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War-displaced Ukrainian Jews find Passover especially poignant: NPR

A traditional Passover seder plate on the first night of Passover.

Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/ASSOCIATED PRESS

War-displaced Ukrainian Jews find Passover especially poignant: NPR

A traditional Passover seder plate on the first night of Passover.

Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The decision to leave home is not easy. Olena Khalina was in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine when the war broke out. Russian planes dropped bombs right outside his house.

“Sound is something…” Khalina pauses. “I can’t even find the word. Because it’s super low and super loud, and your house is shaking.”

In the Passover story, the Hebrew people leave Egypt almost without notice. Unleavened matzo symbolizes that the bread hasn’t even had time to rise. Khalina discovered a bus out of town two days before she left. But still, she says, it is impossible to prepare.

“Home is your friends. Home is your family. Home is your job,” says Khalina. “But all you can take with you is just a backpack or a suitcase. And you should put your whole house in there? So it’s impossible. And you leave everything of value for you .”

Khalina is now in Prague, Czech Republic, adapting to a new country, taking courses and working. She also checks in with friends who fled elsewhere and others who remained in Ukraine. For Passover, she goes to Berlin, to spend the holidays with Ukrainian friends who have landed there.

Jewish refugees celebrate a holiday to flee a violent military leader while being refugees themselves

Across Europe and around the world, Ukrainian refugees will attend the Passover Seder starting tonight. And they will tell the story of wandering while they themselves are refugees.

There are big Seders planned by refugee groups like HIAS and Jewish groups like Hillel International, as well as countless people answering the Passover call to let all who are hungry come and eat.

The symbolism is not lost on Julia Gris, rabbi of the Shirat ha-Yam temple in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. She was in the city of Lviv when war broke out and crossed Poland on foot, waiting 40 hours at the border in freezing temperatures. Gray now lives in a congregation in Oldenburg, Germany.

Like Khalina, Gris feels uprooted. “When your whole life in a little suitcase,” she explains. “Where you have the key to the house, but you no longer have a house. I don’t want anyone to feel that way.”

But Gris says Passover is always a time of celebration — whether in a synagogue, a private home or a refugee camp. She will attend a Seder there in Germany. And she will lead another Seder via Zoom with the rabbi of Kyiv for Ukrainian refugees scattered around the world or who may still be sheltering at home. So that together they can stop, tell the ancient story of Easter and step out of time, if only for a few minutes.

New Symbolic Foods Join Traditional Seder Dishes This Year

“Eat matzo and bitter herbs, and drink four cups of wine,” says Rabbi Gris. “And of course we will share our dreams for better times.”

At many Seders, these traditional symbols will be joined by new ones, to draw clear parallels between the pharaoh’s army and Russian forces: olive branches for peace, beets and sunflowers for Ukraine itself.

Boris and Victoria Fikhtman were away from their native Odessa on holiday in the Carpathians when the war started in late February. They were unable to return home, so they traveled to Hungary and then Romania before finally finding refuge in Chișinău, Moldova, through the organization World Jewish Relief. It took them several weeks to find their 3-year-old daughter, who was living with her grandparents in Odessa.

The Fikhtmans say their usual Passover celebration in Odessa took place in a five-star hotel, with hundreds of people from the local Jewish community. They don’t know exactly what this year will look like – for Passover or the days ahead. But they are happy to have been welcomed and to be safe.

“Next year in Jerusalem” is the last line of the traditional Seder. Jerusalem is more than a physical place – it’s an idea. The idea that all things will be restored.

From Germany to the Czech Republic to Moldova, these refugees are grateful to all who welcomed them. But these countries are not at home, nor the promised land. And when asked how they would end this year’s Seder, Olena Khalina, Rabbi Julia Gris and Boris and Victoria Fikhtman said the same thing: next year in Ukraine. In a free and peaceful Ukraine.


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