By Isaac J. Martin
Odessa, Ukraine, Mar 17 (EFE).- Using the pretext of “denazifying” Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of the neighboring country. But now, the members of the Jewish community in this East European country, who up until a month ago were living comfortably here after decades of devastation and migration following the Holocaust and Soviet repression, are fleeing abroad.
At the Chabad Synagogue, in the center of the port city of Odessa and the only temple of the four in town that is still open, are about 20 Jews reciting the Shacharit, the morning prayer, and later they will go to work or to volunteer in the city, which it on tenterhooks because of the approach of Russian troops, who are most probably under orders to bombard and seize the city.
But even this synagogue is not what it once was, with its wooden pews practically empty compared to how full they were before Feb. 24, when Putin launched his brutal invasion.
Of the 25,000 Jews registered in Odessa, one of the largest Jewish communities in Ukraine, at least 5,000 have fled to Moldova since the war began, according to figures provided to EFE.
Meanwhile, the rest have either remained with their relatives or are not able to leave because they are men within the age group who have been called upon to take up arms and defend the country against the Russians.
The director of the Jewish Museum of Odessa, Zvi Hirsh, opened the doors of the small area where relics of the Holocaust and the Jewish migrations during the 20th century are kept.
He has lived for 25 years in the coastal city, the so-called “Pearl of the Black Sea,” where “nobody” has ever looked askance at him or “insulted” him for being a Jew, he told EFE.
“What I understand is that Putin is lying,” he said, regarding the denazification claim, adding that “it makes no sense” as a reason to invade Ukraine.
Putin insists that the solution to the conflict with Ukraine will only be possible if “Russia’s legitimate security interests” are taken into account and satisfied, including recognizing “the sovereignty of Crimea,” which Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as well as ensuring the “demilitarization and denazification” of the country and guaranteeing that it will remain a neutral buffer state between Russia and NATO.
When the prayer starts, the chief rabbi in Odessa and southern Ukraine, Abraham Wolf, sits in his office where he takes several telephone calls, including one from his wife, who has already fled and is now in Germany.
Born in Israel, Wolf arrived in Odessa at age 22, but the 30 years that he has been working for the Jewish community in the city “have vanished,” he told EFE.
“What I achieved in 30 years has vanished. And it was gone in a second. But it’s what God wants. I’m doing my work and this is the result,” he said.
Regarding denazification, the rabbi said that he didn’t want to talk about politics, although he remarked that Putin had made a mistake.
“Three plus one is four. But now (for me) one plus one is a million,” he said, alluding to the big mistake he said Putin had made in justifying the invasion.
The rabbi said that before the war, there were two exclusively Jewish nursery schools in Odessa, along with two orphanages, elementary schools and even a Jewish university. In all, the Jewish community had 11 buildings, including the four synagogues.
“But now, it’s all closed,” he said, except for the Chabad Synagogue. Wolf added that despite the fact that the Russians may soon occupy the city, given that taking Odessa appears to be one of Moscow’s prime goals in its military campaign, he will not flee.
He made reference to two friends who are currently in different Ukrainian cities that have been occupied by Russian troops, saying that they are still working but refusing to give any further details.
“We’re doing everything we can for the Jewish community. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I don’t want to look for an explanation, I don’t want to imagine or fantasize,” he said, adding that the one thing that’s clear to him is that he’s going to stay in Odessa.
Another person who said he didn’t want to talk politics because he doesn’t “have time” for it was Oleg, 40, who was wearing a sweatshirt with a Mossad logo, the Israeli intelligence service.