In 1988, within days of moving to Lynn from Kyiv, Helen Chervitz found a typewriter in a garbage can.
So she used it to apply for a job in Marblehead. “Voila! Why else would I get the typewriter from the junk?” said Chervitz, who’d noticed the ad about the position in a newspaper and was at a loss to figure out how to apply.
“I am resourceful, that’s for sure,” Helen said in an interview from her home in war-ravaged Kyiv, a decade after moving back to Ukraine’s capital city where she and her husband grew up.
Not only did Chervitz get the job, becoming aquatics director of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, but she beat out 12 other candidates. And she smoothly took one the JCC’s youth teams from last to first place in its league.
“I’m very goal-minded and persevering,” said Chervitz, a competitive swimmer herself who joined the Ukrainian junior national team when she was 12. “I’m not a quitter.”
These days, she is far from her former home on the North Shore. She lives in the war zone of Kyiv, and for the last two months has learned what it’s like to be in a city under attack.
Her perseverance and resourcefulness are serving her well as she plods along in a life she describes as “emotionally hard,” confined largely to the apartment she shares with her husband, Leon. Even though buildings have been bombed near her and people have been living in subway stations, she’s mostly anxious about her daughter in Boston, who is anxious about her and Leon. “She doesn’t sleep, she worries a lot,” said Chervitz.
Even when pressed, she does not speak of being frightened or in danger. That’s because it is “paralyzing” to read the stories and see the pictures of women and young girls being raped by Russian soldiers who had killed their parents, she said. “The monstrosities of Russian so-called liberators are beyond comprehension.”
She said she has grown accustomed to the screaming air raid sirens and to “foraging” for groceries. Most stores in Kyiv are closed due to a lack of employees or products, but sometimes there are surprises, as when she discovered that the central location of the high-end supermarket Le Silpo was open – albeit pricier than ever. “There were more lobsters than people in the store,” she wrote in an article for Moment magazine.
Writing freelance articles is one of the things she does to keep busy. She’s also donated blood and gives online English lessons to students, but for free now because, due to the war, many people are completely cut off from their incomes. And she helps neighbors with groceries, if they are afraid or unable to leave their apartments. Any of the Jewish people she knew before “left or got dispersed.”
“There is nowhere to go and it’s freezing cold,” Chervitz said in an interview with the Journal this week. Recently, it was announced that theaters could open in Kyiv, which struck her as surreal. “I can’t find a dentist – how are you going to find actors?” she said.
It was antisemitism that drove Chervitz and her husband to leave Ukraine and come to Lynn when their daughter was a baby. They spent six months there before settling in Swampscott. When their daughter was ready to start high school, they moved to New York.
For a time, Chervitz coached swimming at the Manhattan JCC on West 76th Street and gave private swim lessons. But she also had more creative aspirations and took a job doing marketing for an interior design company. While she was in Milan for a furniture fair, she met a designer from Croatia.
“That was when my passion for fashion blossomed,” said Chervitz, who has a degree from a sports university in Kyiv, and a second in math from Moscow State Pedagogical University.
Together, they developed and launched a fashion brand which went worldwide, she said. Life was good: She adored New York, which to this day she considers her true home.
But about 10 years ago, her husband’s work took them back to Kyiv. She went very reluctantly, though the city has grown on her. She found a niche for herself in the fashion world, writing for the fashion magazine L’Officiel Monaco, and lecturing on fashion history and contemporary fashion. She had a lecture all planned about Japanese designers for Thursday, Feb. 24 – the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
And the day that life stopped. The last time she swam – she did 3 kilometers, or 1.85 miles – was Wednesday, Feb. 23. “I thought I’d swim again on Friday,” she said.
That didn’t happen either, which has been deeply painful for her. “I need to swim,” she said. “It is like I have one gill and one lung.”
The fashion industry is at a standstill. “Fashion doesn’t matter now in war time. It’s really frivolous,” she said. One of the designers she knows has switched to designing military vests. Another, instead of designing high-heeled shoes, is making combat boots. A third is making camouflage nets, for hiding ammunition.
“But life goes on. With running water, the Internet connection – it’s stable unless it is raining too hard – and Netflix, we can keep going. We just appreciate much more everything that in the pre-war time we took for granted.”
They are determined to stay in Kyiv, feeling obligated to help those in need around them. And she’s not a quitter.
Matchan can be reached at email@example.com