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Finding Refuge in Vienna, a Ukrainian Mohel and His Family Flee War for the Second Time

avatar by Sharon Wrobel


Ukrainian refugees celebrate Purim in Vienna with the local Jewish community. Photo: Jewish Community of Vienna / Israelitische Kultusgemeinde

For Elizabet and her husband Yaacov Gaissinovich, a well-known mohel in Ukraine, the fear of one of their children getting hurt was the final trigger to leave the country.

“During sirens when we had to hide in a basement, our four-year-old boy started to run away to the windows, as he doesn’t understand what danger is,” Elizabet explained in an interview with The Algemeiner. “Once, my husband ran to get him and saw four military helicopters in the air, and thank God they were Ukrainian helicopters — but what if not?”

Yaacov, 47, and Elizabet, 36, had been reluctant to leave the city of Dnipro, where four months ago they moved into a newly-bought apartment with their three kids, aged 11, 8 and 4. But that moment, Elizabet said, was when the family understood they needed to leave home behind, and not for the first time.

In 2014, she and Yaacov — a medical doctor who had lived in Ukraine since 1998, and who has performed thousands of circumcisions for both babies and adults across the region — fled to Dnipro from their home in Donetsk, as Russian forces annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists took up arms in the country’s east.

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Last month they became refugees anew, settling in Vienna, where the local Jewish community has absorbed hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s present invasion.

“The first time, it was easier because it was the same language and mentality of people,” Elizabet said. “Now we live in a really unknown country that is different from Ukraine with a different language and culture.”

After deciding to leave, the Gaissinovich family left Dnipro the next morning, on a Friday, with nothing but their car, their children, some clothes and food to try and get to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.

“We were standing in traffic for six hours without moving sometimes, and it was also very hard to find petrol as there were so many cars on the road with people trying to flee,” Elizabet said. “We were driving from our city to the border for 25 hours without stopping, even though Shabbat had started.”

“We were singing Shabbat songs like ‘L’cha Dodi,’ in the car and my kids were a bit confused, but my husband said: we do not keep Shabbat now, as we are driving a car to have an opportunity in the future to keep all other Shabbatot.”

Elizabet recalled that when her eight-year-old daughter entered their hotel in Chisinau, she saw large windows and asked where they are going to hide when sirens go off.

“In Chisinau, we saw how bad the situation was for many Ukrainians who were evacuated after they had lost everything — their houses were destroyed, they had no documents, and no clothes,” Elizabet said emotionally. “Every two hours, buses come to these centers, and you have to decide in 20 minutes which one you want to take to start a new life in Germany or another country.”

The Gaissinovichs decided to find shelter in the Austrian capital, having heard of the city’s robust Jewish community with good Jewish schools and kindergartens, one that was prepared to welcome refugees and provide support. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vienna’s Jewish community (IKG) has absorbed 850 displaced Ukrainian refugees — more than 10 percent of the existing community, which has 8,000 local members.

For Elizabet, leaving to Austria or Germany came with mixed feelings. In 1941, her great-grandmother escaped to Russia, fleeing the Germans and Austrians during the Second World War. Now, her family was going to Austria to run away from the Russians.

As they were planning to set out on their journey, a woman asked Elizabet’s husband if he was both a mohel and a doctor. The woman herself was a Jewish doctor with a three-year-old son who had not had a brit milah, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, and she wanted a certified doctor for the procedure. The next day, Yaacov performed the boy’s circumcision at a local hospital.

It took the Gaissinovichs a total of six days to arrive in Vienna. They received a warm welcome from a community that has for weeks mobilized private donations to help provide free accommodation in hotels and in apartments, as well as daily kosher meals. More than 200 volunteers, among them Russian speakers, work around the clock to help Ukrainian refugees deal with local authorities, like getting medical insurance and other missing documentation. Most recently, the IKG began putting together an information resource to help refugees find work.

“We provide Jewish refugees with a welcome package which includes a one-time cash payment and an Austrian SIM card so that they can stay in touch with their relatives, as well as psychological counseling support,” IKG secretary general Benjamin Nägele told The Algemeiner in an interview. “We help with finding an apartment to settle and once they move, they get a one-time supermarket voucher to fill up the fridge and a package which includes bedding, towels and other basics — which we wouldn’t think about, but these are things they don’t have with them.”

Elizabet and her family currently live in a building owned by a non-Jewish person, together with Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees from different cities.

“We have a very, very tiny kitchen, we don’t have much furniture other than one bed and a wardrobe, and the children sleep on inflatable mattresses,” she said. “But it is in a very beautiful Jewish area close to schools, so I am very grateful.”

A number of Jewish religious families from Dnipro fled to Vienna, and the community has integrated their children for free in the local Jewish schools in the middle of the academic year. One of Elizabet’s children was welcomed at school with posters reading “we love you and we support you,” written by local girls in Russian and in Ukrainian.

“My oldest daughter has five girls from her class here in Vienna and my son has even his teacher from kindergarten here. So, for the kids it’s like being in camp here,” Elizabet said. “Everyone is so friendly and helpful. We got markers, pens, bags for the kids and one lady gave me a saucepan and another gave me a frying pan.”

Elizabet, who has just received her teaching diploma in January, is helping out at a Jewish school as a translator, in classes where Ukrainian children mix German-speaking kids.

“The teachers explain to me in English, and I tell the children what they need to do,” she said. “I also teach children English, which keeps me busy and distracted from the plight of the situation back home.”

Nägele explained that from the beginning, the IKG sought to offer Ukrainian refugees a strong Jewish infrastructure and community life similar to what they had left behind, and to make them feel like family.

“Many refugees here are young parents with babies and pregnant women, and many are around our age group which we can relate to and compare to,” he added. “The only difference between them and us is that they happened to be in the wrong country.”in

The United Nations refugee agency said this week it expects 8.3 million people to flee Ukraine this year, revising upwards its prior projections. Over 12.7 million have already left their homes due to the war, including 7.7 million within Ukraine and 5 million who have left the country, the UNHCR said.

When Elizabet and family escaped Dnipro, they had to leave behind her mother, who had just undergone an operation and wasn’t allowed to travel. They were recently reunited in Vienna, after her husband Yaacov was called back to Dnipro to perform a brit mila on a newborn. Yaacov, who for years has travelled across Ukraine when his services were needed, did not hesitate to cross the border to perform the circumcision, and on his return trip brought back his mother-in-law to live with them.

“We do want to go back home, but we have to accept the situation we have right now and help other people as well, because there are many people who are in much worse situations,” Elizabet said. “I want this war to stop. I don’t want people to die and children to die. This is my desire right now.”

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