KOROSTYSHEV, Ukraine -- Bella Guler was 16 when the Nazis rolled into her hometown in Ukraine. She was also a Jew, which made her a target of the German killing machine.
The Germans were so close at one point, Guler had to jump out a window to elude them. She made it to a railway station and lay face down while German bombs rained down all around her. She fled hundreds of miles east by train to Kazakhstan, nearly starving to death while waiting out World War II. After the war, she came back to this village west of Kiev.
Today, at age 78, Guler is one of a dwindling number of Jews in Korostyshev. Aged, frail and poor, they are completely dependent on social-service agencies. Those agencies are largely funded by charitable donations from Jews in North America, including the Twin Cities.
"She doesn't know what she would do without you," a translator told a delegation that visited recently from the St. Paul and Minneapolis Jewish communities.
The Soviet Union's demise in 1991 was a victory for religious freedom generally and especially for Jews. Newly independent Ukraine and other former Soviet republics have been host to a rebirth of Judaism among young people. But for many, freedom came at a price: economies left in disarray, and pensions unable to cover rising prices. Hundreds of thousands of elderly people in the former superpower were left suddenly destitute.
The long-suffering Jewish population, however, had a friend overseas: the far-flung American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Acting on a central principle -- "All Jews are responsible for one another" -- the JDC is sustaining the needy while simultaneously laying the foundation to rebuild Jewish communities across the former Soviet Union.
"We definitely feel a responsibility not to leave these people in the last years of their lives, but to support them and help them live in dignity," said Amos Lev-Ran, the JDC's missions director in the former Soviet Union.
A VAST MISSION
It is a cold, raw day in early November as the Twin Cities group steps off a tour bus in Korostyshev, about 50 miles west of the far more cosmopolitan Kiev, and only an hour's drive from the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Some of the houses look like tumbledown shacks, with outhouses and tin roofs. It is a bleak place, seemingly frozen in the past.
The brief visit here is part of a four-day itinerary in Ukraine, followed by six days in Israel. The trip was sponsored by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the United Jewish Fund and Council of St. Paul. Two dozen community leaders are here to witness the impact of the charitable contributions they raise at home.
In Ukraine, the group primarily sees the work of the JDC, the venerable refugee relief agency that has evolved into a provider of social programs and a catalyst for Jewish cultural and religious renewal. The organization is active in many little-known corners of the globe, but its mission in the former Soviet Union is arguably the most challenging. An estimated 450,000 elderly Jews still live in the former Soviet Union, many of them spread out over vast distances.
The JDC's services reach more than 2,780 cities, towns and villages across 11 time zones, channeled mainly through welfare centers known as Heseds, after the Hebrew word for kindness. In 2002, the Heseds provided more than 3 million hot meals in communal dining rooms, delivered 3.4 million "meals on wheels" and distributed 1.5 million food packages.
SURVIVAL AND TEARS
Jews have lived in Ukraine for centuries. By 1939, one census estimated their numbers at more than 1.5 million. In the 19th century, communities like Korostyshev were chronicled by Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem in the tales that would someday be turned into "Fiddler on the Roof."
This long history, however, is scarred by a tradition of anti-Semitism, including massacres. A particular low point was the Germans' slaughter of 33,000 Jews over two days in 1941 at Babi Yar, near Kiev.
Life in newly independent Ukraine is not free of tension, but is undoubtedly more bearable.
Since 1996, the Jews of Korostyshev have been sustained by the Hesed center in nearby Zhitomir. Sofia Zaytceva, the facility's director, explains there were once 10,000 Jews here, nearly half the total population. There was a Jewish school, eight synagogues and a collective farm.
Today, the town has just 10,000 residents. Only 66, spread out through the town, are Jews.
The Minnesota visitors split into smaller groups to go see them, accompanied by Hesed staff, Jewish college students who also are helping as translators, and the JDC's Lev-Ran.
By the rickety door of her one-room hovel, one group of seven meets Bella Guler.
Guler, who is blind, greets them with a firm, warm handshake. Come in, come in, she says in Russian. The visitors, some of whom can trace their roots to this region, arrange themselves on chairs. Guler sits on her bed, which doubles as a couch. Her hair is gray and wispy, her face lined and sad.
She leans on a cane and answers questions. First, it is polite conversation. She still celebrates the Jewish holidays, she says. Yom Kippur, yes. The Sabbath -- yes, yes.
Then, her voice rising, she recalls the catastrophe of World War II. The words tumble out, almost too fast for the translator.
Before she fled the Nazis, she lived in her birthplace of Baranovka, a small town in this region. In 1943, while she was in Kazakhstan, her father was killed in the war. She came to Korostyshev after the war, because her mother's sister was living here.
The same year, in 1945, she met her husband, Boris Krupnik, who had lost a leg in the war. He repaired roofs, and Guler worked as a cashier. Boris died 20 years ago.
Their son and his wife, both ill, live in Kiev. Guler has no grandchildren.
"She doesn't remember anything good from her life," the translator said.
Life after the breakup of the former Soviet Union has been hard for many older people, regardless of ethnic or religious background. But Jews like Guler suffered additionally because of the destruction and erosion of their community, and the lack of extended family. On the other hand, as someone persecuted by the Germans during the war, she does get a pension of $26 per month. Otherwise, her support is from the money raised by Jews in North America.
Guler's home has no running water. The walls are cracked and peeling. But the Hesed does enough repairs to keep it livable, and it is surprisingly warm inside.
The Hesed also meets Guler's medical and clothing needs. The welfare center picks up many of the elderly here and takes them to Zhitomir once a week for a bath and hot meal, but Guler is mostly homebound.
Guler once had a chance to join her 80-year-old brother, who lives in Israel, but she was ill and unable to go. She has diabetes, heart troubles and other ailments. Now, she said, it is too late to leave. She will pass the years with her helpers here, and with the occasional visitors who come from America.
All too soon, it is time for those visitors to leave. Lingering, they share hugs and tears with the old woman. "Spah-SEE-bah," she says. "Spahseebah. Spahseebah." Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Afterward, back on their bus, the Twin Cities visitors said they would never forget the encounters.
Weeks later, the memories remained vivid. Amy R. Weiss, director of communications for the Minnesota AIDS Project and one of those who visited Bella Guler, could still feel the freshly established bond. "Even now, when I close my eyes, I can feel the surprising warmth of her home and feel her hand grasping mine when we hugged goodbye."
Copyright 2004 Saint Paul Pioneer Press