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In the summer of 2014, I, Pieter van der Jagt (22) from The Netherlands, met Matthew Thorn (19). Matthew is from Australia and after he graduated from high school he decided to take a year’s leave to see the world and to learn all about God’s plan for the world. Together we visited a summer camp in Germany and after that he came to The Netherlands and lived with us for a while. He met Koen Carlier in Israel and Koen invited him to come to the Ukraine. A while ago he asked me if I would like to accompany him. I liked that idea a lot, so I said “yes”. I had no idea that he really intended to go. Only by the time we got the tickets I suddenly realized that we were actually going.
What did I know about the Ukraine? We were going to pack 1,500 food parcels and distribute them to the Jewish population in West Ukraine. What made me decide to go? Well, I liked the idea a lot and I had no reason to say no! However, there were quite a number of practical things to deal with.
The country, the program, meeting the people it all made a big impression on me. Already on the first day (October 5), we visited Babi Jar, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. Nataliyah Krishanovsky told us about the horrible things that happened there. After this horrifying start we headed for Vinnitsa. That is where we started packing the food parcels together with two dozen other people, the next day, Monday the 6th of October. That day we also visited a rather impressive Holocaust museum and the Jewish Agency. It was there that we were told about the Aliyah work, the passports, the Jewish refugees or Olim. After this jam-packed day we were invited to the yeshiva in the quarter of Jerusalimka for a wonderful meal with traditional Jewish music played by two professional musicians who had just come from the theater to play especially for us. We had a profound conversation with Rabbi Horowitz before we returned to the seminary where we spent the night.
Tuesday October 7 was the first day for handing out the food parcels. We went to the center of the Jewish community in Zhmerinka. There we handed out 125 food parcels. In the community hall we introduced ourselves and explained why we were here. After that we drove to Mogolov Podolsky. There we had lunch in the synagogue. Then we headed for the Holocaust museum where the Jewish community had gathered to receive the food parcels. There too we introduced ourselves and we explained why we were here.
During the handing out of the food parcels someone explained about the museum. Then we visited an old lady in a little village. She looked like 80 but when we asked her about the war we found out that she was born in 1958! She lives with her daughter and son in law and granddaughter together in one house. We were the first visitors from abroad since 10 years! So, the 9 year old granddaughter has never seen any visitors. She walks every day ten kilometers to and fro to attend school. After this visit we were going to meet Ruslan. Ruslan and his wife have two children of their own and a lot of foster children. I didn’t count them but there were some nine or ten children inside the house. They also have other foster children that are already married. In short, a very special family that makes a lot of music.
Wednesday morning we loaded 135 food parcels for Tulchin. On arrival we visited Rita Geynihovna Schveybysch, head of the local Jewish community (kehilla). Rita and her friend Raya took us to a number of old folks in the kehilla and we handed out food parcels. We also ran across a man who almost constantly was crying because of his traumatic experiences inside the Pechora concentration camp. A woman we visited was ill and we could only stay for a short time. The rest of the food parcels was stored in a shed from where Rita took care of further distribution.
Rita and Raya are both survivors of the Pechora concentration camp. That afternoon they told us their story. We covered the forty kilometer road she and many hundreds of Jews had walked in the cold month of December of 1941. In Pechora she showed us the former concentration camp and the enormous mass graves in a forest nearby. What they showed and told us for a start made our journey well worth. It is so moving when someone from one’s own experience can tell about the horrific history of psychiatric experiments, famines and forced cannibalism. It is alarming that people dare to ignore or even dare to deny it. Rita’s story is also told in the book “Born to suffer – the catastrophe in Ukraine”. After visiting Tulchin and Pechora we went to Koen’s house. There we had a wonderful dinner. Afterwards Matthew and I went to the fountain show in Vinnitsa, with Maxim, one of the local volunteers.
Thursday October 9. In the morning we loaded food parcels into the cars again. We drove to a Baptist church in Bratslav. There we reloaded the food parcels into the car of Pastor Igor who took care of further transportation. At the church we met Natasha, a refugee from Odessa. She radiated a lot of fear. Even without our interpreter translating her words, it was clear what kind of impressions she had had. She told of her difficult situation now that she is so far away from her husband. She really made a desperate impression. We prayed with her. That induced the release of even more emotions. After that we continued our journey.
We visited a mother and daughter who decided to make Aliyah already a year ago. But due to a number of impediments they didn’t go. She told us that she had already put her house up for sale, however until now not successfully. We prayed with her too for the practical and spiritual aspects of the situation. Next we visited a small holocaust museum. After a guided tour we went to a Jewish congregation that had invited us for the Feast of Tabernacles. It was very festive. With explanation about the feast and afterwards a meal and live music, dance and singing. A wonderful experience.
There were new congregation members, a young family of refugees from Odessa. Just like Natasha they also radiated a lot of fear. We told them about the possibilities for their children to study in Israel and about the Aliyah fair that was about to take place in Kiev. We also visited the grave of Nachman, the founder of the Chassidic movement. On that hill I realized what an incredible amount of things we had already done. I thought “How in the world can I pass on to others all the things I have experienced and learned here?!” Next we drove back to the Baptist church in Bratslav were we had our dinner. Natasha was there too and we had some profound discussions with her.
On Friday October 10, we went to Berschad in the afternoon. What we did in the morning I just can’t remember. Probably met some people too. We delivered some food parcels at the two hundred year old synagogue. Here we met a lot of Jewish people. It was an impressive meeting. There was also a refugee from Luganck. Jifim gave us a guided tour through the old Jewish Schtetl and we had a wonderful meal in a small restaurant. I could talk German with Jifim and he would answer in Jiddish. Jifim has, just like a number of very special people we met, a unique personality. He can talk for hours on end about almost anything and the more he tells the more interesting it gets. We stayed the night in a small hotel and the next day (Saturday, October 11) we visited three families.
We stayed the night in a small hotel and the next day (Saturday, October 11) we visited three families.
The first family lived in a typical Schtetl house. And this family was full of stories too. The women in this family all had very poor eyesight. One daughter even has minus 17!! The possibility to make Aliyah was discussed. After a lot of talking back and forth we headed for the next family. That was the family of the refugee from Luganck. A physician, his wife and their daughter, who was a lawyer in Luganck. We might have been sitting there for at least two hours listening to their stories and their view to the situation in Eastern Ukraine. It was a fascinating conversation.
Finally we visited a family of teachers. Koen led them to the idea to put their daughter on a program in Israel. We asked them if they were the only Jews in the region. Not so, there was another woman. We visited her as well, together with the oldest man we met during our last visit. A long time ago he had been at school with her. The two oldies just couldn’t agree about the exact graduation year. It was very stimulating to see these old people laughing together so much. Afterwards we drove to Korsun-Shevenko to deliver the last food parcels and to visit some more families. We had dinner with Peter Rashkovsky. He told us what is was like for the Jewish population in the communist era. How his father lived as a rabbi. Another profound and interesting conversation.
On Sunday October 12, Peter took us to a number of important places. Amongst others a Jewish mass grave in a Jewish cemetery. We also visited a couple of families and went to the Regional Association of Small Ukrainian Towns. That night we also went to Kiev and looked around in the city center. Afterwards we had dinner with Nataliyah and Yuri Krishanovsky and spent the night. The next day we were going to return home.