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Biblical understanding about Israel

September 14, 2016

The Rabbi of Mariupol

A pleasant breeze cools the blistering heat of this summery Ukrainian afternoon. While we overlook a picturesque hilly field filled with shrivelled up grass we hear every now and then gunfire from the front. It doesn’t seem to disrupt the quiet. “This is a holy place”, rabbi Menachem Mendel Cohen from Mariupol tells us.

But the reason for this holiness is horrible. In October 1941 over sixteen thousand Jews, Roma and other ‘dissidents’ from Mariupol and the surrounding area were murdered right here. One of the countless ‘Babi Yars’ from Ukraine’s Holocaust history. First the Jews were summoned to meet in the building of the high-tech university. From there they were forced to walk some ten kilometres to the execution site. Men, women, children, sick persons. In batches they were shot on the edge of a mass grave.

The field where in October 1941 over sixteen thousand Jews, Roma and 'other dissidents' were murdered by the nazis - Foto: CvI

In almost every town there is a mass grave. Unimaginable…

The sun is shining lovely over the slanting scenery that conceals these abominations. Only the monument that was erected in remembrance is a reminder of this history. At the memorial in the shape of a menorah rabbi Cohen sings a prayer. It sounds heart breaking. Because there weren’t enough bullets, the last victims were simply thrown into the pit and buried alive. The story goes that people living in the neighbourhood heard cries from the dying victims from the pit for as long as three days.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cohen from Mariupol

But this history is not about to remain entirely hidden, yet. “When it rains heavily in the autumn, the earth washes away and the bones surface again”, rabbi Cohen tells. “I saw teeth there”, and he points to the ground. “I would like this mass grave to be covered properly and surrounded by a fence. Maybe you can help out in this matter?”

Special encounter
We actually meet rabbi Cohen for the first time this morning. Next Thursday a group of olim is leaving for Israel by plain and together with a Dutch party we travel in their company to report. Awaiting our departure we attend a program in Ukraine. Chief rabbi Binyomin Jacobs also joins our party. In a roundabout way he receives an invitation from rabbi Cohen and we change plans to meet this man.

Eleven years ago rabbi Cohen and his wife came from Israel to Mariupol to support the Jewish life in the city on behalf of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. As it is not an easy task. The Holocaust and communism have steamrolled the Jewish life in Ukraine. Not many Jews know that they are Jewish or dare to live like one. Also the assimilation, intermingling with the Ukrainian population is substantial. Taking stock of the situation rabbi Cohen sees a lively community with a synagogue, schools, teaching programs and support for all kinds of needy people in the community.

But everything he and his wife have been working for so hard was undermined two years ago. When the conflict in East Ukraine broke out -Mariupol is located on the border of the conflict area until the present day- the Jews have been leaving the city massively. Of the more than one thousand members of the congregation who are ‘halakhic Jewish’ (i.e. have a Jewish mother) and practise their Judaism, already three hundred have left since 2014.

Because of the help to Jewish refugees coming from the conflict area Christians for Israel is increasingly active in Mariupol and the surrounding area. But for the activities of Koen Carlier and his team a good cooperation with the local rabbis is imperative. The encounter with rabbi Cohen and chief rabbi Jacobs as intermediary turned out to be like manna from heaven. That very same day rabbi Cohen takes us to the mass grave, just outside the city.

Vanda Siemionovka Vasilievska

Later we are invited to partake of a meal in the synagogue. Rabbi Cohen has also invited the 86-year-old Vanda Siemionovka Vasilievska to the occasion. As an 8-year-old she escaped the mass murder of Mariupol’s Jews. She survived the war as a person in hiding. At the end of the meal rabbi Cohen tells about his battle for the Jewish community in Mariupol. “I struggled with it a lot, but I came to the conclusion that the time for the Jewish community is over here and that HaShem calls the Jews who are still living here to come to Israel, because of the situation here.”

Thanks to the Lord for the beautiful work of rabbi Cohen in Mariupol. Thanks for the fact that we became friends in such a special way and pray for a fruitful cooperation.

Gratefully we return homeward to our hotel in Zaporozhe. A more than five-hour journey on poor roads. How wonderful it is that the Lord succeeds in bringing people together. On the way back we have a thunderstorm. Around us it is pitch-black. The roads are unlit and at a certain moment it rains so hard that we have to pull over because the road is not visible anymore. Instinctively I wonder where in this land earth is flushing away and bones are being exposed. In almost every town there is a mass grave. Inconceivable…

But today we also spoke about the dry bones from Ezekiel that came to live. May that prophecy come true real soon!

Ruben Ridderhof studied journalism in Ede (Netherlands) and is employed by Christians for Israel. He is editor in chief of the Israel Aktueel newspaper, coordinates the foundation’s website and delivers lectures.

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