My husband and I were born and raised in Kyiv, under Soviet control. Antisemitism hovered around us and prevented us from advancing in our careers. We felt rebuffed.
So, when in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union finally buckled to international pressure and allowed Jews to emigrate out of Ukraine, we packed and left with our baby daughter. I felt no longing or love. Suddenly, I understood rather well the meaning of the biblical account of the words God spoke to the first Jew, Abraham, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.”
No sooner did we apply for emigration than we were stripped of our Soviet citizenship, fired from our jobs, and hit the road to the unknown but to liberation, to a better life. As Jews.
We spent half a year in refugee camps in Austria and Italy, and finally arrived in the USA. While we’ve not been religiously observant Jews, our lives in America quickly became culturally Jewish. We understood that Jewish identity didn’t necessarily correlate with religious identification. We are grateful to the US for giving us this freedom.
Yet we now are in Kyiv, back in our native city and in the middle of the horrendous war. Why?
It began with work: I joined my husband in Kyiv, where he worked at the time, 10 years ago. And for me, it was the most difficult decision I had ever made in my life. Not only didn’t I want to go back but I didn’t even want to look back. Our stay was supposed to last for a year, but due to the Ukrainian revolution and ensuing economic collapse, we ended up staying longer. Since then I have been traveling back and forth: Kyiv to New York, New York to Kyiv.
It was challenging to adjust to my second-time-around life in the Ukrainian capital. But eventually, the city has grown, or regrown, on me. In the last decade, Ukraine was moving in the direction of democracy, freedom, and tolerance. I felt no real presence of antisemitism. Being a Jew in Ukraine is different now. It’s even kind of cool. Even a few of my gentile friends have gone looking for their Jewish origins and go around with Magen David necklaces while learning about Judaism and Hebrew.
Kyiv is a beautiful European city with centuries of rich history, picturesque parks, and a thriving art scene. Just two months ago, you could take your pick from dozens of operas, concerts, museums, Dnipro River tours, and art exhibitions. I was among many fashion experts giving lectures at local universities, and this was just one subject among a wealth of educational programming open to the public. The restaurant industry was booming. New places opened every month, with amazing interiors, creative and delicious menus, and outstanding service. Of course, we had our favorites, where we were friendly with the owners and waitstaff. Life allowed us to mingle, to meet old friends and make new ones. And all of this filled my expatriated heart with new love for the city.
I live right in the center of Kyiv — around the corner from Kreshchatyk, the equivalent of Time Square in New York. Before February, it was a lively place. Crowds filled the street: locals and tourists from other parts of Ukraine, visitors from around the world. We used to complain about the street performers that we could hear late into the evening hours because they were too loud. How I miss them now! In such a short time, that now feels like two decades — Kyiv has become nearly unrecognizable. It’s no longer lively, yet it is still alive. However scary it is to remain here, there are many Kyivites, who stayed to stand against Putin’s attempts to terrorize people.
While many have escaped the city, many locals are staying. We are keeping the city breathing.
Of course, my husband and I could have left–and not as Ukrainian refugees. We could have gone back home to the US. Yet, putting our galloping fears aside, my husband and I have decided to stay in Kyiv. By being in the midst of the disaster, we can better identify the needs of the families around us and try to be as helpful as we can. The people of Kyiv are our inspiration and they are the main reason we stayed. Now, we feel we are on a kind of mission. Moreover, we feel that our commitment to remain in Kyiv shows American solidarity with Ukraine.
When we venture out foraging for groceries and communicate with people while standing in line in a supermarket or run into others on the mostly empty streets, we don’t talk to each other about horrors; instead, we try to support each other and keep each other’s spirits up with jokes. People surprise me sometimes and not just with their kindness, but also with their sudden ability to express things the right way. It reminds me of how people interacted in New York after September 11th.
Sometimes I think about younger Ukrainians, who escaped from Kyiv to western parts of Ukraine or to safety in Europe — those in their 30s, with no children to care for – and I wonder, why didn’t they stay? Rather than think too much about that, I spend my time volunteering and translating petitions. I also continue giving online English lessons to my teenage students over Zoom—now for free.
At the beginning of the war, those students had their classes while they sat in bomb shelters. Our time together provides some distraction for the kids and gives some peace to their parents. My heart bleeds for these youngsters who have not gotten a chance to experience their youth — no dating, no proms, no schooling — first due to COVID-19, and now the War. It’s so painful.
Whenever I have the opportunity, I join volunteers in their projects: cooking for the soldiers who protect Ukraine, risking their lives; as well as delivering food and water to all those in need, helping the elderly, rescuing animals, collecting medicines; and just assisting civilians who are trying to keep their spirits high in such incredibly turbulent times. Yesterday I donated blood.
It’s heartbreaking and impossible to comprehend what’s happening in Ukraine at present. The situation in Mariupol, Irpen, Bucha (the latter two are just outside Kyiv – a half an hour ride) is unfathomably atrocious: a starving population cut off completely from food or clean water, dehydrated children, shelling, mass graves. The Russian soldiers brutally raped and killed women right in front of their children, and young girls after killing their parents. This monstrosity is not just heartbreaking. It’s paralyzing. Russian authorities are blocking information about the war from reaching their own population, but the rest of the world must see their crimes. And I can feel the pain of Ukrainians better because I understand the language. I hope I can make their screams heard.
I strongly believe that where there are people, there is always hope — and it’s not a small hope — for peace and for love. So as long as we have the wherewithal and the means to help, we must keep going.
Helen Chervitz is a fashion marketing and branding expert who was born in Ukraine. After immigrating to the United States in the 1980s to escape antisemitism at home, she joined her husband in Kyiv in 2012. Before the war, Helen lectured on the history of fashion and the contemporary fashion market, consulted aspiring young designers, and writing for L’Officiel Monaco. S Now she is teaching English and other subjects to students since schools are only open sporadically. Helen also volunteers in many war-related humanitarian projects.