Holocaust survivor who came to Israel on IFCJ aliyah flight reflects on life

Leonid Cherniakov, an 88-year-old survivor from Ukraine now living in Jerusalem, talks about his past suffering, the harsh reality of antisemitism in the former Soviet Union, and life in Israel.

Leonid Cherniakov and his wife, Yeva, in Kyiv, Urkaine two days before making aliyah (photo credit: INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS)
Leonid Cherniakov and his wife, Yeva, in Kyiv, Urkaine two days before making aliyah
"My life is one big miracle", says Leonid Cherniakov, an 88-year-old man from Ukraine now living in Israel.  "I'm one of the few who survived the Holocaust. Nearly all the Jews of the village I grew up in were murdered. Then another miracle happened, and my wife Yeva and I made aliyah to Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem.”
The second miracle Leonid speaks of came through a Freedom Flight sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), which has supported aliyah for decades, and since its founding in 1983 has helped more than 750,000 Jews make aliyah. Three flights on February 24 brought 186 more Jewish immigrants from Ukraine to Israel, including Leonid and Yeva – paid for and supported through The Fellowship’s bridge-building efforts between Christians and Jews.
As Israel observes Yom HaShoah, it is worth remembering that the suffering Leonid experienced is an all- too-common part of the story for Jews of his generation who grew up in the former Soviet Union. When Leonid was born, he lived with his family on a communal farm in Ukraine. "There were only three non-Jewish families out of a hundred. Even the head of the communal farm was Jewish. It was a pastoral place where everyone knew everyone. We would pray in the synagogue and celebrate the Jewish holidays. Everything was calm - and then the war broke out."
Then only 10 years old, Leonid didn't really understand the magnitude of what was happening as the rumors of the annihilation of Jews in Ukraine and throughout Europe began. "My father was drafted into the Red Army", he says.  "Despite being wounded, he fought until the end of the war.  Ukraine was quickly conquered, and many Jewish communities also suffered a lot from pogroms at the hands of the Ukrainians.  My mother didn't know what to do. At first, we fled to relatives in a nearby town. 
“After a few days, our relatives gave us a wagon with horses, and we started to flee. We reached a bridge where there were lots of retreating Soviet soldiers. The refugees were told that the bridge could only be used by the soldiers. It was my mother's resourcefulness that saved us. We got off the wagon, and she invited the wounded soldiers to get on, so we were able to cross over to the other side of the river. One other boy came with us. All the rest of the residents from our village simply went back. After several years I realized that they were all murdered and we were saved."
Leonid, his mother, and his two brothers continued to walk and finally reached the train station.They got on a train and came to a distant city. "There were empty houses, so everyone who came got a room", Leonid recalls. "My mother started working at a local newspaper that was still running. I was small and thin, and I remember thinking about food constantly because I was hungry all the time. My job as the older brother was to get food using the vouchers we received from the authorities – a small pot of vegetables for the whole family. Also, we would go out looking for potatoes from the last years' crop that may have remained in the soil.  The dry goods which the US troops delivered to the Soviets helped many survive the famine and shortage. The Americans would bring food to the Russians, and the Russians would distribute it. I still remember what that food looked like – I remember its shape and taste.”
Leonid continues, "When we returned to our communal farm in 1944, there were no Jews there. The families of the surviving non-Jews said that the Jews tried to flee, but the Germans murdered them all.  When we returned, our house was still standing. Our Christian neighbors gave us back our property. It was hard for me to hear the stories of our neighbors who were murdered. They pleaded for their lives. They tried to flee but weren't successful.My mother couldn't bear it. Finally, we left – we moved to her hometown and from there to Kiev."
After the war, Leonid went to school and graduated with a degree in engineering. He married and had two daughters.  "I speak Ukrainian and people didn't always recognize that I was Jewish. I was in management positions and the antisemitism that I experienced throughout my life was usually in the form of comments made behind my back, when people thought I wouldn’t hear them. I heard the word “Z'hid” (“Jewboy”) quite a bit in my life, but I would pretend not to hear.  I believe that if I looked classically Jewish as the people in Ukraine are used to, the antisemitism towards me would have been much more severe. I heard the comments coming my way, but I just learned to ignore them.”
Leonid's wife Yeva, whom he married in 1985, studied music and dreamed of becoming an opera singer.  She sang songs in Yiddish as part of a Jewish choir performing throughout Ukraine. "I was a good singer, but I'm also very short, and by the standards of the area, I wasn't fit for performing on stage. There was a Russian singer who was short like me, but she wasn’t Jewish so she managed to succeed. The fact that I was always blonde and light skinned helped me fit in with the locals.  However, the very fact that I say that indicates the situation in Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine, a country in which hundreds of thousands of Jews lived and were murdered during the Holocaust, has no special Holocaust museum, says something about the attitude there toward Jewish people."
Since their aliyah to Israel two months ago, Leonid and Yeva have been living in Jerusalem, and The Fellowship's aliyah coordinator has been in contact with and supporting them – all part of its $5 million dollar emergency fund to support Holocaust survivors during the Covid-19 crisis. "As we commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah this has a dual meaning for both Yeva and me,” says Leonid. “To be living in the Jewish state and to mark the memory of family members who were murdered in the Holocaust – this is very moving."
Like the rest of the citizens of Israel during the coronavirus crisis, Leonid and Yeva are forced to spend many hours confined at home. When they are able to go out, they must wear masks on their faces, but this doesn’t faze them. "I've been through so much in life that I'm not afraid of the coronavirus," says Leonid. "I feel that everyone here is looking out for us and cares about us. If we walk down the street, people move to the other side to avoid infecting us. It warms the heart that there's such awareness. The young people are doing everything to guard us. We are the Jewish people; a strong people. We survived the Holocaust. They tried to kill us and that's why I'm not afraid. I know we'll succeed in overcoming this as well."