Musical Ukrainian expats raise their voices to help their country

Choral song and instrumental tunes fill the air to help countrymen withstand invasion

Conductor Anton Yeretsky, third right, and some of his musicians at a benefit concert for Ukrainians in Vienna, Austria. Tim Stickings / The National
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Horrified by the war unfolding in their home country, Ukrainians abroad are helping their brothers and sisters to withstand the Russian invasion in any way they can – even with violins and fine song.

Desperate for supplies to send to their compatriots, musical Ukrainians staged an impromptu concert in Vienna, Austria, to raise donations that will be loaded onto a fleet of buses and shipped about 600 kilometres east to the Ukrainian border.

The choir and orchestra performances, which packed out a church with a substantial Ukrainian congregation, were the brainchild of Anton Yeretsky, a conductor who is one of the 7,000 or so Ukrainians who live in Vienna.

He described the recourse to music as both a symbol of hope and peace at a time of war, and a way of helping the resistance among Ukrainians who are unable or unwilling to leave the country.

Mr Yeretsky’s mother is among those still sheltering in Ukraine “waiting for the right moment” to join the 2.2 million people who have fled into neighbouring countries, he told The National after Wednesday’s concert.

Mr Yeretsky’s mother hopes to join him in Vienna, but it is not easy for them to keep in touch, and Mr Yeretsky said the motorways in Ukraine are too dangerous for her to risk leaving her small-town home while Russian forces roll across the country.

Another chapter of European history is being written in blood
Lyubomyr Dutka

Lyubomyr Dutka, the parish priest for a congregation with a large Ukrainian contingent, wishes the church was always as full as it was when hundreds of people packed the pews in a show of solidarity for Ukraine.

But “what politics breaks, we ordinary people can put together again from the bottom,” said Mr Dutka, who is originally from western Ukraine, as he appealed for donations.

“Another chapter of European history is being written in blood,” he said. “We are experiencing arrogance, greed and power gone mad instead of a sense of proportion, sanity and brotherhood.”

At the church in suburban Ottakring, musicians young and old wore blue and yellow ribbons in a salute to the Ukrainian emblem, while some spectators wore the colours on their masks or draped a full-size flag over their coats.

The flag has come to symbolise a wheat field and a blue sky, Mr Dutka told the congregation, in itself evoking the image of freedom that Ukrainians are fighting for.

The choir sang lyrics by the 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko, a symbol of the Ukrainian language and national identity and their resurgence after long suppression by Russia.

One of Shevchenko’s works was set to music written by the father of one of the soloists, Zoryana Kushpler, an opera singer who trained at a musical academy in Lviv.

Vienna's Neuottakring church is home to a substantial Ukrainian congregation. Tim Stickings/The National

The vocalists sang mournful lyrics about children dying in war, while the instrumentalists brought Ukrainian tunes as well as pieces by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi to life.

There were tears and standing ovations when the violins and choir fell silent, and even a moment of levity when the church bells interrupted a soloist with their eight o’clock chimes.

About 12,700 Ukrainians live in Austria, a number that has roughly doubled over the past decade, and more have already arrived since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Vienna authorities are offering humanitarian assistance, including coronavirus tests and vaccines, and psychological support, for people fleeing the war.

Under an EU agreement on refugees, Ukrainians are eligible for at least a year’s residency in the bloc, which comes with education and employment rights, and could be extended if the war drags on.

Three children from Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine, which officials say has been shelled and encircled by Russian forces, are provisionally being looked after by the church in Vienna.

So many donors from the Ukrainian community have brought goods to collection points in Vienna that no more items of clothing are wanted, although food and sleeping bags are in short supply.

Supplies collected so far have been sent to Ukraine in three or four shipments a day, with about 25 buses already dispatched to the country to help people sheltering from Russian attacks.

“They are losing everything,” said Mr Dutka.

Updated: March 10, 2022, 10:12 AM