CHISINAU, Moldova – The first leg of their 2,300-kilometer, or 1,300-mile, journey to safety began at 7 A.M. on Wednesday.
One hundred Jewish children from a Chabad-run foster home in the Ukrainain port city of Odessa – the youngest one barely a month-and-a-half-old – boarded buses to the Ukrainian-Moldovan border. There, Israeli diplomats waited for them and arranged for them to stay inside the vehicles rather than out in the pouring rain, as they waited to receive their permits to cross the border and escape the conflict in their homeland.
Over on the other side, they switched buses and drove several hours until they were able to find a place that could accommodate such a large group for a hot meal, before setting off for the next leg of their journey: an estimated day-and-a-half on a bus that would take them across the border to Romania, and eventually to their final stop in Berlin.
A group of Israeli journalists caught up with them as they were finishing a simple dinner of plain spaghetti and vegetable soup at a rather unlikely venue: a fancy wedding hall in central Chiinu, the Moldovan capital.
“It was the only place we could find at the last minute to accommodate a group this size,” explained Mendy Wolff, the 25-year-old Chabad rabbi who was put in charge of this transnational rescue operation.
And he had less than a day to plan it all. “I was told on Tuesday that we had a green light to get all these children out of Odessa – which was pretty amazing because many of them have no birth certificates, passports or other documents,” he recounted.
So, who helped? “Who didn’t help?” responded the rabbi. The International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, a philanthropic organization that raises money from evangelical Christians, provided the funding. The Chabad Jewish community of Berlin offered to take in the 100 children, as well as another 20 staffers, until it would be safe enough to return to Ukraine.
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The Ukrainian, Moldovan and European Union authorities agreed to allow the children to pass through borders without the documentation that is usually required. And the Israeli diplomats at the Ukrainian-Moldovan border arranged for their VIP treatment.
The children were set to take off for Germany on Wednesday night, rather than the following morning, to make sure they arrived at their final destination before Shabbat set in.
After spending hours cooped up in buses for most of the day, the children took advantage of their dinner break to stretch their limbs and let off steam. The older ones romped around the celebration hall and rode up and down the building’s elevators, while the younger ones crawled on the carpet. Games and toys were set up on tables around the room for the special guests.
Indeed, for children who had spent the past few days in a war zone, they didn’t seem in the least bit traumatized.
“They have no idea that they’re refugees, at least the younger ones don’t,” said Wolff. “And we tried as hard as we could not to even let them know that there’s a war going on. You have to understand that these are kids who’ve already had to deal with one big trauma in their lives – their parents dying or abandoning them – and we wanted to do everything we could to prevent them from going through another trauma.”
While he was plotting how to get these 100 children out of Ukraine, Wolff experienced his own personal trauma: he was forced to say goodbye to his parents, whom he left behind, not knowing for how long. His father, Rabbi Avraham Wolff, is the chief rabbi of Odessa and has refused to leave so long as there are still Jews left in the city.
The youngest member of the children – month-and-a-half-old Tuvia – doesn’t even have a birth certificate. “His mother showed up at the children’s home when he was a week old, handed him over to Rabbi Wolff, and then walked away and was never heard from again,” explained Gadi Teichman, a representative of the Fellowship who has been assisting with the rescue operation. “This is the second time I’m seeing this child, and it just brings tears to my eyes.”
Chaya-Mushka Babina, 14, said she had mixed feelings about relocating temporarily in Germany. “On the one hand, I’ll miss my parents,” she said. “Even though I don’t live with them, I still see them. But on the other hand, it was starting to get scary where we were so I’m happy we’re getting away.”
Sara Jholodiva, 11, said it was the first time in her life she had ever left Odessa. “I’m excited about seeing new places I’ve never been to before,” she said.
When asked if he didn’t find it ironic that these Jewish children would be finding refuge in, of all places, Germany, Wolff responded: “I don’t want to say anything that might smell of politics. All we want is for these kids to be safe and for there to be peace.”