In a June 29 webinar, Alisa Rostovtseva, a volunteer community care coordinator for the Waltham-based nonprofit Action for Post-Soviet Jewry, showed heartrending photos of the destruction the Russian invasion of Ukraine has wrought in the city of Mariupol.
Her own house was destroyed and looted. Other people’s homes were devastated, including a house hit multiple times by missiles. A synagogue where over 100 children once celebrated a service with a dance on the second floor was now in ruins.
“I want so much for this war to end,” Rostovtseva told the online audience.
The webinar united Rostovtseva and others connected to APSJ in a virtual space where they shared rare firsthand perspectives from the conflict in Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24 and has since surpassed 120 days, with Mariupol being among the Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia. Rostovtseva has joined those who evacuated from Mariupol.
“The reality is that every single day, there are air raids,” said Debbie Kardon, executive director of APSJ. “People are worried about friends and family. The Jewish communities there face stress, tension and the anxiety of war, which just does not go away.”
Rostovtseva shared what it is like in wartime Ukraine, as did her three fellow volunteer care coordinators who spoke – Anna Salik from Kamensky, Alyona Shekhovtsova from Novomoskovsk and Tatyana Khalimon from Poltava. Ella Goncharova, APSJ’s Ukraine program director, also spoke about the situation on the ground.
Collectively, they described a scene of hiding from Russian attacks; evacuating to faraway locations, including abroad; experiencing illness and death; and caring for elderly, impoverished Jews who in some cases do not want to leave. The attacks mentioned included a June 27 strike on a shopping mall in the city of Kremenchuk. Over 1,000 people were reportedly sheltering in the mall, with about 20 dead, 40 missing and many others injured, according to Goncharova.
Throughout the conflict, the speakers have been working to distribute money and goods sent by donors to APSJ – including over 300 boxes of humanitarian aid and an emergency relief fund that now surpasses $280,000. APSJ partners with 15 Jewish communities in Ukraine, including in Dnipro, where the organization was a founding partner of the Dnipro Kehilla Project, a Boston-based initiative. APSJ works with six local programs in Dnipro, a city which Goncharova said has not escaped attack.
“We’re a relational – people-to-people – organization,” Kardon said. “We galvanize helping hands here to support boots on the ground there. Because we had a network of volunteers throughout Ukraine, the minute the war started we were in direct contact with our network on the ground. We are unique in this way.”
She added, “For a few of our coordinators, this is their first time speaking publicly about their experiences during the war. Each one has families and jobs, but they still choose to care for the elderly. We could have invited political and historical experts, but we wanted this webinar to be about personal experiences of the coordinators and elderly, firsthand experiences living through the war.”
Rostovtseva’s experiences were acutely personal. She and her husband tried to evacuate her father-in-law from Mariupol to the city of Zaporizhzhia – 217 miles away, along a dangerous route she called “The Road of Life” – but he died en route. She also shared photos of Jews suffering from cancer who have had to evacuate from Mariupol.
Kardon noted in a follow-up email that Rostovtseva lost her home, her husband’s business and the synagogue she was involved with, yet continues to help the relief effort. Kardon also noted that many of the evacuees are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and that Rostovtseva has helped them with donations of items such as eyeglasses and shoes, and with photocopies of their documents.
Although other coordinators said that the war has not impacted their location in the way it has affected Mariupol, they still described facing many challenges.
In Kamensky, 10 percent of the population has evacuated. For those who remain, one option is to shelter in basements, including in Salik’s home. She is sheltering neighbors who do not have a basement. She shared a photo of a young girl hiding in her basement, holding a stuffed bear against a backdrop of shelves of pickled vegetables.
She also detailed an account she heard from a man in Mariupol: An elderly couple sheltering in their home thought they had no food – until a serendipitous discovery.
“The old woman saw they had nothing,” Salik said. “She decided to look for something, some food. In a distant corner, she found a box of matza from 2008. Of course, it had expired. But it had some specific taste. They were so happy. They put it in water, which made it softer, and they ate it. This was from 2008. That man [from Mariupol] brought that matza box to these people who didn’t use it [in 2008]. It saved their lives.
“I want to kneel before you,” Salik said. “We’re very grateful for your support. Every penny matters. Please donate it. It saves the lives of elderly people. Before the war, of course, it had been helping us. Now it’s a little confusing. People can’t buy anything with the money they have. The cost of gas and other [items] has tripled. A rice bag has doubled or tripled. We are really, really so grateful to you.”
Although summer officially began last month, APSJ has begun planning for what it predicts will be a challenging winter for Ukraine, with a wish list including medicines and heating pads. Rostovtseva noted that in Mariupol, seven people were confined to one room with no heaters or food.
“Even if the war is over, people will still have nothing,” Rostovtseva said. “One day, they are going to rebuild the country. This ‘one day’ will not be tomorrow.”