This year, The Fellowship’s Winter Heating project warmed the homes of 20,651 elderly citizens across 105 Israeli cities. We focus on the elderly, offering winter heating to senior citizens who live on meager government pensions and are forced to choose between food or heating their homes.
The Fellowship’s Ami Farkas tells us more about an elderly couple who feels very blessed by our friends of The Fellowship this winter season!
I recently had the privilege of meeting an elderly couple in northern Israel who received The Fellowship’s Winter Heating aid this year. As I walked into their apartment, Asiya, an 80-year-old woman from Ukraine, sat me down next to her husband Alexander, 78. Immediately, she began telling me about The Fellowship and how moved she is by the bridges we are building between Jews and Christians.
“I know you came to hear my life story and how The Fellowship’s Winter Heating aid got us through the winter,” Asiya said. “I will get to that! However, I want to start by thanking our Christian friends. Not just for the money they donate to us, without which many of us would be in dire straits, but also for the political and moral support they give to Israel at a time, when once again, the world is turning against the Jewish people.”
Asiya does not take Christian support for granted. She knows too well what happens when anti-Semitism spreads and there are no voices to oppose it. “I was just a little Jewish girl from Kiev who knew nothing about Hitler and his wish to destroy my people when World War II broke out,” Asiya recalls. When Hitler’s army descended on Ukraine, her father and brother were immediately taken to fight in the Red Army. Asiya and her mother fled to Ural, Russia, near the border of Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union (FSU).
“There was a place of refuge for families whose fathers and sons were fighting in the Red Army,” Asiya recalled. They arrived by train with other families whose fathers were on the frontlines. And as they arrived, the local people began to select families they would host until the fighting subsided. “My mother and I stood in the station platform for hours, waiting for someone to adopt us. We hugged each other tightly so we would not freeze, as tears streamed down our faces.”
Word got around that five-year-old Asiya and her mother were Jewish, and so no families wanted to host them. At this time in Russia, Jews were said to be evil. They were robbers and murderers, popular gossip said, and certainly not deserving of anyone’s trust. And so the two stood on the platform for hours, crying in each other’s embrace, until late in the evening a woman named Anna finally picked them up out of pure pity.
“At first Anna didn’t trust us, and though she had a kind heart, she too fell prey to the horrible rumors and libels that had been spread about Jews for centuries,” Asiya recalled. Anna kept them in the attic and locked them in their room every night out of fear. It took a long time before Anna started to trust Asiya and her mom, no longer fearing they might steal her belongings or murder her son in the middle of the night.
It seems like many lifetimes ago, but Aisya still recalls how at the tender age of five she did not understand why all the Russian kids hated her so much. Every time she would go outside to play, the other kids would yell “Jew, Jew, dirty Jew,” and then they would kick her, spit on her, and knock her down. “I didn’t know what Jew meant. Can you believe that?” Asiya said to me with a sad voice. “Since I didn’t know Jew wasn’t a universal term, I started cursing other kids in return, saying, ‘you’re a Jew, you’re a dirty Jew.’”
Seeing the bitter sadness in her eyes as the trauma from her past began to resurface, I offered Asiya a cup of water to give her a small break. With shaking hands, she recited the traditional blessing, took a sip, and continued with her story.
“For the entire duration of the war, Anna let us stay in her home. In return, we took care of the housework, barn work, cooking, and cleaning. Although it was difficult, it saved our life.’
The war eventually ended, yet the discrimination and venomous hatred of Jews did not. Nonetheless, Asiya and her mother were no longer passive survivors. They had learned how to become fighters, and, somehow, they managed to thrive in a hostile environment.
They eventually returned to Ukraine where, against all odds and with lots of determination, Asiya received an education – and even made it all the way to university, which is a miracle, considering how Jews rarely received entry into higher education.
“I received a doctorate in Mathematics. No one believed this was possible for a Jewish girl from Ukraine, but I did it!”
Asiya eventually moved to Riga, Latvia, in the FSU, where she met her husband Alexander. The situation in Riga was better than in Ukraine and Russia. “The Latvians resented the Russians to a degree that they ignored the Jews,” Asiya explained.
Asiya became a university professor, and raised a family with Alexander. And though life was quiet and stable, they dreamed and prayed daily to return home to Zion. “The Iron Curtain placed an unmovable barrier between us and our dream to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel),” but as soon as the curtain came down, Jews began to migrate home to Israel.
Asiya’s two daughters, who now had families of their own, made their way to Israel the first chance they got. For Asiya, it was hard to give up her pension, which she worked an entire lifetime to earn. “I knew that the minute I migrated to Israel I would lose everything I worked for, including my pension. How would we survive? How would we make it?”
In the end, Asiya and Alexander decided that they would rather be poor in Israel than comfortable in another country, that there are more important things in life than money.
Currently, Asiya and Alexander live on a fixed Israeli government pension, which barely covers food, rent, or utilities.
“Unfortunately, heating became an expense we simply could not afford, and so we bundled up and learned how to live through the cold winter months,” Asiya explained. Then she turned her sad, but compassionate gaze to Alexander, who sat quietly throughout the entire interview, “but my dear husband, who has always been there for me, is not well, and I worried in the beginning of the winter that he would not make it through another cold season bundled up in our freezing apartment.”
Alexander doesn’t speak Hebrew very well, and has lost much of his memory, but his gentle, warm demeanor spoke volumes about his character. “The Fellowship’s Winter Heating aid saved my husband’s life this winter. The cold would have destroyed his already ailing health. I cannot thank you enough. God bless The Fellowship and the donors who support people like me and Alexander.”
As I left Asiya and Alexander’s apartment, Asiya proudly pointed to the family pictures on the wall. As I looked at the pictures on the wall of their daughters, as well as their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I thought about what a treasure this elderly couple is. I imagined all they have been put through and what they’ve achieved despite hardships, and I felt immensely blessed to be part of The Fellowship’s ministry, which brings aid to such precious people.