Trip Comments April 18 - 30, 2017
Judy Patkin, Action for Post-Soviet Jewry
I traveled to visit our Adopt-a-Bubbe coordinators and clients in eastern Ukraine and to visit with contacts in Minsk and an orthodox congregation in Bobruisk, Belarus. With me were two people from our Action for Post-Soviet Jewry office, one to translate. Most of the time was spent in Ukraine with only a couple of days in Belarus
The roads in Ukraine outside of the main cities are in horrible condition - full of pot holes and mainly two lane roads with one lane in each direction. Cars and trucks are continually swerving to miss the holes and even going off the road into the mud for a better surface. The roads are definitely in worse shape than they were on last year's visit, and our ride was slow and very bumpy. By contrast, the roads in Belarus were in great shape and with multiple lanes.
The Ukrainian currency, the hrvina, lost between 50%-67% of its value after Putin attacked Ukraine and it hasn't rebounded. Before 2014 there were eight hrvinas to the dollar and now there are 28 to the dollar. Pensions have also lost 50%-67% of their value, and they were hardly adequate before 2014. I am increasingly pessimistic about the Ukrainian economy and the elimination of corruption.
Our Adopt-a-Bubbe program focuses on Jewish pensioners in around a dozen cities. We have coordinators who are familiar with their community who seek out those most in need. They ask what is needed and provide it with stipends from our main contacts in Dnipropetrovsk. Right now everyone needs food. They try to provide a good source of protein, fresh fruit and other basics. A whole chicken can go a long way. There is inflation and food prices keep rising. Food parcels for clients which used to cost $5 now average around $17.
We visited Adopt-a-Bubbe coordinators and a few clients in the following cities: Dnipropetrovsk, Novomoskovsk, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Smela, Cherkassy, Zvenogorodka (a new village for me), Uman, Kirovograd and Zhovty Vody. Dniprodzerzhinsk, Zvenogorodka and Uman had new coordinators we met for the first time. We were on the road most of the time. Our interview with clients included questions about where they were born, other family members, their former jobs, where they were during WWII, their health, what their pensions and household expenses are like. We never know what will get them talking and revealing what their lives are really like. It is always fascinating, sometimes funny and often sad. Too many have health problems which should have been addressed more adequately.
We visited our Warm House program for lunch several times, where around a dozen pensioners meet in an apartment and share a hot meal. We provide the funds and they shop and cook. For cities without a synagogue or rabbi, these Warm Houses allow them to celebrate Jewish and secular holidays (like Veterans Day) and birthdays. Those who attend become a close knit support group for one another. The April Warm House is where the Pesach Seders take place, and we heard about several of these.
The home visits with clients vary quite a bit. One 88 year old woman was full of life and wanted us to sit down for a cup of tea and cookies. She tearfully received a new pot to cook soup and borsht. A man was so unstable on his feet that he no longer went outside for fear of falling. We heard from several Holocaust survivors. One, a man who hid as a teenager on his own for the duration of the war had many close escapes from death - even a hanging. The younger survivors were evacuated to the Urals or the Asiatic sections of the Soviet Union, but all lost close family members. We visited some Holocaust sites where Jews were killed by the thousands. At a site on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus, over 800,000 were murdered - some from as far away as Hamburg, Germany. There were no barracks or buildings - just acres of trenches and dying.
We visited with three Chabad rabbis - in Dnipropetrovsk, Cherkassy and Bobruisk. We missed a visit with a rabbi in Dniprodzerzhinsk due to snow and scheduling problems. These men have incredibly difficult jobs and have become good friends. We often met their wives on past visits.