Ukrainian Jews escape to Israel: ‘We were happy, and now, we will start again’

The bombing of Ukraine had already begun but Ilya and Yuliia Tregubov could not quite bring themselves to leave.

The couple, both 40, lived in Dnipro, a picturesque city in central Ukraine, with their 14-year-old daughter, Asya. Ilya was a psychiatrist at a Jewish medical center and Yuliia managed business centers.

They enjoyed a tranquil life strolling the city’s riverbank or simply watching Netflix together. They vacationed in a summer home just outside Dnipro, where they’d pick fruit from apricot, apple and cherry trees.

As the war intensified, the Tregubovs turned down offers to help them evacuate.


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“We thought one more day and it will be stopped. All this horror will be stopped,” Ilya said.

But then Russia began bombing civilian areas in Kharkiv and Kyiv. Ilya, whose grandmother was a medic with the Soviet army that liberated Auschwitz, thought about the Jews who did not flee during the Holocaust.

“We know that those who did not escape, who decided to stay in their cities, they are not alive … and I thought that this is the time,” he said.

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the war started. The Tregubovs are among thousands of Jews who have moved to Israel in a rescue operation launched by the Israeli government and the greater Jewish community.

Under the Law of Return, which gives foreign-born Jews or people with certain Jewish relatives the right to Israeli citizenship, more than 2,000 Ukrainians have been resettled. A 24-hour emergency hotline for Ukrainian Jews has received about 24,000 calls since the war began — a third from people requesting to relocate to Israel.

The Jewish Federations of North America has raised more than $24 million in humanitarian aid, including for those trying to reach Israel. The Jewish Agency, an organization that runs the hotline and that helps Jews immigrate to Israel, has been helping to bus Jews in Ukraine to hotels in Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania. Once there, families complete paperwork to immigrate — a typically months-long process that’s been shortened to several days.

“Every day this number is growing,” said Roman Polonsky, the Jewish Agency’s director for the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Germany. “They come exhausted. They come in the middle of the night. We are trying to expedite this process as much as we can.”

About 43,000 people in Ukraine self-identify as Jewish, according to Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer and former head of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He said a far greater number — an estimated 200,000 people — are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return.

Israel has long received waves of immigrants triggered by economic crises or political instability. Among the most famous were secret airlifts in the 1980s and 1990s of Ethiopian Jews facing famine and civil war.

Israel “is a refuge for Jews in distress,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared at a recent government meeting. “This is our purpose. The State of Israel has done this more than once in its history, and we will carry out this sacred task this time as well.”

Officials have also announced they would grant temporary protection from deportation to about 20,000 Ukrainians who were in Israel before the war, most without legal status, as well as temporary visas to about 5,000 other Ukrainians.

Ukraine was once home to the largest population of Jews in Europe after Poland. The vibrant community, which included Jewish schools and theaters, began diminishing after waves of anti-Jewish riots under Russian czars in the late 1800s, and the following decades spurred massive migration to the United States.

During the Holocaust, an estimated 1.2 million to 1.4 million Jews in Ukraine were killed, according to Wendy Lower, a historian at Claremont McKenna College.

Ukrainian Jews escape to Israel: ‘We were happy, and now, we will start again’

In recent decades, the population has seen a dramatic decline. More than 300,000 Ukrainians moved to Israel between 1991 and 2019 under the Law of Return in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, according to DellaPergola, who also said that the diminishment of the Jewish community has been exacerbated by a high elderly population and low birthrate.

It’s unclear what will become of Ukraine’s Jewish community — where synagogues have been turned into shelters — but its need for help is rising.

As of Tuesday, 4,820 of the Jewish Agency’s total 5,890 reserved hotel beds in Eastern Europe were occupied. The agency expects about 30,000 Ukrainian refugees to move to Israel — a prediction that changes rapidly.

“This is such an unprecedented and dynamic situation,” said Hadass Tesher, a spokesperson for the agency. “We are inundated on the ground.”

Families are often split apart since Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are barred from leaving the country. Some had already planned to move to Israel before the war, but others have many questions about life there, Polonsky said.

“Our role is not only to help them logistically but psychologically — to give them this feeling that they will find a home in Israel,” he said.

On March 4, in the afternoon, the Tregubov family packed three bags and left their apartment in Dnipro. They couldn’t bring their 5-year-old cat, Shunya, whom Yuliia called “part of our family.”

They headed by train to Poland, traveling for about 20 hours cramped with several hundred people, as well as dogs and cats. Lights were kept off to avoid being targeted by Russian forces. It was hot and difficult to breathe, but passengers kept the windows shut so that small children wouldn’t get sick from subzero temperatures.

On the road, Ilya received a troubling message from his older brother. His 68-year-old mother, who lived in Perm, Russia, was in a coma after suffering a stroke. Shortly before, she had locked herself in her bedroom and had cried for hours, filled with shame for Russia, he said.

When they reached the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, the family took a bus to get closer to the border. Then they walked nearly a mile with their bags to join several thousand people waiting for hours to cross.

Adults tried to soothe crying children by giving out candy, apples or gum. Ilya helped watch over a toddler who was sleeping on a suitcase while his mother went to the bathroom, holding the child’s hand to keep him from falling.

They crossed into Poland several hours before dawn. Ilya said he was allowed to leave because he’s a Russian citizen.

The relief was short-lived. When they arrived at a Jewish Agency hotel in Warsaw, he heard that his mother had died. The next day, Russia attacked Korosten, the Ukrainian city where she grew up.

“I’m glad that she did not know about that,” he said.

A few days later, the family boarded a flight with other Jewish Ukrainians, landing at 1:30 a.m. on March 10 in Tel Aviv. They were offered food and drinks in a large hall while their documents were being processed.

“They tried to smile and say everything will be great … you’re not alone, welcome home,” Yuliia said of the Israelis who welcomed them. “Everyone has been trying to encourage us.”

The Tregubovs are staying with family in Givatayim, a city near Tel Aviv, and spent their first Friday Shabbat dinner reuniting with relatives. But the tasks ahead are daunting — among them learning Hebrew, renting an apartment and finding a school for Asya.

Yuliia feels safe but is distracted by the text messages she gets about air attacks in Dnipro.

“All the time I see alert, alert,” she said.

Ilya admits he can’t show all his feelings to his family when he has to focus on what’s ahead. Before the war, he said, they had a “normal life” built on simple things. A good apartment. A job.

“We were happy, and now, we will start again,” he said.

Miller reported from Mexico City.