‘Undercurrent of fear’ among Ukrainian Jewish orphans fleeing to safety

Chabad emissaries describe harrowing journey evacuating Ukrainian Jewish orphans out of combat zone.

By World Israel News Staff

A Chabad rabbi and his wife, who have headed the Jewish outreach organization’s community center, educational institution, and orphanage in Zhitomir, Ukraine, described an atmosphere of fear throughout the country and their harrowing journey to safety in an interview on Monday.

“I’m in the bunker right now,” Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm told Chabad.org. He remained in the city some 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Kyiv as his wife, Esther, and other Chabad emissary families evacuated the children in their care to a safe location.

Esther Wilhelm explained that there is a Ukrainian army base close to the orphanage, meaning that the area became a prime target for Russian air strikes.

“On Thursday morning the kids were woken up by the bombings, scared,” she told Chabad.org. “Just a few hours after the first air strikes, the children were evacuated. They were the most vulnerable.”

Malka Bukiet, another Chabad emissary, evacuated the first group of some 100 children. Wilhelm left with a second group a few days later.

While they have not disclosed their exact location, the Chabad emissaries and their orphan charges are now in the far-western Carpathian Mountains region of Ukraine.

“We arrived in a safe location on Friday morning, it took us 15 hours to get here,” Bukiet said.

En route, the adults and children had their documents checked by armed soldiers at checkpoints and heard air raid sirens.

The orphans and their caretakers were later joined by internally displaced Jews from Zhitomir.

“We had to open a new location for the others who wanted to escape,” Bukiet said.

Esther Wilhelm said the change of scenery helped ease the children’s anxiety, but “there is an undercurrent of fear. We keep getting updates from Zhitomir. I’m trying to keep things fun and pleasant.”

“We’re trying to keep the kids occupied,” she said. “The greatest fear is of what may happen, it’s all been so unexpected.”

“We’re trying to give the kids a regular life, as much as possible,” Bukiet said. “Shabbat was beautiful, we felt a strong unity. We were all together, with real Ahavat Yisrael (love for the Jewish people.) We brought a Torah scroll and prayer books along, and we had Shabbat prayers and meals.”

As for the future, Wilhelm said she and her group of children plan to remain in Ukraine, while Bukiet’s group intends to emigrate abroad, possibly to Romania.

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“I don’t know how long we’ll be here, if we’re going, and when we’ll be able to return,” Bukiet said.