1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'The future is now': Jewish war refugees in Ukraine

March 3, 2023

War refugees are revitalizing Jewish life in Ukraine's Chernivtsi, once called Jerusalem of the East.

A Jewish-Ukrainian family of three in Chernivtsi
Viktoria Maksymovych, Oleg Krassnyi and their son in Chernivtsi Image: Keno Verseck/DW

Viktoria Maksymovych places freshly brewed tea and a cake on the kitchen table. When she and her husband Oleg Krassnyi discuss the horrors of the war in Ukraine, their perilous escape and exile within their own homeland, there's nothing pleasant about what they have to say. Words like "bombs," "destruction" and "horror" come up repeatedly in their stories.

The couple sits in the small apartment in Chernivtsi in western Ukraine where they've been living, together with their 15-year-old son, since early 2022. There's a generator in the corner that runs on gas. It's not turned on at the moment, because the apartment has electricity — for the time being.

The Jewish-Ukrainian couple is originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. Like millions of other Ukrainians, they suffered incredible losses after the country's war with Russia. Their jobs, almost all of their savings, and life as they knew it before have all gone. Fortunately, they haven't lost any close family members or loved ones so far.

Pedestrians strolling along Kobylanska Street in Chernivtsi
Pedestrians stroll along Kobylanska Street in ChernivtsiImage: Keno Verseck/DW

The conversation alternates between recollections of their wartime experiences in Kharkiv and the harrowing story of their escape. At times when they are talking, they sound out of breath, as if someone were holding a knife to their throats.

Theirs is a tale of wartime tragedy, like so many others from Ukraine, but there is something unique about their story: they're Jewish. To them, Russia's propaganda about so-called fascism in Ukraine and purported efforts by its military to "denazify" the nation seems both absurd and cynical.

"Everything except atomic bombs"

Viktoria and Oleg were both born in Kharkiv, and Oleg spent some years in Israel. Viktoria, 37, studied economics, and Oleg, 45, is a jeweler. The two of them are practicing, non-Orthodox Jews. Though they identify as Ukrainians and speak the language, their first language is Russian, as it is for the majority of people in Kharkiv.

Before the war, the pair lived in a middle-class district in the north of Kharkiv, where they ran a successful cafe together that employed several people. Their life was happy.

That all changed on February 24, 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They woke up that morning to the sound of explosions.

"It was terrifying. The explosions were close to our apartment block, just a few hundred meters away," Viktoria says. Her husband Oleg says the two of them never imagined that Russia would have attacked Ukraine on such a scale.

Destruction in Kharkiv following Russian shelling
Destruction in Kharkiv following Russian shellingImage: Pavel Dorogoi

Following the invasion, the family quickly packed their things and took a car to the center of Kharkiv to stay with Viktoria's brother at his apartment. They thought it would be safer there than in the city's northern outer suburbs. A few days later, the building where their cafe was located was destroyed in an attack. Their apartment block was damaged, but it's still standing. "Everything imaginable was dropped on Kharkiv: missiles, grenades, artillery — everything except atomic bombs," says Viktoria. "I guess they did that because Kharkiv is such a patriotic city. Its residents were not about to surrender."

Escaping the inferno

The couple tells of nights spent at metro stations, of lining up for hours for food, and of getting so used to explosions that they were no longer frightened by them. They eventually learned how to tell from the sound how far away the explosions were, and how much danger they were in. The disbelief in their voices is unmistakable when they describe everything they've been through.

A man and a woman stand in front of an apartment in Chernivtsi
Viktoria Maksymovych and her husband Oleg Krassnyi in front of their apartment in ChernivtsiImage: Keno Verseck/DW

After three weeks of Russian bombardment, the family decided to leave. They traveled a day and a half by car to Chernivtsi, where they reached out to the local Aviv Jewish community for help.

A congregation had rented out an entire hotel for a few months specifically to house Jewish refugees arriving from other parts of Ukraine. Viktoria and her family initially stayed at the hotel. Then, thanks to a stroke of luck, they were able to rent the two-room apartment where they live now.

"Most people like Chernivtsi"

Today, around 260,000 people live in Chernivtsi, which is 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from the Romanian border. For a long time, the city was a major center of Jewish culture in Europe. Capital of the historical Bukovina region, Chernivtsi was under Habsburg rule. Between the two world wars, the area belonged to Romania.

Chernivtsi has a rich history of Yiddish and German-speaking Jews. Poets like Rose Ausländer and Paul Celan were born here. At the same time, the city was also heavily influenced by Ukrainians, Germans, Poles and other nationalities.

During the Holocaust, much of the city's Jewish population were massacred by Nazi German soldiers and allied Romanian troops, or deported to concentration camps. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the survivors and their families emigrated to Israel.

Today, no one knows the exact number of Jews remaining in Chernivtsi, but before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the number was estimated to be just a few hundred.

On the left a parking lot, on the right a small park. In front, an older stucco facade and next to it a modern facade, bearing a blue-framed plaque commemorating Ukraine's fallen
A large plaque commemorating fallen Ukrainian soldiers hangs next to the "Jewish House" in Chernivtsi Image: Keno Verseck/DW

"Sometime after the millennium, there were still 2,000 practicing Jews here," says Lev Kleiman, head of the city's Aviv congregation. It's one of several places of worship for Jewish people in the city. "Many left after that. Now there are probably about 2,000 Jews living here, thanks to the many refugees who have arrived from Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa. Our congregation has around 200 members. That's almost twice as many as before the invasion."

Kleiman says that people like Chernivtsi because it's quiet, beautiful, and not too big. The city's rich history shaped by diverse ethnicities means more Russian is spoken there than in other parts of Ukraine. "That's why a lot of Russian-speaking Jews from eastern and southern Ukraine feel at home."

Fascism accusations "completely absurd"

Lev Kleiman was born in Chernivtsi. The 37-year-old marketing expert is friendly and open. He sees himself and his family staying in the city long-term. Kleiman says the city has been lucky so far because it hasn't experienced any major bombing attacks. That might be because there's little military activity or important infrastructure here that could potentially be targeted and destroyed by Russia. Chernivtsi's close proximity to Romania, a NATO member, may also be one reason why the city has yet to be attacked.

Lev Kleiman, head of the Aviv congregation in Chernivtsi, talks on the phone in his office
Lev Kleiman is head of the Aviv congregation in ChernivtsiImage: Keno Verseck/DW

Kleiman also emphasizes that there are no conflicts among the city's different Jewish congregations. They help each other, particularly when it comes to caring for refugees, he says. Asked about Nazis in Ukraine, Kleiman simply shakes his head.

"Russia's claims about Nazis ruling Ukraine are completely absurd," he says. "We have a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He doesn't go to the synagogue, but still! People can walk around wearing a kippah in Chernivtsi without worrying and without any trouble. No one even looks twice at someone for doing so. How can conditions like these be called fascist?"

"Russia annihilated our past"

When the discussion turns to the future of the Jewish community, Kleiman remains silent for a long time. Then he responds with a famous saying: "If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans."

He says planning more than two weeks in advance is impossible in Ukraine at the moment. "We'll think about what tomorrow will bring tomorrow," Kleiman says with a smile.

Viktoria Maksymovych and Oleg Krassnyi also don't know what the future has in store for them. They still haven't been able to find work in Chernivtsi and they are living from their savings.

Parked cars on the left, Chernivtsi's synogogue on the left
The synagogue in ChernivtsiImage: Keno Verseck/DW

In the summer of 2022, Viktoria worked for several months as a volunteer in Romania, where she helped refugees from Ukraine. The couple spends a great deal of time with the local Jewish community, whether it's on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. They also sometimes just cook and make music together with other Jews, or engage in discussions with them about the Jewish faith. Victoria and Oleg say Chernivtsi's Aviv community has become their new family. "It's like being taken in by family members we haven't seen for ages," say Viktoria and Oleg. "The community is a great source of psychological support."

The cake on the table in Viktoria and Oleg's kitchen is still uneaten. Viktoria and Oleg aren't full of laughter, but they don't seem bitter either. Smiles flash across their faces, tinged with melancholy.

After a while, Viktoria speaks: "This war is a reminder that you can lose everything from one day to the next," she says. "It just isn't worth chasing after material things. It's also a reminder of how important family, friends and life itself really are. The worst part is that Russia has annihilated our past, and we don't have a future. So for us, the future is now."

This article was translated from German.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter