How Ukraine’s elderly Jewish refugees are making a life in Israel

The Netherlands-based organization Christians for Israel was appropriately positioned to help fleeing Jewish residents – particularly the elderly – evacuate to Israel from Ukraine.

 ALINA (L) visits Isabella in her Mariupol home during peaceful times before the Ukraine war.  (photo credit: Christians for Israel)
ALINA (L) visits Isabella in her Mariupol home during peaceful times before the Ukraine war.
(photo credit: Christians for Israel)

It’s a hot, quiet day in a small Yeruham cafe, where three tall ladies sit next to my table. They speak a mixture of English and German and attempt to understand the Hebrew-language menu with little success. One of them, who seems to understand a little more Hebrew than her colleagues, asks me in English: “What does gevinat ezim mean? “Goat cheese,” I translate for her and proceed to help her and the others with the rest of their order. From there, the conversation quickly leads to the reason these women are visiting southern Israel – and the answer is that they are not merely tourists.

Indeed, Marie-Louise, Anemone and Alina work for the Netherlands-based organization Christians for Israel, which has helped thousands of Ukrainian Jews move to Israel over the past 25 years. Since the outbreak of the ongoing Ukraine war, Christians for Israel, which has branches in Europe and around the world, was appropriately positioned to help fleeing Jewish residents – particularly the elderly – evacuate to Israel.

The three women were visiting Israel to check up on the elderly Jewish refugees from Ukraine whom they had helped rescue from the violence and destruction, and to see how they have adjusted to their new country. 

Alina, who is from Ukraine, has been working for eight years for the Ukrainian branch of Christians for Israel, led by Koen Carlier, a Belgian national. She helped rescue many of the senior citizens herself. “I personally knew many of the elderly Jewish population of Mariupol,” Alina said in an interview with the Magazine.

Among the Jewish elderly in Mariupol, there were Holocaust survivors and second-generation Holocaust survivors, many of whom required financial assistance to get through each month. Through a unique program, Christians for Israel worked to pair them with private sponsors from countries such as Holland, Austria, Germany and Australia.

 AN ELDERLY woman in her apartment, damaged by a missile explosion in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, May 5.  (credit: Yasuyoshi CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images) AN ELDERLY woman in her apartment, damaged by a missile explosion in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, May 5. (credit: Yasuyoshi CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

In the framework of the organization’s sponsorship program, Alina and her colleagues would deliver food parcels, medications and other items to the Jewish elderly in coordination with the local Jewish community. “We were able to form close relationships with the senior citizens of Mariupol,” she explains. “We didn’t just deliver the food parcels, warm blankets and medication; we would actually sit down over tea and get to know them. This meant everything to them.” 

The Russian destruction of Mariupol

Russia began its eastern and southern Ukrainian offensive on February 24, with the southern seaside city of Mariupol serving as a key Russian target. After 83 days of fighting, on May 17, the Ukrainian forces left standing were forced to surrender, and Russia gained complete control over the city, having killed more than 10,000 civilians, according to the city’s mayor. 

Mariupol’s two synagogues were completely destroyed during the Russian bombardment, including a historic synagogue, originally constructed in 1882. More than 1,500 members of the Jewish community have been scattered, according to Rabbi Mendel Cohen, the city’s Chabad emissary who was instrumental in helping hundreds of Jewish families evacuate. Some of the city’s Jewish residents are missing or dead, others fled to Israel while a few stayed behind. 

“Under Russian attack, people found themselves without electricity, heat, water or gas, as well as no mobile phone or Internet connections. Homes were completely destroyed. People were literally living among the dead. You can’t imagine the hell there,” commented Alina, who requested that her last name not be used due to security concerns.

“During March and April, the aliyah wave to Israel was very intense. We started off with a small van to transport Jewish refugees, which included not only the elderly, to the safety of our base in western Ukraine and then to the Moldovan border. But the numbers of those trying to flee only increased. We eventually purchased a bus and would transport groups of 20, 30 and even 40 people at a time from Mariupol,” Alina recalled.

Christians for Israel would provide the fleeing refugees with clothes, toiletries and luggage. “No one could think straight when they fled and very rarely were they able to bring anything with them,” Alina commented. “Often, the elderly would burst into tears when they would meet me during the rescue missions because I was the first familiar face they saw during the upheaval. I had been to their homes before the war,” she said. 

“This week, we will bring a family of three fleeing from the Donetsk region to Israel – an 89-year-old bed-ridden woman, her daughter and another relative,” said Alina during our July interview. “We will get them the proper medical care, have their papers checked out and taken care of in the Israeli consulate, and get them out on the next flight to Israel.”

 VLADIMIR WITH his war journal, in which he recorded the destruction of his home by Russian strikes. (credit: Christians for Israel) VLADIMIR WITH his war journal, in which he recorded the destruction of his home by Russian strikes. (credit: Christians for Israel)

Escaping Russia's invasion of Ukraine

ALINA IS from Vinnytsia, a city in west central Ukraine that remained somewhat safe during the war relative to the southern and eastern fronts (although deadly Russian missiles struck the city in mid-July). She said that at some point she had five Mariupol refugees staying with her family. “I would tell my family to have their suitcases ready; I even made an evacuation plan for my parents, husband, kids and grandkids. But no one wanted to leave. God placed me to help others who were in greater danger than us.” 

One of the Jewish elderly refugees that Alina helped rescu, and with whom she was able to reunite during her visit to Israel, was Isabella Abramovna, 84, of Mariupol. A widow with no children, her sister had lived with her for several years before her sibling passed away.“Isabella had a beautiful house with many books. She had been a teacher,” Alina said. “I had many visits to her home, where we would drink tea and reminisce. She was so happy for the company.”

The Russian bombings destroyed Isabella’s beautiful house, according to Alina. She was forced to live in a basement without water or electricity. “Isabella survived the siege together with three other families in her neighborhood. They pooled in everything they had left and would cook over a small fire in the backyard,” added Anemone Rueger, the Christians for Israel coordinator of the Holocaust survivors and elderly sponsorship program in Ukraine. 

Initially, Isabella was evacuated via the only open corridor to a city in the separatist area, about 70 km. away. Later, in Russian Taganrog, the local Jewish community took care of the 84-year-old and the other refugees. Isabella’s escape continued via Kazakhstan and Georgia and eventually to Israel, which was organized by Cohen, then the chief rabbi of Mariupol, who currently resides in Israel. 

“I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing,” Isabella said. “I even forgot to bring my glasses.” 

Isabella has only good words to say about Israel. “This country doesn’t owe us anything but has welcomed us so incredibly!” she exclaimed, after settling into a senior citizens’ home in Beersheba. “We should have come much earlier when we were still able to give something to this country. And still, Israel took us in,” she said. “How can this be? On the other hand, our Russian compatriots treated us so horribly.” 

Added Isabella: “Wherever I’ve been, the moment people hear I’m from Ukraine, they have been so helpful. I have experienced so much solidarity. People I met in the supermarket invited me right away to their homes.”

Another elderly Jewish refugee from Mariupol who Alina knew before the war is Vladimir Semyonovich, 74, who had been supported by the Christians for Israel’s sponsorship program. He was also able to escape along a similar escape route to Isabella’s, thanks to Cohen, and was placed in a senior citizens’ home in Beersheba as well.

As a young boy, Vladimir grew up in several orphanages in Mariupol. An elderly, single man, the Jewish community was everything for Vladimir. “He assisted the rabbi and was very active in the Jewish community, helping lead the prayer services” Alina commented. “He felt he was needed.” 

Alina pointed out that Vladimir kept a journal since the war began, chronicling everything that has happened to him, starting with the Russian bombings, how he managed to hide, and how he was able to flee. “When I look at Vladimir, I see how much he has aged since the war. He was delighted that we came to visit, to see someone from his old life whom he knew. I showed him photos of the last few visits that I had with him in his home in Mariupol before the war. He took out his worn journal and showed us his journal entries.”

The women stressed that loneliness was a significant issue for the elderly Jewish refugees. “They’ve been catapulted out of their familiar surroundings, culture and language. Now they have to try and find their way in a completely different country because of such dramatic circumstances,” said Marie-Louise Weissenbock, regional director of Christians for Israel in Europe. 

“It is especially difficult when they don’t have children or grandchildren living here who act as a bridge and support system. We are trying to think of ways we can offer them support in the future, maybe create a visiting program,” added Weissenbock, who is based in Vienna. 

Weissenbock added that the elderly Ukrainian Jews who decided not to make aliyah will often opt to make Vienna their new home. “There’s a Jewish community in Vienna of around 8,000 people, which has taken hundreds of Ukrainian Jewish refugees under their care,” she commented.

“As non-Jewish believers from the nations who read and believe in the Torah and the prophets, we consider it a privilege to not only witness but also actively participate in the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.”

Anemone Rueger, Christians for Israel

Why Christians for Israel help Jews flee Ukraine

RUEGER EXPLAINED that there are several reasons that motivate Christians for Israel to offer their assistance. “As non-Jewish believers from the nations who read and believe in the Torah and the prophets, we consider it a privilege to not only witness but also actively participate in the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.” 

Added Weissenbock: “We are in no way evangelistic or seeking to convert anyone.”

According to the organization’s website, Christians for Israel was established in the Netherlands in 1979 and has developed into a global movement with over 150,000 supporters from all Christian denominations. 

Rueger, a translator who grew up in East Germany under Soviet control and today lives in Magdeburg, Germany, adds that as the granddaughter of a German soldier during World War II, she feels even more compelled to use the opportunities given to her today to help out. 

“In the past, I brought many international groups, especially from the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, to visit Ukraine to get to know the Jewish history and Jewish communities of the country. We have wept at many mass graves in Ukraine that were dug during the winter of 1941-42 when the Holocaust was carried out. We feel it’s our calling to bring comfort to the Holocaust survivors and their descendants. 

“Whenever I flew over Ukraine over the past years, as we were approaching Kyiv, I would look at the wide Dnieper River, where my grandfather’s unit fought, and I would think that while he cannot go to Ukraine to say he is sorry, I can do so.

“I’m privileged to bring food parcels, not bullets. When I come with hand-knitted shawls and blankets from Christian supporters in Europe to Holocaust survivors in Ukraine, I show them that they are supported and remembered by thousands of Christians,” she said. 

While many elderly Jewish refugees fled Ukraine during the recent war, still many more have remained in the war-torn country. Rueger said that Christians for Israel will continue their sponsorship program and cooperation initiatives with other aid organizations and do all they can to support both the Ukrainian Jews who have made aliyah, and those who stayed behind.

“The elderly who have remained in Ukraine are now even more financially strapped than ever before. We will continue our support of local Jewish communities for food parcels, soup kitchens and other immediate community needs.” 

Noted Alina: “Vladimir, Isabella, and other refugees have made aliyah from a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Their journey to Israel was not easy, but they are happy to be living in safety. All they really have left from Ukraine are their memories.” 

Ukraine’s Jewish Population: Statistics & figures

Before the war began last February, there were an estimated 350,000 Jews living in Ukraine, according to a New York Times article that cited data collected by Chabad. Other surveys, like that of Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor and demographer Sergio Della Pergola, have shown that 43,000 people in Ukraine self-identify as Jewish. 

Regarding the number of Holocaust survivors and Jewish elderly in Ukraine, the numbers vary according to different aid organizations. The Joint Distribution Committee has stated the organization serves over 37,000 elderly Ukrainian Jews, including 9,900 Holocaust survivors, through funding from the Claims Conference. The US State Department has reported there are 2,600 Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. 

Christians for Israel stated that their numbers before the Russian-Ukraine war showed 17,000 Jewish elderly in Ukraine who survived the Holocaust, including those who were in camps and ghettos, and those who escaped east to the former Soviet Union. Most of the Jewish elderly prefer to stay in Ukraine, due to the difficult challenges of starting their lives over, according to a representative of the organization. 

Nearly 300 Holocaust survivors from Ukraine have fled to Israel since the Russian invasion according to Reuters. The JDC has evacuated 12,687 Jews from Ukraine since February 24. 

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that in the first half of 2022, more than 12,000 people left Ukraine for Israel under the Law of Return. This is four times the number of new immigrants who arrived in Israel from Ukraine in 2021. This number does not include the many Ukrainian Jews who left the Ukraine and went directly to Europe and other countries.

The Jewish Federations of North America reported in June that 50,000 Jews have been displaced by the war in Ukraine. Most have opted to remain in Europe. 

The author made aliyah from Maine in 2004. She lives in Midreshet Ben-Gurion with her family, where she teaches English and writes in her free time.