NARRATION: In the early days of the Russian invasion, with bombs and uncertainty reigning, millions of Ukrainians scrambled for safety.
They fled their homes hoping to escape to neighboring countries. And along the way, many stopped in Rabbi Moshe Azman’s Kyiv synagogue. 92-year-old Rahyl Entina, worried about her nephew and grandson who stayed behind.
RAHYL ENTINA (IN RUSSIAN): We don’t know what will happen to them. These Russians. Please tell me, how can they have no shame? How can they have no shame?
NARRATION: One person who managed to escape with her: her daughter, Larisa Pogosova.
LARISA POGOSOVA (IN RUSSIAN): It was scary when we were traveling through Ukraine. I had only seen this sort of thing in movies. I felt anxiety and fear that we were in danger.
NARRATION: They secured a coveted spot on an evacuation bus to Moldova, with other Ukrainian families. And for the second time, Entina was forced to leave Ukraine, and become a refugee. In 1941, her family fled the Nazi army.
RAHYL ENTINA (IN RUSSIAN): Me, my mother, grandmother, and my sister, we were twins. We left on a train but no one told us anything about where we were going. There were people left in Babi Yar, our friends…
CORRESPONDENT NICK SCHIFRIN ON CAMERA IN KYIV BABI YAR: Babi Yar – this ravine, here in Kyiv. In September 1941 the Nazis seized this city and over a 36-hour period, Nazi soldiers marched tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews here, killed them with machine gun fire and dumped them in a mass grave.
NARRATION: That was one of the first large-scale massacres of Jews in World War II. During the war, German troops and local collaborators killed a million and a half Ukrainian Jews, gunning them down in fields and ravines, in what is known as the Holocaust by bullets.
This year, many Holocaust survivors feared for their safety. Their lives became bookended by war.
GREG SCHNEIDER: These Holocaust survivors, these Jews were abandoned by the world as children, as the Nazis were coming for them, to murder them, and they had to flee. And so we had to rescue them.
NARRATION: Greg Schneider heads the Claims Conference which provides financial assistance to Holocaust survivors. They partnered with the Jewish aid agency the Joint Distribution Committee to call thousands of survivors.
Pini Miretsky arranged medical evacuations for survivors in ailing health, or unable to get out on their own.
PINI MIRETSKY: How can you explain to a person who was maybe frightened at 80 plus or 90 years old, they need to leave their homes?
NARRATION: Evacuating the elderly during a war requires a small army of supplies, and people – like the Claims Conference’s Ruediger Mahlo.
RUEDIGER MAHLO: You had to evacuate them with an ambulance because they were so fragile. So where do you get an ambulance in a country of war where 90 percent of the ambulances are confiscated by the army?
NARRATION: Among the Holocaust survivors needing medical attention was Samuil Slobodskiy. Early in the war, he insisted on staying. But in June, during a moment of calm, he decided he needed to escape. He brought only himself, and his sense of humor. How do you feel, the driver asks?
SAMUIL SLOBODSKIY (IN RUSSIAN): Age-appropriate, 85 and then some.
NARRATION: Slobodskiy faced a host of medical conditions, and traveled by ambulance across Ukraine with a doctor.
DRIVER (IN RUSSIAN): We will take two stops, possibly three, depending on the state of the patient. Then the next crew will take him to Dusseldorf.
NARRATION: Dusseldorf, Germany may seem like the last place to evacuate a survivor of Hitler’s genocide. But nursing homes across the country opened their doors to Holocaust survivors with the support of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
GREG SCHNEIDER: If you had asked us a year ago if we thought that there would be evacuation of Holocaust survivors from the Ukraine to Germany, we would have laughed. No one would have imagined it.
RUEDIGER MAHLO: How should you communicate it to the survivor? We will evacuate you to a country that over 75 years ago was persecuting you and wanted you to be dead. It was not an easy sell.
TATYANA ZHURAVLIOVA (IN RUSSIAN): I somehow believed it would be okay. On the journey, I was scared of what was going on around me. I was shaking on the way.
NARRATION: Tatyana Zhuravliova and Larissa Dzuyenko were evacuated from Kiev in March. After 26 hours of travel, they finally arrived in Frankfurt. They now live in this nusring home, and share a room and memories of escape from the Nazis.
LARISSA DZUYENKO (IN RUSSIAN): My mother was Jewish and my father was a journalist. He said that “The Germans don’t love the Jews. So you all need to go away.” And he sent us to Uzbekistan.
TATYANA ZHURAVLIOVA (IN RUSSIAN): I was two years old when the war started. What they have told me is I climbed under the table and said to my mother “Let’s get in the hole.” So I already knew that there were some bomb shelters or something like that you needed to hide in.
WENDY LOWER: One out of every four victims of the Holocaust who died, died on what is the terrain of Ukraine today.
NARRATION: Historian Wendy Lower has been studying the Ukrainian Holocaust for three decades.
WENDY LOWER: The Holocaust in Ukraine occurred in a way that was incredibly rapid, a direct assault that was perpetrated primarily in a kind of military style, so-called security operations, which were mass shootings and mobile gas vans. We’ve discovered at least a thousand mass murder sites.
LARISSA DZUYENKO (IN RUSSIAN): In 1941, we fled from the Germans. Now we’ve faced war once more. And now we’ve come to the Germans so they will protect us. This is the paradox. So maybe there is no such thing as permanent friends, or permanent enemies.
NARRATION: As for Larisa Pogosova she is now living near Frankfurt, but without her mother, Rahyl. A week after they arrived safely in Germany, Rahyl died of Covid-19.
LARISA POGOSOVA: Every day in the evening I think I must to call Mom. It’s difficult for me, very difficult.
NARRATION: These two-time survivors who were hesitant to leave their homes, have been surprised by the community they’ve found in the birthplace of the Nazi party.
And despite her grief, Pogosova, too, says she is grateful for the warm welcome she received in Germany.
As is Zhuravliova.
TATYANA ZHURAVLIOVA (IN RUSSIAN): Everyone received us so warmly and paid a lot of attention to us from the first day. I don’t feel like I’m in Germany as a guest of the Germans, but rather that I’m here among my own people.
NARRATION: Yet, many still want to return to Ukraine, just as they did after World War II.
LARISSA DZUYENKO (IN RUSSIAN): As soon as the situation improves there, I want to go back home. My motherland is there. You know? That’s all.