Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World (part 2 of 2): Emigrating Ukrainian Jews Leave Behind Older Community

October 17, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s worsening economy has created conditions so harsh that Jewish communities in smaller towns are at risk.

Struggling to survive like other Ukrainians in towns where electricity is shut off for a few hours a day, many Jews have been emigrating because of the depressed economy.

As a result, a majority of the Jewish population in communities such as those in the area of Vinnitsa are predominantly elderly and dependent on outside help for subsistence.

“I couldn’t explain how Jews make their living today,” said Inna Itkina, a communal leader in Shargorod, where 200 Jews live. “People are working at five different jobs earning crumbs here and there.”

In Bershad, 46-year-old Zhanna works as a registering clerk in a local hospital. She makes $25 a month but says she has not been paid since May, which is not unusual for employees at government-funded institutions.

To supplement her income, Zhanna has been working at a local marketplace selling cheap makeup. “I’ve been earning $5 to $15 a month there,” she said.

Economic instability is the primary cause of Jewish emigration from Ukraine.

“No one wants to stay here,” said 12-year-old Leon Burgart of Mogilyov- Podolsky, who will soon move with his parents to Israel.

“People can’t support themselves, they worry about their future and their children’s future,” said Charles Hoffman, the Ukraine representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

With hundreds of young and middle-age Jews leaving each year for Israel, the United States or Germany, many local Jewish activists do not see any future for their communities.

The Vinnitsa region has a population of some 15,000 Jews, less than 1 percent of the general population.

“Most of our Jews are going to emigrate and those who will not go are likely to assimilate,” said Roman Trachtengerz, a Jewish communal leader in Mogilyov- Podolsky.

In fact, emigration already has been taking a toll on communal institutions in some of the smaller towns.

The Jewish Sunday school in Bershad was closed a few months ago because of a lack of children. In other small towns, Sunday schools are still functioning but probably will cease operations in a couple of years.

“After 10 years I’m not sure there will be any Jewish activity in our community,” said Yefim Vygodner, a Bershad Jewish communal leader.

Most of those who are not emigrating are elderly people “who have no children or simply those who are afraid of changing their life,” said Igor Desner, chairman of the Vinnitsa regional Jewish community.

Pensioners make up more than 60 percent of Jews in the small communities and most of them have found themselves in an extremely harsh situation since Ukraine gained independence.

“The medical system in the small towns has collapsed,” said Hoffman. “The people outside of the big cities are not getting their pensions paid on time and if they are paid it’s about” $20 a month.

Hoffman added that with this small amount of money, “you can’t feed yourself or buy clothes or medicine.”

To help meet the most basic needs of the elderly, the JDC has been providing since the summer hot meals for the region’s neediest Jews. A total of 240 Jews in 11 towns of the Vinnitsa region get free meals three times a week in the JDC-funded soup kitchens.

Nina Man and Felya Buchshtein, 81-year-old twin sisters and former ghetto inmates, said they had not had hot meals for about three years, until one of the soup kitchens was opened in their hometown.

The JDC also aids a handful of non-Jews who had been accorded the Israeli medal of Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing Jews during the Nazi occupation.

At the Vinnitsa region Jewish community office, a map on the wall is marked with figures next to the names of the towns. Ranging from one to several hundreds, the figures indicate the number of Jewish residents in each place.

“I don’t care much about the numbers,” said Desner. “But I do care about the number of people who need help from the community.”

Today, many Jews can survive only through the support they are getting from the community, said Leonid Sklyar of Zhemrinka.

Among some non-Jews there is a view that Jewish emigration is a cause of the economic crisis. Decades ago, the Jewish community was the center of economic and financial activity in the small Ukrainian towns.

“When there were Jews here, there was life,” said a non-Jewish pensioner in Shargorod.

Recommended from JTA