KIEV, Ukraine (Nov. 6)
“I’m lucky because I’m not used to eating much,” says 72-year-old Yevgenia Soroka, a former chemist at a Kiev military plant.
Soroka, like many of Ukraine’s elderly population, has been suffering severe economic hardships since the collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago.
In Ukraine, where the economic situation is one of the most desperate among the former Soviet republics, elderly people depend on minimal pensions and are barely able to support themselves.
But now, thanks to funds provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, much needed help will be available to people like Soroka.
This week, as a result of a major contribution from the Claims Conference, the largest welfare center for Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union opened here in the Ukrainian capital.
The Chesed Avot Charity Center, which operates with the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is one of a series of welfare projects in the former Soviet Union sponsored with the proceeds of restituted property.
Governmental officials and foreign diplomats joined members of the local Jewish community this week for the charity center’s dedication ceremony.
“The new center will return to many Jews a hope for life. It will help them to live as Jews,” Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Ya’acov Bleich said at the ceremony.
For Israel Miller, president of the Claims Conference, the new center has a special personal meaning.
“If my parents had not come to the United States and if I were fortunate to escape Babi Yar, I would be in the same position as you are,” Miller, whose family left Ukraine in 1904, said at the ceremony.
“We consider it a holy responsibility to use the money of the people who did not survive for the benefit of the people who did,” he added.
The Claims Conference, which received restitution for Jewish heirless or unclaimed property in the former East Germany, was unable until 1995 to devote any of the funds it received to programs within the former Soviet Union.
But since 1995, the Claims Conference has contributed $12 million to projects in the former Soviet Union.
In addition to Kiev, the Claims Conference is already providing funds for Jewish welfare centers in the former Soviet cities of Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, St. Petersburg and Minsk.
Next year, three more centers are scheduled to open in Moscow, the Ukrainian city of Odessa and in the capital of the Moldovan republic, Kishinev.
By the end of World War II, about 1.2 million Jews had perished in German- occupied Soviet territory.
From 1941 to 1944, Ukraine alone had more than 200 Jewish ghettos and labor and concentration camps.
In the ensuing political atmosphere, those who survived could not speak openly about their wartime torments; they did not even dream of ever receiving compensation for their sufferings at the hands of the Nazis.
The Kiev center, which will serve as the flagship program of the Claims Conference in the former Soviet Union, is seen by many elderly Jews as historical justice, providing compensation for what they have endured.
“We as Jews have been deprived of many things during our lifetime. Now we are regaining some of what was lost,” said Zvi Kagan, a retired Soviet army colonel and World War II veteran.
The Chesed Avot center, which will model its services on the welfare operations developed by the JDC during the past two years, will provide the bulk of its services for elderly Jews in Kiev and in the neighboring region.
The area has a Jewish population of approximately 100,000, or about one-quarter of Ukraine’s total number of Jews.
More than half of Ukraine’s Jewish population is elderly, according to Arkady Monastirsky, a member of Chesed Avot’s board.
He voiced the hope that the new center “will serve as a magnet for other Jewish activities and organizations in Ukraine.”
Chesed Avot will offer an extensive program of social care services to Holocaust survivors, including home care for the homebound, medical consultations and equipment, and a Meals on Wheels program.
The center, headquartered in a newly-renovated three-story building that was previously a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis, will include a Jewish library, pharmacy, laundry and exercise room among its facilities.
Some Jews, especially in the small towns near Kiev, will benefit from the center’s winter relief program, which will supply needy survivors with coal and firewood to heat their houses during the winter.
The center will use the services of 100 volunteers as well as of professional Jewish social workers who participated in a training program that the JDC initiated in Kiev in 1991.
It is expected that about 20,000 Jews will benefit from Chesed Avot’s free services before the end of this year.