Longevity is a Blessing? Reflections on a trip to Lviv by Sue Fox

Times journalist Sue Fox writes about her trip to Lviv, Ukraine with World Jewish Relief. 

There were 200,000 Jews in Lviv before the Nazi and Russian decimation of the community.    Maybe 5,000 Jews live there today. They are making the best lives they can in a city where the horrors of a bloody history whisper at you from the cobblestones. Those whispers grow louder from the stark monuments with their bold, gaudy artificial floral tributes lying silently in the damp, biting chill of a November day.   The old ghetto, says our extremely competent, grey faced guide, in robotic, emotionless English is now bordered by a gas station.  No harm was meant, but can I be the only one of our small group of eight who thinks this a particularly sick joke?   In a matter-of-fact drone, as though reading a shopping list, we are shown the exact spot where Simon Wiesenthal managed to escape from a work camp onto a train – or was it the other way round?   It doesn't matter.    The name Simon Wiesenthal is one we can all recognise and the places we are shown are real.  We are standing there, in our warm clothes, ready for coffee in our hotel – the best Lviv has to offer.      In an hour we will visit more of the worst Lviv has to offer.

Mother Teresa once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”    Today in Lviv, World Jewish Relief is caring for 130 elderly and lonely Jews who live in conditions most of us cannot imagine.  Of these brave souls, 60 are lonely but active, 40 are lonely and barely leave their flats and 30 are totally alone and housebound.   Without World Jewish Relief most of them would be dead and no one would know or care.

Uri, a double amputee aged 77 had a gas jet on so that he could welcome us into his home with a spark of warmth.   Until World Jewish Relief home improvement scheme stepped in he had no means of washing himself or his laundry.   He now has a suitable shower and a washing machine.   Uri also has a care package of volunteers and social workers who take care of him as much as they can and keep him company.  

Annya, at 91, has a huge smile.  She has lived here in these two rooms for 60 years.  Her pension, like Uri's is barely $30 a month.   She has never been out of Lviv apart from a visit to Uzbekistan when she was a child.  Fanya is 80.   Her husband is dead.   They had a son.   When he was a teenager they scrimped and saved to take him to the seaside for a wonderful day out on the beach.   He drowned that day and Fanya lives with her sorrow and memories.  

Fanya and Svetlana

Chaim, in his late eighties, is virtually blind and deaf.   He has a miniscule amount of hearing in his left ear.   Adina, a World Jewish Relief psychologist, strokes his hands and talks into his barely functioning ear.  Chaim's parchment skinned yellow-grey face creases into a smile, his eyes sparkle, and he begins to tell us about his life as a child before the Zigovka ghetto, when the family were rounded up and life, as they knew it, ended.  He tells us that his mother died when he was 12.  In school from the age of 9 he learned only yiddish.  When Jewish schools were closed and he was forced to go to a Ukranian school, the others laughed at him because he couldn't speak Ukranian.  Everyone in his village were craftsmen, his father worked in wood. There was a market twice a week and everyone was friendly.  It was a community.  

Sitting with us is Inna, a middle-aged World Jewish Relief volunteer from the community centre who has learned yiddish so she can talk to Chaim.  She visits him a couple of times a week.   Helena, a paid social worker from the centre, spends 5 hours Monday to Friday cooking and cleaning for him.   At the weekends he is mostly on his own.  Sometimes his only son manages to visit. Chaim was an accountant.  Twenty years ago he had throat cancer.  He is a survivor, but everyday he dreams of the brutality of the Ghetto and of German soldiers, of surviving by drinking his own urine.   Suddenly he smiles and remembers the smell of his grandmother's Shabbat food, and the village Shadchan.  Of weddings and joy and love.  

Longevity is a Blessing is the name of this World Jewish Relief programme.   It is only a blessing because of the human contact and practical help, support and selflessness of the team that these people who have already suffered so greatly, can defiantly stay alive with dignity.  

The Ukranian winters are hard.   Many in the small Jewish community live in poverty. They need new windows, doors, kitchens, boilers – the list is huge and the funds are limited.   We are not talking Grand Designs.   A new window which keeps out the wind, a cooker which works, a door which shuts – a cupboard – these are the things of dreams.   One woman hadn't had running hot water for 40 years.  Another proud, educated, brilliant 80 year old, whose book recounting a personal history is in Yad Vashem, had a water heater which was ten years older than me.

Entrances to the blocks of flats are wet, cold, dark and dangerous. Neighbours are not friendly.   There is no 'Jewish area' which means volunteers and care workers have to travel far and wide to visit their clients.  Buses are packed, traffic jams are a fact of life, and just getting places once the weather turns is difficult.   Our  skinny, clever translator, who  has several degrees, a husband who works for a  poorly paid state department,   three freelance jobs and a small son, told us that she added up the cost of a new winter coat, hat, boots and outdoor trousers for him (he is three) and it would take her entire month's salary.     The choice between eating and shopping for other things is often very hard. 

Hessed, the Jewish Community centre supported by World Jewish Relief is a joyous, bright, bustling hub.  Everything takes place there – singing, dancing, kindergarten, art classes, museum, library, discussions and World Jewish Relief’s innovative and very successful Back to Work initiative.   World Jewish Relief is in talks with the government to discuss how the experience they have gained in Ukraine, could be used to help Syrian refugees in the UK. Basically, World Jewish Relief professionals have made contact with 140 plus employers in Lviv.   They run intensive courses for motivated – mainly younger people – to improve their skills and find new jobs.   It's a win-win scheme where employers know that if they approach World Jewish Relief at Hessed, they will be offered candidates for jobs who are enthusiastic, skilled and ready to interview for the position. This means they don't have to advertise or pay recruitment agencies.  

Group photo

We met an ex-security guard who was now doing well as a systems analyst in IT.   A woman with young children who was so efficient after the training she is now training others,   One woman had brushed up her skills and confidence so much that she is now in charge of HR at a five star hotel.     The candidates for the scheme all have stories – many of them very sad.  The World Jewish Relief head of social work is there to pick up the pieces and help them move forward.  

A young mother had been widowed - totally out of the blue – and was turning her hobby of rock climbing and yoga – into a business.   Another woman who was very shy and depressed after losing her mother for whom she had been a carer, had gradually established a business as a therapist specialising in leech treatment  - yes that's what you read – leeches!   They are popular in this part of the world for curing migraines and aches and pains.  You can buy leeches at the chemist.    Irinia will now visit you at home and use yours or bring her own.....  world of mouth is encouraging and she is gradually gaining more clients.     

Deborah, aged 20, beautiful and tiny, is married to a boy who works as a road repairer and earns very little. Her disabled father has no job and she needs to support him.   A hairdresser, Deborah worked in a salon which didn't have many customers.  She came to Hessed and was accepted on the work sheme.  World Jewish Relief found training so she could learn to do manicures, pedicures and massage.  A fancy new shopping mall opened in town, with a beautiful, state of the art salon, and beauty product shop attached. The enterprise is owned by a stunning Ukranian entrepreneur and her sister,  who hope to open more  salons around the city.   Deborah is earning more than she ever has, loves the work, and has prospects for promotion.   A manicure, by the way, costs about £1.   Shellac is maybe £3.00.    I wondered who could even afford that, and was told that Ukranian women don't have much to brighten their lives, so they are very keen to spend on cosmetics, hair and nails. “A priority!” laughed our interpreter.

It made me think how much the £36.00 plus tip for a manicure and pedicure in NW London would buy in Lviv.    How much the cost of a daily latte might help Chaim, living with the memories of his grandmother's soup and cakes.

So why are Jews still living in the Ukraine?    The sceptics in the Jewish community often ask this question.   I wondered too.    Israel isn't the answer.   Young people can go there, of course they can.  But there is no guarantee of success.   For the small community bringing Jewish life back to Lviv, this is their home.   Many have ageing parents.    For the old it is simply too late and not practical.   So World Jewish Relief has to throw a lifeline because no one else will.    None of us walks in the shoes of the 5,000 Lviv Jews.      There are a lot of positive, happy stories and, hopefully, a better future for the next generation who play happily in the Hessed kindergarten.    They may not need our help and World Jewish Relief.    Meanwhile the lonely, old survivors of Lviv and its dark history - which feels horribly familiar as the world moves shockingly to the right – depend on the kindness of strangers.    As Balzac said, “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”

Some final video reflections from Sue:

Some final video reflections from Sue

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