IASI, Romania — Most of the harried travelers arrived at the airport in Iasi, Romania on Thursday after days of traveling with only one or two suitcases — an entire lifetime of possessions and memories distilled into a couple of bags.
They had come from numerous cities, towns and villages across Ukraine — fleeing the Russian invasion of their country.
When they reached the border with Moldova, they were met by representatives of Israel’s United Hatzalah, who bused them to Romania for a flight to Israel, specially chartered by the aid organization.
Around 170 refugees, all of them Israeli citizens or close relatives of citizens, flew to Ben Gurion Airport where they were greeted by crowds of strangers who gathered to welcome them to their new lives.
Some of those who took the flight believe they will eventually go back to Ukraine. Others say they won’t.
Belarus-born Eliezer Stefansky moved to Kyiv eight years ago with his Russia-born wife Ina, to work as teachers. The pair traveled from Kyiv to Chișinău in Moldova before crossing into Romania.
“[Kyiv] was becoming a stronghold, with soldiers on the streets. The streets looked like there was a war and it was scary,” Stefansky said. “You find yourself in the epicenter of a war, hearing the bombs and rockets. The sounds of the explosions get closer and closer.”
The couple said they spent their final four or five days in Kyiv, hiding in the basement of the synagogue with other members of the community.
“We tried to make very hard conditions bearable in some way,” Stefansky said.
“For us, there was no problem within the community. They didn’t associate us with Russians or Belarusians — we are one Jewish nation and were treated as such,” he said.
“But at the border it was hard. The Ukrainian border guards, when they found out my wife was Russian they asked terrible questions,” Stefansky said. “But we understand them. They feel terrible pain. There are so many victims. People are dying — civilians, not only soldiers — and it’s painful. We understand.”
Vladislav Horvyi traveled from Kyiv to Romania with his wife, child, and in-laws.
“We were hiding in the synagogue with 40 or 50 people. We have a great synagogue. I hope it’s still there,” he said.
“The final days were horrible. There was a large number of missiles and we heard shooting in the street. And then we realized it was time to leave,” he said. “We are staying in Israel, we’re not going back. We had hoped to move anyway,” he said.
Horvyi’s family was one of a number who brought a dog or cat with them. United Hatzalah said that beloved family pets were allowed to make the trip, so long as they had the necessary paperwork.
“Pets are like family members for some of these people, and we don’t leave family members behind,” said a representative of the aid organization.
Chaim Gershman, his wife, and four children traveled from the Chabad village of Anatevka which is close to Kyiv and named after the Jewish hamlet in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The famed musical ends with the families of the fictional shtetl becoming refugees when they are forced to leave their homes.
“We left on Sunday, me and my wife and our four children. We have two suitcases and lots of bags. And then in Moldova someone gave us a gift of two suitcases,” Gershman said.
“We didn’t have time to choose what we brought. We just took what we could see, and left,” he said.
Vika traveled from Odesa with her 14-year-old son Andrey. Vika’s husband died five years ago, so now it’s just her and Andrey, one suitcase and two bags.
She explained that friends helped them leave Odesa and reach the border with Moldova, where they were met by the team from United Hatzalah, who took them to Romania to catch the flight.
She said that in some ways it was an easy decision to leave — it was clear that they needed to for Andrey’s sake.
She hopes to get him settled in school quickly, and back to playing soccer, which he loves. He used to play for a local team in Odesa.
“The most important thing is that he’s okay. We left our home, we left everything just so that he could be okay. I just want him to be okay,” she said.
“My friend is coming to collect us from the airport in Israel. We are going to stay with her but she has moved house recently,” said Vika. “I don’t even know where we are going.”