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In Chernobyl, the Meltdown Never Ended

Sara Miriam Gross

April 26, 1986, was meant to be a test demonstrating the safe operation of a Soviet nuclear power plant during a mock electricity outage. Faulty design and human error turned a routine test into a nuclear catastrophe 100 times more devastating than the atom bomb detonated at Hiroshima. Twenty-five years later, its surviving victims, including thousands of Jewish Ukrainians, are still suffering. And children born after the disaster will be feeling the devastating effects well into the next century.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Anya hoards chicken schnitzel in her sock drawer, next to three apples and some rolls. She took doubles at lunch today. What if no food is served tomorrow? Not much time has passed since her evacuation on a rescue flight from her irradiated former hometown in the Ukraine. Life as a ward of the State of Israel is new to her, Judaism unfamiliar, but hunger pangs are very familiar. 

Hebrew letters tease Misha as they dance tauntingly across the pages of his school books. He misses many classes because of his congenital heart condition and he has learning disabilities to boot.

Katya is in the hospital. Radiation-induced stomach pains have left her so weak she can barely stand. Her dorm mother stays at her bedside and spoon-feeds her like her real mother, who has long since left this world.

Anya, Misha, and Katya are still paying the price for what was the worst nuclear power plant disaster on the face of the earth — at least until all of the damages are totaled from this year’s near-meltdown of Japan’s Fukishima Daiichi plant. They weren’t even born yet at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986, when an explosion released large quantities of radioactive contamination over much of the western Soviet Union and Europe. But although twenty-five years have passed, babies born now in the contaminated region face at least as great a risk of radiation-related illnesses as the children who lived there when the reactor exploded.

And, according to a UN study, the worst health effects are yet to come and radiation levels will remain high until the middle of the century — some experts say it will be another 200 years.

“A survivor who was an adult then?” says Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, as he tries to think of interview subjects who can recount the events of those fateful days. “The average lifespan of the adults was only forty-six or forty-seven and it’s twenty-five years already since it happened. There aren’t many adults left, but we are still taking the kids out of there.”

Rabbi Swerdlov is the Israel director of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl (CCOC). He has maintained a respectful silence about the plight of Chernobyl’s Jewish victims, despite the plethora of general books and articles that have been written about the Chernobyl disaster. His reticence, until now, should come as no surprise.

“Back in 1986 the Russian government was giving misinformation and people were outright dying,” says Rabbi Swerdlov. “The people living in the area realized [what was happening] because they saw funerals taking place every day, but the government denied the connection. The Jewish community made a request for help that ultimately came to the attention of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He immediately sent out a tzetel [note] saying: ‘If we don’t take responsibility for these children, who will?’ ”


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