LVIV, Ukraine – “We can’t separate,” she says, teary. “The Torah forbids us to, so we must stay here.”
Elena Hordeeva, 34, an Orthodox Jew from Kyiv, looks at her husband, Nahon Hordeev, 44. Nahon is “military age,” which means Ukrainian border guards won’t let him out into the safety of the EU. The family is stuck in Lviv.
In war-torn Ukraine, Jewish communities find themselves in a quandary. Men can’t cross the border to safety unless they’re younger than 18, older than 60 or have a debilitating health condition. Fleeing the Russian invasion, many Jewish families are unwilling to leave their fathers, husbands and sons behind, so they’re forced to seek refuge in historically antisemitic western Ukraine, where Russia has not yet invaded.
The Hordeevs found refuge in Lviv’s Beis Aharon V’Yisroel Synagogue, one of the oldest in western Ukraine and one of only two synagogues in the city to survive the Holocaust.
Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, is only a two-hour drive from the Polish border. The proximity has made the city attractive for refugees, who either pass through Lviv or stay there. Despite Russian missile strikes, Lviv remains safer than the front lines in the nation’s east. Because of this, the city, which has a population of about 720,000, has absorbed over 200,000 refugees in the last month.
The synagogue gets by with aid from organizations across the world, which is stored in every possible nook and cranny of the building. When refugees trickle in, they’re given any available leftover space, usually the corner of some office – or in the Hordeevs' case, the women’s balcony that overlooks the men’s pews. During Shabbat and holidays, the men vacate the area to the main prayer hall below.
The members of the synagogue community, despite the difficulties of living on the edge of a war zone, still try their best to maintain traditions. Shabbat services continue every Friday night as normal, though finding enough halakhically Jewish men for a 10-member minyan is sometimes impossible.
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As a show of gratitude for giving them shelter, refugees offer various services to the synagogue like helping clean and care for the old books, murals, marble floors and walls with their rich mahogany accents.
Nahon, his wife and their daughter Mira have been living in the synagogue since the invasion began. Before the war, Nahon was a successful lawyer from Kyiv with his own practice, two cars and an apartment in a luxury high-rise in one of the best suburbs of the city.
A few hours after the Russian army invaded, Nahon’s friend phoned. “Look out the window!,” he shouted. Nahon peeked his head out – a jet fighter, tail smoking, was falling from the sky. A convoy of Russian tanks was making its way slowly down the street. Minutes later the Russian army parked trucks outside Nahon’s apartment building, and then the shooting began.
Nahon knew he had to get out. He grabbed two suitcases and a duffle bag, threw them in the back of his car, rushed his family in, and fled.
Three weeks later he doesn’t have enough money to buy sneakers, relying on a slowly disintegrating pair of flip-flops. The Hordeevs sleep on donated mattresses and couch cushions underlaid by cardboard next to the three bags they brought with them.
On the balcony below sleeps Shlomo, a former government worker from Zaporizhzhia, as well as his wife and their baby. They nurse their infant in conditions similar to what the Hordeevs are experiencing, have nothing from their old life, and can’t even find a place to shower.
The two families join a host of Jewish men who also inhabit the synagogue, such as Ephraim, a renowned silversmith and jeweler from Kyiv.
In the capital, Ephraim would go around town and buy centuries-old Jewish headstones found at construction sites; the stones were used as building material during the pogrom and Nazi eras. Ephraim had to buy them because people often refused to just give them away for free, even though they’re of no use to gentiles.
Antisemitism permeates many interactions that the Jews of Lviv have with the gentiles around them. Many report threats of antisemitic violence, but they ask that details not be published out of fear for their safety.
In Lviv, even asking for directions can be met with ire. One of the refugees mentions that Jews are deliberately ignored when wearing a kippa but receive answers if they pretend to be gentiles.
Antisemitism isn’t only evident in daily interactions, it’s part of the city’s landscape and the symbols of the Ukrainian state.
Driving past the Polish border toward Lviv, one sees countless red and black “Blood and Soil” flags adorning military outposts. These banners were flown by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as it massacred Jews during the Holocaust. And just a five-minute walk from the synagogue stands an imposing monument to Stepan Bandera, modern Ukraine’s foremost national hero, an active participant in the Shoah.
While the monument gives many Ukrainians a sense of pride in their nation, it fills many Jews in the city with a fear that those days may return.
This is where Jewish Ukrainians grapple most with who they are. Is their citizenship reflective of a nation that builds its national mythology around those who killed their ancestors?
Being Jewish informs this internal conflict just as much as frustration with antisemitism. “The Torah tells us that if a person is scared of war, even in the smallest bit, they should not be there,” Nahon says.
Nahon doesn’t see himself as a fighter, and he’s all too ready to admit his fear. He has too much to lose to pick up arms for a country that never accepted him, one where he struggles to find a place.
“I’m not Ukrainian, I’m Jewish! I just want to live in safety and raise my family,” he says.
But the war paradoxically has opened up a chance for many Jews to realize their Ukrainian identity. Yisroel, 60, helped to lead the Purim service at the Beis Aharon V’Yisroel Synagogue. Yisroel, an unofficial community leader, wears a custom-made vyshyvanka – a traditional Ukrainian patterned shirt – where menorahs and Stars of David meet Ukrainian tridents.
“I’m a Ukrainian and a Jew and I’m proud of it,” he says. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and many Jews are now serving in the Ukrainian army, some joining ultranationalist units. A few Jews at the Lviv synagogue are veterans.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion has devastated Ukraine’s Jewish communities to a scale not seen since the end of the Nazi regime.
In the Beis Aharon V’Yisroel Synagogue, an 87-year-old named Aaron recounts his experience fleeing and hiding during World War II. “This is the second time in my life someone bombed Mariupol,” he says. “I remember when I was a child I saw German planes flying to bomb the city.”
Here lies another quandary for the Jews of Ukraine. Many don’t want to fight or die, but they can’t get out. Many are caught in the crossfire and many fight in the Ukrainian army. But amid the tragedy of war, hope peaks through the cracks. An air raid siren goes off as we speak with Nahon, Elena and Mira in Lviv’s Ivan Franko Park.
“Would you like to get back to the synagogue?” one of us asks. “It will be okay,” Nahon says, before mentioning God. “Nothing bad will happen. We’re under Hashem’s protection.”
Nicholas Bennett contributed reporting.