A Holocaust Survivor's Daughter Recalls Their Peril in Ukraine

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1938 Vanda Vasil’eva with her parents, Maria and Semen, in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Photo: USC Shoah Foundation)
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As a child in Mariupol, Ukraine, 11-year-old Vanda Vasil’eva hid from the invading German army during World War II, surviving extermination in the Holocaust by bullets, which took the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews. Decades later Vanda was again dislocated by war. She died at 91, sheltering in a Mariupol basement during an attack by Russian soldiers.

In an interview with Elise Lieberman, who acted as a translator for Retro Report, Larysa Hryshchenko, Vanda’s daughter, recalled the time she and her mother spent in hiding while their city was under attack. “We lived in the basement of a store for a long time,” she said. “It was scary, they were shooting our neighborhood.”

“The whole time my mother asked what was happening, what had happened, and we couldn’t answer her,” she said. “We were without water, without anything, but the hardest part was being without information.”

In the six weeks they spent in the basement shelter, they faced daily struggles to find warmth, food and water. “Many people died because there was not medical aid,” she said. “If it had been warm, if we had had medical aid, Mom would have survived.”

When Larysa emerged from the shelter, she discovered that their house had been destroyed by a missile. “I don’t know how things were during World War II, but my mother said now was worse, because at least then our home survived,” she said.

Larysa was evacuated with other refugees to a hotel in Frankfurt. Nursing homes across the country, with the backing of the German government, have opened their doors to house the survivors. But she holds onto hope that someday, she will be able to return to Ukraine. “The Germans received us and treated us well, thank you to them,” she said. “But everyone has their homeland. We are waiting for peace, quickly.”

Retro Report’s short documentary, above, made with PBS Newshour, traces Ukrainian Holocaust survivors’ perilous journey to safety and confrontation with the past. Rebecca Liss, the producer of the film, recently spoke with Dr. Edna Friedberg, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about how today’s war has shattered the lives of Ukraine’s Holocaust survivors. You can watch the conversation on the Museum’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. You can subscribe here and view past newsletters here.