Under fire, Christians help rescue Ukrainian Holocaust survivors

“God will protect and keep safe someone who does a mitzvah.”

 Samuel Chiporniak, a 94 year-old Holocaust survivor from the embattled city of Mariupol, leaving his home for safety in Israel (photo credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)
Samuel Chiporniak, a 94 year-old Holocaust survivor from the embattled city of Mariupol, leaving his home for safety in Israel
(photo credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)

As the war roars on in Eastern Europe, Christians worldwide are making it possible for Ukrainian and Russian Holocaust survivors to escape to Israel. 

This is “the most urgent, massive aliyah operation we’ve ever been involved in,” said David Parsons, vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), which is helping to coordinate the efforts. 

ICEJ, which was founded in 1980, has long partnered with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and Yad Ezra L’Haver (Helping Hand to a Friend) to help Jews make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel. ICEJ has helped bring over 165,000 Jews from 45 different countries to Israel.

Much of ICEJ’s aliyah work takes place in the former Soviet Union where they have sponsored aliyah fairs and summer and winter camps for Jewish children. 

“We’ve sponsored dozens of aliyah flights, and we were very involved in the Soviet aliyah in the 1990s,” Parsons said. “Once they are here, we help them get integrated through programs with the Jewish Agency.”

As such, when the war broke out in that region, ICEJ was poised to assist.

After partnering with Yad Ezra L’Haver for 13 years, assisting in their mission to care for Holocaust survivors, ICEJ is no stranger to working with survivors. During ordinary times, Shimon Sabag, Founder and Managing Director of Yad Ezra L’Haver, runs a Home for Holocaust Survivors in Haifa. The home has approximately 70 residents. A handful of Christian volunteers work alongside the Israeli staff, primarily as nurses and physiotherapists. 

Shimon Sabag rescues a Holocaust survivor in Ukraine (Credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)Shimon Sabag rescues a Holocaust survivor in Ukraine (Credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)

Today, Sabag is in Ukraine, locating and transporting weakened elderly Jewish survivors from their homes to safety and, eventually, to the airport so they can board a flight to Israel.

This aliyah, Parsons said, is “so abrupt and disruptive and disorienting.”

'She did not want to leave her home'

Parsons explained that, working with lists of names that are painstakingly constructed, Sabag and his team must go from one city to another, from one address to another, to locate individual survivors. Sometimes, the city is being barraged by active fire and getting to the survivor is dangerous. 

Once a survivor has been located, it is often a challenge to convince them to leave. Parsons told of one survivor from Kyiv, living near the monument that commemorates the September 1941 massacre at Babyn Yar when close to 34,000 Jews were murdered over two days. 

This woman was living in the same house into which she was born around 1942. 

“In the middle of [WWII], she was born in the home, and she was still living there 80 years later,” Parsons explained. “She did not really want to leave, but her children came with our team to talk her [into it]. 

“Once she decided to leave for Israel, it was very touching for her to talk about the things she saw as a child and the rebuilding of Ukraine [after WWII]," he said. 

Once a survivor has been identified, located and convinced to leave, there is still the challenge of transporting them to safety. For the most part, the survivors are elderly and often living reclusive lives. They rely on walkers or wheelchairs for mobility. Parsons explained that the rescue teams often need specially equipped ambulances or vans to move them.

According to Parsons, another elderly survivor was picked up by the ICEJ/Yad Ezra L’Haver team in Kyiv and taken to the new Israeli field hospital in Lviv because she did not feel well. They discovered a heart failure or blood clots just in time and saved her life. She will need time to recover before coming to Israel.

An elderly Holocaust survivor waits in Lviv after being rescued (Credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)An elderly Holocaust survivor waits in Lviv after being rescued (Credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)
'God is protecting us'

Late last week, ICEJ conducted a webinar with Sabag. 

Asked why he went into Ukraine exactly when most people were trying to escape, Sabag said, “The day before the actual outbreak of the war, I traveled over to Ukraine. Yad Ezra L’Haver was one of the only ones that actually went into Ukraine ahead of this war. 

“It was very dangerous at that time, but I felt I had a calling and a certainty that God would protect me,” he said. It is just incomprehensible to me that 80 years after the Holocaust that Jews are targeted again and so that is why I went over to rescue them.

“Some of the first days were just horrible in terms of humanitarian aid," Sabag continued. "It was just a horrible scene to see hundreds of thousands of people, refugees, running away. I just started buying rations and handing them out to people.”

He said that some of the cities his team has visited have been leveled. 

“We got to Mariupol. There is no water, no electricity, no heating and it was -4 degrees. When we were able to extract [the survivors], it was just an incredible feeling,” he said.

Holocaust survivor Mila Chipornak, 93 from Mariupol, is rescued by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Yad Ezer L'Haver to be brought to Israel (Credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)Holocaust survivor Mila Chipornak, 93 from Mariupol, is rescued by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Yad Ezer L'Haver to be brought to Israel (Credit: Yad Ezer L'Haver)

“One day I asked two Ukrainians to help us get people out from [a small Ukrainian town]. About three hours after, there were Russian soldiers standing on the very bridge of the small town that we [had just evacuated]. And you just see the hope that we gave these people.

“There was one lady we extracted, a Holocaust survivor. She showed us her number from Auschwitz, and she ended up in Krakow and as we extracted her, she was just so thankful. She is actually now back in Israel.”

Some individuals were rescued via stretcher because they were too old to walk. And some were pulled out of their homes under fire.

“When we say that we are ‘extracting’ Holocaust survivors: These are people that live deep in Ukraine, and it is difficult to extract them. We had to have military escorts at times. There is no peace until we take these refugees out of Ukraine into Poland, because it is so dangerous. 

“Some rockets fell around 200 meters away from us and we could hear the explosions,” Sabag recalled. “But despite all the fear and chaos, we did not flinch. We kept on our mission, and we rescued a lot of people. 

He said that he sees “God is protecting us” and believes like it says in the Torah “God will protect and keep safe someone who does a mitzvah.”

“I feel that I helped a lot of people in my life, but I never [before] felt that I helped people, to save their lives,” he concluded. 

Then he praised the work of ICEJ too.

"You guys do an incredible job. And do not mistake: Here in this situation, [with your help], we rescue these people from certain death," he said. “If [ICEJ] was not around to help and support, we could have done none of this. We bought an ambulance with the money that the [Christian] donations provided, and we labeled it with ICEJ stickers because it is important that the world knows that the ICEJ and Christians are helping the Jews. We heard from a lot of people who believed that God … sent us.”

'They should not have to face this again'

Parsons said that Christians are motivated to help elderly European Holocaust survivors to help make amends for the role they played as “willing accomplices” to Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. 

“We know there is a long, bad track record of antisemitism. Our ministry is motivated to try and heal those wounds,” Parsons said. “I do not think there is anyone more worthy of our help than Holocaust survivors today. We want to see them live out their lives in dignity and peace… It is just a horrible thing to think of Ukrainian Jews who witnessed the Babyn Yar Massacre and other atrocities. They should not have to face this again.”