Courage, Despair and Cohesion

ASF visited Odessa in April 2023


"Our work, our environment and the whole society have changed since February 24, 2022 and continue to change" - this is what we heard from all the people we spoke to in Odesa from April 6 to 9. With our visit we wanted to express our solidarity and support and to get a picture of the situation on the ground by listening to the people.

Roman Schwarzman, chairman of the Ukrainian Association of Jewish Concentration Camp and Ghetto Survivors, receives us at the Jewish Cultural Center on the fourth day of Passover. The meeting room has been set up for a Passover meal for senior citizens, and countless boxes of aid supplies are stored in the gymnasium and hallways.

Many survivors of Nazi persecution have remained in Ukraine, feeling too old to leave their homes and cope in a new country. They continue to be cared for by the Social Center, where they also find social services.

Even before February 24, 2022, an important task of the association was to uncover previously unknown sites of Nazi extermination. Schwarzman believes this research and remembrance work is also urgent now, as survivors will not be able to bear witness for much longer.

The Jewish Cultural Center is also home to the Hessed Social Center, run by Anatoly Kesselman. One son emigrated to Israel, and his wife was also there temporarily during the war, but is now back in Odesa. The center set up an emergency bakery on its premises last year in response to food shortages. Medicines, food and hygiene items were especially needed for the elderly in the community. The center is full of people on the day of our visit, there are many cultural and social activities taking place, mainly aimed at seniors.

The foundation “Winds of Change” organizes support for Roma, disadvantaged families and women who experienced violence. The director, Natalia Vegrian, tells us that many families initially fled, but then returned to Odesa. The returnees reported that they were overwhelmed by the bureaucratic requirements in the host countries. In addition, internally displaced persons are coming to Odesa from the occupied city of Kherson.

With a great deal of creativity and dedication, the foundation's employees put together programs that take the war situation into account. They organize training courses that enable women to work from home, run hotlines, organize the necessary technical equipment, and send mobile teams to the surrounding area.

Many employees of “Winds of Change” are Roma, so they have good access to the members of the minority. This is especially noticeable on the day of our visit: 8.4.2023 was the International Roma Day. We are allowed to be present at the celebration and taste from the cake, whose icing represents the flag of the Roma. The people meet us with interest and friendship. They tell us about the history of the Roma in Ukraine, their struggles for participation and equality, and about developments since February 24. On the one hand, Roma are particularly affected by the economic consequences. On the other hand, a change is taking place in society, which is associated with greater cohesion. Members of the minority feel this.

The aid deliveries of the Berlin-Odessa Express, which are supported by ASF, also benefit this project. From the conversations we can hear how important the deliveries are. We are especially touched by the fact that the personal cards and letters that accompanied the deliveries are received with gratitude and attachment.

The Doroga k Domu project was the assignment site for our volunteers until 2022. It was originally built for street children, but since 2014 the house, which also offers overnight accommodation, has taken in mainly internally displaced persons from eastern Ukraine, and since February 24, 2022, refugees from all over the country have also been coming to this project.

The war has had a massive economic impact. The port in Odesa has been closed and the tourism industry has come to a standstill, thus eliminating many jobs. Most schools and daycare centers are also not allowed to open because they do not have the shelters required by the state. Many fathers are deployed as soldiers, mothers find it difficult to reconcile childcare and their gainful employment, and there is also a lack of the necessary technical equipment for online teaching.

Here, too, the employees react very flexibly with their offers. In the beginning, they took care of refugees directly at the train station, distributed necessary aid, housed people, and offered counseling. Today, they organize psychological counseling for traumatized people and coordinate rehabilitation programs for children and young people who have felt the effects of war in particular.

ASF volunteers also worked at the St. Paul Rehabilitation Center until February 2022. The project supports survivors of Nazi persecution, especially former forced laborers, people who are HIV-positive, and people with disabilities. Vitaliy Mykhaylyk, the head of the project, reports that here, too, one focus of the work is now on supporting internally displaced persons. He brought his pregnant wife to the Polish border on Feb. 25, 2022, and she fled to Dresden and gave birth to their baby there. Meanwhile, the family lives in Ushgorod on the Ukrainian border with Slovakia, Mykhaylyk commutes to Odesa.

We experienced with great respect the solidarity, creativity and cohesion of our interlocutors and our country representative Anzhela Beljak - and at the same time felt their deep despair. People are suffering from rocket attacks, they are in great concern for their relatives and have already lost some of them. Many had to flee from occupied territories and fear for their future. The full-scale Russian war of aggression is directed against the freedom and self-determination of Ukrainians. ASF will continue to support the people on the ground. Please support the aid deliveries to Ukraine by donating with the keyword "Ukraine". Your donation will benefit our partners in Odesa.

Jutta Weduwen (CEO of ASF), Jakob Stürmann (Deputy ASF Chairman) Gabriele Scherle (ASF Board) and Anzhela Beljak (ASF Ukraine Program Director)