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March 1, 2024
Older People

Ukraine’s older Jewish communities still holding on in the face of two years of war


Older people's hands together

Written by Beth Saffer, Head of Older Peoples Programmes

Ukraine was once home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, with approximately 1.5 million Jews living in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. We all know of the tragedy that ensued, most notably, the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ committed between 1941 and 1944. This involved the mass shootings of Jews, often in collaboration with local police and in some cases in advance of the German occupation, across Ukraine, Belarus and other USSR republics. 

Enduring decades of a communist dictatorship, many of Ukraine’s remaining Jewish community emigrated – largely to Israel – in the late 1980s and 1990s when it became possible to leave. By 2023, a year after Russia’s devastating full-scale invasion, the Jewish community of Ukraine was estimated at around 43,000 – just 3% of what it once was.  

World Jewish Relief has been working in Ukraine for over 30 years, supporting the needs of older Jewish people through Jewish and non-Jewish partner organisations. We work closely with many Heseds, which are welfare organisations established and supported by the American Joint Distribution Committee in the 1990s. This meant that whilst news of a full-scale invasion was a blow and a shock, we were quickly able to mobilise resources and help our partners, and clients (recipients of our support) to safety.  

As the war enters its third year, we continue to provide critical homecare services, medical care, food assistance, and vital social opportunities (though mostly online), trying to keep people in as good health as possible and provide the chance to be distracted and look to the future. We also provide home repairs, to ensure older Jewish people have at least one warm room to survive in.  

But recognising the immense challenges faced by all older people in Ukraine since the start of the war, we are now reaching far beyond the Jewish community as well, by providing humanitarian assistance and supporting residential institutions housing older, displaced individuals. 

Our homecare programmes provide much needed emotional support

There is definitely a wider feeling of “everyone pulling together” for the war effort, which is certainly reverberating amongst the Jewish community too. We have noticed an increased desire to go beyond the community and assist others in need, of whom there are sadly plenty. Working closely with our Jewish and non-Jewish partner organisations in Ukraine, we have sought to provide as much humanitarian aid, medical operations, and homecare services in the hardest hit areas, to Jewish and non-Jewish older people, as we could. This very much aligns with the Jewish values which guide us, such as Welcome the Stranger, and of compassion and Hesed (Kindness). One of our partner organisations commented: 

“Compared to Ukrainian pensioners who are not registered with Hesed (the Jewish welfare organisation), our clients have much more opportunities to live a full life. They receive help in many areas in which the Government cannot help them. Our clients are confident that they will not be abandoned and alone, but will have enough food, clothing and the necessary medications, and they will always be provided with the necessary help in difficult situations.” 

This is certainly a silver lining, in an otherwise bleak context for older people. Knowing that someone is checking on you, concerned for your welfare, brings huge comfort: 

“I am very grateful to World Jewish Relief and Hesed because, despite the fact that my relatives are far away, there are those who care about me. And this is the most important thing for me. After all, when you are not alone, even the horrors of war can be survived.” – Nina Adamovna, aged 71, Sumy, 2024. 

But whilst we have continued to provide life-changing, and in many cases, life-saving support, to older people in Ukraine, the impact has been devastating. Over a quarter of Ukrainians who have been killed during the war are older people. This is, in part, due to Ukraine being one of the ‘oldest’ countries in the world, with almost 9 million people aged 60 or above. But also, whilst over 6 million Ukrainians – the majority of whom are women and children – have fled abroad, seeking refuge in countries like Moldova, Poland, Israel and the UK, older people have largely remained in Ukraine. Around 85% of the older Jewish people we support in Ukraine have stayed at their original address.  

Around 85% of the older Jewish people we support in Ukraine have stayed at their original address.  

This might be hard to understand, and yet there are many reasons why older people stay: strong connections to their homes, fear of the unknown, dangers of displacement, economic factors (most older people cannot afford to rent properties on their small pensions alone), and health reasons including poor mobility and disabilities. Although evacuating to safer parts of Ukraine is not easy for older people, staying at home puts them at much higher risk of death and injury. As one of my team members, on a recent trip to Ukraine, reflected; 

“Older people told us that they do not go to bomb shelters at all because they are too far from their homes, too inaccessible (e.g., no elevators) and they have limited mobility to move quickly. Instead, they stay at home and await their fate, whatever it may be.” Liubov Rainchuk, World Jewish Relief Programme Manager.   

The pain of suffering, separation, loss, is felt by every Ukrainian no matter where they are in the world. My colleagues and I at World Jewish Relief stand firmly with our Ukrainian partners, and now many Ukrainians who work alongside us in the UK. Members of the World Jewish Relief team have visited Ukraine many times in the past two years. Partners speak of the real encouragement and moral support this brings in a climate of burnout and stress, which are inevitable symptoms of this protracted trauma. 

But we continually feel we should do more. The level of need often feels insurmountable – and we ourselves feel this guilt of becoming numb to yet another news article about shelling and destruction. But we also remind ourselves that this should never become “business as usual”. As the war enters its third year, Ukraine’s fate is on a knife edge. We must continue to provide a lifeline to Ukrainians in their hour of need.