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Ukrainian Jews displaced by war find Passover especially poignant this year

Ukrainian immigrants fleeing war are greeted at the European Jewish Community Centre by the local Jewish community in Brussels, Belgium to celebrate at their Passover Seder hosted by HIAS.
Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
Ukrainian immigrants fleeing war are greeted at the European Jewish Community Centre by the local Jewish community in Brussels, Belgium to celebrate at their Passover Seder hosted by HIAS.

The decision to leave home is not an easy one. Olena Khalina was in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv when the war started. Russian planes dropped bombs right outside her home.

"The sound is something ..." Khalina trails off. "I even cannot find the word. Because it's like super low, and super noisy, and your house is just trembling."

In the Passover story, the Hebrew people leave Egypt with almost no notice. The unleavened matzo symbolizes the fact that bread didn't even have time to rise. Khalina found out about a bus out of town two days before it was leaving. But still, she says, it's impossible to prepare.

"Home is your friends. Home is your family. Home is your job," Khalina says. "But everything that you can take with you is just a backpack or a suitcase. And you should put all your home in it? So it's impossible. And you are leaving everything that is valuable for you."

Khalina is now in Prague, Czech Republic, adjusting to a new country, taking classes, and working. She's also checking in with friends who've fled elsewhere and some who've stayed behind in Ukraine. For Passover, she's traveling to Berlin, to spend the holiday with Ukrainian friends who have landed there.

A Ukrainian immigrant, center, listens as the youngest girl from the local Jewish community sings the four questons before the ceremonial meal.
/ Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
/
Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
A Ukrainian immigrant, center, listens as the youngest girl from the local Jewish community sings the four questions before the ceremonial meal.

Jewish refugees are celebrating a holiday about fleeing an abusive military leader while being refugees themselves

Across Europe and across the world, Ukrainian refugees will attend Passover Seders starting tonight. And they'll tell the story of wandering while they're refugees themselves.

There are large Seders planned by refugee groups like HIAS and Jewish groups like Hillel International, as well as countless individuals heeding the Passover call to let all who are hungry come and eat.

The symbolism is not lost on Julia Gris, rabbi of temple Shirat ha-Yam in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. She was in the city of Lviv when the war started and crossed over into Poland on foot, waiting 40 hours at the border in freezing temperatures. Gris is now staying with a congregation in Oldenburg, Germany.

Like Khalina, Gris feels uprooted. "When all your life in one small suitcase," she explains. "Where you have key from the home, but don't have a home anymore. I would not wish to anybody to feel this."

But Gris says Passover is still a time for celebration — whether in a synagogue, a private home or a refugee camp. She'll attend a Seder there in Germany. And she'll lead another Seder via Zoom with the Rabbi of Kyiv for Ukrainians refugees scattered across the world or who may still be sheltering back home. So that together they can stop, tell the ancient story of Passover and step out of time, even if just for a few minutes.

A traditional Seder plate for Passover at the European Jewish Community Centre in Brussels, Belgium.
/ Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
/
Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
A traditional Seder plate for Passover at the European Jewish Community Centre in Brussels, Belgium.

New symbolic foods join the traditional Seder plate items this year

"To eat matzo and bitter herbs, and drink four cups of wine," says Rabbi Gris. "And of course we will share our dreams to better times."

At many Seders, these traditional symbols will be joined by new ones, to draw clear parallels between pharaoh's army and Russian forces: olive branches for peace, beets and sunflowers for Ukraine itself.

Boris and Victoria Fikhtman were away from their native Odessa vacationing in the Carpathian Mountains 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 Chișinău, Moldova, through the organization World Jewish Relief. It took several weeks for them to reunite with their 3-year-old daughter, who'd been staying with her grandparents back in Odessa.

The Fikhtmans say their usual Passover celebration in Odessa took place in a five-star hotel, with hundreds of people from the local Jewish community. They're not sure exactly what this year will look like — for Passover, or the days to follow. But they're happy to have been welcomed and to be safe.

Ukrainian immigrants fleeing war sing with the local Jewish community in Brussels, Belgium at their Passover Seder.
/ Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
/
Mashid Mohadjerin for NPR
Ukrainian immigrants fleeing war sing with the local Jewish community in Brussels, Belgium at their Passover Seder.

"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 everyone who's welcomed them. But these countries are not home, nor are they the promised land. And when asked how they'll end this year's Seder, Olena Khalina, Rabbi Julia Gris and Boris and Victoria Fikhtman said the same thing: next year in Ukraine. In a free, peaceful Ukraine.

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