Arnie Fielkow with his two adopted daughters, Yana, left, and Svetlana as they talk to their sister Natalya, who is still in Ukraine.
By Richard Friedman
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Jewish Federation world leapt into action on numerous fronts, but for Arnie Fielkow, the crisis was also a family affair.
Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, has been anguished since the Russian invasion began. Two older sisters of Fielkow’s two adopted daughters are still in Ukraine, and he wants to make sure they are safe.
In 2007, Fielkow and his wife, Susan, adopted two young girls, Yana and Svetlana, from Ukraine. They wanted daughters in addition to their three biological sons. They also loved being parents.
Never could the couple have imagined that Fielkow, at the time president of the New Orleans City Council and former executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints, would find himself on Ukraine’s border with Slovakia 15 years later, awaiting the arrival of one of their daughters’ older sisters still in Ukraine.
Yet there he was in April, trying to help 25-year-old Natalya and her young children leave Ukraine and come to America. The other sister, Ira, 29 is staying in Ukraine for now. Their husbands are away fighting the Russians.
Fielkow drew on a lifetime of contacts, arranging for Natalya’s departure, hoping to greet her and her children when they arrived in Slovakia.
The saga has the makings of a beautiful story. His short video narratives have touched hearts around the world.
Yet so far there is no happy ending. Natalya and her kids never made it to Slovakia.
As the horror of Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, Ira and Natalya and their families have been on the minds of the Fielkow family constantly. Their daughter Yana, now 20, has been especially anguished.
Though memories of her Ukrainian sisters Ira and Natalya are vague, the ties are deep. It was Ira, nine years older than Yana, who took care of her as a surrogate mother before Yana arrived at the orphanage from which she would eventually be adopted by the Fielkows.
Arnie and Susan first met Yana in Ukraine when she was five.
In 2019, the Fielkows, including Yana and the family’s other adopted Ukrainian daughter, 17-year-old Svetlana, visited Ukraine. “We wanted our daughters to have a sense of their identity and heritage,” explained their dad.
The family walked into Yana’s old orphanage and introduced themselves. The director did a double-take. Then she shrieked, “Yana! Yana!”
The director pulled an old photo out of her desk drawer and called others into her office. It was a photo of a very young Yana and other kids with the then-president of Ukraine during a visit he made to the orphanage. Always tall for her age, she was easy to remember.
Yana doesn’t recall the president’s visit.
Still, her dad said, Yana now guards a copy of the photo she was given like a “crown jewel… It’s my daughter’s one connection to her past.”
Now a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, Yana was jarred and unnerved on Feb. 24 when she learned Russia had invaded her native country.
“I woke up to a bunch of texts from friends. They said, ‘I hope you are doing okay.’ But I didn’t know what was going on. I found out on my way to class that morning — Russian class. Once I understood what had happened, I started bawling my eyes out.”
Speaking via Zoom from Oberlin, Yana was asked how she felt walking into class that day.
“Not very good. My Russian professor knew I was from Ukraine and had family there, though he didn’t ask me questions. I just sat there crying the whole time.”
As the attack on Ukraine began dominating the news, Yana tried to pull back — to put it away.
“I wanted to distance myself from thinking about it. All it did was bring me sad emotions. But this was easier said than done. Since those first few days, though, I haven’t watched the news on TV.”
What has stayed in the front of her mind is the fate of her two older sisters still in Ukraine, and their families.
In 2019, when the Fielkows visited Ukraine, they were unable to locate Ira and Natalya. After the trip, Arnie’s daughter-in-law Meaghan found the two Ukrainian sisters through Facebook. Meaghan took one look at Natalya’s picture and knew she was one of the sisters. She looked exactly like Yana.
“It was really emotional,” Yana said. “I always wanted to find them — to meet them and connect with them, to know that they were alive.”
Once Russia invaded Ukraine and their husbands joined the fight, Ira and Natalya were left to fend for themselves. Yana couldn’t stop thinking about them, especially with Natalya being pregnant.
“For the first few weeks we texted every day. Most of it was ‘How are you doing? Are you okay? Are you safe?’ They were in their basements for shelter. I was scared for them and they were scared. It was really sad.”
Consumed and overwrought, Yana began neglecting her schoolwork. “I did not want that to happen. I started relying on my family’s communication with them, knowing they would keep me updated.”
The war has had another effect on Yana.
“The attack has connected me more deeply to Ukraine. Though I don’t remember much about the country, I have always loved Ukraine. The war has made me feel more Ukrainian because I am from there.”
Fielkow is still trying to get Natalya and her family out of Ukraine. They have been in a relatively safe area in western Ukraine. Yet things there could heat up quickly. No place is totally safe.
Getting Natalya and her young children out of Ukraine is no simple endeavor. It would’ve taken 16 hours and two train rides for them to meet Fielkow in Slovakia. Eight months pregnant, Natalya feared the ordeal would disrupt her pregnancy. She cancelled at the last minute.
Though let down, the New Orleans Jewish Federation CEO remains undeterred. Through texts, emails, phone calls and letters he has been reaching out to contacts he’s made over the years, from sports institutions to elected officials to Jewish relief agencies.
“It’s like having cousins in another part of the world who you rarely see but know are family. Even though I have never met them, the fact that they make my two daughters so happy gives me great satisfaction that we have connected with them.”
Fielkow’s efforts have not gone unappreciated. Knowing this story was being written, Natalya sent this message from Ukraine: “I am very grateful to Arnie and his family for trying to help me and my children and all they are trying to do for us.”
A thoughtful and passionate community leader, the 66-year-old Fielkow has accomplished a lot as his impressive resume reflects — from the Saints to the City Council to heading the NBA Retired Players Association to leading the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
Yet, talking to him you sense his life’s work won’t be finished until this job gets done. That’s why after his recent Jewish Federations of North America trip to the Polish-Ukrainian border, he extended his stay, hoping to meet Natalya and her family in Slovakia.
In Judaism, rescuing captives is one of the highest mitzvot. Honoring that commandment is helping to drive Fielkow — that and the love of parenting he spoke about.
He is determined to reunite his daughters with their Ukrainian sisters. “It will happen one day and it will be a beautiful thing. It will bring everyone great joy.”