As I write these words, I’m heartbroken by what Ukrainians — both Jewish and non-Jewish — have endured.
On the news apps, and on TV, we watched the map of Ukraine change daily, a smidgen at a time. Red, which just happens to be the color of blood, slowly spread inward from the edges. It showed the growing Russian military presence, often paired with photos of a bombed-out hospital or other such things.
It is as though a young child, throwing a tantrum and just wanting a toy without regard for the needs of others, has knocked over a jar of red ink. In this case, the child’s name is Putin.
Now, the Russian advance has perhaps slowed or stalled, but so much damage has already been done. And as I write this the war is still on.
I’ve been to Russia. It has been 20 years, but with Putin still in charge, I’m guessing not much has changed. Some there looked tired, like they were living moment to moment. Soot-covered, Soviet-era, rectangular cookie-cutter apartment buildings seemed to go on forever.
In a Russian pharmacy, a woman who was studying English offered to assist and she walked my wife and I to a supermarket, to help us buy food. She was so wonderful.
I flew a domestic airline within Russia. It was a four-hour trip, even though it was not end-to-end—this is a huge country. The overhead compartments desperately needed a scrubbing, and my seatbelt didn’t work. I showed the flight attendant that I had two female belt connectors, she sweetly pantomimed regret, and we took off.
Once, I got lost at night in Moscow, in the biting winter cold. It was a pretty stupid situation I’d gotten myself into, as a much younger fella who was most certainly invulnerable. You could raise your hand on the streets of Moscow and within seconds an ordinary car would stop. It would not be marked as a taxi, but the driver would be ready to take you anywhere for two or three bucks. I’d seen this regular-car-as-a-taxi phenomenon and so, getting desperate, I raised my hand. One after another, Moscow cars quickly veered across what seemed like a half-dozen lanes to stop for me on a boulevard that was part highway, part street, kind of like Milwaukee’s 794 near the airport. But, like I said, imagine a zillion more lanes and cars.
I couldn’t successfully communicate that I needed to go to the Moscow Renaissance Hotel, and within seconds, each car would decide to drive off. Finally, holding a map in fingers that I could no longer feel, I got one driver to understand, and he spirited me off to the Renaissance in a tiny beater of a car that had just a metal floor in back, no backseat.
From these moments I gathered one can find sweetness and kindness in Russia. I also learned that America may be wealthier, in comparison, than I’d previously realized.
I think of my time in Russia as I watch today’s Ukraine crisis unfold. The current crisis seems in part a story of the Russian people, including many who may be underprivileged, being forced to invade and raze a young democracy. Everyone is a victim.
As witnesses to this, we must bear some sort of responsibility. I’m not going to argue that we should enter this conflict directly, or that we can save Russia from Putin. But as freedom is once more threatened in Europe; as China is perhaps licking its chops and eying Taiwan; and as our local community and so many others mobilize to help Ukrainian refugees, I’m reminded of Hillel’s famous refrain.
Hillel the Elder, who is believed to have lived more than 2,000 years ago, said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Rob Golub is the editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. His opinions are his own and are not necessarily representative of the views Milwaukee Jewish Federation. We welcome opposing views.