Activist state

Grassroots groups help save Holocaust survivors in Ukraine

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Julia Entin sits at her computer and ponders the plight of Jewish Holocaust survivors in her garden, coordinating efforts to rescue them in Ukraine, Monday, March 14, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

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Since the bombing began to intensify in Kyiv and Kharkiv about a week ago, Julia Entin has been working feverishly – thousands of miles away in Los Angeles – to evacuate Holocaust survivors in Ukraine who are find themselves trapped in another conflict.

For the past six years, the 39-year-old paralegal from Bet Tzedek Legal Services has helped connect Holocaust survivors with local services. Now Entin coordinates rescue efforts in Ukraine because she says she feels a personal connection to their painful situation.

“They are already survivors of severe trauma,” said Entin, a refugee from the former Soviet Union and granddaughter of a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor. “And now, with this war, they’re going through that trauma again.”

Entin is one element of a complex network of grassroots organizations – Jewish and non-Jewish – that operates 24 hours a day in Ukraine, working with taxi and bus operators to transport members of vulnerable communities out of the area of war.

In times of crisis where Jews from Ukraine are trying to flee to Europe and Israel, groups such as the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and partner organizations such as Entin’s have helped families in the United States who want their relatives are extracted. Many, Entin said, have contacted her directly because she works with Holocaust survivors.

Entin called survivors in Ukraine, usually with a family member or friend on the line.

It can be difficult to quickly establish relationships with elderly people – many of whom have serious health problems – crowded into their homes during wartime. Entin begins by apologizing for speaking in Russian instead of Ukrainian.

“I identify myself and tell them who I am – the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor,” she said. “I tell them how my grandfather was not evacuated and lived (World War II) under Nazi occupation. It’s a deep connection that we have. And that helps build trust.

Entin has always struggled to get survivors to leave with trusted taxi or bus drivers, who she says are vetted and recruited on recommendation. This week, a man in his late 80s refused to go because he was afraid he would die on the way.

“Convincing him was a real challenge because you can’t guarantee – nobody can guarantee – that it won’t happen,” she said.

This hesitation seems to be common among older people. Svetlana Jitomirskaya, a math professor at the University of California, Irvine, spoke with her father’s 87-year-old friend in Kharkiv, a Holocaust survivor.

“He refuses to leave, he doesn’t want to move,” she said, adding that his 88-year-old wife also has medical issues. “That’s the heartbreaking part.”

But there were a few successes that kept Entin hopeful.

On Sunday, 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Valery Semenovich Zharkovsky, his daughter Inna Valerievna Zharkovskaya and her 8-year-old daughter were rescued from their home in Kharkiv.

Entin said Wednesday the family had arrived in Germany, where Zharkovsky’s brother lives. She said Jewish refugees typically choose to go to Israel — its Law of Return allows Jews to make ‘aliyah’ and gain citizenship — or other parts of Europe where they could receive benefits. benefits, such as health care, immediately.

“No matter where they choose to go, it has to be a ‘warm handover’, which means someone will always be on the other side of the border to welcome them and put them on the path to their destination,” Entin said.

Zharkovsky’s cousin, Marina Sonina, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was relieved to hear that her loved ones were safe. She spoke to him last Saturday, a day before he left Ukraine.

“He was scared because the situation was really bad,” she said, choking. “He is not in good health. I’m so relieved to hear that they’re all out of the danger zone and in a safe place.

As the attacks intensified, volunteers arrived at the Polish border to help evacuation efforts.

Liana Georgi — an artist, psychologist and LGBTQ activist who splits her time between Berlin and Istanbul — is part of a core group of volunteers with Safebow, a group formed by actor and gender-nonconforming activist Rain Dove to carry out rescue.

The group communicated via WhatsApp and started “as a mental support group to give people the courage to flee”, Georgi said, speaking from Warsaw. “It’s about being there for each other, even if it’s virtually.”

Safebow also partnered with Entin’s organization to evacuate Holocaust survivors.

Georgi said the group is focused on rescuing vulnerable minority groups, including those in the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and people of color.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of North America have been involved in bringing Jewish refugees from Ukraine to Israel, said Rabbi Noah Farkas, the former’s president and CEO. He said his organization raised $1 million in four days, with the suffering in Ukraine resonating with members of other diaspora communities in Los Angeles.

“A lot of people here in Los Angeles, even if they’re not Russian or Ukrainian, see themselves in this story,” Farkas said. “We received donations from children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. We have a diverse community in Los Angeles – from Iran, Morocco and other Mizrahi communities.

California is also home to nearly 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants, the second highest in the nation after New York, according to American Community Survey data from 2016 to 2020. The Los Angeles metropolitan area alone is home to about 17,000 Ukrainians.

Jewish Federation of Los Angeles Vice President Aaron Goldberg, who is based near Jerusalem, has helped connect newly arrived refugees with much-needed services.

“Our goal is to support their immigration and integration into Israeli society,” Goldberg said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has – in what experts call a cynical ploy – claimed he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, which is ruled by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jewish president whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust. There are fears of further Jewish repression and some of the remaining 250,000 Russian Jews are also trying to flee to Israel – but the process has been more complicated because there aren’t as many resources, Goldberg said.

“But, at this time, we don’t know how the sanctions might affect the Jewish community there,” he said. “We are staying tuned to see what needs arise in the Russian Jewish community.”

Evacuation work for Holocaust survivors in Ukraine continues as shelling intensified this week. On Tuesday, Entin said she was working to help three couples – all Holocaust survivors – who were struggling after a night of shelling and devastation in Kharkiv.

“One of the couples has no water or heating,” she said. “I’ve been up for 38 straight hours trying to figure things out.”

Entin said she was trying to get a taxi driver to check on the unheated couple – whose flat was also starting to flood.

“It was a tough night,” she said. “The wife said she didn’t think her husband would live long.”

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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This story has been updated to correct spelling from Bet Tzedek Legal Services.