'I would have lived happily' in Ukraine: War forces Holocaust survivors to flee again

  • Thursday is Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
  • Many survivors of the Holocaust living in Ukraine are older, living alone and in need of medical care.
  • To date, 100 survivors of the Holocaust have been medically evacuated from Ukraine.

Larisa Dzuenko still remembers the rats in the house she and her mother lived in after she fled Ukraine the first time in 1941.

Dzuenko was 2 years old when Nazi Germany occupied Ukraine in World War II. Her father, a journalist who died during the war, heard early on about the persecution Jews faced, so she and her mother were among the first to leave.

Evacuating from Kyiv to Uzbekistan, Dzuenko and her mother were hungry and cold when they arrived. They didn't feel welcome in the country, she said, but they were happy to have reached safety.

More than 80 years later, Dzuenko was forced to flee Kyiv again last month as Russian troops shelled her city. But this time, she crossed the country in an ambulance and headed west – to safety in Germany.

As of Thursday, which is Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day, more than 100 survivors of the Holocaust have been medically evacuated from Ukraine since February, when Russia invaded Ukraine. They've escaped thanks to a joint effort by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Dzuenko, 83, hadn't seriously considered fleeing until rescue workers called her to see if she wanted to leave. She immediately agreed. The ambulance came the next day at 9 a.m., and workers helped her pack a bag for the more than daylong journey through Poland and eventually to Germany.

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Larisa Dzuenko, 83, was 2 years old when she and her mother fled from Nazis and her home in Ukraine during World War II. More than 80 years later, she was forced to flee again during the Russian invasion.

Dzuenko, who spoke to USA TODAY through an interpreter from her nursing home in Frankfurt, described very different circumstances surrounding her evacuations from Ukraine in 1941 and in 2022. But in both cases, she said, she feared for her future.

Since the start of the invasion, there have been a number of "emotional triggers," in addition to the dangers of war, that have added layers of stress for Holocaust survivors in Ukraine, said Greg Schneider, Claims Conference executive vice president.

In March, a Russian attack in Kyiv damaged the memorial at Babi Yar, the site where more than 33,000 Jews were killed in September 1941 in one of the worst mass shootings during the Holocaust. In Ukraine, an estimated 1.5 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Holocaust survivors have also faced the violence directly. Borys Romanchenko, 96, was killed in a Russian attack in Kharkiv after surviving Nazi concentration camps, and Vanda Obiedkova, 91, died earlier in April during the Russian siege of Mariupol. Obiedkova had similarly hid in a basement in Mariupol during World War II when the Nazis occupied the city.

Pini Miretski, head of the medical evacuation team for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said the committee's presence in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union has helped create a trust with survivors as they decide whether to flee.

About 10,000 Holocaust survivors were living in Ukraine before the start of the war, and many are living alone and in need of medical care, Miretski said. The committee has helped provide medical care since before the invasion through funding from the Claims Conference, and Miretski said those connections allowed rescue workers to quickly get in touch with survivors who were unable to leave Ukraine on their own.

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The first medical evacuations began in March. Each involves about 15 organizations and 50 people to get the survivor to safety, Schneider said.

"Almost every one of those cases was unique, and we're learning new options as we go," Miretski added.

Each step of the evacuation is crucial, Schneider said. In some cases, survivors needed to be carried down flights of stairs on a stretcher. In others, ambulances are delayed by Russian shelling.

Initially, rescuers had to figure out how the Ukrainian ambulances could cross the border into Poland. Under martial law, most Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have not been allowed to leave the country, and during one of the first evacuations, the driver was not allowed through the border, Schneider said.

Tatyana Zhuravliova, 83, was in an ambulance at the border and said she nervously waited for five hours. After hearing of the delay, Schneider got in touch with the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington and began drafting a letter requesting the vehicle be allowed to pass. Schneider was instructed to tell the driver to try again by turning on the sirens and driving to the front of a line of cars waiting. 

But the ambulance still couldn't get through.

So Schneider called the embassy again. On its second attempt sounding its sirens, the ambulance made it across the border.

"The logistical challenge is tremendous. Luckily, we have the goodwill of many people along the way, and we are relentless," Schneider said.

Once across the border, Zhuravliova was transferred to another ambulance that drove to Germany, where most survivors in the groups' evacuation efforts have gone, Schneider said.

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Ukrainian Holocaust survivor Tatyana Zhuravliova says she has felt welcome after fleeing her homeland for Frankfurt, Germany, after the Russian invasion.

Zhuravliova, who also now lives in Frankfurt, has felt a warm welcome since arriving in Germany but said she misses her home in Ukraine. When she was 2 years old, Zhuravliova and her family fled Odessa as her father's factory moved to Kazakhstan during World War II. 

Zhuravliova and Dzuenko appeared in a video released Thursday by the Claims Conference to mark Yom Hashoah. The video features 100 Holocaust survivors reading a 100-word statement. "We must remember the past or it will become our future," the survivors say in the video.

For Zhuravliova, it has been hard to hear Russian propaganda about its invasion and President Vladimir Putin's comments about "denazification." Expert have said Russia's justification for the war – claiming the Ukrainian government was openly pro-Nazi – is baseless. 

The killings of Bucha were particularly upsetting, she said.

Days before the war started, Zhuravliova said she never would have imagined she would have to flee Ukraine a second time.

Dzuenko shared that disbelief. "I would have lived happily and peacefully in Kyiv if it wouldn't have been for this awful war."

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

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