From Ashes to Ashes: An Emissary From Mariupol Pleads for Help for Those Left Behind

‘Many people are huddled together in basements with no food, no heat, no water … people who manage to leave are doing so with nothing, just their passport, not looking back.’

Outside a Mariupol maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling March 9, 2022. AP/Evgeniy Maloletka, file

The extent of Russia’s physical destruction of the strategic Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on the north Sea of Azov coast, will be known well before that of the human toll, which as recounted by the head of that city’s Chabad congregation, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cohen, is possibly even worse.

Mariupol’s City Council said today that 300 people were killed in the Russians’ bombing of the city’s Drama Theater on March 16.  Ukrainian officials say up to 1,300 people had sought refuge there, and the attack on civilians is among the most horrifying to have transpired since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

The theater, as it happens, was also the site of annual chanukah celebrations for Mariupol’s Jewish community — a place now recalled with certain agony by Rabbi Cohen. He  spent the better part of 17 years in Mariupol and is now working to extricate from the wrecked city hundreds of people who have struggled to get out. 

That doing so is not easy while the besieged city remains under Russian bombardment is an understatement.  The rabbi is currently back on American shores, at  New York. In a conversation via video today, he focused on the human dimension of the 21st century catastrophe in post-invasion Ukraine. And it is harrowing. Here is part of our exchange:

Rabbi, have you heard the news today about the large death toll from the Russian bombardment of the Mariupol Drama Theater?

It was devastating to hear that 500 kilograms of explosives were dropped on this building and many people killed and injured even though the word ‘children’ was written in big letters , both in front and behind the building. It is heartbreaking.

Unfortunately there is a vicious war in Mariupol. It means two armies are fighting street fights and the city is closed, most of the people didn’t have the opportunity to get out, they are stuck in their apartments, basements, women with children just praying for a miracle to survive.

There is widespread mistrust and anybody who goes out in the street could be shot. A woman from our community was able to get out from one side of the city when there were tanks from both sides in the street, and she had to navigate between dead bodies lining the streets amid fighting and shooting.

Many people are huddled together in basements with no food, no heat, no water … people who manage to leave are doing so with nothing, just their passport, not looking back.

Before the war, Mariupol was said to have a population of more than 400,000. How many people do you think could still be trapped?

I think there are more than 100,000 people still trapped in Mariupol. There is a real blockade, heavy shelling from the air, the sea is closed, the city is blocked from all sides. We were waiting for the humanitarian corridor to let people out on the first day, the second day.

Seven times we got people ready, but they were shooting at this corridor and almost nobody was able to get out. Some people took the risk, and they do drive out, some people will never make it, they stay in the car and maybe someday someone will come take them and bury them.

The city council of Mariupol said today that people in the city are starving.

There is no water, no heat, no Internet. People are starving. I am afraid of the day when we will know the truth.

Do you have any thoughts on why Russia seems to be attacking civilian infrastructure and civilians in Mariupol so mercilessly?

I spent 17 years in Mariupol.  I have no explanation for what is going on. I cannot understand the reason it is so vicious. I can’t understand why there is no humanitarian corridor, why no aid gets to the town. Why? Let the people out.  I was happy to help evacuate a mother and her children. We have 1,800 different homes where people are sending us requests  to get their relatives out. Not only Jews.

Can you give me a concrete example of a situation on the ground in Mariupol now?

There was the husband of one woman who left her apartment building’s basement to get some air only to witness a rocket strike that killed her husband before her very eyes. He was 78. Under heavy shelling, she said she would have no chance of burying him, so she took a piece of paper and wrote his name — Grigori Shneer — and put it in his pocket, so when it’s possible for people to come to bury [such victims], at least people will know who they are burying.

President Joe Biden is visiting Europe today, in large part as a show of Western support for a Ukraine now under attack. Do you have a message for America?

The message is let people get out, and help those who stayed behind to receive humanitarian aid, medicine, water. We need to support the people who stayed behind. To pray for them, to help them if they want to go to the United States, to make it a quick process, or to Israel or wherever they want to go.

Most people don’t have a clue as to what’s going on. There are horrible scenes in Mariupol. Like nothing you can imagine. We the people of Mariupol, Jews and non-Jews, everything we built with blood and tears, there is nothing left behind, the city is just ashes.


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