By Larry Gordon
We know the names of the two cities in this article’s title, but we were not necessarily aware that they are towns in close proximity to one another in Ukraine and about a 40-minute drive to the border with Hungary.
Had Vladimir Putin not sent his forces to overturn and in some cases destroy parts of Ukraine, decades might have gone by without us hearing the names of these cities, except for when we pass by shuls in Boro Park that consider themselves branches or subsidiaries of these Chassidic dynasties.
After hearing about the havoc being wreaked by Russian forces, my friend Josh Eisen, who resides in Westchester County, traveled to this corner of Ukraine to see how he can help out in this humanitarian crisis.
The first thing to know about these Ukrainian towns so steeped in Jewish history is that they have different names today, although the names are similar to what they used to be. Today Ungvar is known as Uzhovod and Munkatch is Munkachevo.
When Josh heard about what was going on, he felt compelled to spring into action. He discovered that refugees from battered parts of Ukraine were crowding into these former Chassidic dynasty towns and practically living on the streets. After his first visit, Josh was contacted by the Pataki Foundation—former New York State governor George Pataki’s family hails from nearby Hungary—and now Eisen is working with local contractors to build temporary housing so that refugees have a roof over their heads.
According to Josh, this part of Ukraine is peaceful and has not suffered any military action. He explains that though the population is ethnically mixed he believes that the area is basically untouched because Hungary has its own issues with this part of Ukraine. One of those issues that finds Ukrainians at odds with the local Russian-speaking and Hungarian-speaking population is the insistence that all signage and other aspects of municipal life in these towns be conducted in the Ukrainian language.
Eisen, who should be arriving back in the region over the next day or so, says that he flies into Budapest and stays overnight at one of the hotels geared toward tourists in the Hungarian capital city. During the day he travels by car into what we will refer to as Ungvar and Munkatch for our purposes.
Right now, he adds, the population in the area is about one million people, but the problem that he is there to deal with is the fact that there are currently a half-million refugees who have arrived in these towns from other parts of Ukraine. The fear is that this war and these struggles might drag on for years, and people need a place to live.
The Hungarian government is supportive of the Pataki initiative because they are not in the position to absorb millions of refugees, nor do they want to play that role in the current conflict.
The overwhelming number of people on the move consists of women and children, as the men ages 18–60 are required to be available to serve in the Ukrainian military.
Rabbi Mendy Wilhelm is the Chabad shliach in this area of Ukraine also known as the Carpathian Mountain area that overlaps with Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic. On Tuesday, I put Josh in touch with Rabbi Wilhelm.
Rabbi Wilhelm has lived in Uzhovod for the last 11 years. He says it is quiet there, but over the last two months there have been times when the air raid sirens sounded, moving the masses into shelters; however, the area has been otherwise unscathed by the war.
Rabbi Wilhelm and his wife have ten children; the oldest is an 18-year-old girl who is currently studying in Israel. He has family in New York, and two of his boys are here in yeshiva. The other seven children are at home and attend the online Chabad Yeshiva, which provides an excellent education for the children.
He says that at its height, there were about 1,000 Jews living in Uzhovod and Munkachevo but today, because of the refugee situation, he had the opportunity to reach out to many more Jews. Rabbi Wilhelm added that he had about 150 people at his communal Pesach Sedarim.
As stated, this is one of the peaceful areas of Ukraine, to where people from other parts of the country come to escape the mayhem and violence. The rabbi says that some of those who now have refugee status are hoping to someday be able to return to the cities they fled in the heart of Ukraine. Others, he says, are moving on, usually to Poland or Germany.
Another aspect of these constantly evolving activities is that we are reminded about the deep, rich, and meaningful role that these currently rundown and, in some cases, backward towns in Ukraine played in the history of the Jewish exile.
We think about Rav Menashe Klein, the Ungvarer Rebbe and his impressive edifice of 16th Avenue in Boro Park. Then there is the stately and busy-around-the-clock Munkatch shul on 14th Ave, whose Rebbe visits the Five Towns annually and hosts a breakfast reception to benefit his kollel.
In one way, it is a long distance from Lvov to Lawrence. In another, we can now once again almost draw a straight line from our communities here to the towns in southern Ukraine once known as Ungvar and Munkatch. It’s true that there is still a small remnant of the communities that once existed in that area of the world.
Today Rabbi Wilhelm and his family are there to keep that flame that was once Jewish life still lit. Compared to what once was, all that is left is the history, maybe elderly parents and grandparents who were born there and chased out by the enemies of the Jewish people and all of humanity.
I asked Josh Eisen the other day why he is focused on building these temporary homes for Ukrainian refugees, Jews and mostly non-Jews. He thought for a moment and said that he heard about what was going on and that people needed homes and he felt compelled to act.
I then asked him why, and he quickly responded, “My father was born in that area.”
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