An IDF soldier commemorated in Ukraine for the first time ever

Israel Defense Forces’ Sergeant Alexey (Asher) Neykov is a hero who saved dozens of children’s lives when Arab terrorists attacked a school bus. He received the highest posthumous award in his home city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, when a street was named after him. This is the first-ever case worldwide when a street in a city outside of Israel is given the name of a fallen IDF soldier.

Kharkiv, an eastern Ukrainian city with a pre-war population of 1.5 million, is located a mere 30 kilometers from the border with Russia and is subjected to daily missile attacks from the aggressor country. It has been defending itself on the front and in culture and ideology for over two years now.

The Toponymic Commission of the Kharkiv City Council recently voted to rename 367 streets, alleys, and squares that were associated with Russia and the USSR. After Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov signed this decision, it went into effect on 1 May 2024. Streets were renamed, in particular, in honor of 35 fallen defenders of Ukraine who were either born in Kharkiv or defended it, including 13 awardees of the Hero of Ukraine, the country’s highest honor.

One of the warriors thus commemorated is Alexey Neykov, a native of Kharkiv and IDF sergeant who died while protecting Israeli children in 1998. This demonstrably pro-Israeli step by Kharkiv’s city council and mayor is especially noteworthy against the background of antisemitic demonstrations and anti-Israel riots sweeping across US university campuses and Western European cities.

A total of 510 streets and other objects have been renamed in Kharkiv according to the Law of Ukraine "On Condemning and Banning the Propaganda of Russian Imperial Policy and Decolonizing Toponymy" since Russia's aggression against Ukraine began. History laughed at Putin: he attacked Ukraine under the pretext of his delusional ideas of "protecting and expanding the ‘Russian world’," but this actually led to a colossal reduction of the influence of the Russian language and culture. Kharkiv is a case in point. Once previously considered the most Russian-speaking city in Ukraine, it has removed from its map nearly all names associated with Russia, the USSR, and their culture in 2022-2024. An increasing number of Kharkiv residents are demonstratively switching to Ukrainian, not wanting to speak the language of the occupiers.

The present author has been closely watching this process for almost two years. As a historian and author of the entry on Kharkiv in the Jewish Encyclopedia, I compiled a list of 25 outstanding Jews in the history of Kharkiv at the request of the Jewish community in the summer of 2022. The list was submitted to the city council for consideration in the street renaming campaign, and one of the main names on it was that of Alexey Neykov.

The Kharkiv City Council member Iryna Honcharova-Bahalii and the chief rabbi of Kharkiv, Moishe Moskovitz, spoke in favor of commemorating Neykov. Letters of support came from the Ambassador of Israel to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, and NGOs "Israeli Friends of Ukraine" and "Orthodox Union Israel."

Today, I can proudly say that three persons from this list of prominent Jews are commemorated in the names of streets in Kharkiv, a city of my childhood and youth. In addition to Neykov, these are the architects Viktor Estrovich and Oleksandr Ginzburg, whose masterpieces still stand in Kharkiv even as they are in danger of being hit by Russian missiles and Iranian Shahed UAVs. The Nazis shot Estrovich in December 1941 in Drobytsky Yar, a ravine near Kharkiv. Putin's occupiers continued the tragedy of the Holocaust at this site in March 2022 as they fired missiles and shells at the memorial complex where nearly 15,000 Kharkiv Jews killed by the Nazis lie in two mass graves. Oleksandr Ginzburg was a prominent architect and the leader of Kharkiv’s Jewish community in 1944-1945 after the city was liberated from the Nazis. He found himself under pressure from Stalin's punitive authorities.

The irony of today is that some Jewish or quasi-Jewish names were removed from the map of Kharkiv during de-Russification in the spring of 2024. As many as four (!) Birobidzhan drives, named after the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of the Russian Federation, were renamed. Another street that lost its former name was the one honoring Isaak Dunaevsky, a Soviet Jewish composer who was active from the 1920s until the 1950s. He studied and began his career in Kharkiv, but now the city held against him such pro-communist songs as "My Moscow," "Great is my Country," "It's Good to Live in the Soviet Country," "Song of Stalin," and "Song of Kakhovka." This decision comes at a time when Moscow is waging a barbaric war against Ukraine, trying to grab its land and having blown up the Kakhovka Reservoir in the south of the country.

Returning to Neykov, his figure has a symbolic significance in uniting Ukraine and Israel, as he was an ethnic Jew born in Kharkiv. He studied for several years at Jewish school No. 170 under Hryhorii Shoikhet. Then he completed his high-school education at Shaalavim, a religious Zionist lyceum that had the world’s highest rate of graduates repatriated to Israel in those years.

Neykov’s certificate of secondary education (8 grades) from Jewish school No. 170 in Kharkiv, 1994.

Now, the street where Jewish school No. 170 is located bears the name of Neykov, one of its students.

In September 1996, 17-year-old Alexey came to Israel without his parents. He was preparing to study at the Technion. He dreamed of studying at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering but decided to first serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

On the tragic day of 29 October (9 Cheshvan) 1998, at 07:30 a.m., Arab terrorists directed a car packed with explosives at two school buses carrying 48 Jewish children near the settlement of Kfar Darom in Gush Katif. The Israeli soldiers guarding the buses managed to turn their jeep across the road and took the hit. The children were not injured, while two soldiers were wounded, and one — Sgt. Alexey (Asher) Neykov, a 19-year-old repatriate from Kharkiv — was killed.

He called home the night before. "Tomorrow, I have my first combat mission — escorting a bus with children. I will go in the first jeep." "Why necessarily in the first?" his mother asked anxiously. "Because I decided so."

Illustration of the terrorist attack and maneuver of Neykov's jeep to save children.

Thanks to his heroic deed, the children he saved 25 years ago have by now given birth to more than 120 children of their own. So, Neykov saved their lives, too. Some of them named their children Asher and Ashrat in honor of Neykov. They still keep in touch with his parents, Klara and Semen Neykov, who live in Haifa.

A Torah scroll was written in memory of Neykov for the synagogue in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, which was destroyed in 2005 by order of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the so-called "disengagement from Gaza." The Jewish settlements destroyed then became bases for Hamas terrorists, against whom Israel now has to wage a difficult war.

Those saved by Neykov created a touching video, "Children of 9 Cheshvan," in his memory in 2014. Eight years later, Neykov's parents were given a portrait of their son composed of hundreds of photographs of those he rescued, their families, and children born to them.

Neykov’s portrait composed of photos.

"Naming a street after our student Asher Neykov is a huge achievement! Initially, I couldn't believe that Kharkiv would commemorate, in wartime, a native of the city who became a real hero in Israel. Therefore, I view this decision by the city council and Mayor Ihor Terekhov as a historic event and an important milestone in the context of Ukraine-Israel relations," said Israeli rabbi and lawyer Shlomo Asraf, who was the founder and spiritual leader of the Orthodox Union Center in Kharkiv and Shaalavim Lyceum in 1993-2009.

Kharkiv resident Iryna Sherstobitova, Neykov's English teacher at the Shaalavim Lyceum, noted: "Every year, we tell our students about his heroic deed. A memorial plaque commemorating Asher's amazing act is installed in the lyceum. He was a bright and proper young man, polite and erudite. He knew French, English, Russian, Ukrainian, and Hebrew and was brave and physically fit. He also had an incredibly attractive smile. We must believe in the bright future that brave young men like him give us."

Klara Neykov, Alexey's mother, received the news from Kharkiv with deep gratitude. "I am just at a loss for words. Many thanks to everyone who promoted this initiative. My husband and I will be happy to visit Kharkiv and unveil a memorial plaque on the street named after our son. If only the situation around the city would improve and the war would stop," she told me in a telephone conversation.

Semen and Klara Neykov near the monument in honor of Alexey, Gush Katif Museum.

Yad Labanim, an Israeli organization coordinating efforts to commemorate fallen IDF soldiers, responded to my inquiry, saying they were not aware of any other cases when a street was named after a fallen Israeli soldier in cities outside of Israel. In all probability, the decision of the Kharkiv authorities is the first example of this kind in the world.

Alexey Neykov Street in Kharkiv will become another bridge of friendship and interpersonal ties connecting Ukraine and Israel, two countries fighting for freedom, independence, and the physical survival of their citizens. It’s a two-way bridge. As the Kharkiv authorities were adopting their street renaming decision, Kharkiv National University was choosing the first recipient of the Mark Azbel Prize in theoretical physics. It was established in the spring of 2024 in memory of Professor Mark Azbel of Tel Aviv University, an outstanding physicist who began his scientific career at Kharkiv University. Iryna Kolodna, his widow, allocated USD 25,000 (USD 5,000 annually over five years) to support young researchers at Kharkiv National University. The first Azbel Prize will go to 39-year-old Dr. Zakhar Maizelis, professor at the Department of Theoretical Physics. The awarding ceremony will be held on 16 May 2024 in honor of Israel's Independence Day.

I see great symbolism in all of this — and timeliness, as Ukraine and Israel are repelling the attacks of the global axis of evil.

It was from Kharkiv that the BILU group came to Israel in 1882. It consisted of Kharkiv University students with Jewish backgrounds, who were the first in the world to start reviving the Land of Israel with their work. It was the Kharkiv Conference of Zionists (1903) that rejected the “Uganda scheme” and was adamant that a Jewish state had to emerge only in the ancient Land of Israel. It was the Kharkiv-based industrial giant Turboatom that heeded the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Industry and Trade Natan Sharansky in 1997 and refused to supply turbines for a nuclear reactor in Iran, slowing the Iranian nuclear program for many years. It is to Kharkiv National University that the prize honoring an Israeli physicist who studied under academicians Lev Landau and Ilya Lifshitz comes from Israel. And it is in Kharkiv that an out-of-Israel street has been named after an IDF soldier for the first time ever.

Text: Shimon Briman (Israel).
Photo of Alexey Neykov: from the archive of the Neykov family (Israel).

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.