Ukrainian Holocaust Survivors Flee for Their Lives a Second Time

Well into their 80s, the refugees finding themselves in Israel say this time around, the experience is more palpable, and some experts estimate there may be thousands more Holocaust survivors who have been forced to flee Ukraine

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Koren, while escaping Ukraine
Koren, while escaping Ukraine
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

It’s the second time in her life that Rosita Shakhnovska (Tifris) has been made a refugee. On the eve of the German invasion of Kyiv, at just six years of age, she fled with her mother by train to Georgia, where they hid for the rest of the war. Last month, at the age of 86, she made the journey from Kyiv to Israel by way of Moldova. Here, far from the Russian rockets and missiles, she and her family hope to find some peace.

“It was a great miracle that we managed to get out,” Shakhnovska tells Haaretz. “Now, 80 years later, history repeats itself,” she says as she recounts the story of her second flight from Kyiv after the Russian bombing of the city began.

Shakhnovska isn’t the only Ukrainian to have become a refugee for the second time in their lives. Many Ukrainians of her generation have been through the same experience. According to the Claims Conference, of the 15,000 Ukrainians who have come to Israel since the war began, 107 are Holocaust survivors – 30 of them already receiving assistance in Israel, while 70 others have gone to Germany. The numbers are preliminary, based an estimate made by the Claims Conference, which believes that there are some 10,000 Holocaust survivors in Ukraine.

Rosita Shakhnovska at a refugee camp last monthCredit: Courtesy of the family

According to the welfare workers in Israel assisting the refugee survivors, they are suffering not just from the trauma of the war and the Holocaust, but the trauma of emigration. They are all Russian speakers in their 80s and are now scattered throughout Israel, most of them in absorption centers and others with their families. Three months ago, they would have never imagined they would be spending their remaining years in another country.

In 1941, Shakhnovska was saved thanks to her younger brother, who insisted that their mother take her and leave immediately. That was on June 21, on the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Her brother, Semyon Tifris, was 17 years old when he was killed, along with tens of thousands of other Jews from the area, not long afterward in Babyn Yar.

Their mother, Brukha Grashkonova Tifris, didn’t want to leave. She didn’t believe that the fighting would reach Kyiv or that the Jews would have any problems. Fortunately, her youngest son was assertive enough to change her mind. She and her daughter fled just a day before the Germans began to shell the city on what may have been the last train to leave Kyiv. Had her mother waited a moment longer, perhaps Rosita Shakhnovska wouldn’t be sitting here today telling her story.

Shakhnovska in Israel this month. “I felt safe in Kyiv, many of my friends had stayed there,” she said.

Over the years, Shakhnovska’s family had asked her to join them in Israel, but she wanted to remain in Kyiv with her friends. After the war began in February, her son Alexander (an Israeli who lives in Kyiv) and her granddaughter (who lives in Canada) renewed their pleas. “[Rosita and Alexander] packed their bags several times, but they couldn’t believe that the Russians would bomb the city,” says one of her relatives.

“When the bombs began to fall closer to Kyiv and the air raid sirens went from once a day to five or six times a day," Alexander recalls, "I decided it was time for me to get her out.”

Even though her mother’s decision to flee back in 1941 had saved their lives, Shakhnovska was afraid to leave her hometown in 2022. “When the war began I wanted to return to Israel, but I couldn’t leave without her. She said to me, ‘You can leave and I’ll stay behind,’” recalls Alexander.

“I felt safe in Kyiv, many of my friends had stayed there,” Shakhnovska explains. “Because I have some health issues, I was afraid of what would happen to me during the journey. I was afraid that the Russians would shoot at our convoy. I was afraid that we wouldn’t manage to get across the border. But as soon as I heard the first bombs fall on the town, I began to tremble and decided finally that we would leave.”

A view from the bus during Rosita's escape, March.Credit: Rosita Shakhnovska

Shakhnovska and her son packed a small bag with some documents, medicines and a few clothes, and took a bus to the Moldovan border. “It’s only now that I understand what my mother felt back then, and how she couldn’t believe that she would have to leave the city, because I didn’t believe that we would have to leave either,” says Alexander.

After a two-day journey, they arrived in Israel. But their travails weren’t over yet. Shakhnovska landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on a day when it was jam-packed with Ukrainian refugees. The images that circulated that day of refugee families waiting at the airport led to severe criticism in Israel about its preparedness and whether the state truly wanted to take in refugees. One of those images was of Shakhnovska fainting shortly after her arrival. She didn’t even manage to collect the passport that was waiting for her. From the airport, she went to her son’s home, but that same evening she felt ill and was hospitalized in Netanya’s Laniado Hospital.

“In 1941, I was a child. I didn’t understand anything. The fear back then was different, but now I’m leaving my life behind and starting a new life,” she says of her second time around as a refugee. “Then we hated the Nazis who invaded our country; now we don’t understand where this hatred against us has come from. We don’t know how to take it. We just can’t figure it out.”

Shakhnovska has been with her family in Israel for almost two months and is experiencing the difficulties of absorption. “Starting a new life from scratch without anything at the age of more than 80 is very difficult,” explains Sona Schwartz, a social worker from Foundation for the Welfare of Holocaust Victims, which is assisting the survivor refugees. Last week, she made house calls to several of the survivors to see what their needs are.

“They face a new culture, a new language, new bureaucracy. People their age find it difficult to adapt to change. Most of them aren’t healthy. They have to deal with the trauma of fleeing home and the recognition that nothing will be as it once was. They feel confused about how things work. Some of them have family in Israel, but they can’t give them the close attention that they need. They have their own families to take care of and work to worry about, and the survivors have complex emotional needs that need to be taken care of,” says Schwartz.

Another Holocaust survivor that Schwartz is taking care of lives not far from the Shakhnovsky family home. It’s easy to spot the house at the end of the street because a Ukrainian flag flies proudly from the roof. Eduard and Tatiana Fuchs are staying there at the moment. Their immigration papers are in reach on a cabinet in the bedroom. It seems they have yet to find their place.

Eduard, 82, was eight months old when his family fled Kyiv 1941. “I don’t remember how we felt back then when we fled, but this time I can really feel it,” he says about the experiences of the past month.

Fuchs during his escape from Ukraine, March.Credit: Eduard Fuchs

Before the Germans began to bomb Kyiv as part of Operation Barbarossa, he and several family members left the town and headed to Chechnya in the Caucasus. His mother told him that locals murdered some of the family and that only the two of them, and his half-sister, survived. Fuchs doesn’t know how they survived; his mother never told him. Somehow, they managed to get to Russia where they lived in a cow shed that had been converted to house refugees. He lived in Russia until he was four.

Fuchs doesn’t remember much of what happened, but when his daughter Tanya tells the story of how the family fled, which she had heard from her grandmother, the tears well up, and he remembers the family that is no longer. Like many of the Jews of the area, some of his relatives were murdered in Babyn Yar. Still, if it was up to Fuchs, he wouldn’t have come to Israel. “I never thought about it, I never considered it,” he says. “If it is up to me, as soon as the war is over, I’ll return to Ukraine.”

A tanner by profession, Eduard came to Israel with his daughter after a four-day trip, leaving behind property and a car they abandoned in Poland. All they took with them was suitcases, two dogs and a Sphynx cat that they had to have put down during their journey. His daughter says that he is worried about his grandchildren, who remained behind. When they get to Israel, it will make things much easier for him. Her son has Israeli citizenship and her daughter was planning to emigrate even before the war, but like many Ukrainians her husband has not been allowed to leave. “My heart is there and my thoughts are there. If the kids had been able to reach Israel, everything would have looked different,” says Tanya.

Fuchs in Israel, this month. “When you hear about the bombings, read the news and see that how Kyiv and Mariupol are no longer... you understand that you have to leave," he says.

“When you hear about the bombings, read the news and see that how Kyiv and Mariupol are no longer, that everything has been destroyed, you understand that you have to leave,” says Eduard. He and his daughter hid for a week in a basement in the Kyiv region, and it was from there that they began to look into how they could make their way to Israel.

“In Ukraine I received my higher education and entered a profession. Now I’m coming to Israel with nothing at the age of 57. I can’t learn a language, and it will be hard for me to find a new profession,” says Tanya.

They are currently living with family, but they know they won’t be able to stay with them forever and they will need to find an apartment in Netanya. “I’m very happy to be here, even though our financial situation there was very good, and Israel is very expensive. Here, we feel like we’re almost poor.”

“I was always lucky,” says Vadim Koren, 85, who is also a refugee for the second time in his life. Koren Hebraicized his name from Kornyushin when he immigrated to Israel. He has left behind a distinguished career as a professor of zoology, specializing in parasitology.

When he was four years old, two months after the Germans captured Kyiv, Kornyushin managed to get on a train that the Soviet government had arranged to evacuate academics. His eldest sister, who was married to a mathematician, registered him as her son, and that was how he managed to get on the train together with his other siblings and his mother. His father, who wasn’t Jewish, remained in Kyiv for work.

Vadim Koren in Israel, this month.

They began their journey as six people but finished it as five after his three-year-old niece died of food poisoning. “Our escape was very difficult. The first time we got to the train station, the Nazis shelled it, and the train didn’t leave. The second time we got there, the train was so packed that me and one of my sisters had to get in through the window. I don’t remember much of the journey, I only remember that my father bid farewell to us and that he had bought us crackers that are like matzos so that we had something to eat. The journey took almost two months.”

Their destination was Magnitogorsk, almost 2,000 miles from Kyiv in the southern Urals, where one of his sisters lived. “I don’t remember much of the journey, but I remember when I was hungry I would be told to read a book to forget about it.”

Kornyushin lost two of his sisters and his father during the Nazi occupation. His father had hidden a Jewish woman in his house. The three were murdered toward the end of the war, most likely in Babyn Yar.

Koren, while escaping Ukraine

“I remember the journey back to Kyiv. We returned on a freight train. It was spring, it was warm. I remember there was a sort of window on the roof of the carriage and I would lie down and look up, listening to the birds and looking at the trees. It was a very positive and exciting feeling. It really warmed me up. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a zoologist.”

After the war, he returned with the remnants of his family to Kyiv. The city was completely destroyed. His house, near the opera, was housing actors at the time. Kornyushin studied zoology and amassed a collection of hundreds of thousands of parasites. He built a family in Ukraine and never gave a thought to leaving for Israel.

“My work was very important to me. I worked in the same place for 60 years. I did my entire professorship here, I had students and a scientific career. I never thought of leaving. I worked there until my last day,” he says.

Despite his harsh early years, Kornyushin is a natural optimist. His relatives say he never believed that the Russians would invade Kyiv. “He said, ‘I’ll stay in Lviv for a few days, and it will be over,’” says his niece Tanya Berkovic, with whom he is now living. Kornyushin’s daughter in law worked in the Israeli embassy in Ukraine and asked him to leave before the shelling started. When it began, he went to live with his niece so that she could help him make it to the bomb shelter. Thus, when it came time to flee Kyiv, all he had was a small bag containing some clothes and a few documents. “He came to Israel with the same clothes that he left the house with,” says his niece.

When his niece and two of his great grandchildren decided the time had come to flee Kyiv, they joined a convoy of cars. But all the bridges were blocked and they had to turn back. A day later, they got on a bus to Ternopil, where refugees were taking shelter in a mall. He slept on a mattress on the floor. From there, he went on to Lviv. Due to an error he didn’t get on a bus that had been organized by the Jewish Agency and ended up waiting for hours.

“They spent eight hours standing out in the cold at the border crossing,” says Berkovic. As a result, Kornyushin suffered hypothermia. Only after his family intervened and got the Jewish Agency involved was he taken to a hotel in Lviv, where he received medical attention. A day later he got on the Jewish Agency bus and crossed the border.

“I said to him on WhatsApp, ‘Are people around your speaking Hebrew? Are you on the right bus?’ We were very stressed and didn’t sleep for nights. It’s unbelievable that he managed to do it at his age,” says Berkovic.

“There is a very great physical difficulty in being a refugee,” Kornyushin concludes. “But psychologically, things are most difficult – the loss of your home, the place you lived in, your nest.”

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