Scarred and hardened by the Holocaust, survivors relive it in war-torn Ukraine

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Russia’s war on Ukraine turned Reuven Shvartsman’s life in Odesa upside down this year.

First, it forced him to live for months without heating on the 10th floor of an apartment building. Then, he joined millions fleeing their homes because of the war. And finally, he left his country at the age of 87, becoming a refugee in Moldova before immigrating to Israel.

But unlike most Ukrainian displaced persons, Shvartsman is neither new to this experience nor fazed by it.

A Holocaust survivor, Shvartsman’s harrowing experiences from World War II have largely immunized him to the hardships of the current war in Ukraine. Now living in Haifa, he feels “not like a refugee, but as a man finally returning to his ancestral home,” Shvartsman told The Times of Israel.

This fortitude is typical of many Jewish elderly Ukrainians whose traumatic childhoods had scarred them emotionally but also prepared them to take bold action and even help others amid calamity, according to professionals caring for Ukrainian Holocaust survivors.

“The response of survivors to the current crisis runs the gamut, from those who demonstrate extraordinary fearlessness to those who are working to manage resurfaced trauma every day,” said Inna Vdovichenko, an employee of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Odesa.

IsraAid CEO on an aid mission to Odessa, Ukraine, in October 2022 (courtesy of IsraAid)

Many have limited mobility. Others are homebound “and say that they cannot comprehend how such a thing could happen to them for the second time,” Vdovichenko added.

One of the survivors forced to relive her trauma is 97-year-old Rosa. Vdovichenko said that Rosa told her that when she hears the Russian bombings, she is paralyzed with fear and is able to only pray in silence as she is flooded with memories from fleeing the Holocaust to Uzbekistan.

In Shvartsman’s case, he stayed in his 10-story apartment for a whole year after the Russian invasion, which began in February last year. “Yes, it was inconvenient because I needed to go into the staircase each time the siren went on. And there were constant power shortages, so it was cold. But I wasn’t terribly afraid so I stayed,” said Shvartsman, who decided to leave for Israel in March.

Shvartsman has a daughter in Odesa and another in Haifa., and grandchildren in both places. He had stayed in Odesa because his daughter there wanted to remain near her son, a physician, who cannot leave Ukraine because of emergency regulations barring all military conscription-age men from leaving.

“So I stayed for all that time with one daughter, but now have come to stay with the other because she can’t come to Ukraine because of the war,” said Shvartsman. His decision to leave finally ,with help from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, was not because of the war, but because he is “getting old” and wanted to spend time with his family in Israel, said Shvartsman, a retired engineer and the chairman of an association of Holocaust survivors in Odesa.

The war in Ukraine, where only this week tens of thousands of people had to flee their homes near Odesa due to a dam rupture, is far less traumatic than the Holocaust was for Shvartsman, who before he turned 10 saw a German soldier kill his brother Yossi (Shvartsman cried in the interview with The Times of Israel as he recalled his brother’s murder.)

Yet in another sense World War II was easier for Shvartsman to live through because “as a boy, I didn’t understand the broader picture, the amount and scope of the suffering I was living through,” Shvartsman said. “Now I understand these things, and it’s very painful.”

Esfir (Esther) Gendelman receives a package from an aid provider of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Chisinau, Moldova, in March 2022. (Courtesy of IFCJ)

Esfir Gendelman is only three years older than Shvartsman, but that made all the difference in terms of understanding the graveness of her family’s situation during the Holocaust.

“I was 10, but I was already an adult. I understood everything. I remember the war from the first day,” said Gendelman, who moved to Israel last year from Kherson. At least in 1941, she was with her family, which was evacuated to Kazakhstan in a journey that Gendelman described as “two months of horror, hunger and suffering.”

But when the war broke out in 2022, Gendelman was all alone: Both of her children were abroad and unable to enter the country. “I was confused, I was left alone under the bombardments. The kids and I could only call each other. When I was hiding in the shelters from the bombs, I thought that I would not survive the second war, that I would die alone in that basement shelter. My heart stopped and my blood pressure rose just from the thought that the phone could run out of battery, and I would not be able to say goodbye to my children before death,” said Gendelman. She has now moved to Israel, where her son has been living since 1991.

Since the war broke out, more than 16,000 Ukrainians have immigrated to Israel, under its Law of Return for Jews. The figures for 2021 were slightly over 3,100. Immigration from Russia, which in 2021 totaled 7,711, skyrocketed to about 60,000 during the war, which has triggered a financial crisis in Russia and a crackdown on freedom of expression and other liberties.

Nearly half of the newcomers from Ukraine, including roughly 400 Holocaust survivors, moved to Israel with the assistance of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group that is primarily funded by Christian donors looking to help Jews move to Israel and support needy Israelis already in the country.

“There is a feeling of coming full circle when someone like Reuven comes home to Israel,” said Yael Eckstein, the president of IFCJ. “We are ecstatic that we now have the opportunity to help bring him on aliyah [immigration to Israel].”

Alla Oleshko, center, receives packages for Passover from aid providers in Chisinau, Moldova in 2022. (International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

Alla Oleshko, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Israel with her daughter with IFCJ’s help this year, carried the fear of bombings with her for months. Bedridden, she said the explosions around her home in Kharkiv took her right back to her short childhood. “Two wars, 80 years apart. In the first war, I was a defenseless girl; in this war, I was a defenseless invalid without the use of my legs,” she said.

Some Holocaust survivors have decided to stay in Ukraine. One of them is Nina Belitskaya, who, at the age of 92, hosted three of her relatives at her home in Poltava, a city about 350 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Kyiv. The relatives, a couple in their fifties and an 80-year-old woman, fled the eastern city of Kharkiv due to the Russian bombing.

Hosting them made Belitskaya think back of her own experience as a refugee during World War II, when she moved in with colleagues of her father in Kazakhstan after her family fled their home in Donetsk.

“I suddenly remembered how the children of that household in Kazakhstan felt so responsible, trying to make themselves helpful and useful to the grownups. We collected edible grass for soup. Greased the shoes, and cleaned the stove. And it helped center us and ground us during uncertain times,” Belitskaya told The Times of Israel.

Belitskaya’s niece, Natalia, and her husband and 80-year-old mother have since moved out of Belitskaya’s home and now live in accommodations provided to them by the Hesed organization of Poltava, which is funded and run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. But they still require Belitskaya’s assistance, she said.

That sense of duty is again grounding her, she added – and keeping her in Ukraine.

“I have thought about leaving for Israel at many points in my life, [including] after the war broke out. But now I need to take care of my niece and her family, who all have disabilities. I could not leave them here in Poltava where they just arrived,” said Belitskaya, who has been an active participant in the activities of the Hesed office in Poltava since 1993.

The fact that she is “not so young anymore,” as Belitskaya describes it, means that “there are health problems and all sorts of complications about leaving for Israel now.”

Besides, she added, “The graves of my parents are here. Who’ll take care of them if I leave?”

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