ODESSA, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces battled pro-Russian militants Monday in eastern Ukraine as militants in Odessa vowed to retake buildings they were forced out of amid clashes that left more than 40 people dead.
Running street battles between pro-Russian and nationalist forces claimed dozens of lives this weekend. What happens if the violence significantly worsens? This very-real issue is weighing heavily on Jewish leaders in Odessa. With the burning of dozens of pro-Russian protesters in the city’s trade union building, the Odessa bloodshed seems likely to deteriorate.
Rabbi Refael Kruskal of the Tikva organization, which runs orphanages, schools and social services to the city’s elderly reported that several of the wounded from Friday’s clashes were Jews. Precautions are therefore in order and over the weekend the Great Choral Synagogue was closed and students were moved out of the city’s center.
The local Chabad emissary, Rabbi Avraham Wolf, is also prepared. While the situation has not deteriorated to the point where an evacuation is necessary, he said, “We have a number of plans.” Chabad institutions, which are in constant contact with the authorities, have so far remained open but with extra security measures, such as armed guards and a situation check every half hour. In fact, during Friday’s clashes, 20 buses were parked outside of Chabad’s school, but went unused
All told, the Jewish community, together with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has prepared a fleet of 70 buses, fueled and ready to go, “if, G-d forbid, we have to evacuate.”
To add to the tension, this coming Friday marks the anniversary of Soviet Russia’s victory over Germany in the Second World War, and further “provocations” are expected. While there are other communal leaders more sanguine, all have evacuation plans in place, ranging from relocating within the city to sending community members to Kishinev, two-and-a-half hours away in neighboring Moldova.
As one community activist put it bluntly: “We are doing everything to strengthen the Jewish community in its normal life. But we are responsible for the children…and really hope that it does not get to that and that all will be okay.”
Ukrainian troops pressed forward with an offensive against militants in Slovyansk, a city in eastern Ukraine that has become a center of militant unrest.
Gunfire and multiple explosions could be heard in the city of 125,000 people. The United States and Kiev say the takeovers are an illegal attempt by militants to overthrow the elected government of Ukraine with the help of Moscow.