An Unlikely Jewish Journey: Supporter Blog from Lviv
By Ben Levitt, Young World Jewish Relief supporter
Young World Jewish Relief organises regular trips to areas in eastern Europe to see some of our life-changing work. It’s an opportunity to learn more about these countries that aren’t top of everyone’s holiday list, meet some of the incredible people we support, and see the impact of our work. Ben Levitt travelled to Lviv earlier this year and wrote about his experience.
“You’re going to Ukraine?” a friend asked me.
“Yes, it looks interesting”, I replied.
“Why? What’s there?” came the understandably confused follow-up questions.
“Well, I’m going to see some World Jewish Relief projects in Lviv. I’m not sure what I’m going to find, if anything, but I’m really excited!” I countered.
“Right, good luck with that…”. Silence.
Named Lemberg by the Austrians, then Lwów by the Poles, then Lemberg again by the Nazis, and then Lviv by the Soviets, which is the name that seems to have stuck, Lviv is a city that oozes history.
With a Jewish population reaching around 240,000 in the early 1940s, it stands at about 5,000 today. The trials and tribulations of the city itself run parallel to those of its Jewish community, and there are Jewish stories, both wonderful and desperately tragic, around every cobbled street corner.
On the hunt for one such remarkable story and with a day to spare before I joined the other Young World Jewish Relief participants, I set off in the footsteps of Philippe Sands’ East West Street to find the houses of Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. Lauterpacht and Lemkin were the key architects of the legal concepts of “Crimes Against Humanity” and “Genocide”, respectively.
These two Jewish Lvivian lawyers’ contributions to international human rights law cannot be overstated, and although this is not the right place to consider it fully (read East West Street!), through their work and advocacy, international human rights law now has the capacity to address, and in some cases prevent, the most heinous of crimes. As a lawyer myself, standing outside their homes and reflecting on their legacies was an awe inspiring moment.
The following morning, I met up with the Young World Jewish Relief trip, expertly led by the indomitable Ekatarina Mitiaev and the brilliant Sam Pearl. After the “Do you know [insert name]?” games were over we learnt that the purpose of the trip was to explore the many projects World Jewish Relief supports across the Lviv Jewish community. Including a programme to prevent social isolation amongst older people, a back-to-work programme, and an initiative to repair dilapidated homes belonging to the most vulnerable older Jewish people.
The first person we met was Vera. Standing proud but with a stoop and a wrinkled face the portrait of a hard-fought life, Vera was widowed around ten years ago. Her only son lives in Kiev, an outdated photo of him hangs on the wall. Vera struggles to leave her sixth-floor apartment and meeting her brought home the debilitating effect of loneliness and the positive impact of World Jewish Relief’s support. It was remarkable to hear her stories and enjoy her company, and she came alive when sharing stories of her late husband, proudly boasting that he had received a certificate for services to transportation from Brezhnev himself, and would not let us leave until we ate some homemade pancakes.
World Jewish Relief provides volunteers from the local community and trained home care workers to visit people like Vera in their homes. Without this key support, Vera – and so many like her – with her stories, good humour and warmth, would be lost to a small one-bedroom flat in a former Soviet apartment block. It was with a heavy heart, but a very full stomach, that we said goodbye.
We headed to central Lviv for dinner at a Jewish-themed restaurant called Kafe Jerusalem, owned by Lola, a member of the Jewish community. She is also an alumni of ‘Work Service Lviv’, an employment programme run by World Jewish Relief which helps people get back into work. We were joined by members of the community and encouraged to try some of Lola’s “famous” speciality gefilte fish, which is well worth a visit if you’re in Lviv.
‘Work Service Lviv’ is a week-long training session which gives participants, many of whom are women, key skills to help them find work. This includes interview technique, psychological support to help motivate and build their confidence, and personal career guidance. The participants then work with professional recruiters to find work placements or create business plans to set up their own businesses.
Lola told us how the programme helped her with the skills and contacts she needed to set up and manage Kafe Jerusalem, including Excel and accountancy training so she could put together a business plan and attract investment. Lola was incredibly proud of what she had achieved but no more so than when she told us that Kafe Jerusalem is thriving and she is now employing other alumni from the employment course. I was struck by the impact this programme has. It’s empowering and the skills, confidence and values it instils in its participants mean they can build a better life for themselves, their families, and their community.
If I were to tell you there were Jewish refugees in Europe today, I would understand if you didn’t believe me, but, sadly, you would be wrong. At Hesed Arieh, the Jewish community centre in Lviv, we met a group of ladies who had recently completed the ‘Work Service Lviv’ programme. Svetlana was one of the group who told us her story and it was not one that I was expecting to hear.
Dressed in a light purple top and with a shock of bright red dyed hair, Svetlana spoke quietly but passionately about how she and her family fled to Lviv to escape the conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Arriving in Lviv, Svetlana said that she struggled to adjust to the new city and didn’t know how she was going to rebuild her life. She told us that taking part in World Jewish Relief’s employment programme had given her confidence, a social network and opportunities that she hadn’t believed were possible. She is now a qualified kindergarten teacher and is supporting her family.
Next up on our whistle-stop tour of Lviv was a knitting lesson with a difference. We found ourselves on the outskirts of the city in a rusty looking Soviet apartment block and within minutes we were being laughed at by a gaggle of five babushkas about our hapless ability to stich. The home we were in had been repaired by World Jewish Relief with a new bathroom, kitchen and windows.
In between grazing on delicious homemade cakes, our hosts told us how each of them had benefited from having their homes repaired. It gets bitterly cold in Lviv during the winter, and they spoke emotionally about the difference the relatively small home improvements had made: keeping out the cold and wind to create a safe and warm space.
It was a truly warming sight, both literally and metaphorically as now all these ladies get together in their repaired homes as part of a programme to combat social isolation and loneliness. World Jewish Relief supports these events by helping with the arrangements and providing transport, without which these wonderful women wouldn’t be able to get together and have the opportunity to laugh at my knitting skills.
Thinking about all the people I met during the trip, I was reminded that World Jewish Relief was founded in 1933 to help Jewish refugees escape Nazi-Europe before and after the Second World War. Eighty-six years later and only a three-hour plane ride from London, World Jewish Relief’s work is, sadly, still needed.
It was inspiring to be in Lviv with World Jewish Relief to see how it delivers programmes so closely aligned to its core values, to see how it lives up to its original founding principles, and to witness how it transforms lives. I couldn’t help think that but for the passing of time and the accident of geography, I might have been a recipient of the support provided by World Jewish Relief.
I headed to the airport for my flight back to London. My trip to Lviv was over all too swiftly but it had left a big impression on me and the rest of the group. Whilst I had expected it to be a diminishing community, what I saw in Lviv was a community striving for a better tomorrow and with the assistance of World Jewish Relief, the future looks hopeful.
In June 2019 join us for a remarkable cycling challenge from Lviv, Ukraine to Krakow, Poland. You’ll get to visit World Jewish Relief projects and meet the Jewish communities still living here.