Thousands of people evacuated the places that would be directly in their way when Russian troops pushed over the Ukrainian border in March.
Rabbi Yosef Itzhak Wolff chose to remain in Kherson, a port city in the south that the Russians valued for its strategic importance.
His choice to stay aligned him with the guiding principles of his Jewish movement, Chabad, whose rabbis often commit to the cities where they are stationed and remain there through thick and thin.
However, his choice might prevent him from being able to save the Jews of Kherson. According to a New York Times article published this week, Wolff is currently in Germany because of worry over claims that he has been working with Russian soldiers in Kherson.
According to a New York Times report, a member of his Jewish community is currently facing life in prison for his involvement in the tumultuous early stages of the conflict.
Human Rights Watch reports that when Russia took over Kherson on March 2, 2022, the city saw months of violent occupation that left hundreds of people dead and many more “disappeared” or tortured.
Wolff, an Israeli-born rabbi who moved to Ukraine about 30 years ago, immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence, was one among those residing in the captured city.
He had been in charge of the 8,000-person-strong Jewish community in Kherson for 13 years.
Early in the conflict, Wolff’s efforts to provide his town with food, medication, and at least a semblance of a happy Purim were widely reported.
According to the Times of Israel, he once avoided gunfire while bringing supplies back to the city from the Crimean border, where his brother is a rabbi.
In another, Russian tanks were passing through the village as he stepped outside to give food, according to Chabad.org.
According to Rabbi Motti Seligson, a representative for the Chabad movement, “despite intense fighting in the streets of Kherson, Rabbi Yosef Wolff did not abandon his community for a moment, remaining in the war-torn city through it all and helping the local populace.”
There were around 26 synagogues in Kherson before the Holocaust, but currently, there are only Wolff’s.
It was like other Chabad centers around the world before the war: helping the local community and being renowned for being hospitable to strange faces, especially foreign tourists.
After the war started and Russians started pouring into Kherson, opening the doors to newcomers was more critical.
For most of the year, it was uncertain whether Ukraine would retake the city or if it would turn into Crimea and continue to be occupied by Russia.
However, Kherson was freed by Ukraine last month, sparking scenes of celebration and casting suspicion on anyone thought to be working with the Russian army.
Wolff, who had permitted Russian soldiers to pray in his synagogue, came under some of that suspicion.
He told the New York Times that the soldiers were Jewish officers who had come with armed guards.
He left Kherson and Ukraine shortly after being freed and headed to Germany.
He told the publication that he is unsure when or if he would return because attempts are being made to punish accomplices.
One of those who stayed in Kherson was a well-known Jew currently facing charges for the decisions he made under the tumultuous circumstances of the occupation.