Ukraine’s Eurovision Contestants Land in Israel, Play Before Ukrainian Refugees

As the brutal Russian invasion continues, Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, tipped to win this year's Eurovision song contest, is visiting Israel for the annual 'Israel Calling' event

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Kalush Orchestra performing for Ukrainian refugees and immigrants, in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Kalush Orchestra performing for Ukrainian refugees and immigrants, in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

The Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, which will represent its country at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, performed in Jerusalem on Tuesday for Jewish refugees from Ukraine. Among the songs that it played were “Stefania,” its entry in the Eurovision competition, which will be held in Turin, Italy, in May.

The Jerusalem audience also included many Ukrainian immigrants who have just arrived after fleeing the war in Ukraine. Because draft-age men have not been allowed to leave Ukraine, most of them were women and children. Some in the audience draped themselves with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. While waiting for Kalush Orchestra to take the stage, members of the audience mouthed the lyrics to “Stefania.”

When the band was tapped to represent Ukraine several months ago with the song, it attracted attention almost exclusively inside Ukraine. But since the Russian invasion on February 24, the oddsmakers now give it the best chance of winning the song competition. Participating countries are all members of the European Broadcasting Union, including non-European countries such as Israel and even Australia.

Members of the Kalush Orchestra posing for a selfie with Ukrainian refugees and immigrants, in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters

But for the audience in Jerusalem on Tuesday, the concert was mostly a chance to hear music from home following their flight from Ukraine. Kati, a 25-year-old medical student from Lviv, came to Israel without her father or brother, who remain in Ukraine to fight the Russians. She still has vivid memories of explosions and air raid sirens. She is now thinking about completing her medical studies in Israel.

“I’m safe here, but my heart is still in Ukraine,” she acknowledged. “I’m reading the news all the time and constantly updating stories on Instagram, so the whole world knows what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Many countries competing in Eurovision enter songs in English. Kati found special significance in the fact that Kalush Orchestra’s entry is in Ukrainian. It is just the third time that Ukraine has entered a song in its national language since joining the competition in 2003.

Ukrainian refugees before the concert in Jerusalem.Credit: Itay Stern

“The fact that the song is in Ukrainian is a declaration of independence,” she remarked. “It’s hard for me to watch television or movies during the current period, but hearing Ukrainian music warms my heart.”

Yana, who is 16, arrived in Israel less than a month ago. Her mother, Svetlana, sat at her side and proudly listened as her daughter recounted their situation in fluent English. They are from Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city. They fled when the Russians took over the nuclear power station near the town.

Members of the Kalush Orchestra shooting a video clip for the Eurovision Song Contest, in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters

“We were very afraid because there were a lot of explosions in our city,” she said. “We decided that it wasn’t safe to stay, but my dad and brother remained there to fight. We are trying to stay in contact with them, but it’s not easy.”

They came to Israel via Slovakia and Hungary. Their temporary-final destination is Jerusalem. “We only came here with one backpack, and the Jewish Agency took care of everything we need – clothes, a hotel, food. We are really grateful.”

It must be strange to set aside those worries and emotional difficulties and pay attention to a pre-Eurovision show, this reporter remarked to Yana.

“We’re very excited to see Kalush, and it’s great that we can enjoy ourselves and also feel safe. This gave us about two hours without worrying,” she responded. “We miss our home. Hearing this music in Ukrainian gives us a sense that we are supporting our family from afar.”

Ukrainian refugees and immigrants watching a performance by members of the Kalush Orchestra in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters

Not a routine event

The Ukrainian band’s arrival in Israel was arranged with the support of the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental organization which is involved in immigrant absorption. It’s part of a broader project called Israel Calling, through which European Eurovision artists have been invited on a four-day visit to Israel. The visit includes a number of high-profile events.

Oleg Psyuk, Kalush Orchestra’s front man, placing a note in a crack of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem on Wednesday.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Jewish Agency officials understood the project’s potential public relations value and arranged for coverage by media outlets from Israel and abroad. They have been staying at the Leonardo Jerusalem Hotel, where Kalush Orchestra performed. The Jewish Agency brought the band members together from around Ukraine, officials from the organization told Haaretz.

They said that the band will film its video introduction for the Eurovision competition in Israel.

The band during a tour of Jerusalem's Old City on Wednesday.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Oleg Psyuk, Kalush Orchestra’s front man was wearing a fuchsia hat resembling the traditional Israeli “kova tembel” hat. He seemed stunned and confused by the situation. When Ukrainian teenage girls pulled out their cellphones and asked to take one selfie after another with him, he agreed. However, his body language indicated that he was dying to put an end to the commotion and leave with his friends. It’s not clear that they expected so many fans in Israel.

When Psyuk was asked how he felt performing for a home crowd far away from home, he said that it was a warm, welcoming and moving experience. But there was one question that he was repeatedly asked that he didn’t answer – what he thought about the significant politicization that the Eurovision contest was undergoing as a result of the war in Ukraine. The band’s translator simply refused to ask him.

Oleg Psyuk visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Wednesday.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

By evening, the Ukrainian flags that had filled the hall had been taken down. Kalush Orchestra, which has become the unwitting star of the Eurovision delegations in Israel, had finished its PR rounds for the day. Tomorrow was another day.

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