“If we help and take care of each other, more people will survive these times”: Josef Zissels

Josef Zissels

The former dissident Josef Zissels, who heads the Association of the Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine and is the executive vice-president of the Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine, talked about changes in civic society, the consequences of quarantine for Ukraine, and the ability to support one another.

Vasyl Shandro: The situation in the world today generally concerns all of mankind. From what you have seen after a couple of weeks in self-isolation, are relations between us changing?

Josef Zissels: If we are talking about relations between nations, I think that it is still too early to judge. We still do not have sufficient experience for this. That relations among people are changing, in general, is practically an axiom. Any kind of test that God or nature sends us is mobilizing people and revealing their qualities to a greater degree than earlier. Around us, we can see both incredibly positive and extremely negative examples. On the Internet, you can already read about people who are exploiting this crisis in order to enrich themselves, while people who are making sacrifices and helping each other are manifesting the finest human traits. This is how it always was; this crisis has not brought us anything new. We should simply listen to each other, to our conscience, and behave decently.

In difficult times human qualities are only becoming more acute; they are polarizing. The technologies are different, but a hundred years ago, there was a very severe epidemic in most countries, which claimed ten million lives: the Spanish flu. This happened right after the First World War: Humanity had not managed even to recover from this war. We are not seeing anything new; we simply must understand that we are in a period that requires the finest traits from us.

Vasyl Shandro: Some of us tend to look for simple answers to complex questions, ranging all the way to searches for a global Masonic conspiracy, a secret government.

Josef Zissels:  Yes, all this existed earlier too, as well as the search for simple resolutions and attempts to assign the blame on somebody. The technologies are new, but they do not change a person or his/her qualities. We live with those same passions, troubles, positive phenomena, like a thousand years ago, regardless of modern technologies.

Vasyl Shandro: It may be said that the attitude to Chinese people, or generally all Asians who have spent time in Europe for various reasons, is already changing.

Josef Zissels: You are right, but this not the first time either. A simple decision is, above all, disrespect toward someone else; this is xenophobia. The worst traits are the ones that become exacerbated in such complex times, like a pandemic. People have hated many times: during wars and epidemics. People made accusations that someone was poisoning wells during a plague, and the like. Mankind has learned little. We are carrying into the future all our traits, both positive and negative ones that are inherent to people.

Vasyl Shandro: In your opinion, is this situation equally stressful for perceiving one another? Is the pandemic producing some kind of equalization to a certain extent?

Josef Zissels: At first glance, yes. In fact, the pandemic is not equalizing us that much. The pandemic is having a dangerous impact on elderly people; we see the examples of Europe and China. As concerns Ukraine, I think in some ways we are equipped and have an immunity to complex situations. In the last thirty years, we have practically not had any happy times because it has always been complicated. It has been complicated for various reasons, both because the Soviet legacy persists in our country and that there were four hundred years of being a colony and that the state has nothing to do with ordinary people. This triggers people’s finest traits of survival, communication, and assistance to one another in difficult times. It has always been this way in Ukraine. Looking back, what do I see? When was there a happy life in Ukraine, like in European countries, in the last fifty years? There was nothing of the kind in our country. We were always left to fend for ourselves and had no help from the state.

Remember the 1990s, when the great crisis happened. People were surviving as families; they were saved by strong family ties. They survived and developed a kind of immunity to the difficulties of this world. Now there is a new trial, and we have to go through it: have patience, self-discipline, and abide by the quarantine conditions. We should do everything in order to survive this and safeguard our people. Later, it will be necessary to revive the economy, but first, we have to think about people.

Such serious trials teach us that it will be necessary to wait a long time before we will be able to return to our lives. But we can do nothing but learn how to live in a new way, in a new format of life. Socialize less in person, more telephone calls, and with the help of technical devices, work at home. I understand that not everyone can do this, but it is necessary to search for ways to survive in this situation.

Vasyl Shandro: Many people recall difficult times with nostalgia. Is it true that such negative situations, the lack of basic items, unite people and illuminate their finest qualities?

Josef Zissels: The situation is more complex than this simple formula. People my age recall the time when they were young. Such periods always seem brighter, warmer, and pleasanter. When you are young, everything is different for you. When we are already at an advanced age, everything is more difficult for you, both physically and morally; that is why we recall our youth with pleasure. What was difficult in that period was exceedingly difficult for everyone who was living under Soviet rule, no doubt about it. There were those who sold themselves and capitalized on this for their own goals, their own benefit, but there were fewer such people. Concerning our possibility to unite: We survived the difficult 1990s, but not because we were able to unite as one nation. Unfortunately, thirty years later, we still do not have enough of this in our country.

We united on the cellular level—on the level of families. A family survived because it is a handful of people who are helping each other in difficult times. This is very developed in our country. Now that thirty years have passed, a civic society has appeared.

Right now, civic society is the only force that cares for everybody. Civic organizations and volunteers are mobilizing in order to help everyone in various ways: the army, the sick, medicine.

Civic society numbers between five and seven million people who have united to work for Ukraine, for her future, in order to help in these difficult times.

Vasyl Shandro: Perhaps this may sound paradoxical right now, but does the question of unity lie in the need to isolate ourselves from each other?

Josef Zissels: We can be disunited even when there is no disease, no pandemic, and we live only for ourselves. Such a society is also possible. One can be united even in difficult times. We can be connected with one another by various channels of communication: telephoning parents, grandfathers, grandmothers, giving them moral support. This depends on each individual person, what s/he reveals in such difficult times: friendliness, trust, or a choice to focus only on his/her own survival. I am convinced that the people will survive even this calamity that has come to us.

If we care about each other and help each other to stay alive, more people will survive these times. I hope that our people will find within themselves those possibilities, those qualities that will help them to survive these difficult times. It is necessary to have patience, abide by all the regulations concerning quarantine and self-isolation, and trust each other as much as possible.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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