'I Fled the Nazis, Now I'm Fleeing the Russians': Jewish Refugees From Ukraine Find Shelter in Moldova

Anna Kalinichenko, who escaped the Nazis as a young girl, is among 280 Jewish refugees who have found sanctuary. For some, the next stop is Israel

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Chisinau, Moldova
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Ukrainian citizens crossing into Poland on Sunday.
Ukrainian citizens crossing into Poland on Sunday.Credit: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Chisinau, Moldova

CHISINAU, Moldova – When the German army closed in on their shtetl near the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, Anna Kalinichenko and her family took flight. They were on the run for three months before they found a safe hideout in the Ural Mountains more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) to the east. On the way there, in their horse and buggy, her father showed her how to manage the reins.

“He told me I’d need to know how to do this if he was killed,” she says. “I was only 9 years old.”

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Now Kalinichenko is on the run again after the Russian invasion late last week. A few days ago she concluded that it was no longer safe to stay in her home in Vinnytsia southwest of Kyiv.

“Until the last minute I would never have believed the Russians could do something like this,” says Kalinichenko, who is about to turn 90. “But as soon as I heard the explosions, I knew nothing good could come of this.”

On Tuesday, her relatives drove her to Mohyliv-Podilskyi, a town near the Moldovan border, and there she boarded a bus filled with other Jewish refugees trying to escape Ukraine. “As a child I fled the Nazis, and now I'm fleeing the Russians,” she says.

Anna Kalinichenko, who fled the Nazis when she was 9.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv, IFCJ

Kalinichenko, an engineer, is among 280 Jewish refugees from Ukraine being housed in a temporary shelter here in the countryside, operated by the Joint Distribution Committee and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group that raises money from evangelical Christians. The shelter, which usually serves as a Jewish summer camp, is currently filled to capacity.

“Given the influx of Jewish refugees crossing the border, we have had to look for other housing solutions for them,” says Benny Haddad, director of the International Fellowship’s aliyah department. “Right now we have enough rooms around the country to accommodate 600 people.”

An estimated 5,000 Ukrainian Jews have crossed the border into Moldova since the Russian invasion, most of them in recent days.

Making aliyah

The refugees being housed at this shelter, about 30 kilometers from the Moldovan capital Chisinau, include both organized groups from the big cities of Odessa, Kharkiv and Dnipro, and individuals and families who arrived on their own.

About half, Haddad says, plan to immigrate to Israel, with a few dozen already booked on a flight due to depart on Sunday. It's the first of three flights carrying a total of 300 Ukrainians immigrants scheduled to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport that day.

Kalinchenko has five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren in Israel and says she's tempted to join them now. “But I still haven’t made a final decision.”

The mess hall here is packed at lunchtime. Big bowls of steaming hot soup, as well as large plates of roast chicken and rice, are set on the tables and devoured quickly. In the large crowd, it's easy to miss the tiny baby snuggled in a cushion on a chair right next to her mother.

“I had her, and the next day the war started,” says Flora Bonzela, pointing to the 9-day-old infant. “I was supposed to breastfeed, but I couldn’t because all my milk was gone from being under so much stress. We had to spend night and day in the basement, and it was really difficult.”

Flora and her husband Francisco, who was born and raised in Angola, arrived at the shelter the night before following a day-long journey from their home in Vinnytsia. Their next destination, she says, is Israel.

The Bonzela family pictured at a refugee center in Moldova in early March. Flora Bonzela is holding her 9-day-old baby.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv, IFCJ

“To tell you the truth, we’ve wanted to apply for aliyah for a long time, but my husband was working and I was pregnant, and my pregnancy wasn’t going well, so we couldn’t go,” she says. “Now it’s finally possible.”

First time out of Odessa

Yosef Azriel Sverdlov, a choreographer with a bushy red beard, isn't thinking about aliyah, not right now at least. “I want my home, my bed, and my work,” he says as he steps outside for a cigarette.

He, his wife and their four children arrived here the night before after a 20-hour journey from their home in Odessa. Joining her father outside is 13-year-old Yasmin Rivka, his eldest child, who speaks perfect Hebrew. She says she learned it at the Jewish school she attends in Odessa.

“Before we got here we spent six days in a room without any windows to keep ourselves safe from the explosions,” says Yasmin Rivka, who offers to share an account of the family's recent experiences. “So when my parents told us we were leaving, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wanted to get away from all the bombings and sirens. On the other, I didn’t want to leave my friends.”

Yosef Azriel Sverdlov, a choreographer, and his daughter. Credit: Judy Maltz

Yasmin Rivka, who dreams of becoming a psychologist, says she figured out a way to keep her younger siblings calm during the sirens. “I told them this was all a game and that if they stopped crying I’d serve them apple-strawberry juice when it was over. It really worked.”

Gavriel Olshaneckiy, 14, arrived at the shelter three days ago with his mother and a friend of hers. “Neither me nor my mom wanted to leave Odessa, but my mom was persuaded by her friends that we had to get out because the situation was getting more and more dangerous,” he says.

Although they’ve started looking for an apartment to rent in Chisinau, he says their long-term plans are still unclear. “Maybe we’ll go to Israel or Germany,” says the teenager, who has long sidelocks and ritual fringes, tzitzit, hanging out of his shirt.

This is the first time that Sonia Chaya-Mushka Shapiro, 16, has ever left Odessa, and she most definitely did not want to. “I feel I need to be there because it’s my country,” she says. “Buy my parents decided it wasn’t safe to be there anymore.”

She admits she already misses her friends and her dog, who was left behind in a kennel. “My parents promised that if things get really bad, we'll go back to Odessa to get him.”

Her family is considering going to Israel, but not for the long term. “We're not thinking of aliyah,” she says.

Zeev and Shoshana Wolf, also from Odessa, had been considering aliyah for a while. Their one son, Leonid, moved to Israel four years ago and now lives on a kibbutz in the center of the country.

Zeev and Shoshana Wolf, who had been considering aliyah for a while.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv, IFCJ

“When the war broke out my son called and begged us to come,” says Zeev, a carpenter who has never lived anywhere but Odessa. “We figured this was as good a time as any to make the move.”

On Sunday, Zeev and Shoshana, along with their dog, will be on the charter flight from Chisinau bound for Tel Aviv.

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