German soldiers under the direction of Adolph Hitler inhumanely slaughtered 11 million Jews during the Holocaust. This is equivalent to simultaneously dropping nuclear bombs on NYC and Detroit, but only if every single resident in both cities were killed. In an ironic turn of events, Jews from war-torn Ukraine are seeking refuge in…you guessed it…Germany.
Tatyana Zhuraliova, an 83-year-old retired doctor, was a small child living in Odesa, Germany when the Nazis began flying air attacks over her town. The memories have lasted her a lifetime. When the Russians began their assault on Kyiv last month, those memories came flooding back like a tsunami.
Zhuraliova said, “My whole body was shaking, and those fears crept up again and through my entire body – fears which I didn’t even know were still inside of me.”
She remembers hiding under a table as the Nazis dropped bombs on her hometown during WWII and how she and her mother eventually made it out alive by fleeing to Kazakhstan.
“Now I’m too old to run to the bunker. So I just stayed inside my apartment and prayed that the bombs would not kill me,” she said.
Zhuraliova remained holed up in her apartment even as the attacks began to intensify. It was only when a Jewish organization knocked on her door and offered her a semi-safe way out that she knew she had to leave.
In an ever-changing world, roughly 10,000 Holocaust survivors whose families had found refuge in Ukraine when they were small children, are now back in Germany, safe, sound, and protected.
Based in New York, The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or the Claims Conference for short, has been actively fighting for restitution for Holocaust survivors around the world since the very moment Hitler bit the big one. The survivors they’re risking their lives to rescue are elderly and may never receive any restitution for their screwed-up childhoods, but at least they’ll get to live a few more years without fear.
A second group, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, has been working with the Claims Conference and just several days ago was able to evacuate two-dozen ill and bed-ridden survivors out of Kyiv. There are another 500 or so in failing health who are still awaiting their rescue.
When these survivors fled from the Nazis, youth was still on their side. This is no longer the case; it’s a complex operation that often involves dodging flying debris and bullets to get them to safety.
Going straight into the heart of warzones, the groups must first find enough trained medical people, ambulances, and drivers willing to take the risk. Next, comes the difficulty of crossing international borders while at the same time continually reminding some of the more cloudy-minded elderly evacuees why they have to do this.
Ruediger Mahlo who works in Germany for the Claims Council said, “No one can imagine the nightmare survivors have lived through during the Holocaust. Now they have to evacuate again – their security, all things familiar are again being stripped from them and they are forced to live with uncertainty and fear.”
The German government has been quick to provide a pathway for the elderly survivors to receive all of the same benefits as those provided to elderly German citizens, which includes their ongoing required medical care.
It takes an insurmountable amount of selfless courage to do what these groups and others are doing, but because their work isn’t widely publicized, they don’t receive nearly the credit they should. But they’re not doing it for the glory. They’re just doing what’s in their hearts as compassionate human beings.