In Ukraine's Donbas, the Jews Are Gone but Memories Remain

Many Jews have left the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donbas region since the 2014 fighting between Ukraine and Russia, but there is still a remnant of Jewish communal life in the Russian-occupied territories

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
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A man passes by destroyed buildings in the Ukrainian town of Siversk, Donetsk region, in July
A man passes by destroyed buildings in the Ukrainian town of Siversk, Donetsk region, in JulyCredit: Aanatoli Stepanov\AFP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Several days after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that his government was ordering the mandatory evacuation of people in the eastern Donetsk region, scene of fierce fighting with Russia, Jewish leaders in Ukraine say that there are almost no Jews left to evacuate after eight years of war in the region.

In a late-night television address on Saturday, Zelenskyy also said the hundreds of thousands of people still in combat zones in the larger Donbas region, which contains Donetsk as well as the neighboring Luhansk region, needed to leave so that there would be “fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill.”

However, “as far as I know, most of the Jews left even earlier,” Vitaliy Kamozin, Operational director of the United Jewish Community, told Haaretz on Wednesday. “We do not deal with evacuation issues. I can only say that in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk at least 10 people [have] not [gotten] in touch [and] we do not know where they are and whether they managed to leave.”

Maybe one or two families remain in eastern cities like Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubizhne, agreed Rabbi Shalom Gopin, an Israeli rabbi who was displaced, along with most of his congregants, from the eastern city of Luhansk in 2014.

The Donbas, comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, was once home to several vibrant Jewish communities, mostly centered around the eponymous regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. Prior to the outbreak of fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed forces in 2014, local leaders estimated at least 11,000 Jews lived in the city of Donetsk, most of whom left during the first years of the conflict.

This March, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the former rabbi of Donetsk, was forced to coordinate the evacuation of his Kyiv-based congregation in the face of Russia’s drive on the Ukrainian capital – eight years after he and his community were first displaced by the Russian-backed insurgency.

“With the start of the war on Thursday [Feb. 24], we slowly started to get people out,” Vishedski told Haaretz after arriving in Romania. "When the situation got more complicated on Friday, we continued to evacuate people and even on Shabbat.”

“On Monday we organized a large convoy, and from Monday afternoon until Tuesday evening, more than 250 people got out with us. It was very dangerous, very complicated, but God helped,” he said at the time.

While most Jews appear to have left the Ukrainian controlled parts of the Donbas for safer parts of the country —or have joined the stream of Ukrainian refugees seeking shelter abroad— there is still a remnant of Jewish communal life in the territories occupied by Russia.

Rabbi Chaim Danzinger of Rostov, the closest sizable Russian city, said that he estimated that there are “probably still about two thousand Jews in Donetsk today,” at least some of whom have been unable to evacuate due to an unwillingness to abandon elderly and infirm relatives.

“The situation is difficult and challenging” and there is “very little support,” even with help from local Russian Jewish communities, he said, recalling one young girl who had described how her father had been forcibly conscripted by Russian-backed forces and killed only weeks later.

There are still up to 300 people left in Luhansk as well, Gopin estimated, telling Haaretz that “several Jews have been drafted to fight for [Russia] and have been killed.”

And while some of those who remained are “pro-Russian fanatics” — in stark contrast with many local Jews who have embraced their Ukrainian identity— many of them are just elderly and unable to relocate.

“It hurts a lot” to see the Donbas being evacuated “and it hurts more that there are Jews who think Putin is right,” he said of those who remained behind.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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