Mariupol: How the Jewish community is living on the front line

The largest front-line Jewish community in Ukraine is in Mariupol. Today on the program Encounters Menachem Mendel Cohen, the chief rabbi of Mariupol, talks about the life of the Jewish community and the displaced persons from the Donetsk and Luhansk communities. We begin our talk with his reminiscences about coming to Mariupol twelve years ago and starting his work there.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  A lot of organizations were working here, mainly those that study Hebrew, help Jews live there, those that distribute food and medicine, etc. But there was very little spiritual work. There was neither a school nor a kindergarten. The work with young people was not religious. There were other orientations, but there was no religious work at all.

Iryna Slavinska:  In other words, the work was focused more on history and culture, yes?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  Jews always love to get together. Just give them a reason and they will come. But from the religious point of view, there was nothing. Youngsters would come here twice a year, for the New Year and Passover in order to gather people. Mariupol is a very large city. When I arrived, there were already thirty-four cities in Ukraine with a permanent rabbi. But not in Mariupol, despite the fact that it is the ninth most populous city in Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska:  It is one of the top ten largest cities in Ukraine.  

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  It is a very big city, a port city, [but] there was no permanent rabbi here. I don’t know why. That is probably what the Almighty wanted. It was our mission. We have been here twelve years. When we began, there was a lot of work. At first, we needed to organize, gather people, because it is more complicated to find young Jews than older ones. Older ones receive allowances. But it was very difficult to find young Jews. We went from house to house, explaining [what we do]. And that’s how we collected the first group of twenty-eight people.

Iryna Slavinska:  How were you introduced? Tell us about this, the story of how you went from house to house looking for young people with whom to work. How did it happen? Was it complicated to communicate and induce people to trust you? After all, this is as much a story of trust as religion.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  We simply asked grandfathers and grandmothers to fill out questionnaires. And we asked every person whom we located: “Give us the telephone number of someone else you know.” And so we began to go further. Of course, people remember that it was frightening, that it was difficult to find work or travel someplace when the word “Jew” was written in their passports. Excellent specialists tell me they were not hired because they were Jews. Other people were always hired. And they have always had a respectful attitude to the community, but there is the fear lest this somehow interfere in their lives. After twelve years of work here I know that to this very day there are many people who still do not come for one reason or another. That’s how it was at the beginning. A personal or other type of acquaintance is the best way because people ultimately gravitate toward a person, not a place.

Iryna Slavinska:  I next ask Mendel Cohen, the chief rabbi of Mariupol, how the community has changed in the twelve years since he has been living and working here. We also talk about the impact of the war on the life of the community.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  This is a very close-knit community. Hundreds of people attend holy days. We constantly have morning prayers, there are constant lessons, various circles—for men, for women, for young people, for small children. We are carrying out very many charitable projects. Thank G_d, I was able to carry out almost all the plans that we drew up.

The only thing that is very different is that when I arrived, perhaps we underestimated things. Those were very enjoyable years in Mariupol. People came here with great confidence. They were making a reasonably good living. I remember it was impossible to buy an apartment and rent anything. Everything was very expensive. There were huge lines in all the building stores, it was impossible [to find] good builders…. We wanted to renovate the synagogue. It was very difficult to find anyone. There were big hopes and prospects that gradually faded. And in recent years, I hope, we have reached the limit. From now on there will only be an upturn. People are living very badly, they are earning very little. The fact that we find ourselves at the front also has an impact.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s talk about this in more detail. The front is very close. Mariupol is probably the largest front-line city, if you consider the territory under Ukraine’s control. What impact did the start of the war and the start of all the events have on the life of the community? What did the proximity of the war bring?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  The sages teach us that wherever a man lives—it doesn’t matter in which country—he should pray for the welfare of the authorities. If there were no government, people would eat each other alive. So, we are very glad that we stayed in Ukraine, thank G_d. We are very glad that there was no anarchy here. There is no anarchy. We can say that both the city residents and the authorities are doing everything to ensure that life goes on as usual. You simply walk through the city, and no one is shooting. Public transport is working, stores are operating, there is food in the stores, schools are functioning. You can see a lot of young people in the city. And that’s very good. I believe that this is not very easy.

As an Israeli, I know this. I was born in Israel, our country is also…. Terrorist acts are constantly taking place there. We know that a man thinks about how to feed his family, how to get through the day, how to pay all the bills and resolve all issues. That is why even people who live in a front-line city get used to things. This becomes secondary for them because the primary issue is to get by. I will say that in the last few years it is not so much getting by but surviving, because the situation here has become very complicated.

I was here with my family both in 2014 and 2015. A few days before 9 May my family and I were supposed to leave for two weeks. But I was seeing all this, all the demonstrations, the burning tires. There was a period when there was no government power in the city at all. It was not clear where things were heading. I remember this very well. I was walking from the synagogue after the Saturday services. I saw how everything happened. Where we are now, in the synagogue, was a separatist checkpoint right on the street. They were walking around here armed. They didn’t touch us, but it was very unpleasant. I call this “a soldier without a dad.” To whom is he accountable? It is not clear. He is walking around with a weapon, and parents are sending small children here. It was frightening, very frightening.

This period had a very strong impact on the city. Many people left. Those who had established themselves remained there. Those who had not established themselves returned because all their reserves were exhausted. Lately there have not been any incidents in the city itself, only on the outskirts. But there are days and weeks when you hear explosions all day. Sometimes when a service is taking place, the windows shake. We know families that are living in spots where one side or the other is shooting. They run into the cellar with small children at any time of day. This is terrifying. Children are not sleeping, and they need psychological help.

Iryna Slavinska:  In speaking about how the Jewish community of Mariupol has changed since the start of the war, we should also mention the displaced persons who have arrived from other cities with large Jewish communities. What is life like for the displaced persons in Mariupol? Mendel Cohen, the chief rabbi of Mariupol, responds.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  There was a very large community in Donetsk, and we also had a good, strong community. Of course, Jews from other cities who have decided to remain temporarily in Mariupol or have already established themselves here are joining us.

Iryna Slavinska:  How do you receive them? Is there assistance from the Mariupol community for the newly arrived displaced persons who are settling here?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  At first, we helped as soon as they arrived: to rent apartments, [obtain] food, clothing, medicine. They were fed here when everything was just starting, the first year. Later, people established themselves more or less. When a Jew arrives in another city, he goes immediately to the synagogue, as though to his own home. This synagogue is his, just like for the local Jews. They come here with joy, and they take part in the holy days together with us.

Iryna Slavinska:  From the interaction between local Jewish communities and the displaced persons from neighboring cities and communities, we turn to the topic of Jewish community life in Mariupol, where quite a few national and religious identities have coexisted for a long time.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  For us Jews it is always good to live where there are many nationalities. That way we don’t stand out as much. There are many funny stories about this. Greeks, for example, say, ”They’re us, and we’re them.” We all know this. In general, there is no glaring antisemitism in Mariupol. I have been living here for twelve years. I walk on the street wearing the kippah, people say hello, and we are fine. I don’t believe…. Of course, you should always be careful, but because there are very many nationalities here, it is a very tolerant city.

Iryna Slavinska:  Do you cooperate with each other, for example, the Greeks with the Jewish community?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  There were times when we visited each other and met at various festivities. Yesterday the German community was here. They sent their young people. They expressed a desire to spend the holiday of Purim with us. There is friendship among all the communities. It must be supported continually. To go, to come and see, to discuss. This doesn’t always work out. But in this regard it is very good here.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing our conversation about the history of Jewish life in Mariupol.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  The history of the Jews here is a long one. You can visit the Regional History Museum, which is nearby. They will tell you about our occupations, how many of us there were many years ago. Jews have been living here for a very long time. We have a cemetery, there are graves that are, I don’t know, 150 years old. There were a lot of us. They were engaged in all possible professions. I am more familiar with the history of recent centuries.

Sixteen thousand Jews were shot and buried in a mass grave at an agricultural base ten kilometers from here. Many non-Jews lie there with them: Catholics, workers from the Ilich Plant, Roma, sick people: seventy thousand people in a very long ditch running eleven kilometers.

Iryna Slavinska:  There is a place like that in Kyiv, too, Babyn Yar, where very many Jews, and not just Jews, were shot. This is an all-Ukrainian history.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  All-Ukrainian history, yes, but the difference is that the Jews were shot on another day, and they were shot simply because they were Jews, not because they were engaged in some activity or another. There, at the agrobase, besides a monument, I wanted to mark the ditch itself, from its starting point to the end. It is a huge ditch, eleven kilometers long. I think that this may interest other people because this is not a Jewish project. Right now, in fact, a road passes there. Part of it is covered with fields, part of it with houses. I don’t want to dismantle anything, but I would simply like to erect some kinds of markers to indicate that on this site, on this soil, there are so many people. When it happened. A few explanations can be written. I would like other organizations to write about their own people who are buried there. The place where a person dwells is his house—it is a home for the soul.

Iryna Slavinska:  Are there sites of memory in the city pertaining to the history of the Jews of Mariupol? Are they all visible? Do some of them need additional marking?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  There is an ancient Jewish cemetery, there is the agrobase, there is an ancient synagogue. There are also existing buildings where once there were synagogues. There are four such buildings. We wrote about this on our website, where we recount this to any person who visits us. And this is well known. In principle, the city residents know about this.

Like everywhere else in Europe, the Mariupol communities were much larger, but they were shot. There are many such mass graves in every city of Ukraine, in every village in Ukraine. There are places where there are no monuments at all, where no one knows what that place is. It is very difficult to organize this and then maintain it. I imagine that this eleven kilometer-long ditch is a huge project, and there are very many like that. To ensure that people will never forget about this, that they will travel there, as well as their relatives from every corner of the world, all religions.

In Mariupol it is thought that this is a place where a prayer is said because completely innocent people were killed there. They go, they ask for something. Well, this is quite a large project. Perhaps initially it should have been done as a state project. At the present time, this is already history. Something was built there, later it was demolished. There is something at this site now, either fields or houses. You have to talk about it at least, so that there will be some kind of signboards. A menorah, a beautiful menorah has already been standing there for many years, and the whole city knows what happened there; that this is the site of a mass execution.

Iryna Slavinska:  Continuing our conversation about the history of the Jews in this region, we talk about the degree of visibility of Jewish community history. To what extent has my guest noted tendencies to transform the memory of the events of World War II into the memory of purely Ukrainian events, without nuances of other national histories?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  Mariupol is very far from this sentiment. It could not exist here and, I think, it cannot ever.

Iryna Slavinska:  Because there are many nationalities?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  Because there are very many nationalities. And all the nationalities are grouped in communities. They celebrate their holidays. They welcome the transmission of the tradition to the younger generation. And everyone always lived here. There was never a single nationality here. It was never just a Russian or a Ukrainian or a Greek or a Jewish city. Everyone always lived here, and this is very good. 

Iryna Slavinska:  As an example of the work being done to restore the national memory of ethnic and religious minorities, I recall the work done in the city of Lviv, where the Center for Urban History is engaged in restoring sites of memory, like marking the location of a demolished synagogue.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  I was in Lviv two years ago, I liked it very much. It is generally so different, it differs so much from eastern Ukraine. Lviv is very popular with tourists and, furthermore, the community there was much larger than the Mariupol community.

Iryna Slavinska:  Lviv is also an ancient, multicultural city. There were many communities.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  They really are doing the right thing that they are memorializing this. There is a lot of tourism there, and many people are coming from Israel and various other countries. Jews who want to see how it was. 

Iryna Slavinska:  On this basis, is interaction among the communities of various cities possible?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  Well, each community works locally, with its local members. The rabbi’s goal is to bring local Jews closer to their traditions and knowledge, to create a Jewish existence in cities where all this has already been forgotten and destroyed. Therefore, we communicate. Sometimes we even meet with each other. But each community works independently.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is the religious component very important in this work, in the return of history, the memory of history? How much space is there for secular practices in the Mariupol community? For example, for Jews who do not practice the religion?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  I think that the majority of Ukrainian Jews can call themselves traditional. They come, they honor their parents, their ancestors. They are proud that they are Jews. And they are interested in their tradition. So, it is impossible to say that yes, we have a religious orientation, but the majority of our members are absolutely not religious. And we work together.

Iryna Slavinska:  After our conversation about the history and interaction among the communities, we switched topics to a more personal intonation. I asked the rabbi how he and his family experienced the transformation of Mariupol into a front-line city, and how its residents—now a front-line community—accept displaced persons and hear the noise of shelling.

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  My wife and I have three children. There was a time when we were not here. We were living in another city, in Dnipro, and we commuted here. Then we decided that it was simply impossible to work with the community from a distance. A community is when everyone needs to be in place. People want to see us in place every day. So we came back for good, with our three children—the youngest child is three months old. We came back here.

During the first few days, there were constant explosions. This continued for two weeks. It was terrifying. Every morning and evening I asked myself whether I was doing the right thing by being here. But my work is very precious to me. I know that we are providing an answer to many people, that there is no one to do the work which we have begun, and that is why we came back here.

I personally have a lot of satisfaction when people come. A good lesson is going on, we have been able to help materially, create a kind of bridge. Each time after a holiday, when people have gotten together, they derive great satisfaction from this. Of course, right now we need double the energy because the difficulties that existed before now are much more complicated today.

Generally, a huge question mark hangs over everything that is in Mariupol, in the front-line cities. No one can predict the future, and I think that every person living in Mariupol, building a business or a house, sending a child to school, is praying that G_d will grant that everything will be well here, that business will bring an income, that difficult work or the building of a house will not be in vain. I can’t predict the future when I am often asked questions about whether I can see the future. I see people functioning and, thank G_d, there are people with whom we can work. What will happen later, I try not to answer this for myself and not think about it.

Whereas earlier we made plans ten or twenty years in advance, right now I am trying to think only in terms of half a year. For the time being this is working. I think that everyone without exception, be they Jews, Greeks, Poles, or Azerbaijani, all of us are under the same sky, and we face the same questions. We are grateful to the Almighty that, unlike Donetsk and Luhansk, we are here in a territory that the entire world recognizes, and we need time to wait it out.

I think that, like all wars, they begin then they end. Or interest wanes, or there is no more money. Or both reasons. And peace will return to this very beautiful and remarkable city, a very green and very friendly city on the seashore. And we will continue our work beneath a peaceful sky.

Iryna Slavinska:  “Uninvited guests are living in our hearts all the time,” says Rabbi Cohen about the war and its impact on daily life. What changes in the life of the synagogue have taken place since the spring of 2014?

Menachem Mendel Cohen:  Uninvited guests are always in our hearts: the worries about what will happen—on the part of people, on the part of the government, on the part of the military. I have never seen or felt that someone is infringing or bothering the people. They are very glad that we are here. They support this. Even our neighbors say: “We see that your car is on the street. We are glad that the Jews are with us, that you are continuing your work.”

Of course, I am worried that many people have come here, and many are living worse right now. We have boosted security. We always have guards everywhere and a call button, which was not necessary earlier, as I was not worried about this. On the contrary, the police are constantly driving around. There are continuous patrols. One feels that law and order in the city is being enforced more vigorously right now.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.


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


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