When the invasion began, the bowls in the cabinet started to rattle and shake, and the chandelier swung wildly. At midday, the sky turned black, the sun blocked out by military planes. Anatoliy Ginzburg was only 9 in 1941 when war ravaged Ukraine, but already old enough to know he was living through hell.
“The explosions began, and then weeks of war began,” Anatoliy, now 90, told me when I spoke with him in Kharkiv two years ago. “God forbid that anyone should witness such horror with their own eyes.”
Now, Anatoliy faces another war—just like tens of thousands of other Jewish seniors and millions of their neighbors in Ukraine. For many, the Feb. 24 invasion was a return to the deepest, most base traumas of childhood.
By any definition, Ukraine’s elderly Jews, like all those throughout the former Soviet Union, have had it uncommonly hard. Some came of age in wartime, and all endured decades of oppression and antisemitism under the Soviet regime, eking out an existence through the turbulent 1990s and continuing to make ends meet on pensions as low as $2 to $3 per day. They endure thanks largely to humanitarian support provided by my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—which I first connected with on a Penn State Hillel trip to Moldova in 2011.
These days, my heart is in Ukraine—my grandfather’s homeland, and the country I’ve fallen in love with on half a dozen trips. Since the invasion, I’ve been in constant touch with friends and colleagues across the region, and I’ve been profoundly moved by their selflessness and courage. One colleague, a single mom with a preteen daughter, found herself living in an underground parking garage in the early days of the war, but she still made time to check in on isolated elderly Jews in her city. Another attempted to deliver jugs of water to his neighborhood bomb shelter, only to be thwarted by air raid sirens.
Colleagues worked hotlines for at-risk Jews sheltering in place, and they heard the most incredible stories: dedicated home-care workers hunkering down with their clients through the curfews and the shelling; an octogenarian hiding in the same house where she hid during the Holocaust.
Years before I met Anatoliy, I was in Kharkiv, sitting at the bedside of Margarita Lubashevskaya, a disabled piano teacher born in 1946 in a Kharkiv that still bore the fresh scars of war. She had recently fallen and broken her thigh, losing her mobility and her livelihood in one fell swoop. Despair beckoned, but Margarita had a life raft: her beloved home-care worker, a devoted childhood friend who now cooked and cleaned for her, shopped for her groceries, and brought her to the doctor. “I never thought, at the end of my life, after everything that’s happened, that it would be like this,” she told me. “I’m a little low on optimism these days, but I have to hope. Nothing else is left.”
What do we do with that? How do we respond to a world that daily seems to subject the most vulnerable to new horrors? We channel Margarita’s home-care worker; we show up and bear witness; we listen; we help. If Anatoliy and Margarita can keep going, we owe it to them not to lose hope.
Alex Weisler is a video and content producer at JDC. A version of this essay first appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.