About 150 Jewish immigrants from the northwestern Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr — including some 60 children rescued from a local orphanage — landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday as Russian forces pressed with their offensive on Ukraine.
In total, about 400 Jewish Ukrainian immigrants were expected to land in Israel on Sunday, with hundreds more expected to arrive later this week as part of the Israeli efforts to rescue the besieged country's Jewry.
The new arrivals were welcomed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a celebratory state ceremony, also attended by Aliyah and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman among other dignitaries.
Most of the children arrived from Ukraine without their parents. Among them was 11-year-old Leah Danilenko, who has been living in the orphanage in Zhytomyr for the past three years and whose parents decided to stay in Kyiv.
“It was hard for me to leave [the orphanage]. It is my home and I loved it, but I know that in Israel I will get what I need and I think I'll stay here forever," she said.
Esther Valchouk, 12, also arrived in Israel alone while her mother and grandmother stayed in Ukraine.
"[My grandmother] did not want to leave because her whole life was there,” she said.
“But she told me to go to Israel so that I would be in a safe place. At first, I was very sad, I cried and did not want to go without her, but I believe it will be okay… I hope mom and grandma will join me later.”
Among Sunday’s older arrivals are Holocaust survivors Zoya (86) and Michael (88) Trachtenberg, who fled Russian-shelled Zhytomyr with several members of the local Chabad community.
“We are now refugees for the third time in our lives," said Michael, who fled from the Nazis to Donetsk as a child, from which he was forced to flee in 2014 when the Russians took over the city.
"Our only son, who died of cancer, is buried in Zhytomyr. I did not have time to say goodbye and I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to visit his grave again," Zoya said.