Jews from Ukraine arrive at a Jewish community center in Chisinau, Moldova, Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy of Rabbi Pinchas Salzman)
Jews from Ukraine arrive at a Jewish community center in Chisinau, Moldova, Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy of Rabbi Pinchas Salzman)

Ukrainian Jews in Bay Area living a ‘nightmare’ from afar

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San Francisco’s Gennady Mikityansky has been on the phone constantly since last Friday.

Mikityansky, 63, is from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has been under bombardment from Russian shells. It is about 25 miles from the border with Russia.

“I’m talking to my friends and relatives every day, twice, three times a day,” he said in an interview. “As much as possible.”

What he’s hearing are stories of destruction. And as Russian forces assault the city, the residents of Kharkiv have taken the brunt.

“They started to bombard the houses of people,” he said. “Not military objects, just civilians.”

The tales he’s hearing are bleak. One friend emerged from a bomb shelter to find his home destroyed. A five-story structure next to a building where Mikityansky has family was demolished.

“Nobody alive there,” he said. “Everyone who was there was dead.”

It’s devastating for Mikityansky to hear. He’s been in the U.S. for decades, but he is still very close to Ukraine, a place he traveled extensively as an actor.

“I know every big city,” he said. “I know every village.”

It was through that career that he came to know Volodymyr Zelensky, now the president of Ukraine but once just a fellow Jewish dramatist and rising star in the world of comedy competitions.

“We played together,” Mikityansky said. “He was a young guy.”

Zelensky’s “life imitates art” career took him from television star (playing a reluctant president) to actual president during a crisis that will determine the future of Ukraine. Now, though, Zelensky is not only president, but also a hero to Ukrainians.

“He’s an icon for the Ukrainian people,” Mikityansky said. “Not just Jews, all Ukrainian people.”

For Mikityansky, watching the news right now creates a “scar on the heart,” he said.

“I’m a Jew from Ukraine,” he said. “This is my native country. I was born there and raised there.”

He sees Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a new Hitler and Ukraine as the bulwark against a slow nibbling away at Eastern Europe that would be disastrous for the continent. But he hasn’t given up hope, and said Ukrainians will fight until the last.

“I feel frustration, I feel anger,” he said. “But I hope my native country will survive Putin’s craziness.”

Gennady Mikityansky is on the phone with relatives in Kharkiv many times each day.
Gennady Mikityansky is on the phone with relatives in Kharkiv many times each day.

Mikityansky currently is a social worker at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, which provides support for many people from the former Soviet Union. Rita Clancy, the agency’s director of adult services, said JFCS ran a five-hour drop-in support group on Feb. 25; many people they serve, including Holocaust survivors, are finding the invasion of Ukraine is a terrifying reminder of past turmoil.

“We are constantly calling them and providing support,” Clancy told J. in an email. “They have seen war, then Stalin and more Soviet terror and now this situation is just horrific. More than re-traumatizing.”

The war has also been a shock for Lora Soroka, an archivist at Stanford, who said she was having trouble sleeping.

“So far, it’s a nightmare,” she said of the invasion of Ukraine, where she grew up. Of course, it wasn’t independent then; when the 77-year-old lived in Kharkiv, it was still part of the Soviet Union. “In Kharkiv most people spoke Russian,” she said.

It doesn’t surprise her at all that the citizens are taking up arms against the invading Russian army. Putin expected them to “meet him with flowers,” she said, but Ukrainians would never do that, no matter what language people speak.

“No, no, because Ukraine is democratic,” she said. “Free speech, free elections, fair. And then he says they are Nazis. Nazis elect a Jewish president?”

Like Mikityansky, she sees Ukraine as a wall between the greedy ambitions of Putin and the west, and said it’s crucial that Europe and the U.S. take a stand alongside the beleaguered country.

“They are not only defending themselves,” she said. “They are defending all other countries.”

Soroka, who has been in the U.S. since 1991, is in touch with a close friend and her family who still live in the city of 1.5 million people. “They are scared,” she said, especially because of Putin’s stated aim to take Kharkiv.

While young people are fighting and families with children are fleeing toward Poland, Moldova and Hungary, Soroka said some are too old to leave, or are just unwilling. Others don’t know what to do or where to go.

San Franciscans Mila Lazarevsky and Aaron Tartakovsky are doing their best to help refugees from here.

Caption: Mila Lazarevsky and Aaron Tartakovsky are helping raise money to send to Ukraine.
Caption: Mila Lazarevsky and Aaron Tartakovsky are helping raise money to send to Ukraine.

“Right now, there’s a lot of unknowns,” Tartakovsy said. “They don’t know, which border do they go to? Is it the Polish border, Moldovan border, the Romanian border? When they get there, what are the next steps?”

The couple, both 32, have pressing reasons to help Ukraine: Lazarevsky was born in Kyiv, while Tartakovsky’s father immigrated from Odessa. For the past few days, they have been putting the word out on social media, asking their networks to donate money to organizations such as S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which says it will send 100 percent of funds raised to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

An estimated 600,000 refugees have fled the war in Ukraine.

Rachel Levitan, vice president for international policy at refugee aid agency HIAS, said families are waiting up to 10 hours at the border crossings.

“It is bitterly cold, and families are left without adequate food, warmth and access to bathroom facilities,” she told J. “It’s critical to get aid quickly to those in these situations and the best way to do so is by making financial contributions to agencies that have access to partners currently operating inside of Ukraine, such as HIAS.”

Lazarevsky has been in the U.S. since she was 2 but still has family in Ukraine, and the couple are trying to connect them to resources.

“I think this is a really stressful time for my parents,” Lazarevsky said. “They just want to make sure that our family is OK, that everything works out, that they get them to safety.”

“This is very familiar history for both of us, which is why we’ve both felt really compelled to start doing more, and to raise funds and to have links to donate distributed to all the big tech companies, and the Jewish groups within those tech companies,” Tartakovsky explained.

The two made raising money for Ukraine the focus of the past weekend and said they’ve been hearing from a lot of people.

“It really sort of hearkens back to sort of all the historic traumas that our families and our parents and our grandparents saw,” Tartakovsky said. “And I think that’s why it’s eliciting such a visceral response from so many of us.”

As the war unfolds, Mikityansky is confident his home country will fight until the end, as long as the world stands in support. Even if the situation devolves to guerrilla fighting in the street, he said, Ukraine won’t give up. The people just need help — weapons from the European Union and the U.S., and sanctions against Russia.

Although the Russian military outnumbers Ukraine’s forces, that’s not all that matters to the Ukrainians now on the front lines.

“They have one unbelievably huge advantage,” he said. “They’re fighting for their family, they’re fighting for their land, they’re fighting for their kids, moms, wives. They’re fighting for their freedom.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.