Ukrainian Jews Find Refuge in Berlin’s “Center of Darkness”

BERLIN — Yaroslava Skeshnikov performed and danced. The hamantaschen were pastries that represented Haman’s wicked attempt to exterminate Jews in Persia. This story is told in the Old Testament, and it is commemorated every year by Purim ..

The festivities in Berlin this week were similar to those celebrated by Jews around the world. But for Sveshnikov, 16, the celebration was transformed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said, “I want to be happy and make others happy.” “But the thoughts inside me are about the war.”

Sveshnikov was attending 10th grade in Odessa when the port city on the Black Sea became a fortress. He boarded the bus from Odessa to Moldova two weeks ago with his mother, and five-year-old brother. They found it too hard to go on. He was sent by his mother to Berlin alone.

Nearly 80 years after the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the former capital of the Third Reich is a haven for Jews fleeing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. That irony, the latest chapter in the dark history of Jewish life in Europe, further undermines Vladimir Putin’s claim that denazification justifies the death toll in Ukraine.

“It wasn’t so long ago that Jews were running from Berlin, the center of darkness and evil, and now Berlin is where they know they can be saved,” said Yehuda Teichtal, a Berlin rabbi and the head of the local Chabad community that arranged for the evacuation of Sveshnikov and about 500 other Ukrainian Jews — first from an orphanage in Odessa, then from among other women and children in the city and most recently from Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been hit by airstrikes.

Teichtal, who was born in New York, arrived in Berlin 25 years ago to nurture a local branch of Chabad, whose missionary tradition has made it one of the most prominent and politically influential Hasidic sects in the world. Photographs with world leaders, including former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to former president George W. Bush, line the walls of the rabbi’s office, not far from the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysees.

The chief rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar, whose relationship with Putin has sometimes earned him the nickname “Putin’s rabbi,” is a member of the Chabad movement. He recently called for an end to the war and offered to mediate peace talks.

Teichtal’s interventions have been more pragmatic. A Chabad Rabbi in Odessa (once a centre of Jewish life in Russia) appealed to Teichtal for help two weeks ago. He described rapidly declining conditions in Odessa. According to Teichtal, parts of the city had no electricity or water. Sirens were heard throughout the day.

The most acute situation was at a Jewish orphanage. Teichtal discovered. He said that the circumstances brought back stories from the camp for displaced persons, where Teichtal’s mother was born on the Germany-Austria border. He recalled that he said it spontaneously and like an American: “We’re going out to rescue them.” “I hung up the phone and said to myself, ‘Okay, Yehuda, now you have to save them.'”

Working with contacts in three countries — Ukraine, Moldova and Germany — the rabbi secured buses to transport the children. He was able to secure rooms at nearby hotels for the children, initially for three month.

“They’re not coming for a weekend,” he said. “They’re coming to stay.”

The youngest arrival is a 6-week-old baby, Teichtal said. They visited Berlin’s Zoo and the Reichstag in Germany, which is Germany’s oldest parliament building. The children have gathered to celebrate a bris and receive a visit by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s President.

Shoshana Khusid, a university student whose classes have continued via video link, arrived with her older brother and younger sister. Her parents stayed behind to care for her ailing grandparents, said Khusid, 18. Every day they communicate over WhatsApp. A white-flower lei was hung around Khusid’s neck. She said that purim is an expression of joy. This was her opinion as she sat in a Berlin InterContinental ballroom, where Chabad had held an elaborate festival complete with bounce houses, dance floors, and a variety of delicious food.

Khusid stated that she intended to travel to Berlin this summer in order to pursue a career as an educator. She said, “Now I am here.”

If refugees such as Khusid decide to stay, it could mean another revitalization of Germany’s Jewish population, similar to the Jewish immigration from post-Soviet states three decades ago, said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history whom President Biden has nominated to be his special envoy to combat antisemitism. Lipstadt stated in an interview that there is “something very powerful” in the situation. “It echoes the past in two different ways.”

It is fitting that such a revitalization would be facilitated by Chabad, said Samuel E. Heilman, an emeritus professor of sociology at Queens College in New York and a scholar of Orthodox Jewry. He said

Chabad has been successful in promoting religious devotion and global outreach. However, this can also cause division. “They go where other religious organizations don’t go,” Heilman said, whether that means staying in Crown Heights after the 1991 Brooklyn riot that targeted Orthodox Jews or returning to Mumbai after the 2008 terrorist attacks targeted a Chabad House. He said that they are now in China.

“They build relationships,” he said. They amass power. And they save lives.”

Purim commemorates a miracle in which lives are saved because a tyrant is struck down, said Sveshnikov, who wore a blue suit and a yarmulke to the celebration Thursday night in Berlin. The princess and firefighter costumes were preferred by younger celebrants.

” “It is a miracle that Haman has died for Jews,” he stated. It’s somewhat similar in Russia to Haman’s situation. Haman was punished by God. I hope Putin’s fate will be the same.”

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