Unable to flee, elderly Jews remain behind in eastern Ukraine
DNIPROPETROVSK – More than 1,600 elderly Jews are either unable or unwilling to leave the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to the director of the local branch of a local welfare organization.
Lyudmila Saprikina, the head of the Donetsk branch of Hesed, which cares for Jewish senior citizens throughout the former Soviet Union, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that while approximately 70 percent of Donetsk’s Jews have fled, 1,650 of her clients have remained behind in the shattered center of the Moscow-backed insurgency and the surrounding areas.
In an interview with the Post two weeks ago, Donetsk’s Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski estimated that anywhere between several hundred to a thousand Jews out of a prewar population of over 10,000 were left in the city, although a source within the Kiev Jewish community familiar with efforts to resettle those displaced by the fighting placed that number between 2,000 and 3,000.
Accurate figures reflecting the dispersal of the Jews of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region are difficult to obtain, especially in a country where it was already hard to gauge local populations in times of peace. Significant numbers of those displaced staying with relatives and not registering with the local communities in the cities to which they have escaped and many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have moved several times, making tracking arduous.
Approximately 250 elderly Jews being cared for by Hesed have left Donetsk, Saprikina said, explaining that “for the elderly it is hard to leave where they live and come to new places. It is often difficult for them to decide to go from the dangerous place.”
Many do not have relatives or friends and may suffer from ailments which preclude travel, especially under wartime conditions, she continued.
While Saprikina herself left Donetsk a month ago, 14 Hesed staffers remain behind to care for their charges, she added.
All the programs providing food and medications to those left behind are still active, and stockpiles of supplies were brought into the city when it was still relatively accessible.
“We have managed to find a supplier in Donetsk who agreed to deliver food packages for clients, including honey for the holiday,” Saprikina said.
Those who remained behind to work with the city’s elderly assure their charges that they are not alone.
It is important for them to “feel that they can come to Hesed or call Hesed and say they want to leave and [that we] will help,” Saprikina explained.
The social services organization, which is sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is still working to evacuate the elderly, bringing those wishing to leave to an IDP center in Prymorsk, just over 100 kilometers down the coast from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Over 50 Jews from Donetsk are staying in that facility out of a total of 120 brought by Hesed, Saprikina told the Post.
A local driver contracted by the Jewish organization makes runs out of the city on back roads less heavily patrolled by the separatist militias than the main roads, dodging bullet and rocket fire to bring Jews out, she said.
In addition to those left in the Donetsk region, an additional 1,300 Hesed clients remain in Luhansk and its environs, the JDC’s Yoni Leifer said.
“In Donetsk [the elderly are] still receiving pensions, but in Luhansk they haven’t received their pensions in months,” he said.
Enough of the local financial system is still operating in Donetsk for the JDC to transfer funds to their clients for the purchase of supplies, but the same does not obtain in Luhansk, he added.
“It is different in Luhansk.
The banks don’t work and there have been no pensions [paid] since at least May or June. I can’t transfer money there.”
The JDC still works to bring supplies in, however, and home-care work continues, he averred.
Many of those who escaped over the past several weeks have had to run a gauntlet of fire to get out. Thirty-nine-year-old Andrey Frumkin, who used his savings to hire an ambulance to get his 76-year-old mother out of Donetsk, said that he was shot at during their escape.
Driving through a neighborhood adjacent to the city’s airport, the only part of Donetsk still controlled by the Ukrainian army and the scene of fierce fighting, six bullets hit his ambulance.
He arrived in Dnipropetrovsk with nothing, the little he had left confiscated by fighters of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic at a checkpoint outside Donetsk, he said.
“All the people who had the opportunity to leave [have left] Donetsk [but] there are many elderly people who don’t have anyone and they stay there,” he said.
Sofia Minyuck, 67, escaped from Donetsk and is now staying at Dnipropetrovsk’s Beit Baruch assisted living facility. She recalled leaving without her husband, Gregoriy, who stayed behind to continue medical treatments at the local hospital.
After suffering through bombardments while hiding sick and alone in his basement, Gregoriy made his own escape.
Like many elderly Jews, Sofia’s sister Natalia Turina is still in Donetsk, Gregoriy said.
Zelig Brez, the director of the Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk, said that he was in touch with an elderly widower who remained behind in Donetsk to care for his 94-year-old motherin- law who requires aroundthe- clock support.
“He very much wanted to get here because their apartment [building] was hit by a missile,” and the “place where they live in the center of Donetsk was under bombings,” but his motherin- law “didn’t want to leave the place and he is attached to her, [and] so he is basically risking his life right now because she is not going to be able to survive without basic home care that he provides,” Brez stated.
“We keep hearing that there are hundreds and hundreds of elderly people that are most unprotected in Donetsk and in Luhansk; that are so fragile that they cannot leave the places and go into safer areas.”