Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find refuge in Germany

Borys Shyfrin fled the Nazis as a young child along with other members of his Jewish family.

More than eight decades later, the Ukrainian Holocaust survivor was again expelled from his homeland – but this time he found a safe haven in Germany.

Shyfrin is among a number of Ukrainian Jews who witnessed Nazi terror and have now fled to the country from which Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich launched its campaign of extermination against the Jews.

He never wanted to leave Mariupol, where he had lived for decades. But Russia’s brutal attack on the Ukrainian port city made it impossible to stay.

“There was no gas, no electricity, no water at all,” said the 81-year-old from a Frankfurt nursing home to the AFP news agency, recalling the incessant bombardment by Moscow’s armed forces.

“We waited for the authorities to come … We waited one day, two days a week.”

Bodies of people killed by bombs and gunfire lay in the streets, recalled Shyfrin, a widower who had lost touch with his only son.

“There were so many of them… no one picked them up. People got used to it – nobody paid attention.”

People scraped by finding as much food as they could with water supplied by a fire truck that regularly visited its neighborhood.

Shyfrin’s apartment was damaged during the fighting in Mariupol – defended so fiercely that it became a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance – and he spent much of his time taking shelter in his building’s basement.

– ‘Got Homeless’ –

The elderly man eventually left Mariupol with the help of a rabbi who helped the local Jewish population leave the city.

He was evacuated to Crimea and from there made a long overland journey through Russia and Belarus, finally arriving in Warsaw, Poland.

After a few weeks in Poland, a place in a nursing home in Frankfurt was found. In July, he was transported to Germany in an ambulance with the help of the Claims Conference, a Jewish organization that supports the evacuation of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors.

Shyfrin, who walks with the help of a cane, is still processing the whirlwind of events that unexpectedly carried him to Germany.

The outbreak of war was a “very big surprise,” he said.

“I used to love (Russian President Vladimir) Putin very much,” said Shyfrin, who is a native Russian speaker, served in the Soviet Union and later worked as a radio technician in the military.

“Now I don’t know if Putin is right to go to war with Ukraine or not – but somehow this war made me homeless.”

Shyfrin was born in Gomel, Belarus in 1941.

When he was just three months old, his family fled to Tajikistan to escape German Nazi troops occupying the region.

Many of Belarusian Jews perished during the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.

In neighboring Ukraine, too, the once large Jewish community was almost completely wiped out.

After the war, his family returned to Belarus and Shyfrin completed his studies, did military service and settled in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1970s.

– ‘Traumatized’ –

The pensioner seemed philosophical about the twist of fate that forced him to leave his homeland.

“Well, it’s not up to me,” he said when asked if he was fleeing war for the second time in his life.

His most immediate concerns are of a more practical nature – like how to access his money at home.

“I can’t even get my honestly earned military pension,” he said.

He recently moved into a new nursing home run by the Jewish community where there are more Russian speakers.

The Claims Conference not only supported Shyfrin on the last leg of his journey, but also supported him financially.

Since the conflict broke out, it has evacuated over 90 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to Germany, a break from the organization’s usual work of ensuring survivors receive compensation and continued support.

The body had long helped run care programs for Holocaust victims in Ukraine.

However, as the conflict intensified, it had become clear that such mentoring programs were no longer sustainable, particularly in the east, said Rüdiger Mahlo, the conference representative in Germany.

“Since many of the survivors needed a lot of care and could not survive without this help, it was clear that we had to do everything we could to evacuate (them),” he told AFP.

Getting them out came with enormous logistical challenges, from finding ambulances in Ukraine to finding suitable nursing homes.

It is a struggle for many of the frail Holocaust survivors to grasp the fact that they have found refuge in Germany, Mahlo said.

They flee to a country that “has haunted them in the past and has done everything to kill them,” he said.

“Certainly they are traumatized,” he said.