New residents having coffee
By Yudit Setz

The ICEJ constructed a new apartment building for residents at our Haifa Home for Holocaust survivors, but we have been waiting a long time for an elevator to be installed before it could open. Yet who would have thought this delay would mean the building can now be filled with Holocaust survivors fleeing the war in Ukraine?

A very unexpected turn

 The work on the elevator has finally begun, and soon this building will be full of residents who are not only Holocaust survivors, but also new immigrants from a country ravaged by war. At their elderly age, these Ukrainian survivors had to leave behind everything they built up in life and start anew with only their memories and a small suitcase of clothing.

For now, the first six arrivals from Ukraine are being housed in other apartments at the Haifa Home, while a seventh new resident has just arrived.

Sheila in Kharkiv
Sheila in Kharkiv

Shela, now 85, was a young girl when she survived the German siege of Leningrad in 1941. After the war, she ended up in Kharkiv, Ukraine, where she met her husband. Although they talked about immigrating to Israel many times, he wanted to stay, so it never happened. Then he passed away in 2010 and their only daughter died two years later at age 32, leaving Shela all alone. When Russian troops began shelling her town this winter, she was sure this would be her end.

Through a true miracle, her only close relative contacted our partner organization for help to rescue Shela from the constant bombardment of Kharkiv. Within two days, She had to pack a small suitcase and say goodbye to all she knew.

Shela at Holocaust Memorial Day
Shela at Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony

Shela came straight to the Haifa Home and two days later lit a memorial flame at our Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.

“The most difficult thing here is that I cannot speak with people”, Shela said tearfully, noting she does not know Hebrew yet. At her age, starting over is extremely difficult.

A moving family reunion

Lena also recently found herself caught in the Russian siege on Kharkiv. She was born during World War Two in Kazakhstan, where her family had fled from the German invasion of Ukraine. After the war, they moved back to Kharkiv, where Lena met her husband. Lena became a nurse and they had two boys. But the couple decided to use a Russian family name so their children would not suffer from the rampant antisemitism in Ukraine at that time.

A year and a half ago, her husband died of cancer because he could not receive any treatments due to COVID lockdowns. Even though they had completed an application to immigrate to Israel in the 1990s, they did not come. And Lena never dreamt she would set foot in Israel this year!

Lena and Arnold walk in Israel
Lena and Arnold walk together in Israel

But the constant shelling in Kharkiv became unbearable. Then her cousin Arnold called from Warsaw, where he was waiting with his wife to fly to Israel. Lena decided to leave everything behind as well and join them in Israel.

On 10 May, she arrived straight from the airport to the Haifa Home. The moving reunion between these cousins took place in our dining hall.

“I miss my family,” Lena said, her eyes filled with tears. “I call them every day, but I just could not live there anymore.”

Her sons are still in Kharkiv, as they were not allowed to leave the country, while her two daughters-in-law fled to Canada and Germany. Thus, Lena is very grateful for the loving home she has found here.

“Thank you, thank you”, she keeps saying. “I so much want to learn Hebrew now, so I can talk to everyone. I learned some Hebrew from our prayer book.”

Arnold and Alla arrive at Ben-Gurion airport
Arnold and Alla arrive at Ben-Gurion airport

Her cousin Arnold flew to Israel with his wife, Alla, on her birthday of May 2nd and they arrived at the Haifa Home the next day. With most of their relatives buried in Kharkiv and having lived there most of their lives, they never considered leaving; that is, until a rocket recently fell on their home and broke all the windows. Shortly after that, another one landed in their courtyard.

The blasts affected Alla, as she could no longer deal with the fear. That evening they decided to leave and the very next morning they were picked up by the ICEJ-sponsored rescue team. The couple managed to pack four of their wedding pictures and some clothing, and then they locked the door behind them.

With all her physical problems, it has not been easy for Alla. “It is so hard for me to see my wife suffering already for so long, and it is hard to wait for all the medical appointments,” explained Arnold.

They are very happy that their only daughter and her husband also came to Israel and are living nearby. Their grandson could not leave the Ukraine, however his wife along with Arnold and Alla’s great grandchild are also living close by.

Viktor and his wife Sonia
Viktor and his wife Sonia

Another escape from war

Viktor and his wife Sonia decided to evacuate from Kyiv after the Russians began bombing the city and a rocket exploded next to their house. At the time, there were no supermarkets or pharmacies open and Viktor was distraught, as his wife suffers from a chronic illness and badly needed medicines.

He and Sonia have been together since their school days. Both made it through World War Two. When the German army bombed Kyiv in 1941, little Sonia was removed from the city by her parents. But the route to safety was perilous, as trains were targeted from the air while full of people. Sonia was lucky to survive and afterwards returned to Kyiv.

Yet who could have imagined that, at the end of their lives, Sonia and her husband would have to flee another assault on Kyiv and another dangerous journey to safety? The fact that Russia helped defeat the Nazis but now is the enemy of Ukraine is hard for them to fathom.

After arriving in Israel, Viktor and Sonia spent a month in a government-supported hotel. Then they needed a place of their own and they found their way to the Haifa Home.

“We had wanted to come to Israel a long time ago, but through circumstances in life it didn’t work out”, remarked Viktor, a successful nuclear engineer in Soviet days.

Asked if they are relieved to now be living at the Haifa Home, Viktor replied without hesitation: “We are so happy to be here. We had no one to help us any more in Kyiv, and here we have a community around us, and the medical help is so much better in Israel.”

For new immigrants in general, life in a new country is difficult as it takes a long time to adjust to a different language, climate and culture. But for elderly people to leave everything behind amid a raging war and start over in a new land is something hard to even describe. After meeting their basic needs like clothing, food, and a place to live, their greatest need is care and attention; to make them feel safe and at home.

The Christian Embassy has the privilege to not only take care of their physical needs, but with our ICEJ team on the ground in Haifa we give them all the love and emotional support we are able, knowing they so desperately need it.

There is still a long way to go for these Ukrainian survivors to have a sense of being settled and at home. But with your help, we have hope their last years will be truly good ones here in the Land of their forefathers.

Please support the work of the ICEJ’s Haifa Home for Holocaust survivors.