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March 16, 2022 3:12 pm
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‘We Need to Accept Everyone’: Jewish School Under Fire in Ukrainian City of Bila Tserkva Transformed Into Main Aid Center

avatar by Ben Cohen

Interview

Displaced Ukrainian families are seen sleeping in the makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of the Jewish school in Bila Tserkva. Photo: Natella Shapiro Andriuschenko

Natella Andriuschenko received a phone call from a colleague on Tuesday, advising her to expect nine evacuees seeking shelter at the Jewish school she runs in the Ukrainian city of Bila Tserkva, 50 miles south of the capital Kyiv.

The evacuees had fled the merciless Russian shelling of the northern city of Chernihiv — where, on Wednesday morning, invading troops shot and killed 10 people waiting in line for bread, according to the US Embassy in Kyiv. But when the evacuees arrived in Bila Tserkva, Andriuschenko quickly realized that their number had swelled from the nine she was expecting to 40 adults and children.

“We have no choice. People have nowhere to go, so we need to accept and help everyone,” Andriuschenko told The Algemeiner during an extensive telephone interview on Wednesday.

Normally the daytime home of the 200 children who attend classes there, the Jewish school in Bila Tserkva has been transformed, three weeks into the Russian invasion, into the city’s main care center for those fleeing the Russian onslaught elsewhere in the country. Currently, the school is providing shelter to a total of 57 people, including a small number of local families. For anyone seeking assistance, “our school has become the center, the place to go,” Andriuschenko said.

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The school’s basement now contains an improvised bomb shelter that can house a maximum of 50 people, with mattresses and blankets covering every inch of floor space. “Every hour, we hear the sirens,” Andriuschenko said. “Some of the elderly people and the children start crying as they walk down the stairs to the shelter. It’s very hard to watch.”

Andriuschenko said that she hadn’t had the time to catch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s powerful address to the US Congress on Wednesday. “I’ve been working around the clock feeding people,” she explained.

She had learned, however, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was recently condemned as a “war criminal” by a unanimous vote in the US Senate. “I absolutely agree with that,” said Andriuschenko. “Putin is the Hitler of our time and what is happening in Ukraine now is a genocide of the Ukrainian people.”

According to Andriuschenko, Bila Tserkva has so far been subjected to three Russian heavy bombing raids, with shooting reported on several other occasions in residential areas. Still, the city has suffered comparatively less damage than some other Ukrainian towns — which is why refugees have been heading there.

For the time being, Bila Tserkva has a supply of water and electricity, while food supplies at the school are expected to last for another 10 days. “We don’t have meat, but we have grains and some vegetables,” Andriuschenko said. “We are in contact with Jewish and Christian organizations, so we hope we can get assistance when it’s needed.”

The site of an infamous massacre of its Jewish population by the occupying Nazis in August 1941, Bila Tserkva presently has a Jewish population of approximately 2,000. Contrary to reports last week that the Jewish community had evacuated Bila Tserkva, Andriuschenko said that the majority had remained there.

Lena, a Ukrainian Jewish woman now living in New York, and herself a graduate of Andriuschenko’s Mitzvah 613 school, told The Algemeiner that her mother and brother had been among the small group of Jews that Andriuschenko helped to evacuate from Bila Tserkva. “My mom and my brother Sasha were there until very recently, and when residential buildings near their home were bombed, we weren’t sure what to do,” Lena said. “Natella immediately found a social worker who helped my mother and brother to pack essentials, and a few days later, helped them get to the minibus that took them westward.”

Andriuschenko emphasized that her compassionate assistance did not discriminate between Jews and non-Jews — a point similarly underlined by Jewish aid workers elsewhere in Ukraine. “There is no separation,” she said. “The people who arrived from Chernihiv are not Jews. When it comes to saving people, we don’t differentiate.” She pointed out that one elderly Jewish woman who lives alone was now receiving extra food in the daily package delivered to her door so that she could feed her neighbors as well.

The Jewish holiday of Purim — traditionally an occasion for dancing and parties — falls on Wednesday night, but Andriuschenko said she hadn’t been able to make any special plans in Bila Tserkva. “We will have a teacher in the shelter,” she added. “We’ll try to lift the mood a little bit.”

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