HANNOVER, Germany — Her earliest memories are of fleeing bombs or whispering about massacres of other Jews, including their relatives. Under the protection of the Soviet Union, they survived.
Now Ukraine’s Holocaust survivors, old and frail, are once again escaping war and embarking on a remarkable journey that will turn the world they knew upside down: they seek safety in Germany.
For Galina Ploshenko, 90, it wasn’t a decision made without hesitation.
“They told me Germany was my best option. I told them, ‘I hope you’re right,'” she said.
Ms. Ploshenko is the beneficiary of a rescue mission organized by Jewish groups trying to rescue Holocaust survivors from the war sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Getting these 90-year-olds out of a war zone by ambulance is dangerous work steeped in historical irony: Not only are the Holocaust survivors being taken to Germany, the attack is now coming from Russia – a country they regard as their liberators viewed by the Nazis.
A week ago, Ms Ploshenko was trapped in her bed at a retirement home in Dnipro, her hometown in central Ukraine, as artillery shells pounded and air raid sirens wailed. The nurses and pensioners who could walk had fled to the basement. She had to lie in her room on the third floor, alone with a deaf woman and a dumb man, bedridden like her.
“The first time I was a child, with my mother as my protector. Now I’ve felt so alone. It’s a horrible experience, a painful one,” she said, comfortably nestled after a three-day trip at a senior center in Hanover, northwest Germany.
To date, 78 of Ukraine’s most vulnerable Holocaust survivors, of whom there are around 10,000, have been evacuated. A single evacuation involves up to 50 people, coordinated across three continents and five countries.
It is not easy for the two groups coordinating the bailouts – the Jewish Claims Conference and the American Joint Distribution Committee – to persuade survivors like Ms. Ploshenko to leave.
Most of the most frail and elderly survivors who have been contacted have refused to leave their homes. Those who wanted to leave had countless questions: What about their medication? Were there Russian or Ukrainian speakers there? Could you bring your cat? (Yes, as it turns out.)
Then there was the most embarrassing question: Why Germany?
“Someone told us: I will not be evacuated to Germany. I want to be evacuated – but not to Germany,” said Ruediger Mahlo of the Claims Conference, who is working with German officials in Berlin to organize the rescue operations.
Established to negotiate with the German government over Holocaust restitutions, the Claims Conference maintains a detailed list of survivors that under normal circumstances is used to distribute pensions and health care, but is now used to identify people for evacuation .
For many reasons, Herr Mahlo told them, Germany made sense. It was easily accessible by ambulance via Poland. It has a well-equipped medical system and a large Russian-speaking population, including Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union. And his organization has a close relationship with government officials there after decades of restitution talks. Israel is also an option for those good enough to fly there.
Ms Ploshenko now has “nothing but love” for Germany, although she still remembers “everything” about the last war she survived – from the scarf her mother wrapped around her body, at one point her only article of clothing, to the radio show that broke the news that thousands of Jews, including an aunt and two cousins, had been killed in mobile gas vans, which locals called “Duschegubka,” or soul killers.
Her father, who fought with the Soviet army, disappeared without a trace.
“I wasn’t afraid of Germany,” she said. “I just couldn’t stop thinking: Dad died in this war. My cousins died in that war.”
Ms Ploshenko believes that she, her mother and five of her aunts survived by singing – whether working in the cotton fields in Kazakhstan, where they found temporary shelter, or in a roofless apartment under umbrellas after the war.
“We sang along on the radio,” she recalls with a smile. “That saved us. We sang whatever was on – opera, folk songs. I really want to sing, but I don’t know if I can anymore. I don’t have the vote for it. So instead I just remember all the times I’ve sung before.”
In the midst of cushions in a sun-drenched room of the AWO senior citizens’ center, Ms. Ploschenko directs the music in her head with a trembling hand. While janitors come and go, she practices the German sentences that she carefully jotted down on a notepad: “Thank you, thank you very much.” “Love, lots of love.”
“Given all this horror, about 70 people doesn’t sound like a lot,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference. “But what it takes to get these people to safety one by one ambulance for ambulances in Germany is incredibly important.”
Such evacuations are inevitably plagued by logistical obstacles with nerve-wracking moments. Ambulances were turned back from checkpoints as fighting flared up. Others were confiscated from soldiers to use on their own wounded. Faced with destroyed roads, drivers have instead navigated their ambulances through forests.
Most logistical issues are resolved from 2,000 miles away, where Pini Miretski, the leader of the medical evacuation team, is seated in a situation room at the Joint Distribution Committee in Jerusalem. JDC, a humanitarian organization, has a long history of evacuations, including smuggling Jews out of Europe during World War II. For the past 30 years, its volunteers have worked to revitalize Jewish life in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Coordinating with rescuers in Ukraine, Mr. Miretski and others once help them reach a survivor who is shaking in an apartment with a temperature of 14 degrees and whose windows have been shattered by explosions. In another case, they were helping rescuers who spent a week evacuating a survivor in a village surrounded by fierce fighting.
“There are now over 70 of these stories, each one like this,” he said.
For Mr. Miretski, this operation feels personal: A Ukrainian Jewish émigré to Israel, his great-grandparents were killed in Babyn Yar, also known as Babi Yar, the gorge in Kyiv where tens of thousands were pushed to their deaths after being stripped and undressed had been shot with machine guns from the years 1941 to 1943. The memorial to these massacres in Kyiv was hit by Russian missiles in the early days of its invasion.
“I understand the pain of these people, I know who they are,” Mr Miretski said. “These scenes, these stories now – in a way, it’s like life comes full circle. Because a lot of those stories came true.”
At least two Holocaust survivors have died in Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Last week, Vanda Obiedkova, 91, died in a basement in besieged Mariupol. In 1941 she had survived by hiding in a basement from Nazis who had rounded up and executed 10,000 Jews in the same town.
For Vladimir Peskov, 87, who was evacuated from Zaporizhzhia last week and now lives down the hall in Ms Ploshenko’s home in Hanover, the circular feeling this second war has given his life is demoralizing.
“I feel a kind of hopelessness because it feels like history is repeating itself,” he said, hunched over in a wheelchair and stroking a mug that belonged to his mother – one of the few souvenirs he brought back to Germany.
But he also found a measure of completion.
“Today’s war ended all the negative feelings I had towards Germany,” he said.
Just outside his room, a group of survivors who had recently arrived from the eastern city of Kramatorsk sat around a table in the home’s sunny kitchen. They loudly deplored the idea of fleeing the war again. But they refused to share their thoughts with a western newspaper reporter.
“You will not tell the truth,” said a man, looking away.
Their reluctance reflects one of the most painful aspects of this second exile, particularly for those from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions: reconsidering one’s view of Germany is one thing, acknowledging Russia as an aggressor is another.
“My childhood dreams were to buy a bicycle and a piano and to travel to Moscow to see Stalin,” Ms. Ploshenko said. “Moscow was the capital of my homeland. I used to love the song “My Moscow, my country”. I find it hard to believe that this country is my enemy now.”
She flipped through a photo book and pointed to pictures of her younger self posing in a bathing suit on the beach in Sochi with the waves crashing around her.
“Sometimes I wake up and forget that I’m in Germany,” she says. “I wake up and I’m back on a business trip in Moldova or Uzbekistan. I’m back in the Soviet Union.”
But Germany will be her home for the rest of her days. In the meantime, she has reconciled herself to this idea, she said. “I have nowhere else to go.”
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