92-year-old Jewish-Ukrainian finds refuge in Poland

Iya Rudzitskaya. Photo: Reuters

Iya Rudzitskaya has fled Kyiv twice. First, in 1941, when she was just 10 years old when German bombs started falling on the then-Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The second time last year, but this time the aggressors came from the east, when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. The 92-year-old Ukrainian is Jewish and successfully avoided extermination by the Germans when her family fled deep into the Soviet Union. This time, she had to flee the Russians, finding refuge in Poland.

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“I did not believe that this could ever happen,” said Rudzitskaya, sitting in the small one-bedroom flat she is sharing with her son Artur in Krakow, a city in the south of Poland.

“It is incomprehensible. before the Germans were the enemy, you see. I don’t understand... the Russians' actions,” Rudzistkaya said, still struggling to wrap her head around the situation. On February 24, the 92-year-old found herself on the other side of the looking glass, just like it was with Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

“They think that they are defending their country, they are defending themselves but they came to us, they have destroyed the unfortunate Kharkiv, what do they need it for?” she asks.

Small wonder she is confused. The Kremlin says that its “special military operation” was necessary to stem a security threat arising from Ukraine's ties to the West. Kyiv and its allies say Ukraine never menaced Russia and that the invasion is a war of aggression aiming to subdue a neighbour and seize the land.

This is not the first time her life has turned on its head.

Rudzitskaya slowly looks through the family photos she took from Kyiv along with some books, documents, and other basic necessities. She squints her eyes, trying to find her young self in the pictures. Her sight may slowly be failing her, but her memories remain vivid.

Iya’s first exodus

She was born in 1931 to a respectable Jewish family. Her paternal grandfather, Nuchim Waisblat, was the main Kyiv rabbi from 1902 to 1925. Her father, Vladimir, was a writer and publisher of books by Ukrainian authors including Taras Shevchenko, the founding father of Ukrainian literature.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in early July 1941, Rudzitskaya woke up to the sound of bombs. Her paternal uncle, a surgeon, called her father and said that there were many wounded brought into his hospital.

As a member of Young Pioneers, the Soviet Union’s mass youth organisation, she had been tasked with delivering military summons to young men.

But as the German forces rapidly advanced toward Kyiv, her father knew that being Jews they were no longer safe in the city.

“Dad said in a panic that we had to leave, we need to pack and leave, but it was already impossible to leave because already by July 9 there was such terrible panic already,” she recounted “Everyone who could was fleeing, you understand: the communists, the Jewish people and all the others were leaving.”

Her parents took her and her brother and fled firstly to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine which at that time was the Soviet Republic’s largest city. But they were not to stay there for long as soon, the Germans were about to take that city too.

“We left Kharkiv in a kind of ambulance train. I remember how when we were riding across Kharkiv again bombs were falling. [...] We were crossing [the Lopan river] through a bridge and we saw tanks coming. They were bombing those tanks and we managed to cross this bridge,” she recounted her second escape.

Passing through Stalingrad, Kuibyshev, by steamboats and freight cars, they crossed the wide swathes of the Soviet Union to Tashkent, the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, located nearly 3,800 kilometres away from their hometown.

While Rudzitskaya and her family were on the run, the Germans began exterminating the Jews of Kyiv in Babyn Yar on the city outskirts on September 29. In a matter of two days, some 33,771 Ukrainian Jews were murdered during one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust.

Rudzitskaya's family returned to Kyiv after the war. She started working as a typographist, got married and gave birth to her only son, Artur, who is now 54.

You would think that for a Jewish person one exodus in a lifetime is enough. Yet that was not to be her case.

Iya’s second exodus

As in 1941, the invaders of 2022 began their shelling early in the morning. The bombs again struck Kyiv, and this time they also struck Kharkiv. This was because this time, the invaders were coming from the east.

In March 2022, Russian shells struck close to the Babyn Yar memorial. They have also damaged the Kharkiv Holocaust Memorial.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Iya and Artur, with the help of a Kyiv synagogue, fled first to Moldova, then to Lithuania, where an apartment was made available. But there were few job opportunities there for Artur.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or Joint, a Jewish relief organisation whose Kyiv branch was once headed by Rudzitskaya's grandfather, invited them to Warsaw and then to Krakow. They had to pass through ten different flats before landing in the one in Krakow.

The one downside to the flat is that from its window they see a Russian flag hanging from the Russian consulate.

But Rudzitskaya said that fortunately when you look the other way, the street looks like her hometown, Kyiv.

But naturally, it is not Kyiv.

“I want to go home. You know, just to go out and talk to my neighbours in a language we understand,” she said. “I had my own daily routine, my own regime, everything. And here I am torn out of everything there.”

It has been 11 full months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Thousands of civilians were killed and millions displaced, fleeing from the onslaught or as a result of their homes being reduced to rubble. And there is no telling how much longer the war will last. Since men of military age were barred from leaving the country, most of the Ukrainian refugees in Poland and other countries are women and children. They may truly hope to return home one day. If there is anything to go back to.

Iya Rudzistkaya has something to return to as well.

“I already have a grave there, my parents' graves are there and next to it is my plaque with my name. You just need to put the last digits there and everything, everything will be in order.”

But unlike the young women and children, this 92-year-old may not have enough time left to feel sure of returning home in her lifetime.