Three Decades After Chernobyl, Survivor Recalls His Evacuation to Israel

Saar Vogman was 9 years old and 100 kilometers from the worst nuclear accident in history. Four years later, he was brought to Israel in a big, celebrity-supported Chabad initiative.

Saar Vogman, March 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

When Slava Vogman heard about the accident at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, his first response was to laugh. 

“In my class, there were a few kids whose fathers were in the military,” recounts Vogman, who was 9 at the time. “One of them came to school the next day and told everyone there had been a big explosion at the Chernobyl plant. We thought it was a joke.”

Over the next few weeks, despite an official clampdown on information, it became clear that something serious had occurred. “We lived on the main road to Chernobyl, so we couldn’t help but notice the unusually large number of military vehicles heading in that direction,” Vogman relates.

The full extent of the meltdown in Chernobyl, which took place 30 years ago, was soon known. It is now often considered to be the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. But it would take four years before the efforts of the Chabad Lubavitch movement in Israel allowed Vogman to escape his toxic birthplace and start life anew in Israel.

Saar Vogman, center in a blue shirt, disembarking from the airplane in Israel.
Reproduction: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Now a robust 39-year-old who wears his gray curls in a ponytail, Vogman lives in the central Israeli town of Rehovot, works with his father in a family-run construction engineering firm and goes by the Hebrew name Saar. His Hebrew bears a faint trace of a Russian accent, but any mental scars this father of three may still carry as a Chernobyl survivor seem well-hidden.

At the time, Vogman’s family lived in Mozyr, Belarus, a town on the banks of the Pripyet River, about 100 miles northwest of Chernobyl. His mother was pregnant with his younger sister; his father, an engineer, was called up for military reserve duty. The family feared he might be deployed to the nuclear plant, but he was sent in a different direction.

The explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine covered large swaths of the western Soviet Union with radioactive material. Around 30 people died at the time, many more individuals died later of radiation-induced cancer and other diseases. Over 350,000 people were evacuated from the most severely contaminated areas.

Once news of the nuclear disaster became public, Vogman’s daily life changed drastically.

Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight welcoming children from Chernobyl at Ben-Gurion International Airport
Meir Dahan

“Our basic instructions were to stay inside as much as possible and keep the windows closed,” he recalls. “That meant no more swimming in the river and no more picking berries and mushrooms. In school, we would wipe down the classroom with wet rags during every break, and we were ordered to drink lots of milk because that was thought to be a good antidote.”

With huge quantities of radioactive material in the air, it was considered particularly dangerous to be outside during a rainstorm. “I’ll never forget one time I defied my father and ran around in the forest during the rain,” recounts Vogman. “I was a kid after all and couldn’t resist the temptation. When my father caught me, he almost killed me.”

In 1990, just as the Iron Curtain was being lifted and Jews were being granted permission to immigrate to Israel, Chabad emissaries came to his parents’ home. Several months later, he found himself on a flight to Israel, the first of many organized by Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, which brought a total of 2,878 children to Israel from areas near the nuclear explosion. The initiative, which drew the support of celebrities such as Michael Douglas and Donald Trump, organized 100 flights over 25 years, the last of which arrived in July 2015.

The Chabad mission did not extend to adults, so Vogman left behind his parents and baby sister, not knowing when he would see them again. Fortunately, four of his cousins and two of his classmates were also on his flight, so he didn’t feel as lonely as some of the other, mostly younger children who he recalls crying for the duration of the flight. Nearly 300 children from three separate towns were on board the first two flights heading to Israel that August. 

Hardly anything went according to plan, though.

“We ended up waiting for three days at the airport in Minsk for the planes to arrive,” says Vogman. They later learned that the original pilots “mistakenly told the Soviet authorities our destination was Israel, when they were supposed to have said it was Prague.”

After an extremely bumpy flight, they landed in London but the pilots weren’t allowed to continue on to Tel Aviv. New pilots had to be found quickly.

“I remember this big man coming to the airport to greet us who eventually paid out of his own pocket to bring new pilots to fly the planes,” Vogman says. “Only later did I learn that the man was Robert Maxwell,” the late British media magnate.

On the plane bound for Israel, each boy was presented with a kippa from Chabad, which struck Vogman as odd. “I grew up in a home where I had one grandmother who held a Passover Seder, and we would light candles on Hanukkah, but that was the extent of our Jewish life,” he recalls, “so this was very strange.”

His first recollection of descending from the airplane at Ben-Gurion International Airport was the spectacular color of the sky. “I had never seen anything like it anywhere but in photographs,” Vogman says.

And then there was the unbearable heat. “It was August, and I had departed on a flight from Minsk wearing a long-sleeve shirt and sweater,” he recalls. “When I took my first step out of the plane, there was such a huge blast of hot air that I ran back inside.”

At Kfar Chabad, the Hasidic movement’s community near the airport, the children were given medical examinations to identify any possible ailments resulting from their exposure to radiation. Like nearly everyone in his group, Vogman received a clean bill of health. He spent three months at the village, during which he learned Hebrew. 

According to a Chabad spokesman, about half of the “Chernobyl children” who were brought to Israel were eventually reunited with their parents during the wave of immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.  (Around half of the children remained in Israel, while the remainder either returned to their homes or immigrated to other countries.)

After joining up with his parents and extended family, Vogman eventually moved to Kfar Sava, where he completed high school. After being discharged from the Israel Defense Forces, where he served in a combat unit, he enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He then studied engineering and joined his father in business.

Of the Chernobyl children who came to Israel with Vogman, most remained in Israel. Like Vogman, the majority did not maintain the religiously observant lifestyle they adopted in their time with Chabad. “Maybe three or four remained religious,” he says. “I’m still in touch with the folks at Chabad, and that’s the nice thing about them,” Vogman adds. “They don’t breathe down your neck.”

He hasn’t returned to his childhood home since the disaster, but is considering a visit now. “It had never really crossed my mind until recently,” he says, “but now that our son’s bar mitzvah coming up, I thought it might be a nice idea for a family trip.”