HANNOVER, Germany – His earliest memories are of hearing rumors about the escape of bombs or the massacre of other Jews, including his relatives. The Soviet Union sheltered them, they survived.
Now, old and fragile, the survivors of Ukraine’s Holocaust are once again escaping war, on a glorious journey that has turned the world upside down: they are seeking safety in Germany.
For 88-year-old Galina Palushenko, it was a decision without panic.
“They told me that Germany was my best option. I told them, ‘I hope you are right,'” he said.
Ms Palushenko is set to benefit from a rescue mission run by Jewish groups trying to pull Holocaust survivors out of the war that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Bringing these minors out of the war zone by ambulance is a dangerous task, with historical irony: not only are Holocaust survivors being brought to Germany, but the attack is now coming from Russia – a country. They saw the Nazis as their liberators.
One week ago, Ms. Plushchenko was trapped in her bed at a retirement center in her hometown of Dnipropetrovsk, in central Ukraine, when artillery flashes and air strikes sirens sounded. The nurses and retirees who could walk ran to the basement. He was forced to lie down in his third floor room, with a deaf woman and a dumb man lying on the bed like him.
“For the first time, I was a child, with my mother as my protector. Now, I feel very lonely. It’s a terrible experience, a traumatic experience,” she told a senior care center in Hanover, northwestern Germany. I said calmly after three days of traveling.
To date, of Ukraine’s 78 weakest Holocaust survivors, of which about 10,000 have been evacuated. One evacuation takes about 50 people, which is coordinated across three continents and five countries.
For the two groups coordinating the rescue – the Jewish Claims Conference and the American Joint Distribution Committee – persuading only survivors such as Ms. Plushenko to leave is not an easy sale.
The weakest and oldest people have contacted who have refused to leave the house. Those who wanted to go had many questions: What will happen to their medicine? Were there Russian or Ukrainian speakers? Can they take their cat? (Yes, as it turned out.)
Then the strangest question of all was: Why Germany?
“One of them told us: I will not be evacuated to Germany. I want evacuation – but not Germany,” said Rodiger Mahlo of the Claims Conference, who works with German authorities in Berlin to organize the rescue. ۔
Established to discuss Holocaust restoration with the German government, the Claims Conference maintains a detailed list of survivors commonly used for the distribution of pensions and health care but now It provides a way to identify people for evacuation.
For a number of reasons, Mr. Mahloo told them, Germany understood. It could easily be reached by ambulance via Poland. It has a well-funded medical system and a large population of Russian speakers, including Jews from the former Soviet Union. And his organization has deep ties with government officials there after decades of restoration talks. Israel is also an option for those who can fly there.
Ms Palushenko now has “nothing but love” for Germany, although she still remembers “everything” about the last war in which she survived – her mother wrapped her arms around her body. From scarves, to a single piece of clothing at one point, to a radio bulletin. He was informed that thousands of Jews, including an aunt and two cousins, had been killed in mobile gas wagons, which locals called “Doshigbka” or “assassins”.
Her father, who had gone to fight the Soviets, disappeared without a trace.
“I was not afraid of Germany,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop thinking: Dad died in that war. My cousins were killed in that war.
Ms Palushenko believes she, her mother and her five aunts escaped singing – whether they were working in the cotton fields in Kazakhstan, where they found temporary shelter, or in a roofless apartment after the war. Wrapped under umbrellas.
“We’ll sing along to the radio,” she recalls with a smile. “That’s what saved us. We sang everything, whatever it was – opera, folk songs. I really want to sing, but I don’t know if I can sing now. I don’t have a voice for that.” Instead, I remember all the times I sang before.
Sitting between pillows in a sunny room at the AWO Senior Center, Ms. Plushchenko is directing music to her mind with a trembling hand. As the caretaker moves in and out, she follows the German phrases she carefully recorded on Notepad: “Danke Schön, thank you very much.” “Alles Liebe,” he said.
Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference, said: “In all this horror scheme, about 70 people do not seem to be enough.” “But what we have to do to get these people to safety in Germany, one by one, by ambulance, by ambulance, is incredibly important.”
Such evacuations are inevitably hampered by logistical hurdles with nail-biting moments. As soon as the fighting broke out, ambulances were sent back from the check posts. Others have been confiscated by soldiers for use on their wounded. Facing the damaged roads, drivers instead of driving their ambulances through the jungle.
Most logistics issues are handled 2,000 miles away, with the leader of the medical evacuation team, Penny Meritsky, sitting in the Joint Distribution Committee’s living room in Jerusalem. The JDC, a humanitarian organization, has a long history of evacuations, including the smuggling of Jews out of Europe during World War II. For the past 30 years, its volunteers have been working to restore the lives of Jews in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine.
Russia-Ukraine War: Significant Progress
Mr Meritsky and others are contacting rescuers inside Ukraine, once helping them in an apartment that survived a shivering temperature of 14 degrees with its windows shattered. In another case, he assisted rescuers who spent a week evacuating survivors in a fierce village.
“There are more than 70 of these stories now, every one of them,” he said.
For Mr. Meritsky, the operation feels personal: a Ukrainian Jew who emigrated to Israel, his great-grandfather Babin Yar, also known as Babi Yar, was killed in a gorge in Kyiv Where tens of thousands of people were snatched and pushed to their deaths. From 1941 to 1943 he was shot with machine guns. The memorial to the massacre in Kyiv was hit by Russian missiles in the early days of the attack.
“I understand the pain of these people, I know who they are,” said Mr Meritsky. “These scenes, these stories now – in a way, it seems like life is moving in a whole circle. Because so many of these stories have become reality.
At least two Holocaust survivors have been killed since the start of the war in Ukraine. Last week, 91-year-old Wanda Obedkova, Died in a basement During the siege of Mariupol in 1941, she escaped from the Nazis in a dungeon that captured and killed 10,000 Jews in the same town.
For 87-year-old Vladimir Peskov, who was evacuated from Zaporizhzhia last week and now lives under the hall in Ms. Ploschenko’s home in Hanover, this circular sense of World War II has made his life miserable.
“I feel a kind of despair, because history seems to be repeating itself,” he said, sitting in a wheelchair, shaking a cup that belonged to his mother – one of those few memories. The one they brought to Germany.
Yet it has also found a measure of closure.
“Today’s war has dispelled all negative feelings about Germany,” he said.
Just outside his room, a group of recent survivors from the eastern city of Kramatosk sat around a table in the sunny kitchen of the house. He expressed regret at the thought of fleeing the war again. But he refused to share his views with a Western newspaper reporter.
“You won’t tell the truth,” said one man, looking the other way.
Their reluctance reflects the most painful part of this second deportation, especially for those from the Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine: it is one thing to reconsider one’s view of Germany, Russia. It is another thing to recognize him as an aggressor.
“My childhood dream was to buy a motorbike and a piano and go to Moscow to see Stalin,” said Ms Ploshenko. “Moscow was the capital of my homeland. I loved to sing, ‘My Moscow, my country.’ It’s hard for me to believe that this country is now my enemy.
Turning over a picture book, he posed in a bathing suit on the beach in Sochi, pointing to pictures of his little self, the waves crashing around him.
“Sometimes I wake up and forget I’m in Germany,” he said. “I woke up, and I was back on a business trip to Moldova, or Uzbekistan. I was back in the Soviet Union.
But for the rest of his days, Germany will be his home. He said it was an idea he had now reconciled with. “I have nowhere else to go.”