Artillery and missile strikes destroyed or damaged multiple Jewish sites across Kharkiv as Russian forces attempted to wrest control of the eastern Ukrainian city from government forces on Wednesday.
According to community leaders, Russian bombardments struck both the local Hillel House and the Or Avner day school, while a near miss came close to destroying the city’s Chabad synagogue.
“The school was next to some kind of installation that the Russians were interested in and because of the impact all of the windows and doors were blown out,” said Miriam Moskovitz, the wife of longtime Kharkiv Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz.
And while there was supposed to be a caretaker sleeping in the building last night, he was unable to arrive because of the intense shelling, she said, adding that the school had celebrated a major milestone only days before Russian troops crossed the border.
“February 23, the day before the war started, was 30 years since our school was opened in 1992. We had 400 children with balloons and flowers celebrating the thousands of alumni who went through the doors of our school,” she told Haaretz by phone on Thursday morning.
“The next morning at five the bombing started and at six the director announced ‘no school today,' but we never would have dreamed the school would have been part of this whole enterprise,” she said, accusing Russia of indiscriminately bombing “schools, homes and hospitals.”
According to Ukrainian emergency services on Thursday, Russian shelling and attacks on civilian populations killed 34 civilians in Ukraine's eastern Kharkiv region in the past 24 hours.
- Russia-Ukraine War: What You Need to Know on Day 12
- Jewish Students in Kharkiv Take Arms After Russian Bombardment, Hillel Head Says
- Biden Accuses Russia of Indiscriminate Fire in Ukraine; Humanitarian Corridor Agreed
The authorities have said Russian missile attacks hit the center of Ukraine's second-largest city, including residential areas and the regional administration building.
According to Moskovitz, the city’s Choral Synagogue, located on Pushkinska Street in downtown Kharkiv, is only 1.5 kilometers from the regional administration building and narrowly survived destruction, with all of its windows “blown open” but not shattered.
Despite the fact that prior to the Russian invasion, Moskovitz’s husband told Haaretz that, come what may, he intended to stick it out with his community, by Wednesday, they had fled when they realized that “the city was going to get flattened.”
Now in Dnipro with five of her children and four grandchildren, Moskovitz said that she is helping to coordinate humanitarian aid for those still stuck in the beleaguered city.
“We’re trying to get people out. We’re getting phone calls from desperate people [screaming] ‘get me out’ and ‘I’m stuck in my home bring me food.’ People are hungry. They haven’t eaten in days and they are under fire and we can’t get to them,” she said.
“We have a whole crew in the shul feeding people and there are people sleeping in the shul. We are sending food and medicine to all corners of the city. We have an amazing set of drivers who have the self-sacrifice to bring [supplies] to all the people who are going through this extremely terrible situation.”
Kharkiv’s Hillel House was also severely damaged during Wednesday’s shelling.
Speaking with Haaretz on Wednesday evening, Kharkiv Hillel director Yulia Pototskaya said that while the center was closed and no students or staff were hurt, the destruction of an institution to which she had dedicated her life was devastating.
“I’m crying. I gave 25 years to Hillel. It’s horrible. It was my home and home for my students,” she said.
The destruction of Hillel came only a day after Pototskaya told Haaretz that multiple Hillel-affiliated students had joined the army as part of a national wave of civilians rallying to protect their homeland.
“We have volunteers from Hillel, students who went to the army, and we hope that Ukraine will be saved because Ukraine is a very wonderful place,” she said.
With a rapidly dwindling phone battery and no power, it remained unclear at the time how much longer Pototskaya would be able to continue supporting her staff and students, but she refused to think of leaving Kharkiv.
“From 7 A.M. they started bombing, and we are without lights. I’m in shock, but I believe that our army will save us. Maybe I can [flee] but I don’t want to. I want to stay in my home. We hope that it will be finished soon,” she told Haaretz on Tuesday.
However, by Wednesday, the continuing bombardment forced Pototskaya to flee the city with her family and she, like Moskovitz, is currently staying with friends in Dnipro.
“People have to know about this. They have to know what is going on in Kharkiv and in Ukraine. It’s a war. It looks like Syria,” she cried.
As for Moskovitz, she said that in response to Russia’s attack on her country, “everybody could do a little bit to make the world a better place” by strengthening their personal religious observance and being nicer to other people.
“Instead of bombing the world with bombs and guns, we can bomb the world with goodness and kindness,” she said.
Reuters contributed to this report.