Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, claiming it was on a crusade to “denazify” the former Soviet republic. Russian forces almost immediately began shelling civilian neighborhoods, especially in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
Hunkered in her apartment, with no power and a rapidly dwindling cellphone battery, longtime Hillel Director Yulia Pototskaya attempted to coordinate aid efforts by the city’s Jewish students – many of whom had started enlisting in their country’s Territorial Defense Forces following the invasion.
“From 7 A.M. they started bombing, and we are without lights. I’m in shock, but I believe that our army will save us,” she said in early March. Maybe I can [flee], but I don’t want to. I want to stay in my home. We hope that it will be finished soon.”
By March 2, artillery and missile strikes had destroyed or damaged multiple Jewish sites across Kharkiv. These included the Hillel chapter’s building, which was left in ruins. Afterward, Pototskaya fled over 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, south to Dnipro.
“People have to know about this. They have to know what is going on in Kharkiv and in Ukraine. It’s a war. It looks like Syria,” she later told Haaretz from a cramped apartment in Dnipro, where she and her family – now among the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the war – were staying with friends.
Israeli-born Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski had previously been forced to uproot and relocate his community from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, in 2014. Now, eight years later, with Russian airstrikes pounding Kyiv, he was once again forced to flee.
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He led a convoy of over 32 vehicles, including a number of buses, out of the Ukrainian capital in an attempt to escape the fighting. They were part of a larger exodus of Ukrainians trying to escape what felt, in the early days of the war, like a certain Russian victory. As millions streamed west, the roads leading out of the capital became backed up with cars filled with screaming children, terrified pensioners and wives separated from husbands called up for military duty.
“I don’t even know how it feels,” Vishedski told Haaretz after his escape. “I don’t have time now to think about how to feel. Now I’m working like a machine, simply doing what is necessary to help other Jews. After all of this I will get into thinking how I feel.”
While others were running, the Kyiv Independent’s defense and security reporter Illia Ponomarenko elected to stay behind in the capital. A native of Volnovakha in eastern Ukraine, Ponomarenko – who has been covering the conflict since 2014 – managed to convince his mother to head west before the Russians obliterated the city in March.
“Three out of four cities that I had in my life, or a deep connection with my life, have been destroyed or just filled with blood,” he told Haaretz.
After Russian forces were driven from Bucha, images of the aftermath began to emerge, showing mass graves and streets littered with civilian corpses. Some of them had their hands bound behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads.
“So I collected money for, like, five years” for the apartment, but “that’s basically nothing compared to what many other people have gone through,” Illia reflected.
Watching the war unfold on a television screen in Hadera, central Israel, Victoria Zinin was horrified to see Russian forces surround and bombard her hometown of Mariupol, a port in southeastern Ukraine. Scared for her elderly parents, the 51-year-old immigrant and her husband boarded a flight to Poland and hitchhiked across Ukraine in a desperate effort to extract them from the war zone.
By the time she reached her parents’ apartment, Victoria’s father Anatoly was dead, his body placed in a storeroom to keep it protected from feral dogs. Placing her mother, Lyudmila, in a shopping cart and her possessions crammed into a bag from the Israeli Yochananof supermarket chain, Victoria’s husband proceeded to wheel Lyudmila across the blasted landscape as they made their escape from a city that had been all but destroyed.
Lyudmila’s “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,” Victoria Zinin later recounted.
“I filmed what we saw,” she added, describing how she smuggled her phone, full of videos of Mariupol, past multiple checkpoints. If the Russians had found the video, they would have killed her – but she wanted “to show the world what is going on,” she said.