I’ve spent most of my week in Kyiv, with a small group Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith leaders, organised by Europe, A Patient. As I write, I’m on the long train journey back to the Polish border now, watching the snow-bound flatlands and villages with homes with a well in the garden, where it’s easy to imagine our ancestors, in their poverty, with their horse and cart, and the Rebbe with the faithful in the small Beis Medrash.
Of many encounters, two are foremost in my mind. We visited the Kyiv Masorti community where the group of roughly twenty was largely composed of women of a grandmotherly generation. ‘You’re in charge,’ I was brusquely informed. I hoped these women would tell their stories and, once had begun, they readily did. Fortunately Olena Bogdan, formerly head of religion and culture in Ukraine, was with us, with her superb English. Here’s some of what was said:
– I stayed in Ukraine because I felt the presence of women was needed. I lost my job caring for children with Down’s syndrome when they were evacuated. I spend my time supporting whoever I can, helping with humanitarian aid, rescuing animals too. I’m a psychologist. I support those going through trauma. The sirens, especially at night, shatter our nerves.
– I’ve no relatives. I don’t even know for certain I’m Jewish. But my grandmother’s sister was killed at Babi Yar. In this centre I feel safe; they’re my family. We care for each other.
– My family were mostly murdered at Babi Yar; who’d have thought we’d face another war? My son-in-law was killed. The Russists, that’s what we call them, fired randomly at columns of cars trying to rescue civilians. You never knew who’ll be hit.
(Babi Yar is at the outskirts of the city. We prayed by its frozen ravines. Here tens of thousands were shot by the Nazis in two days in September 41’ and thousands more in the weeks which followed. We were shown fragments of the Russian bombs which hit the adjacent television tower, in this sick, lying war against ‘Nazi’ Ukraine.)
We met Ukraine’s leading civil servant, a member of the Masorti community; when I asked him ‘What shall I say in London?’ he replied simply ‘Give us weapons.’ All the rest is secondary.
I shall never forget meeting Metropolitan Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. He had that presence one recognises in a person of courageous integrity, astute moral perception and embracing vision.
He spoke not just of the horrors of the war, but of its ideological character, its aim of obliterating Ukraine and Ukrainian identity. The Russians burnt books, including Bibles, he told us, just because they were written in Ukrainian. This brought to mind Heine’s warning that those who burn books proceed to burn people. We saw exactly what the Metropolitan meant in Borodianka, a small town next to Bucha and Irpin, where, among the air attacks on blocks of flats and civil institutions, Russian pilots strafed the statue of the poet Taras Shevchenko, founder of the modern Ukrainian language. (Over 20 people are still missing, unaccounted for presumed burnt to a cinder. Father Yasroslav, who showed us round said that for weeks he led seven funeral columns every day after the town was freed).
This is a war which concerns us all: of truth against lies; of freedom against totalitarianism; and, on a religious level, of faith in the God present in every human being and all life, as opposed to the idolatry of co-opting God to justify crimes against humanity. We ignore what’s happening in Ukraine at our peril.
For all that, the streets of Kyiv were far from empty, the cafes, including the kosher restaurant, were open and serving good food. But, as Olena warned, it’s an unreal normality: anything can happen in a moment. And the horror and trauma weight heavy in people’s hearts.
I’ll close by reverting to the words of the Metropolitan: ‘I’m concerned not just about the war, but the quality of the peace which has to follow, for Ukraine, for Russia and for the world.’
I’m writing these words for the Shabbat on which we read in the Torah, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’