TThe only reason Yuri Parfenov was not murdered in the 1941 massacre of Odessa’s Jewish population is because a family hid him and his brother in a toilet pit when the soldiers came for them.
The son of a Jewish mother and a Russian father, Mr. Parfenov said that that day he was to be taken to the neighboring Mykolayiv region and shot.
In total, fourteen family members – including his mother – were killed during the Holocaust in Ukraine. In the Black Sea port city of Odessa, tens of thousands of Jewish residents were shot, burned alive and worked or starved to death – mostly by Romanian soldiers allied with Nazi Germany.
But Yuri survived and later served in the Soviet Union Army.
And so, he says, it is particularly ironic that as a semi-Russian Holocaust survivor and former USSR tank captain, he is once again facing death, but this time at the hands of Vladimir Putin, who claims his invasion was aimed at destroying the US to “denazify”. country and saves the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine from “genocide”.
“Tell Putin: Who are you freeing us from?” says Yuri in Russian – his native language – while shaking with anger.
“I have no words, he’s a monster. We have not asked anyone to invade our country, to “free” us, to kill our children.
“I want to say to Putin face to face: ‘You are a murderer’. I can’t believe I saw a war that could develop into World War III.”
Yuri is one of dozens of Holocaust survivors living in Odessa, which has a large Russian-speaking community and has been steeped in a rich but painful Jewish history since its founding by Catherine the Great in 1794.
Sitting in the 100-year-old Chabad Synagogue in the city center, Roman Shvarcman, 88, another Holocaust survivor who heads an association representing former Jewish prisoners in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, bursts into tears.
He nearly died from Covid last month, only to now face the death threat while his strategically located hometown awaits an amphibious, ground and air strike from Russia.
“When the air raid sirens wail, I try to make it down to the basement of my 10-story building and I sit in the cold and pray for my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, to have bright and happy youth,” he says The Independent.
“We are a generation of people who have lost their childhood. I’m not worried about myself, I’m worried about the next generation.”
Yuri compares Mr. Putin to Adolf Hitler and says Ukraine is again threatened with mass murder.
“During World War II, the Nazis tried to kill all Jews. And now the Russians are trying to kill every Ukrainian.
“Ukraine is my country. I will not leave this country even if they kill me. I won’t run.”
President Putin has claimed the goal of his invasion is to “denazify” Ukraine and stop the “genocide” of its Russian-speaking population.
Ukraine, a democratic country, has a far-right movement with armed groups including the nationalist militia Azov Battalion. But far-right extremists have lost ground in recent elections and enjoy far less support nationally than similar parties elsewhere in Europe.
Mr Putin, meanwhile, has come under fire for actually damaging Jewish monuments.
Just a few days ago, the British Ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, tweeted that a Holocaust memorial near the eastern city of Kharkiv had been damaged in the bombing. She posted a photo of the destroyed Menorah monument at the Drobitsky Yar site – where 11,000 Jews were killed by Nazis in a ravine.
In the first week of the war, Ukraine reported that the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv — where over 30,000 Jews were slaughtered by Nazi Germany — was also close to being hit by Russian airstrikes.
Odessa fears it’s next.
A key supply line and strategic gateway to the rest of Ukraine, the “Pearl of the Black Sea” has long been a target of the Russians, who are heavily shelling, besieging and even occupying towns farther east along the coast.
Odessa has a long and troubled Jewish history. It was originally located in the Pale of Settlement, the part of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live. The community suffered from pogroms in the early 20th century, but by the 1930s around 200,000 Jews lived in the coastal city, about a third of the total population.
That changed with the advent of World War II. Only half of the city’s Jewish population managed to escape before Germany’s Romanian allies invaded parts of Soviet territory and occupied the city.
More than 25,000 Jews were murdered in the ensuing attack and an estimated 60,000 others were deported, most of whom perished in camps and ghettos. Jewish civilians were locked in warehouses doused with gasoline and burned alive.
The stories Yuri and Roman tell from this period are chilling and, in many ways, terribly familiar in the current conflict.
Roman’s family, originally from Vinnytsia 400 km (250 miles) north, fled in a convoy of civilians who repeatedly faced heavy bombing before finally being stopped by German soldiers and forced to walk around. His family was starved, his sister was raped by Romanian soldiers, and his older brother was shot on a bombed-out bridge. Soldiers snatched Yuri from his mother’s arms and shot her when she tried to take her child back.
Those horrors have recently been laid to rest. In 201, German and Romanian ambassadors attended a special commemoration event to pay tribute to the largely forgotten 1941-1942 Odessa massacres that Juri and Roman survived.
But there has also been a kind of renaissance for the community in recent years, says Rabbi Avraham Wolff, the chief rabbi of Odessa and southern Ukraine, who runs the Chabad synagogue there.
According to Rabbi Wolff, before the last invasion there were 35,000 Jews among the city’s one million inhabitants.
His community runs two Jewish kindergartens, two schools, two orphanages, a Jewish university, and a nursing home for 50 Holocaust survivors: an extensive network that the rabbi says he felt safest of anywhere in the world in southern Ukraine.
“I wish every rabbi in the world had the same freedom that I enjoy here. We have 11 buildings in this city, everything we need is provided by the city,” he says from his office next to Chabad Synagogue.
“There are only two countries in the world where the prime minister and president were once Jewish – that’s Israel and Ukraine,” he adds, citing Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.
“But I need someone to set me free? It’s fantastic to be able to talk about National Socialism here, it has nothing to do with the real reality on the ground.”
Rabbi Wolff said his greatest concern right now is actually the dismantling of the community he has worked hard to build.
He and his volunteer teams have organized the evacuation of nearly 6,000 Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Odessa to neighboring countries since the war began. He also evacuated 120 children from his orphanages to Germany, as well as several hundred other women and children from the city, although most had no travel documents.
They cannot take the 50 Holocaust survivors to the nursing home they run because they are too old and frail and unlikely to survive the trip from Ukraine. All he can do is stock up on supplies like canned goods, pasta and rice and pay the caretakers three months’ salary in advance to take care of them. They pray the worst doesn’t happen.
“It is very painful what is happening here for the Jewish community. Over the past few years, we’ve put 35,000 people – 35,000 pieces of the puzzle – together into one big picture. We built institutions from kindergartens to nursing homes, from orphanages to a Jewish university.”
“We took this picture, then we framed it and hung it on the wall. But now it crashes. 35,000 puzzle pieces scattered across Ukraine, Moldova, Germany and Israel. It’s broken,” Rabbi Wolff adds.
“We’re still here, we’re working, but it’s not the same.”
For Yuri and Roman, their focus is on their children and grandchildren and protecting them from the horrors they grew up with.
Both vow to stay in town no matter what.
“I can’t hold a gun, I’m not a fighter and I’m too old, but my weapon is my words against this Russian fascism. It’s my weapon for fighting,” says Roman through tears.
Yuri, a few years younger, says he’s ready to join the Territorial Defense.
“If need be, I am ready to defend the city with a weapon,” he says as the afternoon sun slides over a city Holocaust memorial near his home.
“We’re not going anywhere. We will fight to the last breath.”
With additional reporting by Valentine Strakovsky