Kyiv-born Holocaust survivor Lazar Goldman celebrated his 90th birthday on the day he was rescued from war-torn Ukraine in an operation orchestrated by none other than his own granddaughter.
Lazar — who was forced to flee the horrors of war once again — will again have to make a new life for himself, but this time in Israel, and this time with the unending help of his loving family — including his 35-year-old granddaughter Valeria Khodzenko, who coordinated the efforts to rescue him and bring him to the Jewish State.
Goldman was born in Kyiv in 1932. In summer 1941, the German bombing began. His father was immediately drafted by the Red Army to defend the country.
"At that time, anyone who could have escaped from Kyiv did so," Khodzenko said, recalling her grandfather’s stories.
"His father worked in an orphanage for deaf children in Kyiv before the war started. When he was drafted into the army, he helped my grandfather's mother get a job there as a doctor because he knew they were going to rescue the orphanage from the capital.”
“In fact, that is exactly what happened in August 1941. My grandfather, his mother and all the children at the orphanage were rescued from Kyiv by ship.”
Khodzenko further said that her family escaped a mere month before the infamous massacre of Babi Yar, northwest of central Kyiv, where the Nazis butchered between 100,000 and 150,000 people, of whom about 50,000 were Jews.
At the end of the journey, Lazar, his mother and his father — who was dismissed from the army due to medical issues — settled near the city of Rostov, one of the oldest cities in Russia, until the end of the war.
"In his youth, there was no way to immigrate to Israel, it was impossible," Khodzenko says.
"Later, when he grew up, he had a good job with a good salary and also in the social aspect he no longer wanted to leave… The thoughts of immigrating to Israel began when my sister and I immigrated, about 16 years ago.”
Khodzenko recalls her upbringing, how the Holocaust never really came up, despite its heavy presence in their home.
"The issue of the Holocaust did not come up so much in our home. There was a stage when we were not allowed to say that our grandfather was Jewish, so we kept it a secret… In time, the world changed and the fear lessened,” she added.
At that time, Valeria started attending a Jewish school in Kyiv, where her path to Israel was paved: "I was active in the Jewish Agency in Kyiv and immigrated through an immigration program for students. I was a Zionist and decided to immigrate at the age of 18, a year after my sister immigrated to Israel, I enlisted in the IDF and served as a fighter.”
Decades after the Germans marched into Kyiv, the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, and with it returned the existential fear that was so prevalent during World War II.
"He was afraid that the Russians would occupy Ukraine," says Khodzenko, who decided to do everything she could to get her grandfather to Israel.
"He wasn't ready to leave the country alone so my aunt went out with him, even though she did not want to leave her husband in Kyiv."
She recruited not only her aunt, but also Alex Gorelik, who himself immigrated to Israel from Moscow about 28 years ago, and today works as an operating room engineer at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem.
When the Russian invasion started, Gorelik — who had worked for the Jewish Agency 20 years ago — was sent to Poland, where he ran a field hospital for Jewish refugees.
“When I got my diplomatic passport, I started managing the border crossings. We accept Jews and bring them to Israel, and we also carry out complicated rescue operations,” he explains.
"One day I got a call from Israel. It was someone who said her grandfather was supposed to reach the border and asked that we find him because he was lost and did not know what to do.
We contacted him. The night he crossed the border he celebrated his 90th birthday. We celebrated and sang to him. Then, we got him to our hotel before he boarded a flight to Israel."
Despite having no intention to make Aliyah, Lazar announced that he isn’t going anywhere, even after the war in Ukraine ends: "I am Jewish, I do not know the language but this is a country for Jews, and this is my country.”