When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Jewish Federation world leapt into action, but for Wisconsin native Arnie Fielkow, the crisis was also a family affair.
Born and raised in Appleton, the 66-year-old Fielkow, a University of Wisconsin law school graduate, has had a career in New Orleans, becoming a well-known business, political and philanthropic leader.
Now CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Fielkow has been anguished since the Russian invasion began. Two older sisters of Fielkow’s two adopted daughters are still in Ukraine, and he wants to make sure they are safe.
In 2007, Fielkow and his wife, Susan, adopted two young girls, Yana and Svetlana, from Ukraine. They wanted daughters in addition to their three biological sons. They also loved being parents.
Never could the couple have imagined that Fielkow, at the time president of the New Orleans City Council and former executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints, would find himself on Ukraine’s border with Slovakia 15 years later, awaiting the arrival of one of their daughters’ older sisters.
Yet there he was in April, trying to help 25-year-old Natalya and her young children leave Ukraine and come to America. The other sister, Ira, 29 is staying in Ukraine for now. Their husbands are away fighting the Russians.
Fielkow drew on a lifetime of contacts, arranging for Natalya’s departure, hoping to greet her and her children when they arrived in Slovakia.
The saga has the makings of a beautiful story. Yet so far there is no happy ending. Natalya and her kids never made it to Slovakia.
A daughter unnerved
As the horror of Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, Ira and Natalya and their families have been on the minds of the Fielkow family constantly. Their daughter Yana, now 20, has been especially anguished.
Though memories of her Ukrainian sisters are vague, ties are deep. It was Ira, nine years older than Yana, who took care of her before Yana arrived at the orphanage from which she would eventually be adopted by the Fielkows.
Yana, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, was jarred and unnerved when, on Feb. 24, she learned that Russia had invaded her native country.
“I woke up to a bunch of texts from friends. They said, ‘I hope you are doing okay.’ But I didn’t know what was going on. I found out on my way to class that morning — Russian class. Once I understood what had happened, I started bawling my eyes out.”
How did she feel walking into class that day? “Not very good. My Russian professor knew I was from Ukraine and had family there, though he didn’t ask me questions. I just sat there crying the whole time.”
As the attack on Ukraine began dominating the news, Yana tried to pull back — to put it away.
“I wanted to distance myself from thinking about it. All it did was bring me sad emotions. But this was easier said than done.”
What has stayed in her mind was the fate of her two older sisters still in Ukraine and their families.
In 2019, the Fielkows visited Ukraine to connect their daughters with their Ukrainian heritage. However, they were unable to locate the sisters.
After the trip, Arnie’s daughter-in-law Meaghan found them through Facebook. Meaghan took one look at Natalya’s picture and knew she was one of the sisters. She looked exactly like Yana.
“It was really emotional,” said Yana. “I always wanted to find them — to meet them and connect with them, to know that they were alive.”
Once Russia invaded Ukraine and their husbands joined the fight, Ira and Natalya were left to fend for themselves. Yana couldn’t stop thinking about them, especially with Natalya being pregnant.
“For the first few weeks we texted every day. Most of it was ‘How are you doing? Are you okay? Are you safe?’ They were in their basements for shelter. I was scared for them and they were scared. It was really sad.”
Consumed and overwrought, Yana began neglecting her schoolwork. “I did not want that to happen. I started relying on my family’s communication with them, knowing they would keep me updated.”
The war has had another effect on Yana. “The attack has connected me more deeply to Ukraine. Though I don’t remember much about the country, I have always loved Ukraine. The war has made me feel more Ukrainian because I am from there.”
Growing up in Appleton
Fielkow is still trying to get Natalya and her family out. They have been in a relatively safe area in western Ukraine. Yet things there could heat up quickly.
Getting Natalya and her children out of Ukraine is no simple endeavor. It would’ve taken 16 hours and two train rides for them to meet Fielkow in Slovakia. Eight months pregnant at the time, Natalya feared the ordeal would disrupt her pregnancy. She cancelled at the last minute.
Though let down, the New Orleans Jewish Federation CEO remains undeterred. Through texts, emails, phone calls and letters he has been reaching out to contacts he’s made over the years, from sports institutions to elected officials to Jewish relief agencies.
“It’s like having cousins in another part of the world who you rarely see but know are family. Even though I have never met them, the fact that they make my two daughters so happy gives me great satisfaction that we have connected with them.”
As this story was being written, Natalya, who has now had her baby, sent a message from Ukraine: “I am very grateful to Arnie and his family for trying to help me and my children and for all they are trying to do for us.”
Growing up in Appleton, which had about 100 Jewish families at the time, Fielkow developed a deep understanding of family members taking care of one another. “Our family life centered around events and holidays at my grandparents’ home, which was always bustling with family activity.”
So, it wasn’t surprising that after his recent Jewish Federations of North America trip to the Polish-Ukrainian border, he extended his stay, hoping to meet Natalya and her family in Slovakia.
Fielkow remains determined to reunite his daughters with their Ukrainian sisters. “It will happen and it will be a beautiful thing. It will bring everyone great joy.”
Richard Friedman is associate editor of Southern Jewish Life magazine.