Poland. Slovakia. Hungary. Romania. Moldova.
Over more than two months, these countries have welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their war-torn home in the face of a brutal assault by a Russian dictator bent on empire-building at seemingly any cost. The geography of current day Ukraine is no stranger to war having been, for centuries, a battleground—at the crossroads of empires and on the front lines of revolutions. For most of its recorded history, Ukraine has victimized—often brutalized—its Jews in times of conflict and strife, making them the object of baseless hatred or ready scapegoats for the prevailing impetus to war. Cossacks. Russian revolutionaries. Nazi Germany.
In World War II, Ukraine was witness to one of the largest slaughters of Jews in history. More than 1.5 million Jewish men, women, and children were butchered in what has come to be known as the “Holocaust of bullets”—the prevailing method of killing prior to the gas chambers. Those who attempted to flee likely looked to such places as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania in search of safe haven, only to find the borders closed. Already overrun by Nazi hordes, their own Jewish communities were being obliterated with help from local collaborators. These were Jewish killing fields.
The free world fought a years’-long war to liberate Europe from the forces of darkness, but its relief efforts were largely ineffectual in saving Jews, whose own attempts at rescue were tragically limited and carried out underground. Precious few were saved. By war’s end, in 1945, six million Jews had been murdered, a third of the Jewish world, with the surviving remnant once more subject to the mercies of others—the victorious allies, the shells of worn-torn nations in desperate need of rebuilding, and relief agencies deployed from the United States but few other triumphant countries.
Today, once again, Central Europe is engulfed in the ravages of war. Millions are on the move, fleeing oncoming destruction wrought by Russian guns and soldiers bent on cold-blooded murder. On the eve of the invasion, Ukraine was home to 200,000 Jews, among the largest Jewish communities in the world, which, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of Ukrainian independence, had rebuilt its communal infrastructure—JCCs, synagogues, Hillels, day schools, and social service agencies—with support from the wider Jewish world.
Similar community building occurred in surrounding countries—the places to which refugees of this war turned when the time came to flee. For Jews arriving at the borders, relief awaits—open arms, a soft bed, a hot meal—as the leading rescue and support organizations of the Jewish world see to the needs of terror-stricken Jews—and join hands with others engaged in wider refugee relief efforts.
Every imaginable resource is being brought to bear by North American, European, and Israeli aid organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), HIAS, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), IsraAID, Jewish federations across Canada and the United States, and the American Jewish Committee, among others. Where once to be identified as a Jew approaching these borders meant death, today it means something entirely different—a network of supporters, partners, and services dedicated to ensuring safety and freedom for each of the tens of thousands of Jews who have made it out.
Plenty, I suppose. But above all, for Jews, what’s changed is our place in the world—our sense of agency, self-reliance, power. We’ve developed remarkable capacity and capability as a people. As terrified Jews once again find themselves on the run in the face of war, this time we’re there to receive them.
Today, we have sovereignty.
The State of Israel was born on May 14, 1948, the fulfillment of a modern Zionist dream, begun in the 19th century, to end our pitiable dependence on others and the horrific circumstances that were an all too often by-product of that dependence. In the decades since, Jews, irrespective of where we choose to make our homes, have been empowered by that sovereignty, which has provided us with the agency we so sorely lacked when we last fled war in Ukraine. Today we stand tall and proud as we provide safe haven for Jews on the run—and we do so side by side with allies from across the free world—as millions flee from terror to freedom.
Yesterday the Jewish world marked השואה יום | Yom HaShoah | Holocaust Remembrance Day, remembering the six million. Two more hallowed dates on the Jewish calendar follow in the week ahead. יום הזכרון | Yom HaZikaron | Israel’s Memorial Day—on which we’ll reflect upon the terrible price of our sovereignty, paid in the lost lives of Israel’s defenders—and a day later, העצמאות יום| Yom HaAtzmaut | Israel’s Independence Day, when we’ll revel in our freedom and self-determination. The sequence is not coincidental. It was from the depths of our people’s near destruction that we found honor in the sacrifice that has been required to achieve and sustain our sovereignty, our agency as a people in this world.
Today, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, when Jews find themselves in the crosshairs, we, the Jewish people, rush to their aid. Make no mistake: Without sovereignty, the likelihood of our ability to make a difference at the borders of Ukraine would be very much in doubt.
On the former killing fields of the Jews of Europe, we stand today, shoulder to shoulder with the forces of freedom—strong, proud, and sovereign.
Am Yisrael Chai! | עם ישראל חי
Shabbat shalom. | שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America