By Jacky Schimmel
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Editor’s Note: The following are reflections from American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Vice President Jacky Schimmel, who had just returned on Feb. 4 from a field visit to war-torn eastern Ukraine, before the recent ceasefire was announced. A week later, rockets fell on a Federation-supported Hesed welfare center in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. Thankfully, no one was injured. The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s partner agencies, including the JDC and The Jewish Agency for Israel, are bringing vital emergency assistance to desperately needy Jews caught in the crossfire of this conflict.
Our original plan was to go to Donetsk, but overnight shelling of checkpoints made it impossible. So we reset our plans to head to Mariupol, where, over the weekend, 30 had been killed and 200 injured in a market in the town center.
Mariupol has a population of 500,000 and lies in a vital strategic position, between the rebel-held eastern areas of Ukraine and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia last March. The city already suffered heavy shelling last August.
The human cost of the fighting in Ukraine to date has been catastrophic. To give you some idea of the picture:
- Some 5.2 million Ukrainians live in the conflict-affected areas.
- 1.4 million are considered highly vulnerable and in need of assistance.
- More than 1 million people have fled their homes, with 633,000 living as displaced persons in Ukraine and 600,000 living outside Ukraine, mainly in Russia.
- Over 5,000 have been killed in the fighting and 10,000 injured.
There are 3,000 Jews in the Mariupol region. We serve 750 of them, as well as 42 internally displaced persons (IDPs).
After a two-hour safety and security briefing, we went to our hotel to rest. We woke at 5:30 a.m. and left for Mariupol at 6 a.m. The five-hour trip took us through five checkpoints and 350 km of grey, dismal Ukraine landscape, mostly covered by thick, bleak fog.
Finally, we arrived at the Joint’s Hesed [social welfare center]. A ray of sunshine – perhaps the single ray of sunshine in our three-day trip. The room was crowded with over 50 Hesed clients, mostly elderly, and a handful of younger ones. They were singing Hebrew and Yiddish songs. For one radiant moment we forgot where we were, but brutal reality came crashing back in the form of an explosion of shelling outside. The music died down.
We listened eagerly to the stories of the old and the young – stories of fear, shame and helplessness. The fear in the room was palpable. People spoke of the shelling that had erupted over the weekend, killing 30 innocents in a market in the center of the residential area, close to where we stood. They spoke of their helplessness; lives which had begun in war – the Second World War – were now ending in war. They spoke of shame – a young lawyer, who had escaped with his wife and young daughter to Mariupol from Donetsk, told the story of the shame he felt at no longer being able to provide for his family, reduced now to holding out his hand to Hesed for help. He is one of the 42 IDPs whom Hesed currently cares for. In his case, the help is temporary but essential, as he hopes to begin a new job soon with a law firm in Mariupol.
We listened to the many voices and then left for a home visit in the area where the shelling had taken place over the weekend.
We stood outside the building; a missile had killed a young woman just outside the entrance. As we stood, just about to go up, shelling began again and we took cover.
After the attack had quieted down, we entered the building and ascended multiple flights of steps to a freezing-cold apartment; there stood a proud Ukrainian Jew, dressed in his coat and a fur hat. The windows had been blown out of his apartment. His wife was sitting in the kitchen, terror written plainly over her face. She was deaf. She could not hear the shells as they fell – she could only feel the shock of the vibration, the smashing of the windows, the rocking of the building.
I hugged her. She cried. So much was spoken in those tears. A cry for help, and tears of thanks that we had come.