War stories

War stories

As the invasion of Ukraine continues, refugees flood other countries — including Israel

In Kyiv, a man walks past photographs of Azov battalion soldiers killed at the siege of Mariupol on Oct. 19, 2022. (Ed Ram/Getty Images)
In Kyiv, a man walks past photographs of Azov battalion soldiers killed at the siege of Mariupol on Oct. 19, 2022. (Ed Ram/Getty Images)

Sometimes the political bleeds into the personal. (And when we’re talking about the war that Russia started by its invasion of Ukraine, we’re not being metaphoric. It bleeds.)

As he discusses what’s going on in Russia, where he grew up, and which he left in 1991, when he was 30, and what he hears from his good friends in Ukraine, Alexander Smukler of Montclair inevitably moves from the macro to the micro, the political to the personal, because there are people’s lives and deaths he’s talking about.

“We are now in the ninth month of the war,” he said; nine months brings up ideas about birth. He had dinner with a friend from Ukraine, a young woman named Yanna, and “it was very interesting,” he said. “She said that there are so many women who are pregnant there. It’s really like a covid syndrome. People are hiding in their basements, in bomb shelters, without electricity, without anything else to do. It’s like an epidemic of pregnancy.

“It’s a weird result of the ninth month of war.”

Vladimir Putin — the man he calls the angry dwarf, the dictator responsible for the death and the terror — has a new strategy, Mr. Smukler said. “Winter is coming.

“Most of the biggest cities in Ukraine — Kyiv, Nikolayev, Odessa — have completely lost electricity. They have no water and no heat.

“This is Putin’s new strategy — to freeze the country.”

He has heard, from various sources, that 73,680 Russian soldiers have been killed. “Nobody knows the exact number of the wounded, but obviously the number is extremely high,” he said. The Ukrainians are not releasing the number of their fighters who have been killed or wounded. “The Russians say that the Ukrainians lost 400,000, either killed or wounded. I think that number is way too high, but that is the number that the official Russian propaganda is spreading.” As the Russians put it, he added, “they say that they have eliminated 400,000 neo-Nazis.”

Remember that we are talking about human lives. The death and pain and destruction are overwhelming. “And nobody knows exactly how many civilians were killed during these nine months, but we do know that almost nine million people from Ukraine are considered misplaced,” Mr. Smukler said. “That means that they had to leave their homes in order to save their lives.” He’s talking only about Ukrainians, he said.

That brought him to Russia. “It’s known that during the last nine months, and especially during the last two months, when Putin was preparing and then announced mobilization, more than 1,300,000 young men left Russia. They ran away from the possibility of being drafted.

“A few days ago, Putin announced that the mobilization is over, and they sent 318,000 new soldiers to the front. That’s the exact number that he announced at the Valdai Club.”

Alexander Smukler

The Valdai Discussion Club is a Putin-associated Moscow think tank that once drew experts from around the world and hosted an annual speech by Putin. This year, “as you can imagine, the whole world did not send their representatives to the Valdai Club.”

This year, Putin used his talk as an opportunity to repeat his story “that Ukraine is just a battlefield in the fight between civilizations, and that Russia is defending its own independence again the so-called organized West and NATO.”

In other words, that Russia, once again, is an embattled victim, just protecting itself.

Meanwhile, young Russian men are fleeing the country, to such countries as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Khazakstan. Those all are former Soviet republics; Russians can go there without visas. Most of these men “are highly educated professionals, particularly IT personnel,” Mr. Smukler said.

And, he added, “Remember that Russia, like Ukraine, has a new generation of people who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who were born after 1991, and are just starting their careers. They don’t remember Soviet propaganda. They don’t remember World War II,” the war and the aftermath and the state that have informed and infected Putin’s life and his decisions. “They are millennials. They grew up with the internet and in the global world.

“Why would they sacrifice their lives to become cannon fodder?”

That’s where this story goes from the abstract to the concrete.

“Among my friends, I can speak about tens and tens of young people who are trying to escape, or who have already escaped and are looking for ways to start working in cities that accommodate Russians who don’t want to be drafted. You can survive easily speaking Russian there. Russians are more or less comfortable there.”

And then there’s Israel.

“It’s getting an incredible number of refugees from Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. Anyone — “from what I hear, 99 percent of everyone who can” — who has at least one Jewish grandparent, and therefore is eligible to live in Israel under the Law of Return, tries to get there.

“Different sources give different numbers, but I am comfortable believing that 20,000 people from Ukraine just recently received Israeli citizenship, and the same number of them are waiting for the resolution of their situation.”

In Kyiv, a man walks past photographs of Azov battalion soldiers killed at the siege of Mariupol on Oct. 19, 2022. (Ed Ram/Getty Images)

Russians also try to get to Israel. “A surprisingly gigantic number of people are trying to go,” Mr. Smukler said. “I have many friends who I never never would ever think had a Jewish ancestor, but suddenly they have documents.

“I had no idea.”

He tells a story about a friend. He can’t use the friend’s last name, Mr. Smukler said, because the family is so well known, and making the story public could harm him. But “I grew up with this friend since kindergarten,” he said. Mr. Smukler grew up in a communal apartment in Moscow — families shared a kitchen and bathroom, although they did not share meals, just cleaning obligations — and retired to small, unappealing bedrooms strung out across long grim hallways at night. But his friend’s father “was a very well-known scientist, and then later, during Gorbachev’s time, he turned to politics and became a high-level advisor to Yeltsin.

“I always felt so comfortable with the family,” he continued. “They were an example of Russian intelligentsia fighting against Russian antisemitism. I remember sitting in their kitchen” — a luxury that he did not get at home, because he did not have a kitchen in which to sit — “and my friend’s father and mother discussed with their friends how shameful it was that Soviet Jews could not be admitted to major colleges and universities because of state antisemitism.

“The family always gave me courage. I was so happy when I could have dinner with the family, because I knew that not everybody shared the beliefs of the official Communist regime. I knew that there were people who even being Russian would stand up for us and fight against antisemitism.”

In fact, his friend’s father “did a lot to help us when we started to organize the Jewish community in Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “When we organized the Russian Jewish Congress, and he was a Yeltsin advisor and a member of his cabinet, he helped speed up our legal paperwork.

“So,” Mr. Smukler summed up, “I knew the family for 50 years.” He and his friend have stayed close over all the decades that have passed, across the oceans that separate them.

“And just a week ago I learned that my friend, who is now a well-known professor, an academician, is filing documents to get Israeli citizenship.”


“I have never had any reason to think that the family was of Jewish descent,” Mr. Smukler said.

The thing is, his friend never had any reason to believe that either, until very recently.

Zhanetta Butenko’s house in Hostemel, Ukraine, was partially destroyed when a rocket crashed through its roof in early March. (Jacob Judah)

“I said to him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Mr. Smukler recalled. “‘You do not have the right of return.’ And he said, ‘You will be surprised — but I do.’

“And he sent me documents that proved that his grandmother, his father’s mother, was Jewish, so his father was half Jewish. And I said, ‘How come all these years, being one of my best friends, you never mentioned it?’ And he said, ‘You wouldn’t believe this, but I didn’t know!

“‘I just found out.’”

This is the story.

His friend’s grandparents — let’s call his friend Igor, which is not his name, just for clarity — “were high-ranking Communists,” Mr. Smukler said. It was 1937, and his friend’s father, now the former Yeltsin advisor and prominent academic, was two months old. “Both his parents were thrown into the gulag,” he continued. “People came at night to arrest the mother and the father, and they left the baby in his crib in the apartment. They locked the door and left.

“The neighbors in the building knew there had been a baby in the apartment, and they heard him crying, so they broke the door and broke into the apartment, and they took the baby and brought him to an orphanage.

“Later, the baby was adopted by a Russian family. He always knew that he was adopted, but he never knew who his parents were. He never knew their name.

“His father died in the gulag about five years after he was taken, but his mother spent almost 20 years in Russian labor camps, but she survived. She came back to Moscow in 1956. She had been fully rehabilitated by the Khruschev government.

“And she started to look for her son.”

By then, her son was almost 20 years old. His passport listed his ethnicity as Russian, and he had his adoptive parents’ name. Somehow, his mother found him.

A Ukrainian woman votes in Putin’s sham referendum on Sept. 27, 2022. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“There were thousands of people looking for their children, who had been abandoned during Stalin’s terror,” Mr. Smukler said. This mother and son were among the lucky ones. “They maintained a great relationship,” he added.

“Now, it’s 65 years since she came back from Stalin’s camp,” Mr. Smukler continued. “She has died since; her son, who is 85 now, is alive and in good shape. He and his son requested her file from the FSB” — the successor to the feared KGB — “because they wanted to know why she was arrested. They wanted to have a family history.”

When they got the file, they learned — to their absolute astonishment — that Igor’s grandmother was Jewish.

“It showed that in 1937, a woman with a typical Jewish name was arrested. It said that she was originally from a shtetl in Ukraine, the 14th child in a very religious family. She left them in 1918 to become a hardline Communist.”

Somehow, she managed to get her documents changed. “When she left the gulag” — she’d been fully rehabilitated, Mr. Smukler stressed — “she already had a passport in her new name.” Which was not her son’s name, of course; he’d been adopted. But it was the name he’d known her by, from the time she discovered him until she died.

“Somehow, she managed to live all her life, until her death, without ever saying to anybody that she was from a Jewish family,” Mr. Smukler marveled. So now, not only is Igor applying for citizenship in Israel through the Law of Return, he’s also working with lawyers and in every other way he can think of to find out what happened to the Ukrainian family his grandmother left behind when she shook the dust of that place from her feet.

As astounding as Igor’s story is, “I think that today, with Russia on the verge of incredible political turmoil, and becoming a dictatorship, there will be thousands and thousands of people who suddenly will retrace their roots and based on the Law of Return will try to go to Israel,” Mr. Smukler said.

It’s not as if Israel is politically stable itself right now, either. If Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime minister, as seems overwhelmingly likely as he works to put together a coalition, what then? “He will have major issues in order to somehow continue a relationship with Russia and with Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “The previous government, under Yair Lapid, strongly condemned Russian aggression. Israel has been leaning to Ukraine, and to the Ukrainian president,” the famously Jewish Volodymyr Zelensky. “At the same time, during the last nine months Israel was trying not to export any weaponry or technology or equipment to Ukraine, because there always is the risk that Russia will close its borders to immigrants leaving the country. Israel has to be careful to keep that channel open.”

Also, Mr. Smukler added, “Bibi is known as a personal friend of Putin.” (Insofar, of course, as murderous dictators can have friends.)

And there’s something else lurking. History.

Evgenia Yakolevna, right, with her non-Jewish friend, Masha. They each receive aid from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine at Yakolevna’s request. (Jacob Judah)

“I have a friend, a high-ranking person in the Likkud party who hopefully will be in a ministerial position, who said to me, ‘I fully understand what is going on in Ukraine, and I feel terrible about it. I feel sorry for Ukraine.

“‘But at the same time, Ukraine and Israel have a special relationship because so many Israelis fully remember the role that Ukrainians played in the Holocaust.’” To state the obvious, during the war the Ukrainians were brutal to the Jews, often gleefully carrying out the Germans’ orders to torture and kill them, allowing their German overlords the luxury of keeping their own hands relatively clean. “The relationship between Ukraine and Israel always acknowledged that history,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Now, Ukraine is not even asking, not begging, but requiring that Israel supply them with the Iron Dome and anti-missile systems. But if the Ukrainians want us to seriously discuss that option, Israelis ask, why do the Ukrainians continue to vote against Israel in the United Nations? What kind of country are we dealing with?’”

The Israelis are talking about a series of votes; the most recent, from October 31, was on a resolution, submitted by Egypt, calling for a nuclear-free Middle East. The resolution was supported by 152 countries, 24 abstained, and five — the United States, Canada, Micronesia, Palau, and Israel — voted against it. Most of the abstentions came from European Union countries. Ukraine voted for the resolution. Israel saw the vote as a complete betrayal; Ukrainian officials said they were surprised by Israel’s reaction.

The vote is an annual affair; every year Israel opposes it — it mentions Israel by name as the only country standing in the way of the admittedly-desirable-in-the-abstract nuclear-free goal — every year Ukraine supports it.

There are all sorts of arguments on both sides of this issue, all having to do with realpolitik, but the result is that Israel is less likely to want to support the Ukrainians right now. It’s a complicated mess.

“According to my friend from Likkud, a likely explanation is that the Ukrainians got instructions from the Biden administration to vote against Israel,” Mr. Smukler said. “I don’t know if that’s true.

“Right now, Israel is between two stones, the Russia stone and the Ukraine stone. It’s also processing olim chadashim, new immigrants from both countries, and it’s also dealing with Iran, which has become a strong ally and supporter of Russia, and has sent thousands of missiles and drones to Russia to use on the Ukrainian frontlines.

“Everyone suspects that as a payment Russia will supply nuclear technologies to Iran, and to my mind that is an extremely dangerous cooperation,” Mr. Smukler said. “Bibi will have to deal with it.”

There’s one more important thing to say this week, he added.

“We have talked about how the key to a peaceful solution to the conflict is in the hands of the Chinese. And amazingly, what has happened during the last three weeks, since we last talked, is that we can see signs that our administration and European administrations are conducting secret negotiations with the Chinese. I don’t know what the results will be, but I do know that the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, went to visit Xi Jinping.

“I believe that the only chance to stop the aggression against Ukraine is if China puts pressure on Russia,” Mr. Smukler concluded. “I think that the European governments and our administration know that something has to be done quickly, and that’s why they’re starting to talk to China.”

Because, as we know, winter is coming.

read more: