Evacuating the Most Vulnerable Jews

September 22, 2022

Iryna Verveda, a member of the Odesa Hesed team, speaks to Jewish refugees boarding a JDC bus to evacuate to safety in Moldova and beyond.


When Pini Miretski began creating JDC’s technology solutions to provide remote care and community connections for elderly Jews under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, he had no idea the seniors’ smartphones would play a critical role in rescuing some of them during the conflict in Ukraine.

These older adults were among the nearly 13,000 Jews of all ages that JDC has evacuated from Ukraine since Feb. 25, the day after the crisis began. These complex operations entailed round-the-clock work and coordination by dozens of JDC staff and volunteers in Ukraine, Israel, and border countries like Poland and Moldova.

An elderly Ukrainian Jew with complex medical needs is evacuated from Odesa.

Together, they organized transportation, including buses, vans, and cars; care along the journey; and logistical support through treacherous conditions. The convoys often traveled through bombardment and destroyed infrastructure, frequently taking back roads to avoid main highways. These trips often took several days to reach safety. Once they crossed the border, JDC and its partners provided these thousands of Jews with food, medical care, accommodation, psychosocial support, and connections to local Jewish communities.

The convoys hailed from cities under siege and drew from the more than 1,000 locations in Ukraine where JDC works to care for needy Jews and build Jewish life. These operations are another chapter in the organization’s century-plus history of rescuing Jews from crisis zones and danger, including during the Holocaust and the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.

This legacy is not lost on Miretski, whose involvement in these efforts is deeply personal. He was 11 when his family made aliyah from Kyiv to Israel in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and like other Jews under Communism, his relatives suffered from quotas on education and discrimination in the workplace. During World War II, his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was evacuated by the Soviets, leaving Ukraine to find safety in present-day Kazakhstan.

“Life goes full circle,” Miretski said. “I was fortunate to be in a position to help and to offer a lifeline to people who reminded me of my grandmother and so many family members I grew up with. After years of being in contact with these JDC clients, and understanding the impact our work has on their very survival, I knew we needed to act fast, especially for those who were bedbound and ill.”

Miretski was part of a special team dedicated to medical evacuations of very sick, frail, and homebound Holocaust survivors and other Jewish elderly. This delicate operation was carried out with the Claims Conference, JDC’s longtime partner in the care of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors across the former Soviet Union. In fact, it was the Claims Conference that advocated for these rescues when attacks on major cities home to many Holocaust survivors aided by JDC’s Hesed social welfare center network intensified.

With up to 50 people working on each individual rescue, the team began by coordinating with the local Hesed to identify survivors willing to make the journey and counseling them every step of the way. Multiple conversations among homecare and social workers, families, and the elderly offered solace and comfort before the journey. Many were held over JDC-supplied smartphones — technology that became a lifeline during the pandemic and again throughout the conflict.

These discussions were made more harrowing given the trauma many Holocaust survivors suffered, especially as the early days of the crisis reminded them of events they experienced during World War II.

“We were not just making the evacuations happen — we were holding their hands and making the journey with them.”

Members of Ukraine’s Jewish community wait to board a JDC evacuation bus at the train station in Odesa.

“Certainly one of the biggest challenges was providing peace of mind to these seniors and supporting them in their decision. We were not just making the evacuations happen — we were holding their hands and making the journey with them,” Miretski said. “We needed to ensure that the unpredictable was predicted ahead of time, as they trusted us to bring them out of the conflict.”

Rescue teams would arrive at the home of the survivors and, in some cases, had to carry elderly down flights of stairs on a stretcher, into an ambulance waiting nearby. JDC and Claims Conference professionals across three continents in five countries worked together to then plot a safe route and get the evacuees across Ukraine to Poland.

At the border, the survivors were either transferred to another ambulance or crossed directly over to make the journey to Germany or to countries like Austria, Israel, Moldova, and Poland. In Germany, the Claims Conference, together with the German government and local Jewish social service agencies, arranged for their long-term care in nursing homes in cities like Berlin and Dusseldorf.

Among them was Galina Ploschenko, a 90-year-old from Dnipro in eastern Ukraine. During the Holocaust, Galina’s father fought in the Red Army and she, her mother, and aunts were evacuated to Central Asia.

When she was rescued, Ploschenko was bedridden and alone, terrified by the blasts outside and the booms that grew louder and louder.

After the team arrived to rescue her, she made a days-long trek to an old-age home in Hanover, Germany. There, she recalled her relatives killed by he Nazis, her love of music, and how singing helped her stave off her fears.

As she told The New York Times: “I really want to sing, but I don’t know that I can anymore. I don’t have the voice for it. So instead, I just remember all the times I sang before.”

It’s a feeling that hits home for Miretski, who has been part of more than 170 rescue operations to date.

“I think that in many ways this operation embodies one of the core principles of JDC — no one will be left behind,” he said. “No matter what, we are there to do the impossible for Jews in need.”

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