A Ukrainian refugee highlights the hope and heartbreak this Passover season
But the sharpest cut The Mohel felt was six weeks ago, when he became a refugee. Again.
He and his family had been forced to flee their home in Donetsk in 2014 when war arrived. Last month, with helicopters circling and sirens blaring near their Dnipro apartment, The Mohel, his wife Lisa and their three young children once more took to the road, like the Israelites, trekking perilously to points unknown.
And that’s how The Mohel found himself this week, a few days before Passover, sitting in Vienna’s second district, in a spartan flat populated mainly with inflatable mattresses and his circumcision kit.
“A mohel in exile,” he said ruefully, checking his phone periodically to see which young males might need his services.
Gaissinovitch’s story is both the stuff of folk tale and emblematic of the many middle-class Ukrainians who this spring find themselves uprooted, possession-free and prospect-lite, in a foreign land. But who, maybe more important than all that, find themselves free.
In The Mohel’s case, free in the nation of Hitler’s birth.
Back in the 1940′s, his good friend’s grandmother had fled east from Dnipro, hoping the Russians would save her from the Germans and Austrians. In 2022, he fled west from Dnipro, hoping the Germans and Austrians would save him from the Russians. Historic irony. Or, maybe, divine providence?
“What’s that line of thanks we give God in the Haggada this weekend,” The Mohel said, citing the canonical text Jews around the world will recite at the Seder. “’From darkness to light, from slavery to liberation?’”
When Passover begins Friday night, millions of Jews will indeed gather around a meal to offer gratitude for an improbable redemption from bellicose tyrants — “and the Lord saves us from their [destructive] hands,” as the signature lines goes. Few will say the words with as much feeling as refugee Ukrainians. And perhaps none will say them like The Mohel of Dnipro.
At first, they didn’t want to leave.
Lisa and The Mohel had spent years in their adopted city of Dnipro, learning to embrace it after fleeing Donetsk 150 miles east. Work was hard — she was a business analyst — and the land foreign. But they had made it familiar, even spiritual.
The couple belonged to the Chabad movement, the outreach-minded Hasidic sect whose modern ideology is shaped by “The Rebbe,” the grand rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. And the rebbe was raised in Dnipro. It was bashert, destiny.
The Mohel and Lisa, 37, became key members of the Jewish community in Dnipro, one of the biggest in Ukraine (which before the invasion boasted more than 200,000 Jews, including the country’s president). In the summer of 2021, The mohel and Lisa even moved into a new apartment with their three kids, all under 12. Eastern European Jewry can feel like a relic to many in the 21st century, an imposition of history class. To them it was current, vital, real life.
So when the invasion began in February, there was no question where they needed to be.
A board-certified urologist, The Mohel’s mission was to bring brit milah, circumcision, all over Ukraine — an especially poignant act since it was forbidden by Russian authorities during the period of the Soviet Union. They couldn’t leave.
They paid attention every day as the sirens grew louder and the outlook bleaker. A first week, then a second, each round of shelling a fresh plague. One morning, as military helicopters hovered, their four-year-old son got close to the window. The window is to Ukraine in 2022 what an indoor-supermarket was to covid in 2020: You get near it, you could die. The Mohel scooped him up in a panic. “We knew then we had to leave,” Lisa said.
The couple wanted to get to Chisinau, in Moldova; an acquaintance owned a hotel and promised the five of them a room. The Mohel knew the Ukraine backroads like Moses knew the Nile; he had been driving them for decades. So he charted a little-trod route to Chisinau, 400 miles away. (As a father of three, he was exempt from the ban on military-age men leaving the country.) But the checkpoints were numerous. The shells were falling. And the traffic was unimaginable. Five hours went by, then 10, then 15.
It was Friday, and the Sabbath was approaching. No observant Jew would ever drive on the Sabbath unless life was at stake. They could hear the air-raid sirens through the car windows. The sun set. They kept driving. Their 11-year-old daughter, Adel, began softly singing “L’cha Dodi,” the traditional Friday-night tune meant to be carried in warmly lit synagogues, not in puttering Nissans at the edge of a war zone. Soon the whole family had quietly joined in.
“We all had tears, happy because we might be saved but sad because this is what we had to do,” said Lisa.
The car moved slowly and the gas gauge approached empty. There were few stations in sight, and when they finally did find one there was no gas, just hundreds of cars waiting for miles in the 15-degree cold. Maybe there’d be a delivery tomorrow. Or the next day. It looked like their escape would have to wait; the fates’ hearts had hardened.
There were rumors on the line of a secret gas station a few kilometers way. The Mohel and Lisa got everyone back in the car and began driving, to where, they didn’t know. A little while later they saw it. It looked completely shuttered — lights out, no activity. They pulled in. No sign of life. Then a man jumped out of the shadows. “Turn off your headlights,” he said urgently. The gas station was on a Russian air-force flight path; if pilots saw it from the sky, they would bomb it immediately, incinerating everyone.
The Mohel turned off the headlights. “No phones either,” the man said. They switched them off. The man brought around a pump. In the pitch black, they filled up their car. They kept nervously looking skyward for the bomb that would drop out of nowhere and wipe them out.
They drove more, approaching the 20-hour mark, then nearing 25. Just enough gas to make it to Moldova. Near the border, they caught rumors on their phones of an hours-long backup. That would deplete their gas, and their ability to escape. “And then we get there, to the big border checkpoint,” said The Mohel, “and the cars all start thinning out and we go through in 15 minutes, like some kind of miracle.” Sometimes the sea just parts.
In Chisinau, the situation was dire. Mattresses had been hauled into a local synagogue, and refugees were sleeping practically atop one another. Those were the lucky ones. In the synagogue courtyard, rows upon rows of tents had been set up, and the refugees slept in clusters there too. It was grim enough that the family decided to keep pushing west. The Mohel knew of a Ukrainian Jew, a Chabad emissary in Vienna 800 miles away, named Kolomoitsev. Providentially, Kolomoitsev had once lived in Dnipro and knew of Gaissinovitch’s brit-milah skills. A call was placed. “Yes, there is room here,” Kolomoitsev said. “There is always room for The Mohel.”
Before they left, a woman approached. “I heard about what you do,” she said. Her son was three. They were Jewish. He hadn’t been circumcised. Could he, you know, possibly? He went to the hospital the next day and performed the circumcision.
Vienna is an unlikely promised land. Some 200,000 Jews lived in the city before World War II — academics, entrepreneurs, doctors, all composing almost 10 percent of the population. Then came the Anschluss in March 1938. Jewish businesses were closed, property seized and rights denied. About half were able to leave, turned overnight into penniless refugees.
The other half saw the Nazis and local authorities begin a systematic destruction of their community, starting with the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 and culminating in the next few years with the vast majority sent to ghettos and concentration camps, where few survived. The community remained microscopic for decades after the war.
But the tide has turned dramatically in recent years, under a charismatic Chabad rabbi named Jacob Biderman; a highly active Jewish umbrella nonprofit known as the IKG; and state and private support. The community got a boost with the late-era Soviet Union influx of Jews from places like Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. There are now 8,000 Jews in the city. Twenty-five synagogues. A dozen kosher restaurants. Two Jewish primary schools. A Jewish university. As it turns out, the community had room for more than just The Mohel.
As he and his family arrived (six days after leaving Dnipro) other Jews from Ukraine began trickling in too, many also from Dnipro, dazed and stressed but relieved. Apartment-building neighbors, or families from the same class — more than 800 all told, one of the highest totals of any city in Europe.
Much of the migration was orchestrated by Kolomoitsev, the Dnipro Jew in Vienna, and a businessman partner named Maxim Sluzki. Their teams would arrange the paperwork and send buses to the border to pick up refugees. Instantly, the community grew by 10 percent.
“I didn’t think we could do 100, let alone 800,” Kolomoitsev said. “But I think we can do still more.”
Even by the standards of a robust European refugee response, there are a dizzying number of services available from the IKG, Chabad and private donors: hotel rooms, free apartments through the end of the year, psychological counseling, job training, language classes, multiple daily meals, clothing giveaways.
“If you had told me a month-and-a-half ago we’d be leading the biggest refugee effort since Word War II I wouldn’t be able to believe it,” said Benjamin Nägele, an IKG executive who is known as the general secretary of the Jewish community in Vienna.
Biderman has ensured that the 100 children who’d arrived are enrolled for free in one of the schools — adding 20 percent to the student body — even though almost none speak German or English. The Mohel’s wife has stepped in as ad hoc translator. Lisa is conveyed the lesson by teachers in English, then passes it on to the children in Russian, then translates their comments back to the teacher in English. Then she runs to the next classroom.
Their kids are all adjusting quickly, including Adel. In two months she’ll mark her bat mitzvah.
And The Mohel? He is ready for the next circumcision, as Jewish babies are continuing to be born in Europe, despite all the decrees that this isn’t a good time.
He and Lisa walk the streets of their new city. Even though they don’t speak the language, they are happy. Without the oppressive sirens, without the tears that come from the uncertainty over a tyrant’s actions, what else can you feel but happy?
“We feel very welcome here but also a little odd,” The Mohel said. “Because we look down at the sidewalks and see the names.” Inlaid street stones in Vienna and further European cities note the names of the Jews and other Holocaust victims that lived in the adjacent homes before they were forcibly removed from them. As recipients of free housing precisely because they are Jews, they say this prompts mixed feelings, both guilt and closure.
The couple is unsure of their long-term plans. Recent reports have warned of a renewed Russian assault on Dnipro. So Lisa, who has a masters in economics, may apply for a job as an analyst at a Vienna bank. They hope to begin furnishing the apartment soon. An important step in resettlement. Or at least security. More security than looking up to the night sky hoping a plane doesn’t catch sight of your car and bomb you.
Middle-class refugees can seem like a paradox; money and education are supposed to be bulwarks against such a fate. It turns out that they’re not. But community can be. So can benevolent hosts. And, maybe, a little help from other powers. From darkness to light.
“There is hope,” The Mohel noted. “We will say it. It is the hope of the Haggadah.”
A call came recently from back in Ukraine. There was a boy born among the Jews who have remained in Dnipro, and no one is in the city to perform the circumcision. The Mohel got in his Nissan and drove back across the border.