Their earliest memories are of fleeing bombs or hearing whispers about mosques of other Jews, including their relatives. Sheltered by the Soviet Union, they survived.
Now elderly and fragile, Ukraine’s Holocaust survivors are escaping war once moreon a remarkable journey that turns the world they knew on its head: They are seeking safety in Germany.
For Galina Ploschenko, 90, it was not a decision made without trepidation. “They told me Germany was my best option. I told them, ‘I hope you’re right,’ ” she said.
Ploschenko is the beneficiary of a rescue mission organized by Jewish groups, trying to get Holocaust survivors out of the war wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Bringing these nonagenarians out of a war zone by ambulance is dangerous work, infused with a historical irony: Not only are the Holocaust survivors being brought to Germany, the attack is now coming from Russia — a country they saw as their liberators from the Nazis.
A week ago, Ploschenko was trapped in her bed at a retirement center in Dnipro, her hometown in central Ukraine, as artillery strikes thundered and air sirens blared. The nurses and retirees who could walk had fled to the basement. She was forced to lie in her third-floor room, alone with a deaf woman and a mute man, bedridden like her.
“That first time, I was a child, with my mother as my protector. Now, I’ve felt so alone. It is a terrible experience, a painful one,” she said, comfortably ensconced after a three-day journey at a senior care center in Hannover, in northwestern Germany.
To date, 78 of Ukraine’s frailest Holocaust survivors, of whom there are about 10,000, have been evacuated. A single evacuation takes up to 50 people, coordinating across three continents and five countries.
For the two groups coordinating the rescues — the Jewish Claims Conference and the American Joint Distribution Committee — just persuading survivors such as Ploschenko to leave is not an easy sell.
Most of the frailest and oldest survivors contacted have refused to leave home. Those willing to go had myriad questions: What about their medications? Were there Russian or Ukrainian speakers there? Could they bring their cat? (Yes, as it turned out.)
Then there was the most awkward question of all: Why Germany?
“One of them told us: ‘I won’t be evacuated to Germany. I do want to be evacuated — but not to Germany,’ ” said Rüdiger Mahlo, of the Claims Conference, who works with German officials in Berlin to organise the rescues.
Founded to negotiate Holocaust restitutions with the German government, the Claims Conference maintains a detailed list of survivors that, under normal circumstances, is used to distribute pensions and health care but that now serves as a way to identify people for evacuation.
For many reasons, Mahlo would tell them, Germany made sense. It was easily reachable by ambulance via Poland. It has a well-funded medical system and a large population of Russian speakers, including Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union. His organization has a relationship with government officials there after decades of restitution talks. Israel is also an option, for those well enough to fly there.
Ploschenko now has “nothing but love” for Germany, although she still remembers “everything” about the last war she survived — from the scarf her mother wrapped around her body, at one point of her only piece of clothing, to the radio bulletin that delivered her the news that thousands of Jews, among them an aunt and two cousins, had been killed in mobile gas wagons the locals called “dushegubka,” or soul killer.
Her father, who left to fight with the Soviet army, disappeared.
“I wasn’t afraid of Germany,” she said. “I just could not stop thinking: Papa died in that war. My cousins died in that war.”
Ploschenko believes that she, her mother and five of her aunts survived by singing — whether working the cotton fields in Kazakhstan, where they found refuge, or huddling beneath umbrellas in a roofless apartment after the war.
“We would sing along with the radio,” she recalls with a smile. “It’s what saved us. We sang everything, whatever there was on — opera, folk songs. I really want to sing, but I don’t know that I can anymore. I don’t have the voice for it. So instead, I just remember all the times I sang before.”
Perched amid pillows in a sunlit room at the AWO senior center, Ploschenko directs the music in her mind with a trembling hand. As caretakers bustle in and out, she practices the German phrases she has carefully recorded on a notepad: “Danke Schön,” many thanks. “Alles Liebe,” much love.
“In the scheme of all this horror, some 70 people doesn’t sound like a lot,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference. “But what it takes to bring these people, one by one, an ambulance by ambulance, to safety in Germany is incredibly significant.”
Such evacuations are inevitably plagued by logistic snags with nail-biting moments. Ambulances have been sent back from checkpoints as fighting flared. Others have been confiscated by soldiers, to use for their own wounded. Confronted with destroyed roads, drivers have navigated their ambulances through forests instead.
Most logistical problems are handled from 2,000 miles away, where Pini Miretski, medical evacuation team leader, sits at a Joint Distribution Committee situation room in Jerusalem. The JDC, a humanitarian organisation, has a long history of evacuations, including smuggling Jews out of Europe in World War II. For the past 30 years, its volunteers have worked to revive Jewish life in the former Soviet countries, including Ukraine.
Miretski and others coordinate with rescuers inside Ukraine, once helping them reach a survivor shivering in an apartment with a temperature of 14 degrees, her windows shattered by explosions. In another case, they helped rescuers who spent a week evacuating a survivor in a village surrounded by fierce battles.
“There are over 70 of these stories now, each of them like this,” he said.
For Miretski, this operation feels personal: He is a Ukrainian Jewish emigrant to Israel, and his great-grandparents were killed at Babyn Yar, also known as Babi Yar, the ravine in Kyiv where tens of thousands were pushed to their deaths after being stripped and shot with machine guns from 1941-43. The memorial to those massacres in Kyiv was struck by Russian missiles in the early days of its invasion.
“I understand the pain of these people, I know who they are,” Miretski said. “These scenes, these stories now — in a way, it’s like life is going full circle. Because many of those stories became real.”
At least two Holocaust survivors have died since the war began in Ukraine. Last week, Vanda Obiedkova, 91, died in a cellar in besieged Mariupol. In 1941, she had survived by hiding in a cellar from Nazis who rounded up and executed 10,000 Jews in that town.
For Vladimir Peskov, 87, evacuated from Zaporizhzhia last week and living down the hall from Ploschenko at the home in Hannover, the circular feeling this war has given his life is demoralising.
“I feel a kind of hopelessness, because it does feel like history repeats itself,” he said, hunched in a wheelchair, stroking a mug that belonged to his mother — one of the few keepsakes he brought to Germany.
Yet, he also has found a measure of closure, too.
“Today’s war has ended any negative emotions I felt toward Germany,” he said.
Just outside his room, a group of survivors who recently arrived from the eastern city of Kramatorsk sat around a table in the home’s sunny kitchen. They loudly lamented the idea of fleeing war again. But they declined to share their thoughts with a Western newspaper reporter.
“You will not tell the truth,” one man said, looking away.
Their hesitancy reflects one of the most painful parts of this second exile, particularly for those from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions: Reconsidering one’s view of Germany is one thing, acknowledging Russia as an aggressor is another.
“My childhood dreams were to buy a bike and a piano, and to travel to Moscow to see Stalin,” Ploschenko said. “Moscow was the capital of my homeland. I used to love the song ‘My Moscow, My Country.’ It is hard for me to believe that country is now my enemy.”
Flipping through a photo book, she pointed to pictures of her younger self, posing in a bathing suit on the beach in Sochi, the waves crashing around her.
“Sometimes I wake up and forget I’m in Germany,” she said. “I wake up, and I’m back on a business trip in Moldova, or Uzbekistan. I’m back in the Soviet Union.”
But Germany will be her home for the rest of her days. It is an idea she has now made her peace with, she said. “I have nowhere else to go.”