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Story Publication logo September 7, 2022

Holocaust Survivors Fleeing Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Find Safety in Unexpected Place

an aerial shot of ruined buildings in war-torn Ukraine

In Ukraine, elderly Jewish citizens threatened by the war with Russia are being evacuated. As...

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Video by PBS NewsHour. Ukraine, Germany, 2022.

Millions have fled Ukraine in the six months since Russia's invasion started. Among them, hundreds of elderly Holocaust survivors who are refugees once again in their lives. As Nick Schifrin discovered, some are finding refuge in a most unlikely place. This story is in partnership with Retro Report and the Pulitzer Center.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund coverage of global conflicts. Help us continue funding the hard costs of in-depth coverage of the Ukraine invasion—including travel, hostile environment safety training, and the increased security expenses that arise from reporting in war zones.

Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Millions of people have fled the war in Ukraine, among them, hundreds of elderly Holocaust survivors. They are becoming refugees once again as they near the end of their lives. More than 80 have been rescued in special evacuations sponsored by a collaboration of international organizations.

And, as Nick Schifrin discovered, some are finding refuge in a most unlikely place.

This story is done in partnership with Retro Report, the WNET Group's Exploring Hate initiative, and the Pulitzer Center.

Nick Schifrin: In the early days of the Russian invasion, with bombs and uncertainty raining, millions of Ukrainians scrambled for safety.

They fled their homes hoping to escape to neighboring countries. And, along the way, many stopped in Rabbi Moshe Azman's Kyiv synagogue; 92-year-old Rahyl Entina worried about her nephew and grandson, who stayed behind.

Rahyl Entina, Refugee (through translator): We don't know what will happen to them. These Russians, please tell me, how can they have no shame? How can they have no shame?

Nick Schifrin: One person who managed to escape with her, her daughter, Larisa Pogosava.

Larisa Pogosava, Refugee (through translator): It was scary when we were traveling through Ukraine. I had only seen these sorts of things in movies. I felt anxiety and fear that we were in danger.

Nick Schifrin: They secured a coveted spot on an evacuation bus to Moldova with other Ukrainian families. And, for the second time, Entina was forced to leave Ukraine and become a refugee.

In 1941, her family fled the Nazi army.

Rahyl Entina (through translator): Me, my mother, grandmother and my twin sister, we left on a train, but no one told us anything about where we were going. There were people left in Babyn Yar.

Nick Schifrin: Babyn Yar, this ravine here in Kyiv, in September 1941, the Nazi seized this city, and over a 36-hour period, Nazi soldiers marched tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews here, killed them with machine gun fire, and dumped them in a mass grave.

That was one of the first large-scale massacres of Jews in World War II. During the war, German troops and local collaborators killed a million-and-a-half Ukrainian Jews, gunning them down in fields and ravines in what is known as the Holocaust by Bullets.

This year, many Holocaust survivors feared for their safety. Their lives became bookended by war.

Greg Schneider, Claims Conference: These Holocaust survivors, these Jews were abandoned by the world as children, as the Nazis were coming for them, to murder them, and they had to flee, and so we had to rescue them.

Nick Schifrin: Greg Schneider heads the Claims Conference, which provides financial assistance to Holocaust survivors. They partnered with the Jewish aid agency the Joint Distribution Committee to call thousands of survivors.

Pini Miretski arranged medical evacuations for survivors who were in ailing health or unable to get out on their own.

Pini Miretski, Joint Distribution Committee: How can we explain to a person who's maybe frightened at 80-plus or 90 years old they need to leave their homes?

Nick Schifrin: Evacuating the elderly during a war requires a small army of supplies and people, like the Claims Conference's Ruediger Mahlo.

Ruediger Mahlo, Claims Conference: You had to evacuate them with an ambulance because they're so fragile. So where do you get an ambulance in a country of war, where 90 percent of the ambulances are confiscated by the army?

Nick Schifrin: Among the Holocaust survivors needing medical attention was Samoil Slobodskiy. Early in the war, he insisted on staying, but, in June, during a moment of calm, he decided he needed to escape. He brought only himself and his sense of humor.

"How do you feel?" the driver asks.

Samoil Slobodskiy (Refugee): Age appropriate, 85 and then some.

Nick Schifrin: Slobodskiy faced a host of medical conditions and traveled by ambulance across Ukraine with a doctor.

Person (through translator): We will take two stops, possibly three, depending on the state of the patient. Then the next crew will take him to Dusseldorf.

Nick Schifrin: Dusseldorf, Germany, may seem like the last place to evacuate a survivor of Hitler's genocide. But nursing homes across the country opened their doors to Holocaust survivors, with the support of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Greg Schneider: If you had asked us a year ago if we thought that there would be evacuation of Holocaust survivors from the Ukraine to Germany, we would have laughed. No one would have imagined it.

Ruediger Mahlo: How should you communicate it to the survivor that we will evacuate you to a country that over 75 years ago was persecuting you and wanted you to be dead? It was not an easy sell.

Tatyana Zhuravliova, Refugee (through translator): I somehow believed it would be OK. On the journey, I was scared of what was going on around me. I was shaking on the way.

Nick Schifrin: Tatyana Zhuravliova and Larisa Dzuenko were evacuated from Kyiv in March. After 26 hours of travel, they finally arrived in Frankfurt.

They now live in this nursing home and share a room and memories of escape from the Nazis.

Larisa Dzuenko (through translator): My mother was Jewish, and my father was a journalist. He said that the Germans don't love the Jews, so you all need to go away. And he sent us to Uzbekistan.

Tatyana Zhuravliova (through translator): I was 2 years old when the war started. What they told me was that I climbed under the table and said to my mother, let's get in the hole. So I already knew that there were some kind of bomb shelters where you needed to hide in.

Wendy Lower, Claremont McKenna College: One out of every four victims of the Holocaust who died, died on what is the terrain of Ukraine today.

Nick Schifrin: Historian Wendy Lower has been studying the Ukrainian Holocaust for three decades.

Wendy Lower: The Holocaust in Ukraine occurred in a way that was incredibly rapid, a direct assault that was perpetrated primarily in a kind of military-style so-called security operations, which were mass shootings and mobile gas vans.

We have discovered at least 1,000 mass murder sites.

Larisa Dzuenko (through translator): In 1941, we fled from the Germans. Now we faced war once more, and now we have come to the Germans so they will protect us. This is the paradox. So maybe there is no such thing as permanent friends or permanent enemies.

Nick Schifrin: As for Larisa Pogosava, she is now living near Frankfurt, but without her mother, Rahyl. A week after they arrived safely in Germany, Rahyl died of COVID-19.

Larisa Pogosava (through translator): Every day in the evening, I think I must call mom. And it's difficult for me, very difficult.

Nick Schifrin: These two-time refugees who were hesitant to leave their homes have been surprised by the community they found in the birthplace of the Nazi Party.

And, despite her grief, Pogosava, too, says she's grateful for the warm welcome she received in Germany, as is Zhuravliova.

Tatyana Zhuravliova (through translator): Everyone received us so warmly and paid a lot of attention to us from the first day. I don't feel like I'm in Germany as a guest of the Germans, but, rather, that I'm here among my own people.

Nick Schifrin: Yet many still want to return to Ukraine, just as they did after World War II.

Larisa Dzuenko (through translator): As soon as the situation improves there, I want to go back home. My motherland is there, you know? That's all.

Nick Schifrin: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

Video by PBS Newshour. 2022.


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