In Irony Of War, Ukraine's Holocaust Survivors Flee To Germany

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In Irony Of War, Ukraine's Holocaust Survivors Flee To Germany
As Putin continues the war on Ukraine to, in his words, "de-Nazify" it, 84 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors have fled to Germany, of all places.

Russian shells at the start of Putin's war on Ukraine began pummeling the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv.   

It was indiscriminate murder of civilians for sure, but also of a sacred memory — a giant menorah known as Drobytsky Yar. 

The memorial honors tens of thousands of Jews who were massacred in the region by Nazis.

A symbol of truth and light, now mangled concrete and iron — and irony — a victim of Putin's twisted pretext for invading Ukraine: to "de-Nazify" it

And so in March, more than 80 years after most of Kharkiv's Jews were rounded up, hanged or shot, the city's few living Holocaust survivors faced death once more; this time from the army of the country that liberated them as children — Russia.  

Add to the list of dark ironies: 84 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, like Inessa Zhurikhina, who've fled to Germany, of all places.  

At the start of the invasion, she and her husband resisted pleas from their children, who live abroad, that they evacuate. 

"We love Kharkiv very much," Zhurikhina said. "We love it. It's our childhood, our youth and everything. Do you understand? That's why we dragged on and didn't leave."

They dragged on as long as they could, which was around a month. 

NEWSY'S JASON BELLINI: Why did you decide to leave Kharkiv? 

INESSA ZHURIKHINA: We were coming under fire. We were being shot at. Our house was falling apart. My husband's feet froze and I was also injured. We lived in freezing temperatures for a month. There was no water, no heat. Everything was terrible. 

Across the globe, U.S. and Israeli aid organizations that support Holocaust survivors knew, from their maps and records, that they were looking at a potential catastrophe. 

Greg Schneider leads Claims Conference, a global nonprofit that negotiates reparations with the German government. 

"What we found in the Ukraine is that there are 10,000 Holocaust survivors," Schneider said. "And so the idea of taking them back to Germany now, at the end of their life, it was controversial. But if it was going to help them, we thought we had to explore it."

BELLINI: Did you have some people say, "No way will I set foot in Germany, no matter what"?

GREG SCHNEIDER: We absolutely did. We had some Holocaust survivors who said, "No way, no matter what, I will not go to Germany."

Among those 84 who agreed, many were in such frail condition or ill health they required evacuation by ambulance through a war zone over hundreds of miles and across three national borders. Several Jewish organizations united in the effort. 

"For each of these medical evacuations. We estimate about 50 people are involved," American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee CEO Ariel Zwang said. "The German government put them in nursing homes and agreed to care for them for the rest of their lives — a tremendous, tremendous irony of history."

"They said, 'Leave everything. Move out. We give you 10 minutes,'" Zhurikhina said. "It was all spontaneous. You know, 10 minutes!"

Volunteers carried the Zhurikhinas down five flights of stairs.  

"We were taken directly to the train station," Zhurikhina continued.

BELLINI: It has been around six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Do you think you will ever go home to Kharkiv? 

ZHURIKHINA: I don't want to go back. I don't want to. It will be very hard for me to get over it. It's hard to remember it now, but I'm not going to Kharkiv anymore. 

The evacuees know their ticket to escape was one-way. 

"They've been uprooted from every single thing that they know — their language, their culture, their apartment, their city, whatever it is that they knew that they were familiar with," Schneider said. "You're not going to learn German at 85. Another challenge that we had was making sure that we found accommodations for them that were appropriate. They can't be put in an all-German-speaking facility because they wouldn't be able to communicate."

The Zhurikhinas were taken in by a Jewish home for the elderly in Frankfurt, Germany. 

"They told us that, 'You are being transferred here to this house, because there are a lot of Jews and a lot of Russian-speaking people here. You'll feel better here,'" Zhurikhina said.

More than 1,000 miles away, the city of Odesa has been spared the worst of the Russian onslaught. 

Most of the Jewish population decided to stay. But there have been attacks and danger is ever present. 

Roman Shvartsman leads the Odesa region's Association of Holocaust Survivors.  

BELLINI: In many parts of the country Holocaust survivors have left, evacuated, but not here in Odesa. Tell me why? 

ROMAN SHVARTSMAN: In other cities, like Kharkov or Donetsk, there are fewer Jews there. I emphasize that there are many of us here in Odesa. 

Before the war, the city was home to around 30,000 Jewish residents. 

"It seemed to us that we would live the rest of the time quietly, calmly among our children and grandchildren. But such a tragedy happened. Fascism, Russian fascism. Putinism, which does not allow us old people to forget what happened 80 years ago," Shvartsman said. "Now, every day you live with the fear that a rocket that flies towards Odesa could hit the house where my grandson lives, or the house where my children live, or my house."

SCHNEIDER: These are sort of the bookends of terror of their lives. 

BELLINI: Bookends of terror. Does it cause the trauma of their early lives to come back into their consciousness?   

SCHNEIDER: It's all emotional triggers being brought, bringing them back to trauma that they experienced as kids. 

"I remember when the Germans came, entered the city. I remember how my mother was taken away. She was shot," Zhurikhina said. 

In Kharkiv, in 1941, Zhurikhina avoided Nazi capture as an orphan with a false identity. 

"I was 6 years old," she said. "People told me, 'Don't say anything about your being Jewish' ... When the Germans came, they made us sing songs in German about Hitler and everything."

After the Russians liberated Kharkiv, an aunt living in Siberia retrieved her. 

"My aunt took me to Siberia and my good life began," Zhurikhina said. "She wanted to give me everything, to be like other children. She bought me everything. She got a second job. She replaced my father and mother."

BELLINI: It seems to me, from hearing your story, that there are two ways of looking at your life. One is that you've been very lucky. The other way of looking at it is you've been very unlucky. How do you see it? 

ZHURIKHINA: I experienced everything, both good and bad. But I'm satisfied. I'm satisfied. I perceive my life to be very happy because in the end, everything comes back to normal condition, back to normal. Yes, everything comes back to normal. 

Except that now, it's anything but normal. And despite all the memories of her distant — and recent — past, Zhurikhina contained her emotions until this moment.  

BELLINI: What do you hope for the future? 

ZHURIKHINA: I would like to live with my children. 

Inesa wants to live with her son in Canada, but the Zhurikhinas are too frail to travel further.  

So they'll remain in Germany, with but a few of their life's belongings and the ghosts of a past that is all too present.