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Purim in Berlin: Ukrainian Jews find refuge in what was once Europe’s ‘center of darkness’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/19/2022 Isaac Stanley-Becker
Jews celebrate with refugees from Odessa, Ukraine, during Purim in Berlin on March 17. © Filip Singer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Jews celebrate with refugees from Odessa, Ukraine, during Purim in Berlin on March 17.

BERLIN — Yaroslava Sveshnikov danced and sang. He ate hamantaschen, pastries symbolizing the wicked courtier Haman, whose thwarted effort to annihilate the Jews in ancient Persia is narrated in the Old Testament and commemorated each year with Purim.

The festivities this week in the German capital were not unlike those enjoyed by Jews worldwide. But for Sveshnikov, 16, the celebration was transformed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I try to be happy to make other people happy,” he said. “But the thoughts inside me are about the war.”

Sveshnikov was attending 10th grade in Odessa when the port city on the Black Sea became a fortress. Two weeks ago, he boarded a bus to Moldova with his mother and 5-year-old brother, who found the journey too difficult to continue. His mother sent him on alone to Berlin.

Nearly 80 years after the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the former capital of the Third Reich is a haven for Jews fleeing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. That irony, the latest chapter in the dark history of Jewish life in Europe, further undermines Vladimir Putin’s claim that denazification justifies the death toll in Ukraine.

After decades of building their lives in Ukraine, Jews are once again fleeing the country

“It wasn’t so long ago that Jews were running from Berlin, the center of darkness and evil, and now Berlin is where they know they can be saved,” said Yehuda Teichtal, a Berlin rabbi and the head of the local Chabad community that arranged for the evacuation of Sveshnikov and about 500 other Ukrainian Jews — first from an orphanage in Odessa, then from among other women and children in the city and most recently from Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been hit by airstrikes.

Teichtal, who was born in New York, arrived in Berlin 25 years ago to nurture a local branch of Chabad, whose missionary tradition has made it one of the most prominent and politically influential Hasidic sects in the world. Photographs with world leaders, including former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to former president George W. Bush, line the walls of the rabbi’s office, not far from the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and wife Elke Büdenbender meet with Jewish refugees from Odessa, Ukraine, alongside Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, right, in Berlin on March 7. © Clemens Bilan/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and wife Elke Büdenbender meet with Jewish refugees from Odessa, Ukraine, alongside Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, right, in Berlin on March 7.

The chief rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar, whose relationship with Putin has sometimes earned him the nickname “Putin’s rabbi,” is a member of the Chabad movement. He recently called for an end to the war and offered to mediate peace talks.

Teichtal’s interventions have been more pragmatic. Two weeks ago, a Chabad rabbi in Odessa, once a center of Jewish life in the Russian Empire, appealed for his help, describing rapidly deteriorating conditions in the city. Parts of the city were without water and electricity, he said, according to Teichtal. Sirens blared throughout the day.


Video: Ukraine’s Jewish Leader Works To Evacuate Refugees To Safety (Newsweek)

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Most acute was the situation at a Jewish orphanage, Teichtal learned. The circumstances, he said, brought to mind stories about the displaced-persons camp where his mother was born, on the Germany-Austria border. “Very spontaneously, like an American, I said, ‘We’re going to save them,’” he recalled. “I hung up the phone and said to myself, ‘Okay, Yehuda, now you have to save them.’”

Working with contacts in three countries — Ukraine, Moldova and Germany — the rabbi secured buses to transport the children. He secured rooms in nearby hotels, initially for three months.

“They’re not coming for a weekend,” he said. “They’re coming to stay.”

Ukrainian Jewish refugees celebrate Purim in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 16. © Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images Ukrainian Jewish refugees celebrate Purim in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 16.

The youngest arrival is a 6-week-old baby, Teichtal said. The Ukrainian children have visited the Reichstag, Germany’s historic parliament building, and Berlin’s zoo. They’ve gathered for a bris, a birthday party and a visit from Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Shoshana Khusid, a university student whose classes have continued via video link, arrived with her older brother and younger sister. Her parents stayed behind to care for her ailing grandparents, said Khusid, 18. They speak every day over WhatsApp.

A white-flower lei hung around Khusid’s neck. “Purim is a happy celebration,” she said, sitting on the outskirts of a ballroom at Berlin’s InterContinental hotel, where Chabad had staged an extravagant festival, complete with a bounce house, a dance floor and heaping platters of food.

Khusid said she had intended to visit Berlin next summer to plan a possible career as a teacher. “Now I’m here,” she said.

If refugees such as Khusid decide to stay, it could mean another revitalization of Germany’s Jewish population, similar to the Jewish immigration from post-Soviet states three decades ago, said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history whom President Biden has nominated to be his special envoy to combat antisemitism.

“There is something very powerful in this,” Lipstadt said in an interview. “It echoes the past in two different ways.”

It is fitting that such a revitalization would be facilitated by Chabad, said Samuel C. Heilman, an emeritus professor of sociology at Queens College in New York and a scholar of Orthodox Jewry.

Chabad, he said, has made its mark by pursuing global outreach and promoting public acts of religious devotion — efforts that also make it divisive. “They go where other religious organizations don’t go,” Heilman said, whether that means staying in Crown Heights after the 1991 Brooklyn riot that targeted Orthodox Jews or returning to Mumbai after the 2008 terrorist attacks targeted a Chabad House. Now, he said, they’re in China.

“They build relationships,” he said. “And they amass political power. And they save lives.”

Purim commemorates a miracle in which lives are saved because a tyrant is struck down, said Sveshnikov, who wore a blue suit and a yarmulke to the celebration Thursday night in Berlin. Younger celebrants favored firefighter and princess costumes.

“It’s a miracle for Jews that Haman died,” he said. “In Russia, it’s a little similar to the situation with Haman. God punished Haman. I hope Putin’s fate will be the same.”

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