Valerie Bendersky was just seven when he fled to Kazakhstan to escape the Nazi invasion of Ukraine. Nearly 80 years later he has had to abandon his homeland once again, this time in the face of Russian invaders.
Bendersky is one of almost 300 Jewish Holocaust survivors from Ukraine who have been given refuge in Israel since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into the former Soviet republic two months ago.
“I have lived through two tragedies,” the 85-year old said, speaking from his new home in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv: “I was fleeing from Hitler then, now I have fled from Putin. Naturally, it is hard,” he told Reuters, speaking in Russian.
More than five million Ukrainians have moved abroad to escape the Russian onslaught, the United Nations says.
Becoming a refugee is especially hard for the elderly who thought they would never have to confront war again.
“I said to myself: Oh my God, what a nightmare! Here we go again with the war, bombings, evacuation, leaving your home behind, not being sure if you’ll stay alive or not,” said 100-year-old Dova Govergeviz.
She comes from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and was in her 20s when she had to abandon home for the first time with her mother, taking shelter hundreds of miles to the east in Uzbekistan until World War II ended.
“Back then, we knew that we had an enemy - Hitler. Hitler and Germany had attacked our country. But now it turns out to be that we’re fighting against the country that we used to call our ‘elder brother’,” she said, referring to Russia.
Moscow has said its invasion is a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and defeat fascists. Ukraine and the West call that a bogus pretext for a war of aggression.
When the invasion started, Govergeviz initially locked herself in her house, all alone, before deciding that she wanted to immigrate to Israel and stay there for the rest of her life, believing it to be the safest place for Jews.
Some 161,400 Holocaust survivors and victims of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era live in Israel. The country commemorated the six million victims of the Holocaust on Thursday, with sirens sounding for two minutes, bringing much of the nation to a standstill.
Govergeviz is now staying in a care home in the coastal town of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.
Her journey was organized by Zaka, an Israeli emergency rescue and recovery group, while Bendersky was flown here by the Jewish Agency, which provides “aliyah,” or “ascent,” to Israel for Jews around the world.
Bendersky had to get out of his home in Kharkiv in a hurry, with the eastern Ukrainian city coming under repeated shell fire. “I left everything back there, even my glasses,” he said.
Not all those who lived through the Holocaust have survived the Russian onslaught. Last month Boris Romanchenko, 96, who survived detention in four separate Nazi concentration camps in World War Two, was killed by shelling in Kharkiv, the BBC reported, citing relatives.
Another survivor of the Nazi invasion, Vanda Obiedkova, 91, died this month in a basement in the war-battered city of Mariupol, freezing and pleading for water, the Ukrainian government said on Twitter.
Bendersky hopes that the West will eventually force the Russians to leave Ukraine. “Can’t they let us live out our lives peacefully?” he said.