As Long as We Have the Bridge with Odessa, We Can Survive: Nikolayev Jewish community members risk their lives to provide for the elderly

May 14, 2022
Bridge with Odessa - Anemone Ruger
Many Jewish elderly in Nikolayev are being supported by Australian sponsors

When considering lifechanging events in history in retrospective, you sometimes ask yourself where you were and what you did when it all started. I spent the third February weekend calling Jewish families in Ukraine who were on their way to the airport with Christians for Israel (C4I) to make Aliyah. Little did I know that Valentina (77) hailing from Nikolayev would be one of the last repatriates making their way to Israel in peace time on that day, Feb. 20.

“Mum has visited several times, but each time she wanted to go back to her little house in Nikolayev where she grew up,” said Valentina’s daughter Ora, who immigrated to Israel 15 years ago as a single mum, and has now come back to pick up her mother. Her older son is serving in the Israeli army. Their family is part of the Karaim group—the so-called Crimean Jews who were considered of Turk descent under the Russian czar and not persecuted as Jews under German occupation during World War II but are eligible to repatriate to Israel. 

Inna
Many Jewish elderly in Nikolayev are being supported by Australian sponsors

“My whole life I heard from my grandparents that we are not Jewish,” said daughter Ora. “But all my grandpas and uncles are called Avraam, Isaac and Moisey. At some point I went to the Israeli embassy, and the consul told me, ‘Of course you can make Aliyah!’” 

Now that the ailments of age are increasingly bothering her, Mother Valentina has decided to join her daughter in Israel’s Negev region. “I am looking forward to having Mom with us,” said Ora. “She hasn’t even seen her youngest granddaughter, who is 2. I am returning home now. Mom is beginning a new life.” Valentina left just on time. 

the Jewish community’s social workers risk their lives to bring much needed supplies to needy elderly

As Russian forces are beginning to close in on the Ukrainian city of Nikolayev following their invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24, the Jewish community’s social workers risk their lives to bring much needed supplies to needy elderly. C4I has been running its personalized sponsorship program there for over a year. Many life-changing visits were made by C4I’s local team, leaving Holocaust survivors and needy elderly with the overwhelming realization that they matter to someone on the other end of the earth. 

Nikolayev, once the Soviet Union’s most significant shipbuilding yard, is located in Ukraine’s south on the Black Sea, only an hour’s drive from the city of Kherson, which has been occupied and completely cut off by Russian forces. Two hours of driving in the opposite direction, to the west, connect Nikolayev with the port city of Odessa, which is still largely functional. 

“There are explosions, sirens going off all the time, but then all is eerily quiet again,” said Mikhail from the Jewish welfare fund. “Most food stores are still open. But medication is a problem. We have medical supplies to last for a bit longer, but even now we have to fight for every piece of medication. Local transport has stopped working, so we had to work out a system by which our staff can walk to the needy in their immediate neighborhood. We used your donations to help people stack up some supplies at home.” 

Some humanitarian trucks from abroad are beginning to reach the city, but the city is big, and demand is huge. 

“It’s been quite recently. But this morning, just two hours ago, a bomb went off in the city center close to the synagogue, right where I live,” said Yelena, who runs several aid programs. “It’s hard to get cash anymore as the ATMs don’t work. If you want to buy something at the bazaar, you can only pay in cash. The pharmacies offer a sad sight—some of them are still open, but their shelves are empty.” 

Inna
Inna (right) receiving food vouchers for the local supermarket through C4I’s sponsorship program

The Jewish Community’s staff has to get creative to provide for the needy what can still be purchased and what may prove valuable days or weeks from now. One such initiative is to provide the needy with vouchers for a local chain of supermarkets. It has brought many a smile to the needy supported by C4I’s sponsorship program. 

One of them is Inna, who was visited earlier this year by C4I’s staff member Alina. “Inna is really, really needy. She has a debt for electricity about three times her pension and lives without lights. Her fridge is off, and when it gets dark, she lights candles.” A few days ago, Inna was visited again by Yelena from the Jewish Community, who presented her with personal food vouchers. Inna was radiant. 

“As long as we still have the bridge with Odessa and it doesn’t get bombed, we can still get supplies,” said Yelena. Even the social workers struggle at times to find hope to continue helping those in need. “I’m sitting here in the hallway wrapped in the blanket you gave me last time you came,” said Yelena. “It gives me some comfort, knowing I’m not alone in this. Please don’t stop praying for us!”

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Anemone Rüger

Christians for Israel Coordinator for Holocaust Survivors & Elderly Sponsorship Program in Ukraine

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