Ukrainian Holocaust survivors flee war again — this time to Germany
DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:
And now the story of some elderly Ukrainians who survived Nazi concentration camps in their youth and are now having to flee the war in Ukraine. They are part of a major effort to evacuate elderly Holocaust survivors out of Ukraine. Some have already arrived in Germany, the country that once persecuted them. Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at a retirement home on the eastern edge of Berlin. Half a dozen sprightly ladies in their 80s and 90s are sitting at the rowdy table.
NICHOLSON: Here, these women are full of life, but they've just narrowly escaped death for the second time in their lives. They are Ukrainian Holocaust survivors who fled the Nazis as children. Now in old age, they're on the run again, this time from Russia. Among them is 83-year-old Sonya Leibovna Tartakovskaya.
SONYA LEIBOVNA TARTAKOVSKAYA: (Speaking Ukrainian).
NICHOLSON: She's from Irpin, near Kyiv, where Ukrainian authorities say they have found evidence of Russian atrocities carried out on civilians. She says she's immensely relieved to be here, but her frail, childlike build betrays immeasurable suffering.
LEIBOVNA TARTAKOVSKAYA: (Through interpreter) For 20 days before I arrived, I was without gas, without water, without light. I weighed 100 pounds, my normal weight. And when I came here, I weighed almost half that.
NICHOLSON: As the other women leave for an afternoon nap, Tartakovskaya stays behind to talk with 90-year-old Alla Ilyinichna Sinelnikova, who has just arrived from Kharkiv.
ALLA ILYINICHNA SINELNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) This war is a catastrophe. It's truly awful. I never thought I would live to see such horror for a second time in my life. I thought it was in my past, all over and done with. And now we're reliving it.
NICHOLSON: Sinelnikova was 9 years old when she fled Kharkiv the first time, fearing Nazi persecution. She says she can't believe she's now hiding in Berlin from the Russians, the very people who liberated her as a child from the Germans.
ILYINICHNA SINELNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) It is a strange paradox. I never believed the Russians would invade us. Half of my family are from Russia. How can I hate them? I can't even if I wanted to.
NICHOLSON: Rudiger Mahlo from the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany, a nonprofit organization that helps Holocaust survivors, is coordinating the evacuation effort on the ground. He says it takes about 50 different parties to evacuate just one elderly person by ambulance out of Ukraine. And once they're here, he says, they need to be housed in care facilities where the staff speak Russian or Ukrainian.
RUDIGER MAHLO: Like in any war, the most weak people are the most vulnerable people. And Holocaust survivors belong to the most vulnerable people. For them, the situation is devastating.
NICHOLSON: Mahlo says that some of the survivors trapped in Ukraine refuse to set foot in Germany because of the past, so he's trying to find alternatives for them.
MAHLO: You have the re-traumatization of the survivors. But we wanted the survivors, the Holocaust survivors, to feel safe and to feel not abandoned.
NICHOLSON: Eighty-three-year-old Sonya Tartakovskaya has now finished her lunch. She says she's put on 10 pounds since arriving in Berlin and adds that if it weren't for her neighbors, she'd be dead.
LEIBOVNA TARTAKOVSKAYA: (Through interpreter) I lived alone. I had nobody is my whole family is long buried in cemeteries in different cities. But thanks to strangers, I got out of Irpin. My neighbors didn't leave me behind. They took me with them.
NICHOLSON: Tartakovskaya was just 3 years old the first time she fled war. She says that as difficult as it is to be a refugee again, she knows she's one of the lucky ones. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
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