I’ve done my best not to miss any program or event. I’m still grateful how, in the late 1990s, during times of economic crisis, lack of money, and food shortages, JDC delivered us food and other humanitarian aid. 

Now, when we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and other holidays together, when we cook Jewish dishes, I understand how important it is for me to be among like-minded people, folks who share my Jewish roots. For me, these aren’t just holidays or celebrations — they’re time spent with my true Jewish family.

My family and I are continually inspired by the chance to embrace Jewish culture and learn the traditions of our people. When they were young, my granddaughters attended all the events for children and teenagers, and now my great-grandson is a participant in all the children’s programs.

​​It is of the utmost importance that my grandchildren and now great-grandson have this opportunity in childhood, one I never had. Thanks to Hesed and JDC, we live a Jewish life now.

Not only was JDC there during the Second World War, they were there for me decades later, and they’ve been by my side throughout this crisis.

It’s also important for Jews to support each other and exchange knowledge. That’s a lot of what Hesed allows us to do, like at the online Shabbat celebrations and Jewish Cuisine Club, two of my favorites. I also feel that way about the Hesed Women’s Club, a place where I’m never alone. I love being surrounded by women from the community — we have common interests, and we live in the same city and experience similar things in life. That’s also why we gladly welcome new women into our community, especially internally displaced persons (IDPs). We give them support, care, and an invitation to join our vibrant Jewish life. 

A crucial part of this Jewish life is studying the Torah. Before, we did not have the chance to read this sacred text. And nowadays, not many of us do this on our own. But there are people who read portion after portion, and G-d hears through these words the prayers of the Jewish people for peace, for prosperity, for long life, and for the happiness of our children. What more could a Jewish mother, grandmother — or, in my case, a great-grandmother — want? Simchat Torah is like the birth of new life. And thanks to JDC and the strength of our community, life goes on!  

This Simchat Torah, I wish for a new beginning — an end to this crisis and peaceful skies for all. I also wish for JDC and Hesed to stay here forever. Hesed Nefesh is a beautiful place to see friends, receive important information, and most importantly, connect with Jewish community.  

There, we see what it means to be Jewish — that it’s our tradition to support each other and help create new Jewish stories year after year. 

Maya C., 84, is a JDC client in Poltava, Ukraine.

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