BBUK’s very successful Ukraine Trip

Report by Alan Miller

BBUK visit to Ukraine                               9th – 19th May 2019

A welcome to Ukraine from Sholom Aleichem

After many years of supporting charitable projects in Ukraine, 21 members of BBUK set off to see the projects for themselves and to try to learn about the history, the rich Jewish culture, and to meet the people of a land that played such a large part in our Jewish history.

We flew to Kiev and immediately started our walking tour of the historic capital city. We ended the day meeting Svetlana Levitas, the contact for our project to supply medicines to the clinic organised by the B’nai B’rith lodge of Kiev, with whom we have a long standing working relationship.

The following day was marked by a lot more sightseeing of the main attractions of Kiev such as St Sophia’s Cathedral and the underground Monastery of the Caves. Our first cultural encounter was in the evening when we attended the beautiful Kiev Opera and Ballet House. Unfortunately we did not know what to expect seeing performed and had, initially, a confusing evening but all ended well with a stunning performance of Rimsky Korsikov’s “Sheherizade”.

St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev

World Jewish Relief had helped considerably with our tour organisation and the party visited “Chesed”, a project including day centre, synagogue and sheltered housing for the elderly. It is an amazing resource where we talked to those who had lived and fought during the Second World War, plus those born later, and we spoke to them in their apartments and danced with them in the day centre (under strict supervision of their tutor).

Meeting with proud survivors at Chesed in Kiev

The visit to Babi Yar, the ravine on the edge of Kiev where up to 100,000 Jews were slaughtered, was a place for reflection and prayer, but the fact that the ravine has been filled in and is now usedas a public park made it difficult to imagine the enormity and horror of the crimes.

Our afternoon was spent at an open air folk museum and then we went to meet the members of the B’nai B’rith Kiev Lodge. We did not know what to expect but we all had a brilliant experience with their thirty six members. The range of members was so interesting, from an internationally recognised artist, a leading film maker, to survivors of the Holocaust and a Righteous Gentile named at Yad Vashem.

Kiev Lodge President Felix Levitas and his wife Irena, receiving a presentation from BBUK President Alan Miller

The President, Prof Felix Levitas and his wife Irena welcomed us warmly and impressed upon us the huge importance of the provision of drugs to the patients of the clinic. The truth is that in Ukraine, if one cannot afford the prescribed drugs you do without. One of their members, who had suffered two heart attacks about seven years ago, movingly thanked us for saving his life. The project is only sponsored by BBUK and if we ceased our support for the programme, then it would finish with severe effects in a country where the life expectancy for a man is 64 years and for a woman 75 years. Everyone was enthused to increase the support for our brothers and sisters in Kiev, as we experienced B’nai B’rith in action, helping those in need

The following day brought us a coach drive to Zhytomyr and to Berdichev seeing cemeteries and synagogues then on to Kozyatyn where we experienced the WJR “Warm Homes” project by visiting an elderly lady living on the fourth floor (no lifts) of an old Soviet apartment block where she is virtually stranded. It turned out that at 69 the “old lady” was younger than us but we learned of the wonderful work being done for people in difficult circumstances.

Our friends in Bratislov

One of our most chilling and most moving experiences was when the following day we visited the town of Bratslav. We were taken by the grandson of a Righteous Gentile to the most beautifully picturesque riverside and stood by the memorial to the 250 Jewish children who, one freezing February night in 1942, were marched naked from the orphanage and thrown into a hole made in the ice of the river. Those who did not initially die of the shock of the freezing water were clubbed or shot by the Nazis and assisting Ukrainian police collaborators. Someone in the village had saved one girl who had escaped the march and sheltered her throughout the war. The effect of hearing about such a horrific crime taking place in such peaceful and idyllic surroundings was more than upsetting to us all. Following on we visited the graves of those killed in the Pogroms of 1919 to 1921 and those of the Chasidic Rabbis, much visited by their devoted followers.

We rounded off the day with a visit to a derelict fortress synagogue in Shargorod followed by a long and arduous rain-soaked drive along potholed unlit roads to our next stop at Kamyanets-Podilsky. All were rather too exhausted, both physically and emotionally to take much notice of the day’s final destination.

Wednesday 15th May was a day that had been planned for a while. We were off to Chernivitsi, a delightful town exhibiting the architectural influences of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The leader of the Jewish community had contacted us six months previously, having seen on our website that we were going to visit Ukraine. He asked us for our support, as this community faced severe challenges posed by his opposition to the arrival of a very orthodox faction in the town who were wanting to impose their beliefs.

The Opera House of Chernivitsi

One of the highlights of this visit was the return of one of our members, Mary Green, who had been born in Chernivitsi in 1940 and who had survived the war, in hiding, with her parents. They had emigrated to the United States in 1950, and then moved to England via Israel in the 1970s. This was her first return visit to the town of her birth and she presented the community with the book she had written about her life experiences. Visiting the Jewish Community Centre in Chernivitsi and spending time talking to their leaders gave us a real insight into the experience of living in the isolation of the former Soviet Union whilst trying to reach out to the communities in the West. They expressed a very strong wish to join the family of B’nai B’rith International and we will help as much as we can to enable them to form a Lodge in their town

Mary Green (2nd from R) of BBUK presents her life story to the leaders of the community of her birth, returning to Chernivitsi for the first time in sixty nine years. Also pictured, Alan Miller (far L)

A more normal but more stressful day followed. After a walking tour of the castle outside the “peninsular” (350 degrees surrounded by a river) town of Kamyanets-Podilsky, we commenced an arduous journey to our final destination, Odessa. We grabbed a ridiculously cheap lunch at a local cafe and set off on a four hour coach journey, having to cancel our pre booked meal, due to time constraints in Vinnytsia and attempting to find the station to catch our train. This large station, if in the UK, would have contained at least one shopping mall full of restaurants but it had absolutely nothing other than very steep steps to reach our platform, the sight of rust bucket locomotives, a lot of rain and even more anxiety from a crowd of Jewish people fearing potential starvation. Not a good combination. However our express arrived on time, was modern and comfortable and we devoured the contents of the buffet in record time arriving in Odessa five hours later.

The following day was spent at the Tikva Children’s Home which BBUK has supported for many years by providing the funds for the purchase of shoes. This brilliant facility, run by Chabad, looks after two hundred children on multiple sites and seems to offer a wonderful secular and religious environment for those aged from birth to eighteen. One of the lowlights of the entire trip was being taken to the former “home” of two of the children at Tikva. Personally I had never before been exposed to people living in such a squalid scene of deprivation and desperation. It was brought home to us that if you did not work, in this case due to alcoholism, then you get no help from the State, and must exist on the most basic level. We left praising the UK system of Social Security and our National Health Service.

Malcolm Factor of BBUK presenting sports equipment to Tikva, Odessa

The early Friday evening took us to a local Kosher restaurant, which had just tried to cancel our long standing booking with the world’s worst excuse; that we had not pre ordered enough food and if we left feeling hungry, we would spoil their reputation for overfeeding!! The real reason was that they had taken a booking for seventy to come in after Shabbat had started, and they wanted to have us out of the way. In the end we did eat there, we all felt quite satisfied with the size of the portions and left to wonder what a “normal” portion must look like!

Several of us then went on to The Great Choral Synagogue for Kabbala Shabbat service, which unusually for Eastern Europe was absolutely packed out and utterly vibrant in the congregations enthusiasm to pray. We then walked to the Opera House, the Potemkin Steps and along the quite magnificent tree lined boulevards of the grand City of Odessa, which once boasted a 40% Jewish population.

We were treated the next morning to the enthusiasm, knowledge and insight of our guide, Elena, for an engaging walk round Jewish Odessa. She brought to life the lives of Shalom Aleichem, Bialik, Jabotinsky, Isaac Babel, Golda Meir and showed us the House of the Palestine Committee where Zionism was born in the late Nineteenth Century. To remind us of the present, we were prevented, by a uniformed soldier, from photographing a rather attractive building which turned out to be the headquarters of the Ukrainian Secret Service.

Holocaust memorial, Odessa

With our afternoon guide we visited memorials to the unspeakable horrors of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. We learned about post war antisemitism and the emergence of religious freedom since breaking free from the Soviet Union.

Our final evening was spent at the Odessa Opera House watching a performance of “Carmen”, sung in French with Ukrainian surtitles. A good job we already knew the story!

To complete our experience the following morning we walked the catacombs previously used by the Partisans and then went to Arcadia, the recently constructed seaside of Odessa featuring signs in Ivrit advertising new apartments in the sun. Is the wheel coming full circle?

Our Ukrainian experience, wonderfully and painstakingly organised by Alan and Ruth Silman of Cheshire Unity Lodge, was worth all the effort involved and certainly fulfilled all our expectations.

We gained knowledge of the Jewish experience, good and bad; we learned about early Zionism and its meaning to a people trapped under the late rule of the Russian Czars; the Holocaust; the Soviets and recent renewal of Jewish life. We met everyday people, speaking to them about their hopes and fears for the future.

BBUK members enjoying the sunshine of Odessa

On a personal level, this trip demonstrated to me the vital importance of B’nai B’rith as an International force for good; providing the links between Jewish communities throughout the world, and offering support both financial and moral. We saw the direct benefit of our projects, unique to B’nai B’rith, which allows all Jews to feel that they are part of one unified community. This inspired us all to transmit our experience to our members and try to enthuse every Jewish person with the message that B’nai B’rith is not only “A Global Voice of the Jewish Community” but one that actually delivers Benevolence, Brotherly and Sisterly Love and Harmony

Alan Miller

National President BBUK

May 2019