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Suffolk Closeup: A Ukrainian family finds refuge on the East End

The year 2022 was overshadowed for me, and I’m sure many others in Suffolk and the United States — in fact the world — by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I felt it deeply, since I’ve been to Russia many times.

“Russian Missiles Plunge Millions Into Frigid Dark,” was the headline of the lead story on the front page of The New York Times one day last month. The subhead: “Ukrainians Ask for Relief as Fears About Fresh Offensive Grow.” Another subhead: “Huddling For Warmth.”

The next day in The Times there was a large photo covering the upper left of its front page with the caption “Moments of Unspeakable Grief.” It depicted two elderly people at the door of their bombed home, the man crouching, holding his head, the woman in tears.

The caption continued, “In the aftermath of an attack in Kherson, the horrors of war in Ukraine take on a deeper meaning when seen close up.”

It directed readers to an inside page of photos and narrative that included: “At another badly damaged house, paramedics carried out a bedridden 85-year-old woman, Lyudmila.”

How can a nation of intelligent people with a love for poetry, music, dance and literature be involved in a murderous, barbarous attack on the population of its neighbor? The reason is Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel  now drunk with power, aiming to reconstitute a “Greater Russia,” whether the people of the nations he seeks to annex and dominate like it or not. 

And this is, despite Russia, after World War II and losing 20 million people and itself invaded by Germany, being a founding member of the United Nations and joining in a basic tenet when the organization was founded prohibiting member states from the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

The savage invasion of Ukraine, which Putin initiated and has been directing, is a flat-out violation of that principle.

At our synagogue, a “Welcome Circle,” working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has brought a Ukrainian family to the safety of the United States. They are not Jewish; they are Ukrainian Orthodox.

The family consists of a 37-year-old mother, Viktoriia, and her two sons, 15-year-old Yaroslav and 10-year-old Nikita. They are living in a house in Sag Harbor provided by a congregant. The boys are happily matriculated in Sag Harbor schools.

Ron Klausner, the synagogue’s co-president, related the scene at Kennedy Airport: “We welcomed them into our outstretched arms, all of us crying with relief. Their luggage — life savings — consisted of one medium and one carry-on luggage, two guitars, three small knapsacks, a small dog and a cat. They wore their only set of clothes.”

The family is from a town in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. The Russians invaded it in 2014 and have held siege ever since. Viktoriia’s parents remain in a town still occupied by Russian soldiers.

Klausner related that, with her sons (and their dog and cat), “Viktoriia escaped and managed to travel from Slovyansk to Piensk, Poland, and then, after connecting with us through HIAS, to Posnan, Poland, Berlin and finally to Frankfurt to board the plane to the United States. It was not the same as boarding a ship in steerage to cross the Atlantic like so many of our ancestors did, but the trip was nevertheless long, grueling and traumatic.”

“Thanks to a most generous donor the family is now living in a fully furnished house in the Village of Sag Harbor until Spring. They can easily walk to town, school, shopping, the beach, the library and the food pantry. The house is a dream come true for them. The family all started crying when they first walked into the house … after living in a mold-infested basement in Poland,” said Klausner. “One of the most important values of our faith is to welcome the stranger among us, just as we were once strangers in a new land. I can tell you that each member of the Welcome Circle has been moved to tears by the courage of this family and the awareness of the life altering impact of our actions.”

I went to Russia seven times invited by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, environmental advisor to Russian Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to give presentations on environmental and energy issues, all over the huge nation.

Yablokov, who died in 2017, was regarded as the father of the environmental movement in Russia, the country’s most eminent environmental scientist.

The last trip I made to Russia was in 2002. I gave the keynote address at a conference in Tomsk in Siberia, and also a presentation at Tomsk Polytechnic University. Putin had been in power for three years and already things were changing. As Dr. Yablokov stated in 1999: “The result of Putin’s politics is fascism.”

I would not return to Russia under any condition now with Putin having hijacked the country. That last time, as the Delta jet was a half-hour out of Moscow, heading to New York, I breathed a sigh of relief being outside Russian airspace.

Putin and his vicious, illegal war must be stopped. What he is doing and the resulting devastation is indeed causing unspeakable grief.