Ukraine’s Jewish leader’s beloved zoo lost to attack on his city – India Times English News

KYIV – On April 5, the 41st day of the Russian invasion, one of Ukraine’s richest men stepped in front of the camera.

Standing in a now empty playground, the man in a blue jacket and gray sweatshirt shed tears as he conveyed his message.

“The Feldman Ecopark no longer exists,” said the zoo’s eponymous founder, Kharkiv’s Oleksandr Feldman.

The Jewish businessman and parliamentarian established the park in 2011 as a pet zoo for children. The following year, he began importing more exotic fauna such as Amur Tigers and Chimpanzees. Feldman continued to expand his zoo to include more than 300 different species and 5,000 animals.

The park – and all of its festivals and activities – was always completely free. It maintained a special orientation towards children, hosting veterinary events, a children’s theater and a nature school for children.

Then the war came to Kharkiv.

Tapirs being removed from the Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv in the back of a volunteer’s van, 2022 (courtesy)

On 24 February, the day before the invasion, the zoo’s social media team posted photos of damage to the park, saying it was caused by five Russian shells. Feldman Ecopark also said that the bombing killed some of its animals.

Although closed to the public, the zoo tried to care for its fauna, but it quickly became unstable. The animals escaped from the damaged enclosures. On March 8, two employees were killed in mortar fire. The next week, another employee, Sergei Ivanov, was killed.

Stephen Colbert highlights the efforts of volunteers to rescue the animals, including a man who kept ten kangaroos and wallabies safe in his van.

But due to repeated shelling in the park, drastic steps had to be taken. Tigers, lions and bears could have survived if their enclosures were killed. Feldman said they would try to find temporary shelter for the larger predators if they could.

“If that doesn’t happen, the only option left for us is to put the predators to sleep,” he continued in the Facebook video. “It’s unimaginably painful to talk about, but the main priority now is people’s lives.”

His message touched other animal lovers in Ukraine and beyond. Hours after his announcement, Feldman issued an update that he had found homes for two lions, a jaguar and a panther. The next day five more lions were rescued. Ultimately, however, 150 of the approximately 5,000 animals at the zoo died or were killed in the fire before the war.

A llama steps around a Russian shell at the Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv during the early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (courtesy)

“Kharkiv is my home and it is being destroyed before my eyes,” Feldman told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, speaking at his office in central Kyiv.

Mezzuzot hangs on every doorpost in the 62-year-old’s second-floor office, and Jewish art depicting Hasidim and other Shettle scenes cover the walls.

“I was born there, I grew up there, I served in the army there, I went to university there, I made money there, so this is the city my whole life,” he said.

Situated only 19 miles (30 kilometers) from the Russian border, Ukraine’s second largest city was an attractive target for Moscow, which believed that most of its Russian-speaking population had lost their lives as liberators from nationalist Ukrainians. Soldiers welcome. Although Russian forces briefly reached the center of the city, by mid-May they had been driven back to the border.

Nevertheless, the city continues to suffer from shelling, and destruction is widespread in civilian areas.

Kharkiv businessman and politician Oleksandr Feldman announces the closure of Feldman Ecopark on April 5, 2022 (screenshot)

shelter people

After serving in the Red Army, Feldman began his professional career as a driver. He progressed through various positions, and founded Concern AVEC, a real estate management company, in 1994. Among other properties, his company owns Kharkiv’s vast Barbashova Market, the largest in the world.

Feldman, who now wears a knitted yarmulke, became so distant from Jewish custom that he was not circumcised until he was 42 years old. Her father, 72 at the time, and son, 20, endured the ritual with her.

The father of two is active in interfaith organizations and has been heading the Ukrainian Jewish Committee since 2008.

“Alexander Feldman is a true participant in the reconstruction of the Kharkiv Jewish community and a true example of a proud Jew,” remarked Kharkiv Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz to The Times of Israel.

Kharkiv Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz in his office, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

But Feldman saw the projects he’s done in the city as a philanthropist and as a lawmaker for the past two decades, wiped out in days at the Russian barrage.

“What can I say when my home and my office are destroyed, my business is destroyed?” Feldman said. “Even my proudest project, the Ecopark that I spent 15 years building, has been completely destroyed.”

Barbashova was hit by Grad rockets on 17 March, and again on 20 May. The fire ravaged the markets, and by the end of June only 20 percent of the stalls had reopened.

His Kharkiv home was also attacked. “If I had gone to sleep where I usually went to sleep on my bed, I wouldn’t be here anymore,” he said. Despite the close calls, Feldman does not think he is being targeted personally.

Example: A Joint Distribution Committee worker hands over food and PPE to a Jewish customer in Kharkiv, Ukraine (courtesy JDC).

Feldman has used the zoo and other sites, including Kharkiv’s Coral Synagogue, as a center for the distribution of humanitarian supplies. He said his projects have provided more than 540,000 food packages and 30,000 hot meals during the war.

“We bought groceries for the people, we cooked them,” he said.

The synagogue fed thousands of people every day at the height of the Russian offensive. “We would never ask if they were Jewish,” Feldman said. “We were just sheltering people.”

Not a single person fled from the synagogue.

He also organized buses to bring Kharkivs out of the country from the synagogue. Until last week, buses were still leaving the synagogue to take residents west.

He said the Jewish community was unique in its determination to serve the city. “Ecopark guards fled in a day. In one day the security of my business ran out. But not a single person fled from the synagogue.”

In 2014, Feldman, who organized a series of international conferences in Kyiv to combat anti-Semitic sentiment, was intimidated In Kyiv by uniformed men who inflicted anti-Semitic insults on him. But he does not see anti-Semitism in Ukraine as a significant problem.

He said, “Tell me the name of a country where there is no anti-Semitism.”

Hip-hop stars Shine and Oleksandr Feldman, members of the Ukrainian parliament and chairman of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee in Kyiv, Ukraine.  (photo credit: credit)

Hip-hop stars Shine, Right, and Oleksandr Feldman, member of the Ukrainian parliament and chairman of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee in Kyiv, Ukraine. (manners)

“There is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine at the government level. The president is Jewish, the prime minister was Jewish, most of the parliament is Jewish. Of course there is some anti-Semitism here and there.”

“I’m a deputy from a working-class neighborhood,” Feldman continued. “Most of the people who voted for me are not Jews.”

he also pointed out 2021 Law Anti-Semitism banned in Ukraine.

‘Disastrously small’ aid from Israel

Feldman, who was in Israel a few days before the war, is not thrilled with the country’s approach to the war in Ukraine.

Israel has sought to maintain open channels with both Kyiv and Moscow during the conflict. Jerusalem has not joined Western sanctions against Russia, nor is it prepared to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons. It has sent vital humanitarian aid, including to a field hospital near Lviv.

Israel sends protective equipment to Ukraine’s emergency services, July 14, 2022 (Ministry of Defense)

But Feldman thinks the aid isn’t nearly enough.

“I have a strong opinion because I’m Jewish,” he said. “I wish Israel had done more for Ukraine. I think what has been done is frighteningly small. I wish it was much bigger.”

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, Feldman flown out to Israel, along with another Ukrainian Jewish leader, to list the country’s support for Kyiv. When then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to meet with him, Feldman publicly expressed his disappointment at Israel’s failure to take a firm stand with Ukraine.

No Israeli officials reached out to Feldman to discuss the war, he lamented. “It is very strange that they are not in touch, because I have been in the Ukraine-Israel working group for many years.”

Although they are both prominent Jewish politicians, Feldman is not close to President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We didn’t have a relationship before we became president,” Feldman explained. “He was a great artist and he often visited our party headquarters. My father and mother loved him very much.”

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, listens to the report of a serviceman close to the frontline in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 5, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Feldman joined the opposition Forum for Life Party in 2019, now banned in Ukraine for its alleged pro-Russian stance. The party launched impeachment proceedings against Zelensky in 2021, accusing it of violating freedom of expression in the country.

“It looks like that was 400 years ago,” he told The Times of Israel. “This war is a new reality.”

Feldman left the faction in mid-March. “What kind of peace can there be if Russia attacked us and is now bombing our cities?” He commented On a Ukrainian radio station. “He destroyed Kharkiv!”

Now he calls Zelensky a “hero”.

“I’m just amazed at what I’ve done. He had the opportunity to run away, but he didn’t, he stayed, and he kept his side. Now he’s a hero, but before the war I don’t think he had.” There was enough time to grow as a politician as he was recently elected and recently came into the political scene.

Feldman continued: “He took responsibility for the people and he went ahead with his plan, and so it was effective.”

most inhumane thing

Although he is one of the most powerful people in the country—what some might call the oligarch—Feldman maintains a deep emotional connection to his city and country.

“What can I feel, when every day I see Russian citizens attack objects, they attack schools, they attack kindergartens, they attack churches. This is the most inhuman thing that can happen. is,” he said when he led me to the elevator after our conversation in his office.

Central Kharkiv, July 27, 2022 (Lazar Burman/The Times of Israel)

“They are trying to destroy what they haven’t been able to build themselves in the 30 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.”

Feldman seemed about to express another thought, but he paused. When tears started pouring from his eyes, the MLA suddenly grabbed my arm.

He let out an involuntary sob, turned and went back to his office.