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It was a 'difficult mission' to leave Kyiv

Israeli tourists, cousins of Jews board rescue bus from Lviv to Poland

Embassy staff, currently in Poland, organize transportation for dozens of citizens and relatives to flee Ukraine as Russian forces encircle major cities

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Ukranian-Israeli family, including teenagers Valerina and Vera, leave behind a war-torn Ukraine from Lviv on March 2, 2022 (Credit: Lazar Berman)
A Ukranian-Israeli family, including teenagers Valerina and Vera, leave behind a war-torn Ukraine from Lviv on March 2, 2022 (Credit: Lazar Berman)

LVIV, Ukraine — As the two buses pulled up to Israel’s honorary consulate in Lviv on Wednesday afternoon, the 50-odd Israeli citizens waiting in the parking lot were mostly in good spirits.

Two Israeli tourists who found themselves stuck in Kyiv for the first week of Russia’s invasion were even able to laugh about their experiences.

Assaf, a Tel Aviv resident, landed in Kyiv with his relative, 75-year-old Yankele Lion from Beit Shemesh, two days before Russian forces began their assault.

“We didn’t think there would be anything,” he told The Times of Israel. Then, he added, “We couldn’t figure out how to leave.”

The two men spoke to Israel’s Ukraine embassy staff every day, even after the diplomats relocated to Poland.

“The embassy was telling us to get to the border, and we’ll take care of you from there,” he said. “But what’s ‘get to the border?’ With a spaceship?”

Assaf and Yankele Lion, Israeli citizens, preparing to board a “rescue bus” commissioned by the Israeli consulate in Lviv on March 2, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The two Israelis only left their Airbnb apartment to buy food and supplies once the fighting started. They heard some sirens and explosions, but not many.

However, they did hear the bombing Tuesday that damaged the site of the Holocaust memorial in Babyn Yar ravine, where 34,000 Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis in 1941. “We felt that,” said Yankele.

They were finally on their way out of Kyiv during the Russian strike. “Yesterday there was a train, they told us to come,” said Assaf. “Somehow we succeeded. It was a miracle from God — somehow we got to that train.”

The two are heading toward Warsaw, where they hope to find a flight back to Israel.

The buses were organized by Israel’s Ukraine embassy staff, currently stationed in a hotel in the Polish border city Przemysl. Travelers registered by phone, and are slated to enter Poland at the Korczowa-Krakovets border crossing.

Lviv resident Irena, 71, whose vision is impaired, is neither Israeli nor Jewish. However, her cousin married a Jewish resident of St. Petersburg who immigrated to Israel several years ago. She was clearly appreciative of Israel’s efforts to evacuate her.

“It is very generous,” she said. “It is very kind. For me it is not a simple task to get out of Ukraine.”

Irena, 71, who is neither Jewish nor Israeli, flees Ukraine on a rescue bus organized by Israeli diplomats in Lviv on March 2, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

She was told about the bus by a cousin, which took a huge burden off her shoulders.

“I am alone,” said Irena. “It is not good to be alone in this time, and I have problems with my vision.”

She is headed to spend time with friends in Poland, then might continue on to Israel to join family members in Haifa.

The boarding process was orderly. Two serious-looking security guards with earpieces called families by name from a list, checked passports and made sure they were on the bus before calling the next group.

An extended family from Odesa on the Black Sea coast heard about the “rescue buses” from volunteers in the city who passed on their information to other volunteers in Lviv.

Israeli citizens and their relatives fleeing the Russian invasion await an Israeli-funded bus that will ferry them across the Polish border from Lviv city on March 2, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“At first we didn’t want to leave but now the situation is bad,” said Valerina, a senior who is also an Israeli citizen. “And we don’t know what will be tomorrow.”

The group of five — two women, two teens, and one man — are on their way to Warsaw, and from there to family in Tel Aviv. The two teenagers, Valeria and Vera, will end up at their parents’ home in Ashdod.

They intend to return to Odesa in a month, said Valeria.

“When the situation is quiet we’ll come back,” she said. “We left our families in Odesa.”

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