By Irina Rosensaft
I was born in Ukraine but have never considered myself Ukrainian. My parents had immigrated to Germany, seeking political and economic stability during the chaotic time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and I still live here, in Frankfurt.
Now, as a mother of two with a full-time job, I spend most of my spare time trying to help the country my family left when I was 12. Along the way, I am also finding ways to reconcile my complex Jewish identities.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February, I didn’t think much about my native country.
Instead, I was focused on my family and my career. My professional background is in consulting and management; I am also a member of the World Jewish Congress’ Jewish Diplomatic Corps, a network of people ages 30 to 45 whom WJC trains to influence Jewish interests through diplomacy and public policy. Even if I hadn’t been a member of the JD Corps, as we call it, I would have followed the war closely and probably tried to help. As part of the network, however, I realized that I could do more.
Soon after the war started, I understood that despite my complicated relationship with Ukraine, I had absolutely no hesitation about doing everything within my power to help others. And even though WJC is a Jewish organization — it is obviously aware of Ukraine’s history of antisemitism — the group’s leadership as well as my peers in the JD Corps felt compelled to help everyone.
I plunged into an array of relief work, including helping people escape Ukraine and find safe havens that have the medical care and other support they need. With the help of WJC, I also focused on procuring medicine, an effort inspired in part by my mother, who has diabetes. If she doesn’t have access to insulin, she will not survive. I do not have a medical background and I started to use creative methods to secure medicine and get it into Ukraine. At first, it seemed like I might not succeed. It’s almost impossible for an ordinary person to buy prescription medicine in bulk, let alone transport it.
A pharmaceutical executive told me how to buy in big quantities, and connected me to her contacts, including sellers. A doctor friend made the actual purchase. My mother even collected extra insulin and other medicines from her friends and the pharmacies she patronizes.
Procuring the drug was only the first step, however. Insulin must be stored below a certain temperature. A biochemist who is also a pharmaceutical logistics professional advised me on the logistics of how to best ship it and connected me to her partner company, which donated a special box for the journey. WJC put me in touch with a Jewish communal professional, who helped me locate a driver to transport the medicine — insulin and other life-saving drugs that would last 80 people between two and three months — to Kyiv, where the Vaad of Ukraine, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, distributes it to their affiliated organizations.
After that first shipment, we did a second one that was logistically quite different. We soon learned that finding a viable path one time didn’t guarantee that it would be there the next. For the next shipment, we are working to assemble and transport about 1.5 tons of medicine including heart, asthma and thyroid drugs. We’d buy the medicine with the help of Pharmacists Without Borders and store it in Cologne at a facility owned by the Blue-Yellow Cross, a new organization that collects and transports donations for Ukraine.
All this talk of storage temperatures and pharmaceutical logistics might make this work sound very clinical, but for me, it isn’t. It’s centered in a web of feelings and memories and questions that connect my past and my future, and me to family, community and country. Of course, I’ve been troubled by anxiety and guilt related to my children. I’ve been online and on the phone constantly despite their need for attention. I have sent them to play, telling them I needed another three minutes, when I knew that I would probably need a half-hour to finish a phone call, and that I would then need to make another one. I didn’t attend our community’s Purim celebration because I received a call from a refugee who had no food and no money. When our second shipment was en route to Ukraine, I stayed online on Shabbat in case there were any problems.
Yet during this time, I’ve also realized that I do have a connection to the country of my birth. I have remembered my hometown, Zhytomyr, the fields full of sunflowers, the black seacoast of Crimea. I love the Ukrainian songs of Sofia Rotaru, and I wore vyshyvanka (an embroidered shirt that’s part of the national costume) to sing them as part of the school choir. I loved to visit Kyiv with my mom. It’s true that there was antisemitism. I grew up knowing that Jews were not fully part of Ukraine or the Soviet Union before its collapse. We were Jews, something apart. Not Jewish — Jews. We left Ukraine with very mixed feelings.
As Jews, we tend to feel solidarity with people in need. By working through some of those feelings, I also found a way to identify with Ukraine, my native country. As I learned of cities in my former homeland being destroyed, my connection to Ukraine strengthened. I plan to learn more about the Jewish community in Ukraine. I’ve spoken to my parents to better understand why we left.
I still don’t call myself “Ukrainian,” but I also have the same problem calling myself “German.” Of course I share the democratic values of the German state, but I have a different culture and customs, have another mother tongue, a complex heritage and belong ethnically to another group (which can be very problematic to speak about in Germany after the Holocaust).
We all know that Jewish identity is complex. But for now, I’m happy to help other people, set a positive example for my children and future generations and better understand myself in the process.
Irina Rosensaft is the digital transformation lead at the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany. She is a board member of B’nai B’rith Frankfurt and a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps. Via JTA.org.