Apartment building and car after March 1 bombing.
Apartment building and car after March 1 bombing. (Iana Syrotnikova)

JN Contributing Writer Ashley Zlatopolsky translates a dispatch from a relative in Dnipro.

If you’re born in Ukraine, but you have Jewish roots, most likely your family will have an interweaving of Ukrainian and Jewish traditions. My father is Jewish, and this means that my childhood was full of foods such as forshmak (Jewish herring) and matzah. Every year, we celebrate Passover and Rosh Hashanah. We cherish and honor the memory of our origin and know all of our relatives up to five generations back.

For us, family comes first. Six years ago, I took part in the “Book of Generations” project in Israel. As part of the project, my family’s historical narrative was reconstructed. In the process of collecting information about my ancestors, I was given a questionnaire to fill out. It contained a section called “evacuation.” Who from my family was evacuated during World War II? Where were they evacuated? How did they manage to survive in such a difficult financial situation? What were their strongest memories of the war?

[‘Our Beautiful City is Being Destroyed:’ Stories from Kharkiv, Ukraine, in the Midst of War]

With my father’s help, we were able to fill out the questionnaire. He told me the story of how the women and children in our family were evacuated from Kharkiv to Uzbekistan and the Ural Mountains in 1941. There, my grandmother worked as a hospital nurse for four years. The most difficult thing for them was to be in a non-native place, to be separated from loved ones, from their husbands, to eat unusual food and live in a different climate. Their strongest memories were of the kindness of people of solidarity.

My family’s reason to survive was simple: to guarantee the future of their children.

Speaking about these topics filled me with an unexplainable bitterness. How could my family go through this? Yet the words “war,” “evacuation,” “separation from loved ones” and “survival” didn’t sound real to me. The only way to understand the horror of war, to understand how a person feels in an evacuation, is to go through it yourself.

Iana Syrotnikova uses the phone in her basement shelter in Kharkiv.
Iana Syrotnikova uses the phone in her basement shelter in Kharkiv. Iana Syrotnikova
The War Begins

The word “war” entered my life on Feb. 24, 2022. At 4:50 in the morning, we were awakened by a sound that I had never heard before in my life: the sound of an exploding shell, followed by the sound of anti-aircraft defense. Two minutes later, my phone rang. My mother was calling me from the other side of the city, shouting into the phone: “Iana! The war has begun!” 

From that moment, the city of Kharkiv didn’t sleep.

As of Feb. 24, we became hostages in our own home. My husband, Igor, recorded a video on his phone. Explosions and rockets were visible from our balcony. The sounds of war grew as the city was increasingly bombed. We filled a suitcase with documents, medicines and valuables, which we kept at the entrance to our apartment. We also filled a small bag with our possessions to keep in our car, in case we had to leave.

It seemed to us that we had thought of a lot, planned accordingly, and that this would help us survive. We equipped our bathroom as a place of refuge, filling it with candles, matches, water, food, blankets and pillows. Every time air raid sirens began, we grabbed our rescue cat, Lady, and ran to the bathroom, leaving only when the sounds subsided. In the evening, we kept the lights off to comply with total blackout orders.

Iana gathers supplies for Ukraine troops as part of volunteer efforts.
Iana gathers supplies for Ukraine troops as part of volunteer efforts. Iana Syrotnikova

Being on the streets was dangerous; a missile could strike anywhere. Yet, we were running out of food and water, so Igor left to search for food. He stood in huge lines and sometimes came home with nothing. There was a food shortage. In Ukraine, March 1 would typically signal the beginning of spring; however, spring never came. Instead, at 5 a.m., a shell hit the property of our apartment building. A deafening blast threw us on the bed, knocked out balconies and windows, and damaged the gas pipeline.

Six cars parked outside the building burned down, including ours. Our possessions were lost. We ran outside and saw a mess of debris — broken windows, dents from fences that flew into the air. Yet somehow, everyone who lived in our building was alive. In this moment, we learned a valuable lesson: to forget about material things and appreciate every survivor. That day, many people died in other places that were bombed, including 28 people trapped in the rubble of our regional administration.

The hell that had become Kharkiv was no longer just audible; it was visible.

As the day went on, more than 10 rockets flew over our home. We spent the remainder of the day and the following night in the basement of our building. For the first time, I truly encountered the kindness of strangers — neighbors with whom we had only said hello offering us a place to sit, which we returned the kindness of by offering them food.

[Find all of the latest coverage from Ukraine]

In the basement, we didn’t have the ability to go outside, use the restroom or contact relatives. We each wore two jackets, gloves, a hat and a hood. The night seemed endless, and the bombing didn’t stop. To this day, I remember the sounds and shaking walls. We were afraid the basement wasn’t safe enough, calculating by the sounds of the bombings which side of the basement the rockets could potentially strike next.

My husband didn’t close his eyes even once, keeping our cat Lady in his arms all night. We didn’t have a carrier, and she was nervous from the sounds of the bombing. The next day, we learned that almost all residential buildings around us and a school where students lived and studied were destroyed. Our home was no longer our fortress.

En route from Kharkiv to Dnipro.
En route from Kharkiv to Dnipro. Iana Syrotnikova
Learning to Survive

We had to make an urgent decision. Many Kharkiv residents, including my friends, were leaving the city. There were massive lines and traffic jams. Our lives were now at risk. The problem was, we have a large family and there was no longer working phone service. Miraculously, with the help of neighbors, we managed to contact my parents. Together, we spent many hours making the most terrible decision of our lives.

However, the decision wasn’t unanimous. My husband’s parents refused to leave. When we said goodbye to them and hugged them, I was afraid we’d never see each other again. Because our car burned down, they gave us theirs, leaving them nothing to drive away with, if needed. With my husband and our cat, we left. From the other end of the city, my parents, brother’s family and four more families of our friends also left. We each carried only one bag per family. Nothing materialistic mattered. We simply had to leave.

For the first time since the start of the war, I left my home. And for the first time in my life, I saw completely destroyed houses, checkpoints, a large number of people in uniform with machine guns, trenches, barbed obstacles and signs to watch out for mines. It felt like a movie, but it was real and terrifying. Until we left the Kharkiv region, we continued to hear planes and explosions. I wondered if we would die on the road.

The path was difficult physically and mentally, but we made it out alive. It was painful to see my parents for the first time since the beginning of the war. In the 10 days I hadn’t seen them, they seemed to grow old. They were deprived of the opportunity to spend their retirement in comfort, in their home, among the items they accumulated all their lives. Their tears and empty looks that day will remain lodged in my memory forever.

After many hours of driving, we arrived in the city of Dnipro [about 135 miles southwest of Kharkiv]. Our friends were waiting for us and sheltered us in their country home, alongside four other families. As of today, the home continues to open its doors to people fleeing Kharkiv. In the two months we have lived with them, two more families have joined us. Yet, at the time, we were afraid Dnipro would have a lack of food like Kharkiv, so the first thing we did was gather food. We were terrified and we needed time to recover, to not be afraid to approach a window.

Menorah in Dnipro, which has a massive Jewish community.
Menorah in Dnipro, which has a massive Jewish community. Iana Syrotnikova
Finding a Path Forward

That day, on March 2, the word “evacuation” entered my life. Just like my family during World War II, we had left our homes behind. We had to run, survive and look for a new shelter over our heads. Our family archive continued their evacuation files, and now it was supplemented with our own personal certificates of displaced persons.

Every day, I continued to wake at 5 a.m. like I did in Kharkiv, the time when bombings began. I slept and still sleep in all of my clothes, with my shoes at the side of the bed, in case we need to run to a bomb shelter in the middle of the night. Even now, two months later, air sirens ring constantly, as the threat of war comes closer to Dnipro. On a few occasions, military infrastructure in the city was actually bombed. It’s still not safe.

I now understand that evacuation has two sides. The first is a fear for one’s life, the unbearable pain of parting, the frightened looks, shaking animals and faces filled with tears. The second side is the appreciation for the support of the military, the strangers waiting in Dnipro ready to help, the calls from colleagues and friends. In this moment, every call pushes you to continue moving forward, to continue surviving. It returns you to the ground beneath your feet and stops you from feeling disappointed in the world.

During that time six years ago when I took part in the “Book of Generations” project, I compiled a family tree which I posted on a public genealogy platform. Many years later, our Zlatopolsky relatives in Detroit, who we had lost touch with after they immigrated to the United States, found the tree. In the Soviet Union, it was forbidden to have any contact with relatives in the West, and therefore keeping a relationship wasn’t possible.

Before the war began, we reestablished our relationship. Strong roots and traditions allowed our family to pick up right where we left off. Now, our Zlatopolsky family is in touch with us every day. They support us and help us. It’s a connection that goes back many decades — during World War II, our grandparents also helped one another survive.

Family history book from Israel project.
Family history book from Israel project. Iana Syrotnikova
Save One Life, Save the Entire World

When we arrived in Dnipro, our family arranged help for us from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine. We were called by a representative immediately upon reaching Dnipro, offering us any assistance we needed. Now, we’ve joined their cause.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine has created a hotline to provide humanitarian assistance and evacuate civilians from all parts of Ukraine. Their call center works around the clock to process a huge number of applications. This is where we began to volunteer, answering calls and arranging help for civilians trapped in war.

On the other end of the phone calls are frightened people whose emotions are familiar to mine. I remember a call from a woman in Kharkiv who asked for help evacuating. She lived in an area under heavy shelling with her disabled mother, who doesn’t have legs, and with her son, who is ill with cerebral palsy and can’t move on his own.

These people can’t run into their basement or leave without outside help. Yet the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine was ready to jump in and organized a special flight for people who can’t move independently. I remember the day the Federation sent this evacuation flight to Kharkiv. The entire call center rejoiced.

I also remember the words of Rabbi Meir Zvi Stambler, the Federation’s director, who said that if at least one person from Mariupol could get through to us, we could send a bus to pick that person up. Getting involved with this cause has allowed me to find strength in myself to help those who need it most. It’s not always possible to help everyone, but if you can help one person, I believe the world becomes a better place.

Volunteering at a call center (Iana, Igor and other volunteers).
Volunteering at a call center (Iana, Igor and other volunteers). Iana Syrotnikova
Humanity at its Greatest

It’s been two months since I learned what it’s like to leave your home, lose all your goals and dreams, and part with your loved ones and friends. I constantly draw parallels in my head to the stories of my grandparents with renewed vigor. In these stories, I find my present self. Previously, I never understood. Now, when my grandparents are no longer around, I am able to feel their stories inside of me, where they continue to live.

If I ever get to tell my story to my children or grandchildren, I will tell them that war is not just a fate in life that a person experiences. It’s a huge loss, especially a human loss. Behind every story told about war is a mass of destinies that are all intertwined and imprinted in history. I will tell them that war is scary and painful, that it is the unknown, but that it is also something in which you begin to appreciate seemingly simple things.

Iana’s nephew, Lev Syrotnikov, age 8, draws a picture for Ukraine troops.
Iana’s nephew, Lev Syrotnikov, age 8, draws a picture for Ukraine troops. Iana Syrotnikova

In war, you appreciate being able to hear the birds singing, not the sound of artillery or missiles flying by. You enjoy the opportunity to sleep, at home, in bed and in silence. You are thankful for light, heat and water. You appreciate the life of every person that is next to you, really appreciate it. I will tell my descendants that evacuation is when you gather your essentials in a hurry and run away to the sounds of shelling of your home and city, when you can’t stop the flow of tears. Every day, you dream of your old life.

Yet, on the other side of a complex web of emotions, it’s not about losses. Instead, it’s about what you gain. The evacuation, no matter how painful it is, shows the support of people you don’t know. There is solidarity and mutual assistance. This is humanity at its greatest, which in peacetime is often invisible. Now, it shines with great strength.

 Lev’s drawing was delivered with lifesaving supplies to Ukraine troops.
Lev’s drawing was delivered with lifesaving supplies to Ukraine troops. Iana Syrotnikova

I understand what my grandparents were trying to say when they said that the most powerful memory about evacuation is the kindness of people. It’s not about being alone. Strangers help you find a new home, provide you with food and medicine. You are constantly taken care of. They are ready to support you for as long as you need. I felt this same feeling myself. The kindness of people gave me back my strength. It multiplied my desire to survive in order to become a beacon of strength for other people.

However, I hope that my stories will remain that way for my descendants: just stories. That these terrible words will never take on a real form for them. If they’re asked the question, “What is your mother or grandmother’s strongest memory of the war?” I want them to answer, “The kindness of people.” After all, despite the fact that my heart is torn to pieces, it is held together by a large number of hands from different parts of our big world. 

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