This Yom Hashoah, Celebrating My Beloved Jewish Community

Anna R. was just two months old when the Second World War began — and today, she has a message for Jews around the world.

By Anna R. - JDC Client and Staff Member; The JDC-supported Hesed Shaarey Tzion Social Welfare Center | Invalid date

Anna R. survived the Holocaust and is now living through the Ukraine crisis — but her hope and faith in the power of Jewish life remains unbroken.

Anna R. was just two months old when her family was evacuated from Odesa, Ukraine, fleeing Nazi violence and persecution. Anna would survive, and go on to help her fellow Jews through the JDC-supported Hesed Shaarey Tzion social welfare center in Odesa. As we honor Yom Hashoah this week, Anna, 80, recalls the unimaginable circumstances she faced during these difficult years — and why this moment is a chance to honor the memory of what she and so many others endured. 

Anna helps lead an online Kabbalat Shabbat program.

Any crisis is a disaster: lost lives, broken families, hunger, cold and fear. As soon as it becomes your reality, your life is totally different.

It’s difficult to comprehend that I’ve lived through two major crises — the first one of which I barely survived. When the Second World War began, my family was evacuated from Odesa, a place we’d called home for four generations. We boarded a cargo ship headed for Mariupol. 

But the ship hit a mine and started capsizing. 

My parents escaped the ship by rope ladder, and at the last minute, a young sailor threw me from one ship to the other. I was two months old.

It’s scary and impossible to convey what this experience was like. We endured hunger and cold. I grew up eating nothing but pea soup, and I remember how I’d wake up at night from sheer hunger and say “Mom, I want to eat, I want pea soup!”I couldn’t imagine eating anything else. 

My story is a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and the impact it can have on individuals and families. It’s difficult to imagine the fear and uncertainty experienced by those who endured the Second World War and the Holocaust. All of us are still haunted by these memories. 

The morning of February 24, 2022 immediately brought me back to that time. It was a feeling of horror which struck my whole body — a sense of despair and helplessness. When I heard the shelling at 5am that morning, I didn’t understand what those sounds were. Later it was all clear to us: this was a crisis. 

Today, Jews here in Ukraine cannot lead normal lives — they can think only about today, because even the near future is uncertain. Whenever I hear the sirens — even now, more than two years into the crisis — I go back to my memories of the evacuation, the way we had to escape.

All of us have endured impossible conditions. But that’s exactly why the care JDC provides Holocaust survivors — in partnership with the Claims Conference — is extremely vital and truly remarkable. The JDC-supported Hesed Shaarey Tzion social welfare center is an infinitely important part of my life because it provides material and spiritual support. 

When I started working for Hesed Shaarey Tzion 24 years ago, I was amazed at how much they’re able to do with the support of the JDC. Whenever they’d launch a new project — like a program to help bedridden elderly Jews, for example — they would always provide the most in-depth, cutting-edge training to Hesed staff and volunteers. It was this investment in Hesed staff and volunteers that allowed us to give the best care possible to elderly Jews. 

Over the last quarter century, I have witnessed the journey of my beloved Hesed, from starting as a small organization to becoming an indispensable pillar of the Jewish community. I have watched this transformation firsthand, and I’ve always participated in all programs where my help was needed. 

Hesed has been my chance to embrace Jewish life here in Odesa. In my role here, I oversee numerous clubs for our community’s elderly members. This includes overseeing several Warm Homes — a JDC program where people open their homes to elderly Jews for lunches and meet-ups. I’m also involved in launching and running online programs, including University Without Borders, an initiative that brings Jewish learning to elderly Jews, and a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat that attracts 150 community members!

 Without Hesed Shaarey Tzion, I don’t even want to think about how life would be different for those who depend on our support. Jewish community life certainly wouldn’t be as vibrant.  Hesed is everything for our clients — it is their life, the air they breathe, their sense of community, and confidence in the future.

Our ship hit a mine and started capsizing — and at the last minute, a young sailor threw me from one ship to the other. I was two months old.

To put it more bluntly: If it weren’t for JDC and Hesed, I think many elderly Jews simply would not have survived. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now during the Ukraine crisis. So many of these people are Holocaust survivors — by supporting them, we ensuring they can live their final years with dignity and joy. 

This Yom Hashoah, it is important to not only remember the Holocaust, but to strive to learn from the past and work towards a better future for all. We should never forget the sacrifices made, and the lives lost, during that awful time, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that history does not repeat itself. 

For our youngest generation of Jews, Yom Hashoah is a chance for them to open their hearts to the experiences of their elders. By listening to their stories, and hearing about what they went through, they can resolve to build a world where something like the Holocaust never happens again. 

We must always remember. We must never forget. And by caring for our community’s Holocaust survivors — and all elderly and vulnerable Jews — JDC and Hesed honor the memory of what they endured each and every day. 

Anna R. is a JDC client and staff member of the JDC-supported Hesed Shaarey Tzion social welfare center in Odesa, Ukraine. 

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