As Refugees in Romania, Ukraine’s Jews Re-Create Their World

A 1,000-strong community deals with what may be permanent exodus while holding on to its traditions

As Refugees in Romania, Ukraine’s Jews Re-Create Their World
Two boys from Odesa look out the window of the hotel complex in Neptun, Romania, in January 2023. (Andreea Campeanu)

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At first, Rakhel Viner’s new life in Romania felt like a vacation. She was suddenly relieved of needing to cook for her husband and four children and managing the housework of their apartment in Odesa, an opulent port city on Ukraine’s coast. If the kids wanted playmates, all they had to do was step out of their hotel room and head to the lobby. Though Ukraine was nearby, they were far from the destruction, the whining air raid sirens, the explosions. But a year into their stay at the Romanian resort town of Neptun on the Black Sea, “we are confronted with this immense unknown,” Viner lamented to me one afternoon in late January. It had just started to snow lightly, and a thin coating of ice formed on the outdoor pool. “And you reach a point where you accept this, you actually learn to put up with uncertainty.”

Viner, who serves the community as a child psychologist, is smartly dressed, with pearl earrings and a black headband stretching across her shoulder-length wig that, as a married ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, she is expected to wear. The 39-year-old is part of a 1,000-strong community of Ukrainian Jews who fled, en masse, at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of their country, ensconcing themselves in a hotel complex on the southern tip of Romania’s shore, which they rapidly transformed, creating a synagogue, installing a Ukrainian-accredited school and setting up a full kosher kitchen. Like many of the 8 million Ukrainian refugees who have scattered across much of Europe and other parts of the world since the invasion — the largest refugee crisis since World War II, a dismal record previously held by Syrians — they stuffed their possessions into wheeled suitcases and parted ways with relatives. They also brought with them their culture: Odesa’s historic Jewish community is often synonymous with the city itself.

“The Odesa bubble is here,” Viner explained, describing how the core, the most community-connected of Odesa’s 45,000 or so Jews, are with her in Romania. “We move as one,” she told New Lines.

Rakhel Viner who is a therapist and from the Odesa Jewish community and fled the war in Ukraine, poses for a protrait in the at her office in Agora Hotel, in Neptun, Romania, on January 27th, 2023. (Andreea Campeanu)

The high-stakes drama of their exodus in the first week of March 2022 seemed almost biblical. Community leaders made the decision to leave Odesa quickly, departing in a convoy of eight buses and four vans. Six containers of kosher food trailed close behind. The caravan was led by former members of the Israel Defense Forces — hired by the community — who drove motorcycles, snaking their way through the heavily forested Carpathian Mountains and stopping every 40 miles to check which roads were safe to use. The journey took over 24 hours and covered the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday sundown through Saturday sundown, when those who strictly follow Jewish law are forbidden to travel or use electricity. But Jewish law allows a violation necessary for the preservation of life, “which is exactly what this was,” said Jeremy Posen, a native of London who works as the chief financial officer at Tikva, an Odesa-based Jewish charity that oversaw the evacuation and looks after the community. “This was a life-saving mission in every meaning of the word.”

The community’s rabbi and head of Tikva, Refael Kruskal, delivered the kiddush, the Friday night blessing over the wine, at a freezing cold gas station in rural Ukraine. A shaky video shows members of several families, suddenly realizing they are now refugees, whimpering quietly in the background. The youngest in the cohort was then barely 2 months old; the most senior member was almost 90. Since then, no fewer than 10 babies have been born, several couples have married, and at least one bar mitzvah has taken place. No one is yet to die.

The Odesa Jews do not plan to stay marooned in Romania; they say they will wait out a war now in its second year, a battle for Ukraine where Russia’s desire for conquest grows in tandem with Kyiv’s receipt of Western military aid. But the longer they spend away from home, the deeper their yearning to return. By accommodating their displacement with comfort as well as by preserving their traditions and, with them, some of humanity itself, the community is in a state of exodus, an age-old story that has become one of the defining issues of our times. In going to great lengths to re-create their world, they are making, almost certainly unwittingly, the temporary permanent.

When they descended on the hotel in the dead of winter, the brutalist structure sat empty. Built in the 1960s as part of a developing Romanian seafront, its angular, prefabricated concrete felt abandoned and eerie. One of the first improvements the refugees made was to install heating in the ceiling air conditioning vents throughout the hotel.

The exterior of the hotel. (Andreea Campeanu)

“We immediately got to work,” Viner explained. “We asked each other, ‘Who speaks English? Who does massages? Who can use a sewing machine?’

“One room had a big television set, so we turned it into a cinema for the kids,” she told me as we sat on wooden chairs in her boxy hotel room. The walls are covered with drawings by the children; most days, she is busy helping them process the war and their dislocation with art therapy. In one, a large blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag rises on the horizon. A little figure stands in the brown earth below, in a narrow trench. Others are filled with rainbows, butterflies, oversized cats. Scrawled in pink marker, the words “I miss my home” float mid-page beside a wavy green tree.

A large part of Tikva’s mission lies in its care for so-called orphans, or children whose parents are unable to care for them; about 200 came to Romania, almost a third of all the youths who were evacuated. Before the invasion, Ukraine had the highest European rate of children who are “institutionalized” — over 1% of the child population, according to UNICEF — and the Jewish community has its representative share. About half are disabled, either mentally or physically. “I felt like such a traitor for leaving Odesa,” said Lena Shalay, the director of Tikva’s orphanage. “But then I look at the children and see how much they need me.”

Lena Shalay, director of the Tikva Orphanage, talks to a girl before the beginning of Shabbat in the hotel. (Andreea Campeanu)

The first months of the war were deeply chaotic for the abandoned children in Ukraine’s vast network of children’s homes. Almost all of them were sent home or moved to other orphanages. Over a year later, tens of thousands are yet to be located. There are also some who ended up in Russia against their will, where they were put up for adoption, an unlawful transfer that amounts to a war crime.

“Can you imagine such a fate?” Shalay’s clear green eyes sting with tears.

A girl looks out of the window from the hotel. (Andreea Campeanu)

An extremely affable woman, she is devoted to the children; they cling to her legs when she walks through the makeshift orphanage. Each Friday night, she helps them get ready for Shabbat, carefully tucking in the boys’ shirts and gathering the girls’ hair in bunches. “I was a beauty in my day,” she added wistfully.

In her 23 years at the orphanage, over 1,000 Jewish orphans have passed through its doors. Shalay has kept in touch with them as they grew up; some married each other and started families in Odesa, others left for Israel. She has held the hands of toddlers as they took their first steps, children whom doctors said would never walk; under her care, she has taught children how to grow vegetable gardens, how to sew their own clothes.

“We’re like one big, huge family,” Shalay said as warm tears streamed down her cheeks, memories of the past mixed with fears for the future.

Romania and Ukraine are adjacent to each other, and only 200 miles separate Neptun and Odesa; the Ukrainian city is situated to its north, on a shallow indentation of the Black Sea. But the emotional and psychological distance between the two is vast. To help offset that distance, the refugee children’s first summer was spent playing in the waters of the shimmering Black Sea, its smells and changing light so familiar to them.

Neptun sits 200 miles southwest of Odesa, on the same Black Sea coastline. (New Lines)

“They didn’t get sick, not even once!” Shalay exclaimed. Sometimes, Shalay and the children would face the waves, close their eyes and slowly inhale: The air and the caw of the gulls were a tonic for troubled times, a way to momentarily transport themselves home.

Maintaining various tentacles to Odesa is how the community stays intact. As expected, food plays a huge role in their cohesion. Ahead of a Shabbat meal several months ago, women lit a string of tealight candles in the hotel lobby before breaking home-baked challah with their families at long tables under fluorescent lights. The multicourse meal reflected the diversity of the Odesa Jews, with traditional Ashkenazi fare beside Israeli and Romanian dishes. Teenagers scuttled back and forth serving plates piled high with appetizers — smoked salmon, tzatziki, baba ganoush, gefilte fish, hummus and a salad of chopped egg and mayonnaise. Next, chicken bouillon soup with croutons was ladled into flimsy plastic bowls, followed by roasted bell peppers stuffed with rice and lamb, beef stew and fried balls of chicken and olives. The meal was washed down with Diet Pepsi and whiskey before fresh fruit and cake appeared on the table. Groups of men sporadically broke into song, intoning the Hebrew hymns for Shabbat. A gaggle of older women sat to one side, deeply immersed in the news from home. They clutched their handbags on their laps as they might have done in Odesa, visiting friends or sharing a laugh in one of the city’s parks. But there were no plans to take the trolley bus home as in times past; instead, their beds were only a flight of stairs away. Babies crawled along the hallways; adolescent boys kicked a ball between them.

Two children play on their phones in the hotel hallway. (Andreea Campeanu)
A woman prays before the beginning of Shabbat. (Andreea Campeanu)

When I visited, two American Jewish chaplains had joined from the nearby NATO base in Constanta on the Black Sea, now increasing in size due to the widening parameters of the war. There was a certain gaiety in the air, a palpable feeling of relief. Women wore freshly ironed gowns and shiny brunette wigs.

“Another week has passed, and we are safe,” said Naomy Motuz, a kindergarten teacher. In her arms was her baby son, Shlomo, the community’s first to be born in Romania. Delivered within weeks of arriving, he was named after King Solomon, “a name that means peace, which is our hope for Ukraine.”

For many in the community, their dilemma is not only what happens next, but, as Motuz asked with a certain nervous energy, it is also, “How do we stay together?” The option of immigrating to Israel looms as a last resort, like a permanent invitation to move back in with one’s parents. But this community’s power lies in its closeness. When they escaped from Odesa, Motuz remembers thinking: “How could I possibly leave these people? They are my everything.”

Jewish religion and tradition, themselves often inseparable, are entrenched in almost every aspect of the refugees’ lives. Hebrew is taught alongside Ukrainian and English at the on-site school, constructed of 46 interlocking containers that are powered by humming generators, reminiscent of the temporary infrastructure set up on foreign military bases. Two of the teachers are Israeli volunteers, dispatched by the Ministry of Education in Jerusalem. Only food that is kosher makes its way into the Neptun hotel, a “logistical nightmare” that involves an intricate network of sourcing from France, Belgium and Austria, according to Posen. Over a dozen containers of dry and frozen kosher food line the parking lot outside. In the kitchen, strict Jewish dietary laws are observed: Meat and dairy are separated, with their own utensils and dishware. Vegetables and fruit are checked for insects, each leaf of spinach examined by a young man under the beam of a rudimentary desk lamp. Odesa’s entrepreneurial spirit was on display inside the hotel lobby, where there was a kiosk packed with instant noodles and candy and a stall selling cured fish and meat that is smoked on site. A doctor and a nurse set up a clinic in one of the hotel rooms within days of moving in. For births, pregnant women are taken to the hospital in Constanta.

But the community’s pride — its triumph against all odds — is the ritual purity bath, or mikveh, that they managed to install in the hotel’s basement. Resembling a rectangular hot tub in a high-end spa, it is tiled with small cerulean-colored squares. The law behind the mikveh says that married women are required to dip once a month, seven days after the end of their menstrual cycle. Men also submerge, but not as often, usually reserving the mikveh for religious holidays. The law also dictates that part of a mikveh’s water derives from a natural source, like a spring, well or rainwater. The waters of the Black Sea, a short walk away, would do but are blisteringly cold in winter. Luckily for the community, snow counts. But the mikveh’s natural water must never be placed in a receptacle. Leaders consulted the rabbi, who in turn consulted the Torah. A plan was put into place: Posen was to drive up to the nearest mountain, gather some snow and ice, and place them into a large cloth bag perforated with small holes. The Neptun mikveh was born.

Bridesmaids rest on a bed during a photoshoot before a wedding. (Andreea Campeanu)
A wedding ceremony is performed for Alla Kostenko and her partner. (Andreea Campeanu)

At the time this story went to print, the community was planning to move once again, on March 19. This time they will head to the outskirts of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, using their year in Neptun as a sort of blueprint. They are re-creating their makeshift school in a parking lot, replicating what was in essence already a replica. A 1,000-square-foot warehouse is being converted into a synagogue, lined with prayer books sourced from Odesa. Families will reside in apartments in a residential complex. The plan is for them to find jobs in Bucharest and become less dependent on charity.

Posen said they are the largest single group of refugees in Romania and most likely the largest group of Jewish refugees anywhere in Europe.

Odesa was once a cradle of Jewish civilization. A settlement has existed on the site since ancient times — its name comes from the Greek trading colony of Odessos — but the modern city came to prominence only in the 14th century, when the Tatar fort called Khadzhibey was established. Russian forces under Catherine the Great captured the city in the late 18th century; its foamy banks on the Black Sea have played a vital role in trade routes for centuries, from the times of Constantinople to those of the Kremlin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s prewar government. When the Russian empress carved out her Pale of Settlement — the underdeveloped western slice of the Russian Empire set aside for Jews — this included most of contemporary Ukraine and Poland, all of Belarus, Moldova and Lithuania, and a small part of Latvia. Odesa, located on the southern end of the pale and fortuitously placed on the Black Sea, became an ideal destination for Jewish migrants wishing to exchange their impoverished parochial shtetl life for a vibrant, cultural metropolis. Odesa was grand, crisscrossed with wide boulevards and ornate neoclassical architecture. Its mid-19th century status as a free port attracted wealthy merchants from Italy and Greece, helping it become a major harbor for the Russian Empire’s imports and exports of grain. It teemed with “men working to turn Odesa into Marseilles or Naples,” wrote Isaac Babel, the city’s most famous son.

The city also became a hotbed of Jewish political activism, the Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) and Zionism, as well as a source of rich literary life with writers penning works in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. Throughout the time of the Russian Empire and the Soviet era, the word Odesa was often — for better or worse — synonymous with Jewry and Jews. Stereotypes about typical Odesans abounded.

“Our clan had its share of drunks, we seduced generals’ daughters and abandoned them at the border, and our grandfather forged signatures and composed blackmailing letters for deserted wives,” Babel’s protagonist says in the short story “In the Basement,” from a collection Babel composed in the early 20th century about his native city.

And while the city suffered waves of violence throughout its history, Odesa’s character did not change. Today, it still bursts with culture and its unique brand of wit and humor. Shalay described Odesans as “being our own separate nation.” People throng its shores at night, and its penchant for Jewish food is intact — you can find “forshmak,” chopped herring served with black bread, on practically every street corner.

A wave of pogroms against the Jews in the late 19th century failed to oust them from the terrain: On the eve of WWII, a third of Odesa’s population, or some 200,000 people, was Jewish. By the time Axis troops captured the city in October 1941, about half of Odesa’s Jews had fled. The estimated 90,000 or so who stayed faced a terrible fate. Over two days, Romanian and German troops shot or burned to death half of those who remained and deported the rest to various camps. The war decimated the Jews of Ukraine, one of the largest concentrations of Eastern European Jewry: Their murders make up an estimated quarter, or some 1.5 million, of all Holocaust dead.

After the war, Soviet Jews were heavily discriminated against. Their synagogues and schools were taken away from them, and they were denied many jobs and positions at various prestigious universities. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when they were finally free to depart, a quarter of a million Ukrainian Jews fled, mostly for Israel and the United States.

But in recent decades, there has been a concentrated effort to rebuild the Jewish community across Ukraine and to reckon with the past. Affluent Ukrainian Jewish business people set up learning centers, places of worship and museums including, in the central city of Dnipro, a Holocaust memorial center in the shape of an enormous menorah. It is in this spirit that Tikva, a network of Jewish schools, orphanages and community-care programs in Odesa, was established in the early 1990s. Shortly before the Russian invasion, the government approved plans to redevelop the memorial at Babyn Yar in Kyiv, a ravine and site of several massacres committed by Nazi troops that killed an estimated 30,000 Jews. The sociopolitical landscape has been changing, becoming more favorable to Jews both inside Ukraine and luring them back from abroad. Zelenskyy is the country’s first Jewish president (which makes Moscow’s claim that it is “denazifying” Ukraine especially preposterous).

It is with a certain tragic irony that the Odesa Jews who have found refuge today in Neptun are largely the descendants of those who had managed to flee the city before Nazi occupation and Romanian-allied violence. Such uncomfortable truths are not lost on the community. When Motuz packed up her Odesa apartment, instructing her five daughters to get dressed in their favorite clothes, she channeled her ancestors from WWII. “I kept telling myself, ‘those who stayed, got killed.’ So I threw some matches and medicine in a bag and started getting ready.”

Romania is home to a dwindling Jewish community estimated to be fewer than 10,000, dramatically diminished from its pre-Holocaust population of about 800,000, then one of Europe’s largest. Bucharest today has several functioning synagogues as well as a Yiddish-language theater, one of only a handful in the world. But Jewish life in Romania is not free from prejudice: In recent years, vandals have upturned gravestones at a Jewish cemetery and defaced with antisemitic slogans the childhood home of Romanian-born Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Members of the Odesa community say they have experienced no local antisemitism; instead they are met with bemusement from shop assistants, who gawk at the men’s skullcaps and payot, their side curls. “If 900 Jews land on your doorstep, you notice,” said Posen. Even still, the fear of persecution and violence is evergreen, and Tikva has set up an elaborate security system involving a dozen or so cameras that are monitored on site around the clock by Romanian and Israeli guards paid by the charity.

Though sharing a large land border with Ukraine to its north, relatively few Ukrainians have chosen to settle permanently in Romania, whose language is Romance, not Slavic, and where work opportunities are scarce. Like most European Union countries, there are programs in place to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, including a small allowance to rent apartments — Tikva has utilized this support — but the country has been mostly used as a transit point (unlike Poland, which also shares a land border with Ukraine and has taken the lion’s share of refugees).

Physical safety aside, the community’s biggest fear is disintegration, of coming undone and disappearing into Romania or the world at large — a fear that gives them pause when considering aliyah (immigrating to Israel). Since the invasion, over 15,000 Jews from Ukraine and 35,000 from Russia have taken advantage of Israel’s Law of Return, which permits anyone with one Jewish grandparent to gain Israeli citizenship and move to the country — a fivefold increase compared with previous years from the two countries. While several members of the Odesa community-in-exile are indeed in the process of “making aliyah,” they would not be able to go as a single unit of 981 people (at last count).

“We would get lost,” Viner said, meaning the move would make little sense for them.

“There has been no clamor to go to Israel,” Posen said. A soaring cost of living, domestic political unrest and growing violence in the Palestinian territories have done little to persuade families to go, even though some, including Motuz, have relatives living there.

So Odesa is kept intentionally close. A bus with Ukrainian license plates ferries people back and forth on a somewhat regular basis, where they mostly collect documents and visit sick relatives. “When we crossed back into Ukraine, this huge wave of calm washed over me; I was home,” said Eitan Kusenov, a 16-year-old who returned to Odesa to retrieve his passport for emigration to Israel. “I spent the first two days drinking, I met old friends, I didn’t sleep,” he said, his eyes widening at the memory. “It was torture leaving Odesa, but at least Israel also has the sea.”

Eitan Kusenov, a 16-year-old Ukrainian from the Jewish community in Odesa, in the hotel in Neptun, where he lived with his parents. (Andreea Campeanu)

While Odesa has so far been spared the damage of other cities on Ukraine’s Black Sea, like the southern ports of Mariupol and Kherson, which were both occupied by Russian forces, Moscow has aimed missiles at the city and struck its strategic port. Both Ukraine and Russia have planted floating sea mines in the Black Sea, emptying Odesa’s coast of vacationers last summer. Instead of placards with rules for swimming, its beaches are lined with skull-and-crossbones warning signs. Tikva is still operating a rescue mission, moving Jews from across Ukraine to the safety of Romania.

The established rhythm of war means border crossings and Ukrainian checkpoints are now better regulated and the trip from Romania to Ukraine — though still unpredictable — is less arduous than it was at the conflict’s onset. Teachers at the elementary and high schools switch each month with their colleagues in Odesa, where half of the Tikva-run school is still operating. Several months after they arrived in Romania, about 30 students graduated and now attend Ukrainian universities, connected remotely by Zoom. “It gives us this tiny, tiny hope that the war will end and we can return,” said Amina Tkachuk, who will graduate from high school this July. Her long brown hair lightened at the ends and parted down the middle, Tkachuk is part of the female contingent that attends Friday service at the synagogue. They are considerably smaller in size than the men and sit behind a wooden lattice in the section reserved for women and girls. Their prayers and dreams have now merged into one: to be homebound for “Odesa Mama,” the term locals lovingly use for their city.

Amina Tkachuk, 16, on a balcony at the hotel. (Andreea Campeanu)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has waged his war on the basis that Ukraine is a “brotherly nation,” a country that firmly belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence. For many Russians, Ukraine is seen as its smaller sibling, a country of fellow Slavs that is the same as theirs. Over the years, the Russian government’s rhetoric has painted the Soviet Union as a mere continuation of the Russian Empire. For the older generations of Ukrainians, whose formative years were spent in the Soviet Union, they still feel a certain kinship toward Russians, even now. For the more Western-leaning Ukrainians, who grew up in the post-Soviet era and saw their country embrace democratic values, they tend to view Moscow’s assault as unsurprising, the culmination of hundreds of years of repression of Ukrainian culture and independence by Moscow. The Odesa community has not been spared this generational shift. Shalay, 52, still struggles to comprehend how the two countries are at war with each other. “At home my mother spoke Ukrainian, my father spoke Russian. Everything was wonderful, no one ever had a problem with this,” she told me of her Odesa childhood. “But what is happening now is so awful, simply awful. I feel like someone took my soul straight out of me and tore it to shreds.”

Odesa is a largely Russian-speaking city, and this is the language mainly used by the Jewish community, but the war could change that. Ukrainian is the predominant language in western Ukraine, while most in the southern and eastern regions speak Russian. Both languages are widely spoken in Kyiv. Several laws came into force in recent years restricting the use of Russian in most aspects of public life, including government and media. After the invasion, the government introduced further restrictions on Russian books and music, saying language was a matter of national security. Ukrainians have started to make conscious decisions to switch from the occupiers’ language to Ukrainian, a change endorsed by Zelenskyy himself, who used to speak his native Russian in public but whose rousing, world-famous speeches are now only in Ukrainian. Last summer, teaching the Russian language was either dropped or banned at schools across the country, including the Odesa region. At the on-site school, only Ukrainian graces the whiteboards, complementing posters of the Hebrew alphabet. When the bell signals the end of the school day, Ukrainian can be heard amid the hubbub of the kids filtering out.

Refugees take part in a Hebrew class at a school set up near the hotel. (Andreea Campeanu)

What will happen after the war no longer tortures the Odesans? Romania, the refuge, is transforming into a home, of sorts. The refugees are excited to explore Bucharest. The children are picking up some Romanian.

Shalay described how she briefly returned to Odesa to visit her mother-in-law, who is in poor health, and the strange, unexpected feeling she encountered there. “Everyone says when you go back, you will be so happy, you will even kiss the walls of your home. But I saw an empty house. And I didn’t want to kiss any of it.”

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition. All photos were taken by Andreea Campeanu.

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