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In Ukraine, ‘Never again’ is now

Ukrainian children covered with blankets have a meal after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine, at the border crossing in Palanca, Moldova, Thursday, March 10. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)
Ukrainian children covered with blankets have a meal after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine, at the border crossing in Palanca, Moldova, Thursday, March 10. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Last week, Russian missiles struck Kyiv near Babyn Yar, a memorial site where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred during the Holocaust, an especially horrific action in the recent war that has already caused over 1,000 civilian deaths in Ukraine.

After the Holocaust, the world said, "Never again." What do we do when "Never again" is now?

Like many Jews in America, I can trace my roots to Eastern Europe. My parents chose my middle name, Heather, in memory of my great-grandfather, Harry, who was born in Pohavitch (near Minsk), Russia in 1899. My great-grandmother, Rose, was born in Imugen (now Cherven), Belarus in 1905. They were often poor and hungry, but they had loving parents and siblings. Their families dreamed of a better life in America, the “golden land.”

After World War I, their region became extremely dangerous for Jews. Rose and her sister, Frieda, were forced to leave behind their parents and siblings and come to America on a boat from Riga, Latvia. Harry launched a harrowing escape for his parents and himself that included hiding on a train, in a barn and on a smuggler's wagon as they made their way from Russia to Poland, and eventually to America in 1922.

Refugees fleeing war in neighboring Ukraine gather at the Medyka border crossing, Poland, Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Daniel Cole/AP)
Refugees fleeing war in neighboring Ukraine gather at the Medyka border crossing, Poland, Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Daniel Cole/AP)

Rose and her parents wrote often for over 17 years, and despite their own financial struggles, my great-grandparents sent Rose’s family some of the money they earned as factory workers in New York. In America, Rose had to work on the Sabbath, but she never told her father, choosing instead to share only happy news.

The last letter from her father came in 1939. She didn’t know what had happened for a long time but word finally made its way to Rose that her parents, four siblings and six nieces and nephews were shot and killed by Nazis, along with everyone else in the town. Rose didn’t talk about her loss very often. When asked, she simply said, “They were all destroyed, every one.”

If any one of a million things had gone differently in each of my great-grandparents' journeys, I would not be here today.

Many of the Jews that managed to survive the Holocaust found themselves once again living in poverty and fear under the Iron Curtain. With support for relocation from the global Jewish community, only 250,000 Jews remain in Eastern Europe today, down from over 2 million in 1970. In 1994, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry arranged a partnership between Boston and Dnepropetrovsk (now Dnipro), Ukraine to support the revitalization of the Jewish community and Jewish life for those who stayed.

Curious to understand more about my Eastern European heritage, I joined a mission to Dnipro in 2011, led by the Jewish Community Relations Council. The goal of our trip was to learn more about the social services programs supported by Boston-based organizations that have improved the lives of thousands of Ukrainians over the past 30 years.

When asked, she simply said, 'They were all destroyed, every one.'

From the moment I landed in Ukraine, I felt like I had stepped into an alternate life. There was a familiarity in every face, a striking reminder of the power of our shared roots. During a visit to Beit Baruch Assisted Living Facility, I held the soft, beautifully wrinkled hand of an elderly Jewish woman who told me about her love of books over cookies and tea, the way my own grandmother did.

I saw the same look of determination from the students at the Special Needs Educational Resource Center that I have seen from my sister Shayna, many times as she has worked to build an independent and fulfilling life. I was welcomed to a Shabbat meal in the home of Rabbi Kaminezki, the way my own mom, a Rabbi in Hingham, has done for hundreds of people throughout my life.

A few years after my visit to Dnipro, I was flying Ukrainian Airlines with a two-hour layover in Kyiv that turned into almost 20 hours, due to a canceled flight. Never one to turn down an adventure, I contacted a local tour guide who agreed to spend the day with me and proudly showed me around her city. We visited St. Sophia's Cathedral, the National Art Museum and a Christmas market, where I bought my dad cufflinks made from watch parts by a local artist. We ended our day at Babyn Yar, where I quietly whispered a prayer for the family I had lost over 80 years ago.

I could never have imagined that Russian soldiers would one day kill Ukrainian civilians near the graves of Holocaust victims. The Ukrainians I’ve met value freedom, democracy and the right to practice their religion in peace. They take care of the most vulnerable members of their community. They welcome the stranger. They share our history and our hopes for the future. And now, they need our help.

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Currently, Putin is mounting resources to encircle Boston’s sister city of Dnipro. Despite the danger all around them, a group of Jews gathered this week to celebrate the bar mitzvah of a young boy at the Golden Rose Synagogue, the center of Jewish life in Dnipro. On a visit to this very synagogue, I found a fragment of parchment, beautifully embroidered with silver and gold thread, inscribed with the exact Hebrew words I had read at my own bat mitzvah over 20 years earlier. This parchment hangs in my home today, reminding me of my Ukrainian brothers and sisters, of their decency and kindness, their strength and resilience. From Numbers 6:24-26, the Hebrew scripture translates to:

May God bless you and keep you safe.
May God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May God grant you peace.

Today and every day until this unjust war ends, I will say this prayer for the Ukrainian people and for all of us.

The author's parchment from Dnipro. (Courtesy Samantha Joseph)
The author's parchment from Dnipro. (Courtesy Samantha Joseph)

***

To donate directly to partners on the ground:

To show solidarity:

  • Send a tweet highlighting the need to #StandWithUkraine and take action with Global Citizen here.
  • Share this post from the International Rescue Committee to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
  • Support protests being planned by the Ukrainian Cultural Center of New England.

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Related:

Samantha Joseph Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Samantha Joseph is vice president of the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council and chair of the board of directors of Samaritans, Inc.

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