BERLIN — At a retirement home on the eastern edge of Berlin, half a dozen women in their 80s and 90s sit together having lunch. Their chatter is lively in the toasty-warm dining room.
They’ve just narrowly escaped death for the second time in their lives.
The women are Ukrainian Holocaust survivors who fled the Nazis as children. Now, in old age, they had to go on the run again — this time from Russians.
A major evacuation effort is underway to bring Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to safety. Dozens have recently arrived in Germany, the country they once feared.
Among the Ukrainians struggling to flee from Russian attacks, housebound senior citizens, often unable to get to shelters, are among the most vulnerable. Last month, Russian shelling killed 96-year-old Boris Romanchenko in his apartment in Kharkiv. In his youth, Romanchenko survived forced labor and four Nazi concentration camps.
One of those who has reached Germany is Sonya Leibovna Tartakovskaya, a retired seamstress from Irpin, near Kyiv. Today happens to be her 83rd birthday.
Tartakovskaya says she’s immensely relieved to be in this retirement home, located near a large Russian-speaking community. Ukrainian authorities say they’ve found evidence in her hometown of Russian atrocities carried out against civilians.
“For 20 days, I was without gas, without water, without light,” Tartakovskaya says. “When the war started, I weighed 100 pounds — my normal weight. When I arrived here, I weighed almost half that.”
She says she’s put on 10 pounds since arriving in Berlin.
She once had family in this city. An older cousin, a student here in the 1930s, was murdered by the Nazis for being Jewish, as were many of her other relatives.
As the other women leave the lunch table for an afternoon nap, Tartakovskaya stays behind to talk with 90-year-old Alla Ilyinichna Sinelnikova, who has just arrived from Kharkiv.
“This war is a catastrophe. It’s truly awful,” Sinelnikova says in a whisper. “I never thought I would live to see such horror for the second time in my life. I thought it was in my past, all over and done with. And now we’re reliving it.”
Sinelnikova was nine when she fled Kharkiv the first time. Fearing Nazi persecution, she and her family were evacuated to Sverdlovsk in west-central Russia, where they saw out the war. She can’t believe she had to come to Berlin to escape the Russians now — the very people who offered her refuge after the Germans invaded Ukraine in 1941.
“It is a strange paradox. I never believed the Russians would invade us,” Sinelnikova says. “Half of my family are from Russia. How can I hate them? I can’t, even if wanted to.”
Sinelnikova has already forgotten what her journey from Kharkiv to Berlin was like, saying it’s probably best that way. She’s worried about her children and grandchildren, from whom she’s heard nothing in weeks.
Rüdiger Mahlo, from Germany’s Jewish Claims Conference, a nonprofit organization that helps Holocaust survivors, is coordinating the evacuation effort. Mahlo says it takes about 50 different people to evacuate just one older person from Ukraine. They often must be transported by ambulance.
Once they’re in Germany, he says, these senior refugees need to be housed in care facilities where the staff speak Russian or Ukrainian. “Like in any war, the most weak people are the most vulnerable and Holocaust survivors belong to the most vulnerable people,” he says. “For them, the situation is devastating.”
Mahlo says some of Ukraine’s Holocaust survivors refuse to set foot in Germany because of the past. He’s trying to find alternatives for them, evacuating some to Poland, Romania, even Israel.
“You have the re-traumatization of the survivors,” Mahlo says. “But we wanted them to feel safe and not to feel abandoned as they were in the beginning of their lives,” when most Germans looked the other way and did nothing to protect Jews and other vulnerable people from Nazism.
Mahlo says his group has been able to bring roughly 50 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to Germany over the past few weeks, something that would not have been possible without help from the Jewish Distribution Committee, a humanitarian aid organization in Ukraine.
The JDC’s Pini Miretski says having an existing network of care providers helped them to identify and evacuate these Holocaust survivors, many of whom are in poor health. “What works as part of a normal routine works well in an emergency,” Miretski says.
As for Tartakovskaya, she says that if it weren’t for the kindness of her neighbors, she’d be dead. They were the ones who alerted the JDC that she was in need.
“I lived alone, I have nobody. My whole family is long buried in cemeteries in different cities,” she says. “But thanks to strangers, I got out of Irpin. My neighbors didn’t leave me behind; they took me with them.”
Tartakoyskaya’s phone rings. Remarkably, it’s her old neighbors, calling to wish her a happy birthday — something Tartakoyskaya believes she is marking only because of them and the organizations that brought her to Berlin. The neighbors are still in Ukraine, she says, and they insist they’re safe for now.
Tartakovskaya says practicing gymnastics in her youth and playing chess her whole life have made her physically and mentally tough. She was just three years old the first time she fled war. As difficult as it is to be a refugee again, especially in old age, she knows she is one of the lucky ones.
Julia Nesterenko contributed to this story from Berlin.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIX PARTS SEVEN’S “THIS ONE OR THAT ONE?”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.