Purim in Berlin: Ukrainian Jews find refuge in what was once Europe’s ‘center of darkness’


Yaroslava Sveshnikov danced and sang. He ate hamantaschen, pastries symbolizing the wicked courtier Haman, whose thwarted effort to annihilate the Jews in ancient Persia is narrated in the Old Testament and commemorated each year with Purim.

The festivities this week in the German capital were not unlike those enjoyed by Jews worldwide. But for Sveshnikov, 16, the celebration was transformed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I try to be happy to make other people happy,” he said. “But the thoughts inside me are about the war.”

Sveshnikov was attending 10th grade in Odessa when the port city on the Black Sea became a fortress. Two weeks ago, he boarded a bus to Moldova with his mother and 5-year-old brother, who found the journey too difficult to continue. His mother sent him on alone to Berlin.

Nearly 80 years after the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the former capital of the Third Reich is a haven for Jews fleeing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. That irony, the latest chapter in the dark history of Jewish life in Europe, further undermines Vladimir Putin’s claim that denazification justifies the death toll in Ukraine.

“It wasn’t so long ago that Jews were running from Berlin, the center of darkness and evil, and now Berlin is where they know they can be saved,” said Yehuda Teichtal, a Berlin rabbi and the head of the local Chabad community that arranged for the evacuation of Sveshnikov and about 500 other Ukrainian Jews — first from an orphanage in Odessa, then from among other women and children in the city and most recently from Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been hit by airstrikes.


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