By Aharon Ben Arush
Late last week, amid air raid sirens and bombings, we were fortunate enough to rescue three Holocaust survivors from Kiev and bring them to safety in Poland. As part of a major rescue operation that spanned two days, I, together with other members of United Hatzalah’s Operation Orange Wing rescue mission, took three ambulances into Kiev to rescue the survivors and bring them to safety across the Polish border.
This wasn’t my first covert rescue mission inside Ukraine, I’ve been rescuing people with difficult medical conditions continuously for the past month. My first mission involved rescuing a surrogate baby from a bombed hospital in Kiev and reuniting it with its surrogate parents in Romania. Others involved rescuing entire families and bringing them safely across the border and then to Israel. In this operation, we managed to rescue three Holocaust survivors, two of whom were bed-ridden and one was able to walk with great difficulty. They were living in different senior residences and nursing homes and were in danger as the violence encroached upon their residences, but they were unable to leave on their own.
Utilizing the three ambulances which the organization recently bought for these types of rescue missions, we drove from the Moldovan and Polish borders to Kiev with medical teams on board. Along the way, we delivered much-needed food and medical supplies to hospitals and care centers that had asked for our help in providing these items. The deliveries included medical supplies, bandages, and medications that are in short supply in Ukraine such as insulin. It took us three days to make the round trip.
When we arrived in Kiev, each ambulance and medical team gathered up one of the elderly Holocaust survivors and gave them a thorough medical checkup to make sure they were healthy and stable enough to make the journey to the border. We then headed out of Kiev en route to the Polish border.
While on the way, we had to avoid bombings, attacks from snipers, and missile attacks. We heard no shortage of air raid sirens. Another thing that complicated our operation was the mandatory curfew that’s in place inside Ukraine during the nighttime hours. At certain points, we had to pay militias or soldiers to allow us to keep moving. The going currency in Ukraine isn’t cash, it is medical supplies and fuel. As this wasn’t our first rescue operation, we knew about it going in and brought extra supplies of both to allow us to continue our travels and get our patients to safety as quickly as we could.
When we arrived at the border, our three patients, all of them women, thanked us profusely for rescuing them. They were so happy to be out of a war zone once again, away from the bombings and missile attacks. They said they had a new lease on life.
One of the women, Svetlana, is 86-years-old. She told us her story, thanked us and said, “I have been through two difficult times of war in my life and I was evacuated in both of them. The first war was in 1941. This now is the second war.”
“I was five years old,” she continued. “My dad was taken to the front lines to fight. My mom, my two-year-old brother, and I were taken from our home in Kiev and put on a truck to the Ural mountains. The last memory I have of them, which is forever engraved in my mind, is the picture of us all laying down flat on the floor of the truck. We were like planks, side by side. I had lifted my head to see my mother and she spoke to me calmly saying everything will be okay. We were bombed near Kharkov while trying to escape. That was the last time I saw my mother or my brother.”
“Well, of course, it was terrifying, but I promised myself to get up and to keep living. Now, this is my second war and it is terrifying too. I got back up after the last war, and the same goes for right now, I am continuing life and living anew. Thank God for you, kind people. Last time, no one was there for me. Thank you for helping us,” Svetlana concluded.
All three women found shelter in a nursing home in Poland where they can live out their lives in peace. I am thankful I was able to have a small share in making this happen, helping to save these women who deserve to live as peaceful a life as they can. I have been conducting and supervising rescue missions such as these since the war began and our team arrived at the Ukrainian border. But each rescue is different and fraught with its own challenges. Each person we rescue is an entire world unto themselves. I cannot think of anything better to be doing with my time than helping as many people as I can right now and right here. I will stay, and keep doing this, as long as there’s a need to do it.”