An Israeli man has been killed by shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as Russian forces attempted to overrun the coastal city and link up with their forces in the occupied Crimean peninsula, his family announced on Tuesday.
Sergei “Aharon” Botynskaya, a 49-year-old dual Israeli-Ukrainian citizen, and his nephew had gone to the local synagogue on March 24 to try to arrange his family’s evacuation when he was hit by shrapnel from an exploding rocket, his wife Natalia said in a phone call from Chisinau, Moldova.
“It was very scary. Our house was close to Azovstal and there were explosions and Sergei was always looking for a way how to get out of there,” she recalled, referring to the steel plant where a small group of remaining Ukrainian defenders of the city are currently engaged in a last stand against the Russian army.
Now, “I don’t know where his body is,” she mourned.
Two days later, a group of volunteers from the local Jewish community “came to take us and there was heavy fire,” she continued, describing how her family was only ten minutes to gather their belongings due to the heavy shellfire in the area.
Sergei had been connected to the local Jewish community for a number of years and was a “very modest and simple man and pleasant to know,” described Mendel Cohen, the Israeli-born rabbi of Mariupol, whose community, with financial backing from Syrian Jews in New York, has been working to evacuate as many of its members as possible.
Some members of the community have been forced to flee without documents, complicating efforts to obtain citizenship once they have arrived in Israel, he said.
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Natalia, who is not Jewish, said that she and her eight-year-old daughter were in Chisinau for nearly a month before receiving a visa. In a statement released by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is flying the pair to Israel on Tuesday evening, Natalia noted that "Sergei and I got married in a civil wedding and never took care of registering the marriage."
She was eventually able to travel to Israel with the help of an Israeli attorney who has been volunteering her services on behalf of the Mariupol Jewish community. She told Haaretz that she is “very happy that I will finally be able to fly."
It is unclear how many members of the local Jewish community have been killed in Mariupol, where Russian attacks have reportedly killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Last month, chabad.org reported that 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova had died while sheltering in a freezing basement in the city and was buried in a local park.
In early March, Victoria Zinin, a Ukrainian-Israeli from Hadera, travelled back to Mariupol with her husband to rescue her parents from the war.
"We spent no more than five minutes in my mom’s apartment. It’s on the ninth floor and the house was shaking from explosions. We took my mom wearing what she was wearing – a burned sweater – took the documents she was holding in her hands, and just dragged her toward the exit from Mariupol,” Zinin recounted.
In a video clip shared with Haaretz, Zinin’s husband can be seen pushing 75-year-old Lyudmila in a shopping cart, holding a bag from an Israeli grocery-store chain in his hand as they navigate the broken sidewalk in front of a burned-out apartment bloc.
“I saved my mom [but] my dad was lying in a bunker together with the other dead people. The bunker was closed so that the dogs wouldn’t gnaw the bodies, so they didn’t let me see my dad and say goodbye. I gave [the neighbors] my dad’s documents and asked them to bury him. When the ground thawed out, they buried him in the yard,” Zinian told Haaretz.
"Before the war, I promised my mother that when the war comes, I would be there. But the war began, and I was scared to fly. Since March 2, Mariupol was bombed, and only on March 11 I decided to fly. I understood that I would not be able to live on if I did not go and pick up my parents. But, I was late. Dad died on March 12."