OTACI, Moldova — It is one of history’s ironies that the northern Moldovan town of Otaci, emptied of its Jews during World War II, is now an entry point for fleeing Ukrainians who are on their way to Israel.
Today Otaci, separated from the western Ukrainian city of Mohyliv-Podilskyi by the Dniester River, is a hodgepodge of single-story homes — small homes once owned by the former shtetl’s Jews alongside garish, palatial houses built by the area’s nouveau riche.
It is here that Christians for Israel, a Netherlands-based organization, has rented a reception building for refugees from all over war-torn Ukraine.
C4I, as it is known, which encourages Jews to emigrate to Israel and provides aid to needy Jews throughout Ukraine, puts those who qualify to emigrate to Israel up in rented rooms in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Moldova. It then drives them to Mohyliv-Podilskyi and shepherds them over the bridge that demarcates the border.
Some 2,000 Ukrainians with Jewish connections have crossed this frontier over the past week alone, according to C4I’s Ukraine director, Koen Carlier.
On Tuesday, around 50 of them made it to Otaci, exhausted, many of them disoriented, their entire lives squeezed into a suitcase each.
Most were women and children. Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 have to stay behind to fight for their country. Two young fathers managed to obtain exemptions, one because he has more than two children, the other because his young child is sick.
At the reception center, Christian volunteers working in shifts gave everyone food and hot drinks and a place for a short rest.
Then it was onto a bus for a nearly six-hour journey along potholed roads (many of them lined with walnut trees, an initiative of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev) to a summer camp facility 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. This has been rented for Israel-bound refugees by the Christian organization Ezra International, with funds from the Joint Distribution Committee.
The diverse group of people included Irina Malinovska from Kyiv, a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, who studies the philosophy of linguistics, and Mikhail Zelenskyi (no relation to the Ukrainian president), who built turbines for ships in Mykolaiv (or Nikolaev) close to the Black Sea until the factory was partially destroyed by Russian-fired Grad missiles on February 26.
Two women who had been cooks at the Jewish School in Vinnytsia were fleeing with their children, as were Andrei and Yanna Chernega from Odesa, she an actress and masseuse and he a physical therapist. Andrei has a grown-up daughter in the US and two small children with Yanna — Leonid, 4, and Solomon, 2.
By the end of a long and tiring day, these people and more gathered around tables to eat dinner prepared by local volunteers, all united by the desire to escape the war.
“These are not people fleeing from poverty,” Charlotte, a Moldova-based Danish evangelical Christian, who is also sheltering refugees, told this reporter in the morning. “Ukraine was really improving. People had nice houses with gardens in nice streets. They didn’t want to go to the West.”
The Chernegas, who had been on the road for two days, had certainly had a good life. They had planned to emigrate to Israel sometime in the future, said Yanna, but the stress of the sirens and constant explosions convinced them to bring the move forward.
Yanna’s brother is fighting the Russians in Kyiv and their mother refused to leave Ukraine until he comes home. Andrei left much of his family behind too.
“It’s only now that you really appreciate what Odesa was before the war, ” Yanna said. “It was so full of culture. There was a weekly festival on our street.”
When the war broke out last month, the couple joined a meditation group on the Telegram instant messaging service. There, they got to know a woman living in Kiryat Yam, north of Haifa, and decided to head there when they get to Israel.
Ira Niepojenko and her daughter Elizabeth, 11, also from Odesa, who came clutching their furry little dog, Cake, had no idea where they would be going. Ira, who worked in the personnel department of the cosmetics firm Yves Rocher, had to leave her husband Yigor behind, along with a city apartment and a weekend home (dacha) in the countryside.
Ira isn’t Jewish but is eligible to live in Israel because Yigor is. His family somehow survived World War II in the Ukrainian city of Sumy. “Yigor always wanted to make aliyah,” she said. “We had slowly been preparing the documents over the past three years. It was his decision to send us now, and he’s hoping to join us.”
Few people on the bus spoke either Hebrew or English or were Jewish according to Jewish religious law. They were eligible to immigrate because they or their spouse had at least one Jewish grandparent.
In Michael Zelenskyi’s case, it was his late father, Jacob, who was Jewish. Zelenskyi, whose wife died a year ago, was on his way to join his daughter, who lives in the northern city of Haifa. His son lives in Ashkelon, in the south.
Mykolaiv, located between Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port, and Mariupol, under days of Russian siege, has sustained heavy bombing, although according to Zelenskyi, Ukrainian forces have managed to keep the Russians some distance from the city.
Not that that has stopped precision attacks on infrastructure from the sky, or the firing of notoriously imprecise Grad missiles, several of which landed on the factory where Zelenskyi worked, causing substantial damage.
Zelenskyi, 64, noted how the tables had turned. In the past, he had worried about Hamas bombs falling in Ashkelon. Now, it was his children’s turn to worry about him. He pulled a note out from his passport containing the address and telephone number of his daughter. “If something had happened to me, I wanted to be sure she would be informed,” he said. “After all, eight people went shopping in Mykolaiv and were killed by a bomb.”
On Tuesday, nobody seemed sure whether Nativ, the Israeli body that checks the eligibility of people from the former Soviet Union to emigrate to Israel, would be doing its vetting at the camp or would allow everyone to fly to Israel and be processed there, in line with a government decision announced on Sunday. The plan is that those who are allowed will fly from Chisinau to Tel Aviv on planes organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
“This war brings out the good in so many people,” Yanna Chernega observed. “The war is too hard. From now on, I only want good.”