Grassroots groups help rescue Holocaust survivors in Ukraine

LOS ANGELES – Since the shelling in Kyiv and Kharkiv began about a week ago, Julia Anten has been working tirelessly – thousands of miles away in Los Angeles – to evacuate survivors of the Ukrainian Holocaust who are trapped in another conflict.

For the past six years, Beth Zedek, a 39-year-old paralegal from Legal Services, has helped connect Holocaust survivors with local services. Now, Antin is coordinating rescue efforts in Ukraine because he says he feels a personal connection to their painful plight.

“They have already escaped serious injuries,” said Antin, a former Soviet Union refugee and granddaughter of one of the survivors of the Ukrainian Holocaust. “And now with this war, they are feeling that trauma again.”

Antin is part of a complex network of grassroots organizations – Jewish and non-Jewish – that roams around the clock in Ukraine, working with taxi and bus operators to evacuate members of vulnerable communities from war zones.

At a time when Jews from Ukraine are trying to flee to Europe and Israel in times of crisis, groups such as the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and partner organizations like Antin are helping families in the state who want to evict loved ones. Antin said many have reached out to him directly because of his work with Holocaust survivors.

The antenna is calling survivors in Ukraine, usually family members or friends in line.

Establishing quick relationships with older people can be challenging – many have serious health problems – stuck in their homes during the war. Anten begins to apologize for speaking Russian instead of Ukraine.

“I identify myself and tell them who I am – the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor,” he said. “I tell them how my grandfather was not removed and lived under Nazi occupation (World War II). This is a deep connection between us. And it helps build trust. “

Entin still has trouble surviving to depart with trusted taxi or bus operators, whom he says have been verified and hired through referrals. This week, a man in his late 80s refused to go because he feared he might die on the way.

“It simply came to our notice then.

This hesitation seems to be common among adults. Svetlana Jitomirskaya, professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine, talks to her father’s 87-year-old friend in Kharkiv about surviving a Holocaust.

“He refuses to leave, he doesn’t want to move,” he said, adding that his 88-year-old wife also had medical problems. “It’s the heartbreaking part.”

But there are a few success stories that have kept Antin optimistic.

On Sunday, 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Valery Semenovich Zarkovsky, his daughter Ina Valerivna Zarkovskaya and their 8-year-old daughter were rescued from their home in Kharkiv.

Antin said on Wednesday that the family had moved to Germany, where Jarkowski’s brother lives. He says Jewish refugees generally prefer to go to Israel – whose return law allows Jews to “alienate” and acquire citizenship – or other parts of Europe where they can now receive healthcare benefits.

“Wherever they choose to go, there has to be a ‘warm handoff’, which means someone will always be on the other side of the border to greet them and take them on their way to their destination,” Antin said.

Djarkovsky’s cousin, Marina Sonina, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was relieved to hear that her relatives had returned safely. He spoke to her last Saturday, a day before he left Ukraine.

“She was scared because the situation was really bad,” he said with a sigh. “She is OK. I am relieved to hear that they are all out of danger and in a safe place. “

As the attack intensified, volunteers arrived at the Polish border to assist in the eviction effort.

Liana Georgie – an artist, psychologist and LGBTQ activist who divides her time between Berlin and Istanbul – is part of a core group of volunteers with Safebow, a group formed to conduct rescue operations by gender non-conforming actor and activist Rain Dove.

The group is communicating through WhatsApp and has started as a psychological support group to “give people the courage to flee,” said Georgie, speaking from Warsaw. “It’s about being there for each other, even if it’s practically.”

Safebow has partnered with Entin’s agency to remove Holocaust survivors.

Georgie said the group is focused on rescuing vulnerable minority groups, including the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and people of color.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of North America are involved in bringing Jewish refugees from Ukraine to Israel, said Rabbi Noah Farkas, former president and CEO. He said his organization had raised 1 million in four days, adding that Ukraine’s plight resonated with members of other expatriate communities in Los Angeles.

“A lot of people here in Los Angeles, even if they’re not Russian or Ukrainian, find themselves in this story,” Farkas said. “We have received grants from children and grandchildren who survived the Holocaust. We have a diverse community in Los Angeles – from Iran, Morocco and other Mizrahi communities. “

California is home to about 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants, the second highest in the country after New York, according to the American Community Survey from 2016 to 2020. About 17,000 Ukrainians live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area alone.

Aaron Goldberg, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, which is located near Jerusalem, has helped connect newly arrived refugees with much-needed services.

“Our goal is to support their immigration and integration into Israeli society,” Goldberg said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin – who experts call a cunning trick – has claimed he wants to “denizify” Ukraine, led by Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish president whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust. There are fears of renewed Jewish persecution and some of Russia’s remaining 250,000 Jews are trying to flee to Israel – but the process has become more complicated because there are almost no resources, Goldberg said.

“But, at the moment, we don’t know how the sanctions could affect the Jewish community there,” he said. “We are keeping our ears on the ground to see what the Russian Jewish community needs.”

Holocaust survivors in Ukraine continue to evacuate as bombings escalate this week. On Tuesday, Antin said he was working to help three couples – all survivors of the Holocaust – who were fighting after a night of more shelling and destruction in Kharkiv.

“One of the couples has no water or heat,” he said. “I’ve been trying to figure things out for 38 hours now.”

Antin said he was trying to test a taxi driver without heating the couple – whose apartment was also flooded.

“It’s been a tough night,” he said. “The wife says she doesn’t think her husband will live long.”

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