Change of focus for RememberUs in Ukraine
Since the launch of our Emergency Appeal last year, BEARR has been introduced to a number of voluntary organisations in Ukraine. Some of these organisations have come together over the course of last year: groups of ordinary citizens who rallied together in the face of the full-scale invasion. Others had existed before the war, but rapidly pivoted their work to utilise their organisational resources to distribute humanitarian aid to thousands of vulnerable people. One such organisation is DobroMitzvah, a group of volunteers who had spent the last 10 years working to preserve the Jewish memory in Ukraine under the umbrella of US organisation RememberUs.org.
Their founder, Julia Korsunsky, recalls how they shifted into action last February:
“We got a phone call from Kyiv very early in the morning of February 24th – at about 6 AM Kyiv time.. We started helping people on February 26: getting lists of people from social services and sending $100/family, so people could use the money towards evacuation from the frontline areas. We were getting short of money fast, and I was frantically looking for organisations that would support us. We wrote everywhere, and we either did not get any reply or a very standard “thank you for your good job, but no” reply. As soon as I saw the reply from BEARR, I knew that someone actually read my email, and took time to look at our page! I was so touched that I was talking to someone who clearly cared! Of course we needed money, but…the good word of support was also very important. A personal thank you for noticing our plea!”
Below, DobroMitzvah volunteer Tatyana Nizhinskaya shares their story.
Rememberus.org was created by Julia and Igor Korsunsky together with their daughter Rachel at the end of 2013. The main goal was to raise awareness of an unknown page of the Holocaust – the Holocaust in Ukraine, where one out of six million Jews were killed.
For the first 8 years of Rememberus’s operations, the international team of volunteers was engaged in Holocaust research. Various projects were conceived and implemented. Educational requiem meetings were held in the USA and Ukraine. They studied the history of Jewish towns and the history of the Holocaust, sought information about the victims and the Righteous Among the Nations, created school museums of the Holocaust. They search the lost places of mass executions of Jews during the Second World War, putting them in order, installing commemorative plaques and planting dawn redwoods.
I would like to dwell on a few of the Foundation’s projects in more detail. First: dawn redwoods (metasequoias). The Foundation chose these trees not by chance but because they can live more than 1000 years and are considered one of the most unpretentious and long-lived trees in the world. A man-made monument will disappear sooner or later, but we cannot allow the memory of the Shoah (Holocaust) to disappear. Trees are of great importance in the Jewish tradition, and Rememberus.org’s metasequoias on execution graves symbolise the victory of life over death, since the Nazis failed to cut off all the branches on the tree of life of the Jewish people, people’s long memory of the victims and the inadmissibility of the repetition of evil. So metasequoias were planted at the execution sites in Lubny, Kremenchug, Khorol, Fastov, Mirgorod, Kharkov and even in the world-famous Babi Yar.
Secondly: the creation of school museums. At the moment, museums for children in educational institutions have been created in Fastov, Lipovets, Lubny, Mirgorod and Kremenchug. These are small museum spaces, but they were created on the basis of long searches and deep research. The main goal is to draw children’s attention to the Holocaust, to present not a cold presentation of the material but an interactive process that stimulates children to think and perceive information personally. There are also virtual museums, including in the city of Bila Tserkva, where Rememberus.org also sponsored the creation of a memorial to the Holocaust and the Righteous Among the Nations.
RememberUs’s virtual museums:
Third, the translation of letters, a unique experience for Rememberus.org. The letters have a long and tragic history. They were written by Jews in Yiddish in June 1941. During the capture of the city of Kamenetz-Podolsk, a bag of letters was captured by the Nazis and transferred to their archive. For many years the letters wandered around German museums until 10 years ago, when they were transferred to the Ukrainian Museum of the History of the Second World War. The letters are important historical documents describing the events of those days, but some could not be read for 80 years because they are written in Yiddish. There are very few specialists in the world who could translate them, and museums could not find them. Rememberus.org organised an international group of translators who, working their way through the complexities of the handwriting, the specifics of vocabulary and other obstacles, collectively managed to make out what people wrote and what people thought a few days before their death. These are the same letters that President Zelensky presented to the Holocaust Museum in Washington during his visit.
But all this was before the full-scale war in Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, volunteers in Ukraine, volunteers in the USA, donors and funders saw history repeating itself. The study of the last war was superimposed on the experience of the present. In such a situation, the founders could not remain indifferent. In addition, there was a well-established team in Ukraine and close working relationships in many city administrations. This allowed the Foundation to start actively helping the people of Ukraine literally from the very first days.
In those first sleepless days, volunteers actively looked for money, collected warm clothes and were constantly in touch. For example, Julia and Igor Korsunsky never turned off the phone even at night and slept scarcely at all for the first few weeks. Together with the Ukrainians, they walked this path step by step and are still going through it today. The road to victory has been a long one – for more than a year, Rememberus.org has been helping every day.
The situation in Ukraine is changing rapidly, and the Foundation’s programmes are changing along with it. In the early months, Rememberus.org sent financial assistance to large families and families with children with disabilities. Then they embarked on a humanitarian aid programme so elderly people, single mothers, families with many children and sick children can receive food, hygiene products, warm clothes, medicines and more from Rememberus.org. In addition, volunteers travel to the front-line cities of Ukraine, where the situation is critical. The Foundation sends food, medicines, generators, potbelly stoves, and even water there. It’s hard to believe, but many people in Ukraine today do not have access to drinking or indeed any water.
For humanitarian aid alone, Rememberus.org ships 150 boxes a week. Each box holds food and hygiene products for a whole family.
Baby food, products for adults and children, medicines and toys are a separate issue. Volunteers from the US collect an incredible quantity of clothes and toys to send to Ukraine. It is important for children deprived of their childhood to receive not only a sausage but also a toy. Carefully collected bears, bunnies and other animals sent across the ocean find grateful children’s hands in Ukraine.
The Foundation does not only help children; great emphasis is also placed on helping the elderly. They often find themselves hostages of war in their cities, as they are physically unable to leave. Lonely, sick, confused, they really need care. Rememberus.org sends them help, and if they are bedridden, it orders courier delivery so that the package is brought directly to their homes. Old people are incredibly grateful, some secretly overcoming shame and admitting that they have not eaten chocolate for a year. And the package, which, among other things contains a bar of chocolate, is not just food for them but a signal that someone else cares about them. It is terrible to be helpless and not needed in the last years of one’s life. These people simply do not deserve such an old age, and this is very unfair.
RememberUs.org’s assistance programmes can be written about endlessly, especially since they change depending on the situation on the ground. But it is important to note that these programmes started on February 24, 2022 and are ongoing. It is really very difficult: to live at such a rhythm for more than a year, to work, collect money and continue to help. Founders, donors, volunteers in the USA could live their lives, relax and please themselves. Instead, after work, seven days a week, they help people they have never seen, but who will not survive without this aid.
The dream of the entire Rememberus.org team is to return to our original work and go back to the archives or create a new school museum. But while there is a war in Ukraine, this is almost impossible to do. “Almost”, because despite the war, RememberUs.org is continuing to work to create another museum. The leadership of the school insisted on this: “For children,” they said, “this is important and important right now!”
Right now the work of RememberUs.org saves lives and right now your help is very much needed. A big thank you to everyone who donated, to everyone who plans to donate or is doing it right now. Every cent is someone’s breath, someone’s smile, nascent hope in someone’s eyes. Let’s not let the tree of life be cut down, kindness must win the war!