Jews in Mariupol, Ukraine are caught between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place’ with nowhere to run as the winds of war whirl into their community. Chabad-Lubavitch emissary and rabbi of the city, Rabbi Mendel Cohen, has remained to serve his brethren in what has become one of the greatest challenges of his life.
Pro-Russian separatists, Russian tanks and Ukraine forces are all rapidly converging on the key southeastern port city to fight for control.
The nearby town of Novoazovsk reportedly has fallen to the rebels over the past 24 hours, according to a report by the BBC which quoted Russian TV. The Ukraine government told media that Russian forces have crossed the border in support of the rebel advance — a charge denied by Moscow.
The besieged cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, further north, have been embattled for months. The self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), where the city of the same name is located, has attempted to secede from Ukraine. DPR Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian TV there were up to 4,000 Russian citizens within the ranks of the separatist rebel army, “former high-ranking military officers who have volunteered to join us. They are fighting with us, considering that to be their duty.
“There are also many in the current Russian military that prefer to spend their leave among us, brothers who are fighting for their freedom, rather than on a beach.”
“People are very worried right now,” Rabbi Cohen told Chabad.org. “There are lines at all of the gas stations and ATMs and people are stocking up on food, so there is nothing left in the stores. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Mariupol, the second-largest city in Donetsk, is only 35 miles from the Russian border and Russian is the primary language. In February, pro-Russian separatists seized the city’s administrative buildings and maintained control over the city for months.
Kiev sent troops and battled for control over the city in a fierce fight that ended at the city’s police station. At least six were killed in the offensive and it took until June 13 before the Ukraine government forces managed to secure total control over the city.
Rabbi Cohen described “armed men with masks right next to the shul,” saying it was “dangerous to walk around in the street” until June. Since then, however, “thank God it has become more stable.”
The sense of unease has returned, however.
Over the past month, more than 330,000 people have been displaced by combat in Donetsk to the north, and Lugansk to the east. Some 2,000 people have been killed so far, according to some estimates.
Many refugees have ended up in Mariupol. This week the sounds of shelling are much closer. Mariupol’s Jews so far insist on staying, fearing the dangers on the road to freedom more than the uncertainties facing them in their own homes. The Chabad emissary says he will stay as long as he can to aid the community.
“We have a minyan three times a day and Torah classes. Our day camp just ended, and we are now preparing for the school year,” Cohen said. The Jewish community has also worked to supply food packages to a growing number of people who need them.
Out of four emissaries serving southeastern Ukraine, Rabbi Cohen is the only one left. Three others were forced to re-evaluate their situations, along with the Jews of Donetsk, Lugansk and Maakeevka.
‘I hope and pray they will be able to return to their work very soon,” Rabbi Cohen said.