Dr. Scott M. Lieberman / ASSOCIATED PRESS
The decision to leave home is not easy. Olena Khalina was in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv when the war started. Russian planes dropped bombs right outside her home.
“Sound is something …” Khalina concludes. “I can not even find the floor. Because it’s like super low and super noisy, and your house just shakes.”
In Easter history, the Hebrew people leave Egypt almost without warning. The unleavened matzo symbolizes the fact that bread did not even rise. Khalina found out a bus out of town two days before it was due to leave. 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 have to put your whole home in it? So that’s impossible. And you leave everything that is valuable to you.”
Khalina is now in Prague, Czech Republic, adapt to a new country, take education and work. She also checks in with friends who have fled elsewhere and some who have remained in Ukraine. For Easter, she travels to Berlin to spend the holidays with Ukrainian friends who have landed there.
Jewish refugees celebrate a holiday of fleeing a violent military leader while they themselves are refugees
Across Europe and around the world, Ukrainian refugees will attend the Easter celebration from tonight. And they will tell the story of wandering while they themselves are refugees.
There are large cedars planned by refugee groups like HIAS and Jewish groups like Hillel International, as well as countless individuals who listen to the Easter call to let everyone who is 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 the war started, crossing over to Poland on foot while waiting 40 hours at the border in freezing temperatures. Pig now lives with a congregation in Oldenburg, Germany.
Like Khalina, Pig feels uprooted. “When your whole life in a small suitcase,” she explains. “Where you have key from home but do not have a home anymore. I would not want anyone to feel this.”
But Pig says Easter is still a time to celebrate – whether it’s 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 from Kiev for Ukrainian refugees scattered all over the world, or who may still be in shelters at home. So they can stop together, tell the ancient story of Easter and step out of time, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
New symbolic foods are joining the traditional Seder plates this year
“Eating matzo and bitter herbs and drinking four cups of wine,” says Rabbi Gris. “And of course we want to share our dreams of better times.”
By many customs, these traditional symbols will be joined by new ones to draw clear parallels between Pharaoh’s army and Russian forces: the olive branches of peace, beets and sunflowers to Ukraine itself.
Boris and Victoria Fikhtman were away from their homeland 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 to Romania before finally finding refuge in Chisinau, Moldova, through the organization World Jewish Relief. It took several weeks for them to reunite with their 3-year-old daughter, who had lived with her grandparents back in Odessa.
The Fikhtmans say that their usual Easter celebration in Odessa took place in a five-star hotel with hundreds of people from the local Jewish community. They are not sure exactly what this year will look like – for Easter or the days after. 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 have received them. But these countries are not at home, nor are they the promised land. And on the question of how they will end this year’s Seder, Olena Khalina, rabbis Julia Gris and Boris and Victoria Fikhtman said the same thing: next year in Ukraine. In a free, peaceful Ukraine.