By coincidence, during our visit, the city of Cherkassy was dedicating a plaque to memorialize the actions of a heroic Cherkassy resident during the Nazi occupation. Alexandra Shulezhko Maximovna saved 25 orphan Jews amongst 90 children she saved from the Nazis. Jim and Kala Paul spoke (with the aid of an interpreter) as part of the ceremony unveiling a plaque in her memory. The mayor of the city and the governor of the oblast also participated in the service. The Jewish community worked for over ten years to have this plaque placed on the building which housed Alexandra’s orphanage. Permission was denied time and time again. Yet, it was wonderful to hear the government officials praise the Jewish community for their persistence in pursuing the memorial. Alexandra’s daughter and granddaughter were in attendance as well.
And then, the last thing we did in Cherkassy – other than eat too much at our farewell dinner – was split up for some home visits. My group visited the home of a young man named Bohdan (pronounced Bog-dan). I’m of two minds about the home visits that we have done during this trip. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to see the real conditions on the ground and meet people outside the committed core. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a minstrel show when we traipse into the homes of people who are dependent upon tzedakah to make it through their day, week or month. The gifts we bring – though not insignificant – do not change their situation adequately.
At this visit, however, a boy named Bohdan stole our hearts at the first hello. He was charming, cute, intelligent and talented. He made sure to show off the few English words he knows. Then, he showed us the medals that he has won in Irish step dancing competitions – one fourth-place finish and two seconds. (Yes, that’s right — here in the middle of Ukraine in a small industrial town, a young man has gotten involved in Irish step dancing!) Then, he actually gave us a small show in the alleyway outside his apartment building. His apartment…. OY!
His loving, committed, single mother works very hard to provide for Bohdan and support his interests in music and dance. Unfortunately, their apartment is in very bad shape. Bohdan’s mother apologized over and over again as she told us the story. The apartment above them leaked water down into theirs. As a result, the ceiling light fixtures don’t work, the wall paper is peeling away, one of the windows will no longer close and the smell of mold emanates from the walls. Unfortunately, the owner of the apartment above them was a dying old woman who has since passed away and there was no way to collect any money from her to pay for the repairs. So, they get by the best they can in the current conditions and hope that things will get better. They are grateful to have place to call home – not everyone is so fortunate.
If his mother can keep things together just a little while longer, I am confident that Bohdan will make a better future for them than their present. I know that we in Greater MetroWest have done so much for the Jewish community of Cherkassy, and should be proud. However, I cannot help but wonder if there is a way that we can do even more. We are so blessed. Surely we could share a bit more of our blessings with our brothers and sisters in Cherkassy in their time of need.
A stop at Babi Yar and day in Kiev are all that remain of our mission. Hard to believe.