(JTA) — In the months after Russian tanks rolled into her country last February, the music largely stopped for Elizaveta Sherstuk.
The founder of a Jewish choral ensemble called Aviv in her hometown of Sumy, in the northeastern flank of Ukraine, Sherstuk had to put singing aside in favor of her day job and personal mission: delivering aid to Jews in Sumy.
“There was no time to sleep,” Sherstuk recalled to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently. “All my team members worked the same, 24/7.”
A year later, Sherstuk is still hustling as the Sumy director of Hesed, a network of welfare centers serving needy Jews in the former Soviet bloc. But she has also begun teaching music classes again, too — with performances sometimes held in bomb shelters.
Sherstuk’s story reflects the ways that Russia’s war on Ukraine has affected Jews in Ukraine and beyond. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands, left even more in peril and fundamentally altered the landscape and population of Ukraine, forcing millions to flee as refugees.
But the war has also mobilized the networks of Jewish aid and welfare groups across Europe, leading to a Jewish organizational response on a massive scale not seen in decades. And Ukrainian Jews who have remained in the country have recalibrated their lives and communities for wartime.
Here are four stories about Jews who stepped in and stepped up to help, and a taste of the on-the-ground situations they found themselves in.
‘I was needed there’
Since nearly drowning at 23, Dr. Enrique Ginzburg has felt he “had to pay back” for the extra years of life he was granted.
Now 65, the professor of surgery at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine and its trauma division has lent his critical care expertise in Haiti, Argentina, Kurdistan and Iraq, in various emergency situations. But until last year, he had never been to a war zone.
The Cuba native felt drawn to Ukraine because his grandfather is from Kyiv, while his grandmother is from nearby eastern Poland. So early on in the conflict, he called Dr. Aaron Epstein, an old friend and the founder of the nonprofit Global Surgical and Medical Supply Group.
“Get yourself a flak jacket, a helmet, a gas mask and come on over,” Ginzburg said Epstein told him.
He has been to Ukraine twice under the nonprofit’s auspices, last April and July. Ginzburg’s explanation for why he flew across the world to put himself in danger: “I was needed,” he said.
His base was an emergency hospital in Lviv, a city located west enough that it became a major refugee hub. He consulted with front-line Ukrainian physicians, many of them young and inexperienced, and hospital administrators, watching the doctors in action. He also visited patients in hospital wards and helped to treat gunshot wounds and assorted combat injuries.
Ginzburg’s bags were packed with meaningful supplies. Some had been requested by his Ukrainian colleagues for medical use, mostly specialized catheters. But he also brought tefillin, the phylacteries used by Jews in their morning prayers. Ginzburg, who studied in a yeshiva while young but no longer considers himself Orthodox, wrapped them every day while in Ukraine.
Even though Lviv was far from the fighting, he could hear air raid sirens and the explosion of the Russian missiles, sometimes feeling the earth shake. When intelligence reports warned Ginzburg’s medical team of impending missile attacks, they sought refuge in safe houses.
“Today,” he told the Miami Herald last June, “I was calling my life insurance [company] because I have young sons and my wife, so I’m trying to make sure I have good coverage.”
By the end of his trips, Ginzburg lost count of the number of doctors he helped train and the number of patients he saw. “I’m sure it’s hundreds.” He plans to make a third trip sometime this year.
‘This is our new reality’
As the director of the JDC, or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in Poland, Karina Sokolowska has heard countless harrowing stories over the past year. But one sticks out in her memory.
It involved an elderly Ukrainian couple she met at the Poland-Ukraine border in late spring. The husband was in a wheelchair, and Sokolowska helped push him — back towards Ukraine. They had spent three months in a shelter in Poland but eventually “realized we cannot go looking for jobs, we cannot restart our lives. We are too old,” the woman said.
“If they are to die, they’d rather die back home,” Sokolowska said. “It’s a story of hopelessness. They are so vulnerable.”
Last year, about 8 million Ukrainian refugees made their way to Poland, the bordering country that accepted the most refugees. Early on in the conflict, Sokolowska contacted and visited Jewish communities throughout Poland, investigating the availability of places where the soon-to-be-homeless refugees could be housed. She also traveled to some of the border crossings where the Ukrainians entered, to arrange transportation to venues in Poland and to oversee the conditions in which the refugees would begin their new lives.
Later she would help with, among other things: arranging legal advice for the people who arrived with few identification documents; lining up medical care and drugs; finding them short- and long-term housing; connecting them to psychological counseling; providing kosher meals; and even caring for the refugees’ pets (“dogs and cats with no documents”).
According to JDC statistics, the organization “provided essential supplies and care” to 43,000 Jews in Ukraine and “aided 22,000+ people” there with “winter survival needs … more than double the amount served in previous years.” The welfare organization also claimed to provide “life-saving services” to more than 40,000 refugees in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and other European locations. It also helped evacuate about 13,000 Jews from Ukraine. (Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen recently said 15,000 Ukrainian Jews in total have immigrated to Israel since the start of the war.)
At the height of the refugee flood, Sokolowska said her monthly JDC budget ballooned to more than what she previously spent in an entire year. Her office went from having a few employees to over 20. The amount of sleep she got decreased in tandem; she started taking sleeping pills to get rest when she could.
“This is our new reality” in Poland, she says of the JDC work with Ukrainian refugees. “This is our life now.”
Sokolowska, the granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, became active in Jewish life during college, when a classmate heard her pronouncing some German words with a Yiddish accent and persuaded her to lead the Polish Union of Jewish Students. As JDC director for Scandinavian countries in addition to Poland, she typically organizes educational conferences and helps Jewish families learn about traditions they had not learned while growing up in the communist era.
Today, her sense of optimism has been ground down.
“Everything changed when war came to Ukraine — there is less hope,” Sokolowska said. “It’s a totally new everything. Every aspect of our life changed. Our hope for this to be over soon is going down, down, down. Nothing will change.”
‘It could [have been] me’
Sometime in the late 1890s, Harry Fellman, about 20 years old, left his home in Ukraine. According to family legend, he was a sharpshooter in the Ukrainian army and was about to be sent into active combat. Instead, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Omaha, Nebraska, where he became a peddler.
His grandson Tom Fellman — whose middle name is Harry — doesn’t know all the 120-year-old details, but he knows that he is grateful that Harry Fellman decided to leave Ukraine when he did.
“It could [have been] me, if my grandparents had not left when they did,” said Fellman, a successful real estate developer and philanthropist in Omaha.
In October, at 78 years old, Fellman made the reverse trip across the Atlantic to pitch in to the relief effort. He also wanted to pay what he sees as a debt to the memory of his late grandfather and to help the current generation of Ukrainian Jews.
He and his wife Darlynn served as volunteers for a week at the Krakow Jewish community center, joining hundreds (possibly thousands) of volunteers from overseas who have gone to Poland and the other nations in the region over the last year to participate in humanitarian programs on behalf of the millions of Ukrainian refugees. Fellman worked nine hours a day with a half-dozen fellow foreign volunteers in the basement of the community center, transferring the contents of “big, big” sacks of items like potatoes and sugar into small containers to be distributed to refugees in the building’s first-floor food pantry. His wife spent her time in an art therapy program that was set up for the refugee mothers and children to raise their spirits.
Fellman is “not particularly religious” but supports “anything Jewish.” In 1986, he accompanied a rescue mission plane of Soviet Jews headed to Israel. “It was the most rewarding experience of my life,” he recalled.
Fellman says he plans to return to Poland, in June, for the JCC’s annual fundraising bike ride from Auschwitz to Krakow.
What did his friends think of his septuagenarian volunteer stint? “They thought it was cool,” he said. “But none of them are going too.”
‘Everything was a risk’
Sherstuk’s parents would have sent their daughter to a Jewish school in her early years if they had had the option. But Jewish education was not permitted In Sumy during the final years of communist rule in the Soviet republic. Sherstuk was exposed to Jewish life only at home.
Her parents infused her with a Jewish identity, she said, and her grandparents used to talk and sing songs in Yiddish. That inspired Sherstuk’s first career as a singer and a music teacher, during which she founded Aviv and took it on tour throughout the region singing traditional Jewish songs. Later, she became the director of Sumy’s branch of the JDC-funded Hesed network.
Sumy, an industrial city with a population of 300,000 before the war situated only 30 miles from the Russian border, was one of Russia’s first targets. In the days before the pending invasion, Sherstuk stockpiled food, which was certain to become scarce in case of war, and arranged bus transportation to safer parts of the country for hundreds of vulnerable civilians, mostly the elderly and disabled. The bus plan fell through for safety issues.
As the bombing started, it became dangerous for members of the local 1,000-member Jewish community, many of them elderly, to venture outside of their apartments. Sherstuk, working out of a bomb shelter, assisted by a Hesed network of volunteers, coordinated food and medicine deliveries.
The situation grew more dire, and she coordinated the Jewish community’s participation in a brief humanitarian corridor evacuation of vulnerable civilians that the Russians permitted. She communicated with Sumy residents mostly by smartphones provided by the JDC — the Russian attacks had cut the landlines — and accompanied the busloads of Sumy Jews to western Ukraine. Some of them eventually moved on to Israel, Germany, or other nearby countries, she said.
Sherstuk stayed in western Ukraine for a while (“The humanitarian corridors are only for one-way trips,” she noted), moving from place to place, keeping in touch with the Jews of Sumy and waiting for Ukraine’s army to make the trip back safe. But Sumy, like many Ukrainian cities, has come under frequent Russian rocket attack.
“Everything was a risk,” she said. “We were following whatever our hearts told us to do. We had to save people. I was the one who had to do it.”
Last May, Sherstuk was among 12 men and women (and the sole one from the Diaspora) who lit a torch at the start of Israel’s Independence Day in a government ceremony on Mount Herzl. During two weeks in Israel, she spent some time with members of her family, and held a series of meetings with JDC officials, government ministers and donors. “It was not a vacation,” she said.
After going back to Sumy, at the suggestions of her choral group members and fellow Sumy residents, she organized concerts in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian — some in person, some in a bomb shelter in the city’s central square, some online. She has now resumed her music classes, too, and it has all boosted morale. “I [teach] all the time,” she said.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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