Our interview to the chief Rabbi of Odessa “Children and survivors of the Shoah, this war causes new traumas”

By Daniel Reichel

Over eight thousand people need to be provided with water, food, and solidarity. There are over a hundred and twenty children protected in the orphanage and waiting to be safely taken out of Ukraine. Fifty survivors of the Shoah are to be helped and reassured in the face of the awakening of past traumas. With little time available, calls to be made, items to be distributed, buses to be organized.
Last week Rabbi Avraham Wolff, chief Rabbi of Odessa, told Pagine Ebraiche the tragedy of these hours. “There is tremendous fear and great uncertainty”, he explains. The news talk about an imminent Russian invasion of the city, there are explosions in the outskirts and the tension is very high.
The explosions at Odessa had already been heard immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. “A ninety-year-old man, a survivor of the Shoah, called me crying because of the loud noises”, such is the testimony of Rabbi Wolff. “I tried to calm him down and I explained that nobody will come to kill him.”
Then the calls to his phone became hundreds and the Jewish Community transformed into a point of reference for tackling the conflict. Its chief Rabbi says: “We arranged items of primary necessity to provide those in need. We provide help to eight thousand people, but the situation is very hard”.
Together with his wife Chaya Wolf, the Rabbi, emissary of the Chabad movement, had built an orphanage twenty-one years ago to assist the Jews of Odessa. The aim was to support the local families in difficulty. Then, with the deterioration of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014, the doors have been opened even to refugees from the other war zones in the country. And now, with the Russian invasion, the stitches have been inevitably opened even more. “We prepared by collecting food before the attack. Many Rabbis remained in the city and we are working on two levels to help the Community. From a physical point of view, we provide food and water. From a mental one, we are trying to calm down those who remained”.
Many people have been able to leave Odessa. “We organized several buses, with children and families. Over 1000 people have been taken across the border (to Moldova). But many others stayed. Some can’t leave because they don’t have the documents, some who have a sick person to take care of, some who are simply too afraid”. Among those who have been able to leave at this very hour were the hundred and twenty children of the orphanage, waved at by Rabbi Wolff and his wife (in the video).
Among those left, the fifty Holocaust survivors in the nursing home. “We have spoken with the younger ones and we have explained that they have nothing to do with this war, that it is a conflict between nations, that nobody wants to harm them. With Holocaust survivors everything is more difficult. To the children, the explosions are like fireworks, to us adults the images of a movie, but for the survivors, the bombs take them back to the Shoah. The traumas of the past awakened again. We are doing our best to calm them down, but it is not easy”. While speaking with an Israeli parliament’s committee in the past few days, the Rabbi asked that essential items be sent to Ukraine. “Kiev, Kharkov and other cities are surrounded by the Russian army. – reminded the Rabbi – The situation is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe”.

Above, Rabbi Wolf waving at the children of the orphanage leaving Odessa last week on buses.

Translated by Oyebuchi Lucia Leonard and revised by Gianluca Pace, students at the University of Trieste and the Advanced school for interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.