More adventures in Ukraine. Leaving Kharkov, I was skeptical about the time the cab was called for me as it was just about an hour before my flight took off. Who knew that there was literally no one at the airport and everything was super fast. So with another quick flight to Kiev, layover and then a flight to Odessa here I was.
Out of the three cities I was in Odessa felt the least Soviet, and much more European. It’s on the water, and has a beachy vibe – despite there not being beaches actually in the city. Once again I was greeted by the local missions and PR coordinator, Inna. Super professional, organized and really great she helped me navigate my time in Odessa. Hitting the ground running we really jumped into getting to know the city and JDC’s work there.
Odessa has not one but two JCCs. Including the first one to open in Ukraine I believe, so it’s been around for nearly 30 years. The woman running it has been there nearly as long, and it’s clear it’s truly a hub and center of life for the people it caters to. Behind every closed door was another room, one filled with kids on a day off from school, with teens running a camp for kids, a library, an art room, adults in a theatre group practicing for the next play, everything.
The second JCC, also houses much of the same and additionally the Chesed offices, and day center for Seniors. I was able to pop into a choir and dance practice. If I can figure out how to upload videos I will. But they sang especially for me, and one of the men asked me to dance. So I did, I’m not a dancer, but they were so sweet and surprisingly fun. We also stopped into a different room with a man who volunteers and fixes things. Basic electronics and things that are cost prohibitive for some of these folks to buy new, like radios, electronic kettles, clocks, electric razors, etc. It’s just a reminder of how important these programs are to these elderly clients.
To put a lot of this into perspective. The average pension for someone in Ukraine is about $50 a month. That’s to cover food, medicine, and utilities. Often utilities cost much more than that, leaving many people having to choose whether to eat or buy their medications each month. JDC is providing food cards and will cover other costs to help. Additionally, those that are Holocaust survivors receive more funds from the Claims Conference. These are specific funds only given to people who can show that they were Nazi victims. I was able to visit a woman who receives help from the Chesed. She is blind, though it sounds like more recently, her apartment is very basic and rundown, she’s lived there for many years and now on her own as she is widowed and lost a daughter. Her grandson visits her sometimes, but as she said without Chesed she wouldn’t be able to even live as she does. She cannot go outside without help. She has meals delivered to her. Even with my limited knowledge of social work and such, I could see that her place is not really a space made for someone with limited sight. She wanted to hear about my background, and travels, and family.
It’s a tough one. While she seemed to suffer from something different, I was reminded of my Grandma Jean. My grandma could not always see well (she was not blind), she also lived on her own in the house that she had lived in for years. The difference here is that at the time she had family around, and family that visited when they could, and that she talked with regularly. When it was time for her to move out of her house we were there to help her adjust and find a place. When I learned to drive, I have fantastic memories of driving the 20 minutes to pick her up and bring her to our house or back home. Many of the grandparents I encountered do not have these luxuries. My grandma Jean died when I was 18, just home for winter break from college, she had been my last living grandparent. I cannot tell you the number of times this year that I wish any of them were still around, and I would be able to ask them questions, share stories and connect with them again.
The time I spent with seniors in Ukraine really made me think of all my grandparents and that generation. In many cases, the children of these seniors are busy trying to make ends meet, or have moved away to Israel, or other countries where they have more opportunities. When you think about community, about family, we can’t forget the elderly, the people who lived through the worst of times and who want to be able to leave something behind, to share their stories of what they went through. At the same time they smile and are so happy to see you, and want to brag about Odessa.
I also spoke about warm homes in Kiev. I visited two in Odessa. Warm homes are a chance for these seniors to come together and it’s clear they build their family this way. They meet once a week in a home, and talk or hear stories, or in this instance have me as a visitor. One I visited was all Holocaust survivors, the other a group of volunteers. In the first home, we went around the table and many shared bits of their “stories”. Sometimes their stories include life before the War and sometimes not. As I promised I would share them here are a few snippets:
One woman whose family hid with an older couple for a little bit when the “ghetto” was first initiated. When they could no longer hide the family for fear of getting caught, at the last minute the family handed her a small child of 6 off to the couple. The couple cut off all of her curls, dyed her hair, and taught her some Christian Orthodox prayers. They also changed her name. It wasn’t until only 20 or so years ago that she somehow found out her real name and her last name Tabacman. She doesn’t go by her real name as she’s grown up with this other name.
Another woman shared about her mother who was able to hide a few family gold pieces in her bosom, and these pieces were given to the girl who was handed over to a family with lots of other children who said they would care for her. She was essentially sold to them, and when Odessa was liberated, her uncle, her only surviving family, found her and had to scrape together money to “buy” her back.
Another woman who’s mother was pregnant with her and survived a boat that hit a mine, and then survived from there…sorry my details are really hard to remember
Included in the group was a man in his 90’s who is not Jewish but a Righteous Among the Nations – who is provided with access to the same care. As a he teen helped his parents save more than 30 people. He is a poet and storyteller, and shared a poem with the group about war and devastating times. While it referenced WWII it was clear in the room it was also bringing up feelings about the current war in Ukraine as well.
I share these stories because they need to be shared, but know that the first woman to speak said, I’ll share my story, but that’s not what I want you to remember about Odessa, she said this with a beautiful grin on her face. She doesn't want it to be about the sadness. She is so much more than her story.
Another woman shared that she has no children, she grew to be a sea woman and traveled around the world seven times, seeing far off places. She said the people in the warm home are her family, that these are the people who care for her, and how special a place it was. I felt a kinship with her. Although it did bring up different issues for me being single and traveling the world and worrying about whether or not I’ll find someone and who my family will be, however I am grateful to have the family and community I do that does seem to be going anywhere soon. The depth of thoughts and what comes up is real. I mean you’ve read this far so clearly you know.
I took a tour of the Holocaust museum and Jewish museum. Both told interesting stories in small places. The Jewish museum really focused on life before the War, something I love to learn about and imagine, a reminder of how ingrained and part of society Jews were.
A special moment
Obviously I could go on, but I’ll share one more experience. I was able to visit another recipient of Chesed help. A single mother of a 10(ish) year old boy who has an ailment that affects his spine, and has also delayed his development - I don't remember the diagnosis. Again a home that is not outfitted for this kind of care, and a mother who’s full-time job it is to care for her son, and receives $110 in money from the government meant to cover food, medical expenses, and utilities. There is not a school for him to go to, and she spends all her time caring for him. Their home is very tiny, he was so excited for visitors that she put him in his chair and they came outside to meet us. We hung out on the floor together, and he only wanted each of us to lay down with him. He wanted me to tell him a story, at which I failed, he was not interested, though I’m hoping it was because of the language translation! The mother shared that she tries to get him to events at the JCC when she can, but it’s difficult to transport him, and he’s getting heavier and harder for her to carry. Also, because he’s not often around so many people, it can be overwhelming for him. He’s excited about it, and seems to love people, but it can also be too much. Again heartbreaking. Despite it all, this mother is positive and really you can tell a special person with such strength. She showed us the places where Chesed helped fix walls because of upper neighbors flooding, how she wouldn't be able to do anything without the help from Chesed. The boy didn't want us to leave.
When I walk away from some of these experiences I came back to this idea that at the core, communities and people are the same, and have similar challenges. In many communities across the world you can find people in need. In my own community I’ve also encountered people with similar issues and such. That said, the element of difference here is why they are in such dire situations, also the amount of community support that exists, which is not a lot (outside of the Jewish community). I have no answers, just more thoughts.
Okay, so that was basically all of Odessa. It was packed with learning and experiencing the people. We drove by the sea, I walked a lot, and really just took it in.
Upon leaving Ukraine I was starting to realize how tired I was. I was in a funny place emotionally and mentally. Not recognizing all that I had done and experienced in under a month. People always ask how I’m doing, in those moments I was tired. It took a minute to recognize it, but as I mentioned before it’s difficult to only be taking in Holocaust/Communism history. That said, the people in all these places are great. Ukraine was heavy, even in writing this enormous blog took time to process. I haven’t been in the right mindset to write, nor did I feel like I had the time. I’ve got a number of other projects I’m working on, which I’ll share in upcoming posts but I’ve felt this weight about writing these.
Because these were written a bit after being there, I’m sure I missed some details, and stories, and people. But know that Ukraine was special, again I feel like I’d go again. I didn’t really research much of my own family history there - something I'd like to do eventually. But as they say, on to the next.