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Jewish Ukrainian father and son soldiers mark holy days under cloud of Russia's war

For Ukrainian Orthodox Jews Asher and David Cherkaskyi, a father and son both fighting on the front lines in the eastern Donbas region, beating Russia has become especially important to them because of their faith.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claims his army is "liberating" Ukrainians from a Nazi regime, the Cherkaskyis say it is just the opposite — they say Ukraine is fighting the evil of a fascist dictatorship in Moscow.

NPR met the father and son in July, and caught up with them again by phone in September as Jews around the world were celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins Tuesday evening.

Fifty-two-year-old Asher remembers what it was like being Jewish in the Soviet Union.

"If you said you were Jewish, you'd be downgraded in school. And if you were fighting in the army, you wouldn't get a medal no matter how brave you were. You'd just be sent to the most dangerous places," he says. "I remember the anecdotes and propaganda to humiliate and intimidate us. Jews and other nationalities were considered inferior. In the Soviet Union only Russians were good enough to rule."

He says the Soviet Union was a land of fear and violence and that continues in the Russian Federation today.

David Cherkaskyi, 20, has only known an independent Ukraine, which declared independence in 1991. "Ukraine is a completely free country," he tells NPR. "You can do what you want here. You can go to church, you can be Muslim or Jewish, it is not a problem."

Both men say they're proud of Ukraine's Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

NPR met the Cherkaskyis in their town of Dnipro, just hours before David was to deploy to the front in the Donbas. The city has a large Jewish population and one of the world's top sofruts, a center of religious calligraphy where the Torah and other Jewish parchments are inscribed by hand.

Asher says he first began to identify as a Ukrainian Jew in 2014, during Russia's occupation of Crimea, where his family lived. He remembers the trumped-up referendum over unifying with Russia.

"A lot of buses arrived with Russian citizens who came to vote for leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. We knew we could not go along with this. It went against our conscience, our values and our loyalty to our fellow Ukrainian citizens."

So they fled, leaving his business and their home behind. He joined a volunteer unit in Dnipro, fighting several tours of duty in the Donetsk region.

Asher Cherkaskyi says the so-called voting process the Kremlin just staged in an attempt to justify seizing four Ukrainian regions was even tougher and more cynical than Crimea's referendum.

But he says Putin's move to conscript "by trickery" hundreds of thousands of new soldiers — who Cherkaskyi says "are unprepared, forced and intimidated" — does not dent Ukrainian soldiers' morale in the least.

"We are defending our country, our homes, our families and our children. So how can it affect us?" he asks.

Ukraine launched a major counteroffensive in September that has retaken areas in the northeast and south of the country. And Russian forces have now faced another battlefield defeat in one of the regions Putin declared Russia had supposedly annexed from Ukraine.

Cherkaskyi says the Ukrainians have the Russians on the run and will continue to drive them from "our land." He says Russian elite units have been killed and the Russians no longer have the weapons they fought with at the beginning of the war.

As of their recent communications with NPR, both father and son are still fighting in the Donbas.

But this past Rosh Hashana, Asher says they were able to celebrate as usual, with blessings, apples and honey. And, he says, they said a "a prayer for the light to overcome the darkness approaching Europe and the whole world from the Russian Federation."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.