It’s both surreal and excruciating to think that just three weeks ago, I was sitting in my home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, with little to no fundamental understanding of the extent to which my life was about to change completely.
Together with my husband, I have lived in Kharkiv for the past seven and a half years. We left Israel and began our work as Chabad shluchim (emissaries) in that thriving university city, not far from the Russian border. I would not say that life was always easy, but we enjoyed our work, and thank G-d we always had what we needed. Our home was filled with food, guests, and happiness, and it was there that we were blessed to expand our family and positively impact the community around us.
The first indications that our quiet, peaceful life was about to turn for the worse came about two months ago. What began with rumors slowly intensified into real fears. But, we decided that we would stay as long as we could, understanding that we needed to be there for the community that had become such an integral part of our lives.
When the invasion began, we were still in our home, a fifth-floor apartment, and as we began to hear the bombs, we knew we had to flee. We quickly left and found shelter in a basement. We felt safer, but certainly not safe.
We had no idea how long it would be, and while we were able to grab a few belongings, we left almost everything behind. We spent six days living alongside others from the community in that basement before we realized that we had no choice but to get out of Ukraine.
Clutching our four children, we ran in terror beneath the open skies toward our car. The drive was terrifying, the sounds of mortars all around us and smoke rising from this city we had grown to love. I remember thinking that it was like the destruction of the ancient city of Sodom, where the people were commanded not to look back as the town was reduced to ruins. I also didn’t want to look because I just wanted to be able to remember this city as it was before and not what it had become.
I so wanted to be able to go back to our home to get important documents and preserve some memories, but our instinct told us it was way too dangerous. We had two small suitcases, but they were mostly filled with food and water, as we had no idea how long it would be before we could find or buy supplies.
We drove for many hours with the four kids in the car and looking back; it was truly miraculous that we found our way. There were no regular restrooms or places to stop safely, and we just kept on driving.
The whole journey to safety would take about fifty hours before we landed back in Israel, greeted by a warm Israeli day, still wearing our snow boots, the only shoes we had.
One of the hardest things about this whole experience is how it has turned us into people in need. We are so grateful to have survived and have our lives and health, but it has completely transitioned who we are. As shluchim, we lived our lives in service and gave to others.
For now, at least, we are on the other side of the coin and have people giving to us. Colel Chabad, our Israeli brothers and sisters, have provided us and hundreds of others arriving now from Ukraine with clothing and food cards. We quickly realized that the snow boots wouldn’t be very useful here in Israel, so we bought shoes for the kids. We have connected the other refugees from our town with Colel Chabad so they, too, can get access to food and clothing to get them started. So many good people have opened up their hearts and provided us with whatever we need.
We live with the most excellent thanks to Hashem. We know so many people are still there, and it’s painful to think about what they must be experiencing.
We are now living out of my sister’s home as we look for an apartment of our own, knowing that we will need to start our lives again. We have little idea what lies ahead, but we know that even if the war ends today, the city of Kharkiv that once was is no longer.
Postscript: Shortly after completing the text above, we heard that the Chabad in Kharkiv suffered a direct rocket attack.
The area hit served as our yeshiva and had been in operation for decades. It was here that countless young men learned Torah, even in the darkest days of communism, and it was a place that inspired so many people to become closer to Judaism and practice selfless love for others.
I am forced to acknowledge that we don’t know when we will be allowed to go back. But, as a people, we have faced many tragedies and expulsions, and just like in the past, we will rebuild and grow stronger.
The writer was the Chabad shlicha in Kharkiv up until two weeks ago.