Cookies managing
We use cookies to provide the best site experience.
Cookies managing
Cookie Settings
Cookies necessary for the correct operation of the site are always enabled.
Other cookies are configurable.
Essential cookies
Always On. These cookies are essential so that you can use the website and use its functions. They cannot be turned off. They're set in response to requests made by you, such as setting your privacy preferences, logging in or filling in forms.
Analytics cookies
These cookies collect information to help us understand how our Websites are being used or how effective our marketing campaigns are, or to help us customise our Websites for you. See a list of the analytics cookies we use here.
Advertising cookies
These cookies provide advertising companies with information about your online activity to help them deliver more relevant online advertising to you or to limit how many times you see an ad. This information may be shared with other advertising companies. See a list of the advertising cookies we use here.
My mother counted 11 bodies during her evacuation from Bucha
Pavel Zeldich, Guide, Jewish local historian
Photo courtesy of Pavel Zeldich
I found out about the war at 7 am on February 24, when my father called and said that we were being bombed. At first, I didn’t get it, and I even hurried to get ready for work, but soon things became clearer. Even before noon I was surprised to see long lines in stores. I wondered why, thinking that with the Russian border far away, the war would not reach us so soon.

I fully took in the reality at about two in the afternoon, when I saw helicopters flying in link formation towards Hostomel (a town 10 km from Kyiv – ed.). As I found out later, these were Russian special forces sent to capture the airfield.

My TANAKH is most likely still in the basement

We quickly collected essentials (money and documents), ran to the store, and checked the condition of the basement of our apartment building.

Then came the explosions. The windows shook. We were still “green” and unprepared, so we grabbed our child and ran to the basement of our 9-floor building in the clothes we had on. The basement was already packed with neighbors from our building and those nearby. I found out later that these explosions were measures from our artillery that drove back the landing force from Gostomel and damaged the landing strip, preventing Russian planes from landing. And so the first night passed. By morning, a Ukrainian army howitzer drove by the house, firing off a few rounds.

The first time Pavel realized that the war had broken out. The burning Hostomel in the background.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Zeldich
There were incredibly many people in the cold basement, and children were constantly crying in fright. The situation turned worse when the water and electricity were shut off. Those who prepared water in advance would run back to their apartments for bottles. Without electricity, communication with the outside world was lost: explosions replaced reports from the battle front.

For me, the worst thing in such an environment was the crying children to whom it was impossible to explain anything. Some adults tried to distract them, read them books, sing songs, play games. My own daughter held up emotionally the first night, but then... With every passing day we too were drained of strength and emotions.

The first Shabbat in the basement, we still lit candles, then we had to ration.

The meaning of the book of Kohelet revealed itself so interestingly in wartime conditions. A time to love, a time to hate, a time for war, a time for peace... At first I was able to read my phone, and when the battery died, on paper. I am thinking that this TANAKH is probably still in that basement.

A shell hit my mother's five-story building, and the upper floors burned down. Every time I was unable to get through on the line, I mentally buried her.
The first few days everyone was confused, frightened, and bewildered by this version of "denazification." Eighty percent of our basement residents were Russian-speaking, so from whom and for what reason should we be "liberated"? After the news from the neighboring village of Borodyanka (a village in the Kyiv region, half destroyed by the Russian army – ed.) reached us, people started feeling hatred for Russia and to feel sure that we would fight back and win.

We joked through tears, saying that Borodyanka would become our version of Borodino.

We left as we were with no time to go back to the apartment

The last straw that prompted the evacuation was when a missile hit a neighboring building, causing several apartments to burn up. I did not want to leave, because my mother remained in Bucha (a city 15 km from Kyiv, already occupied by Russians – ed.) and I hadn’t been able to contact her for a while now.

A shell hit her five-story building, and the upper floors burned down. Every time I was unable to get through on the line, I mentally buried her. And when the network finally reappeared, I hysterically apologized for previous conflicts. I was feeling torn and didn’t know what to do: should I try and get my wife and daughter out from under bombardment in Irpin or to try to make it to Bucha to my mother, knowing that her house was surrounded by Russian tanks and infantry.

Our evacuation was sudden. In the basement my wife found out that her friend was going to try leaving through “a humanitarian corridor,” and the vehicle was leaving in 10 minutes a block away from us. We left as we were, with no time left to run to the apartment and pack. I left the keys with my neighbor. The only documents I had left were a passport and a public library card from the Vernadsky Branch.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Zeldich
Photo courtesy of Pavel Zeldich
We arrived in Kyiv, and from there took a commuter train to people we knew in a nearby village. As we sat at the train station, every slam of the doors made us and other refugees twitch and try to hide. All around us lights were dimmed for precaution and the train moved in complete darkness. After a week in the basement, my daughter began to be especially afraid of the dark, withdrew into herself, spoke very little and when she did speak, stuttered. We all communicated in Russian as our native language, and now when my child tries to use this language, she has begun to stutter.

In the village, we were able to compose ourselves and found some friends from Kyiv, with whom we took a two day bus trip to the Polish border. After 15 days in the basement, my mother was also able to evacuate from Bucha through Chechen checkpoints. For whatever reason, it was Chechens not Russians she saw stationed in Bucha. She said she counted 11 dead bodies on the streets while driving through her town.

My wife and daughter crossed the border, and I stayed behind at a friend's place to recover a bit. I needed to return to Irpin through Kyiv. Our neighbor also evacuated, but the cats were left behind. I needed to save them. I knew it was dangerous, but I couldn’t help it. I had no idea what would come next...

My friend from Irpin was killed during the shelling. My mother's friend was injured and bled to death; they found her only in the morning. They said that mass graves have already appeared in Irpin in the area of Victory Park. Today there isn’t even hatred for Russia, only a feeling of emptiness and confusion.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Zeldich
Together with the other passengers I watched from the train car window as two missiles flew by.
Instead of a postscript

I returned to Kyiv in the second half of March. At that point the city was almost encircled by the Russian troops; the only lifeline was from the South. I was lucky: our train was delayed in the field near Boyarka (the Boiberik from "Tevye the Dairyman”) for only four hours. Together with the other passengers I watched from the train car window as two missiles flew by. In Kyiv, I spent the night with friends, under the roar of artillery. The next morning, I went to the last Kyiv checkpoint, where they brought the wounded from Irpin. In the same place, on the side of the road, lay the bodies of the dead they were able to bring out as well.

Because of the terrible confusion, there was no unified command at the checkpoint. The military, police, and national guard were all in charge. For two hours I begged them to let me pass into Irpin, telling them that I was trying to get to my two cats and a turtle that had been locked in the apartment. As a result, they put me onto a military vehicle going to the front line. At the very “front” the situation was much simpler: everyone was preoccupied with artillery and machine guns. No one pays attention to the civilian returning to the thick of things.

I crossed a half blown up bridge, along the way seeing a lot of abandoned, shot up and burned out cars in which people had tried to get out of Irpin. I moved towards the house right where the battle was going on. At the time, the city was divided in half and between the Russian units and the positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, there was a gray zone with street fighting throughout.

Photo courtesy of Pavel Zeldich
At the entrance to my building I saw three graves, and a family of five was buried in the next yard. They all died together from a missile attack.
At the entrance to my building I saw three graves

I don't want to think back to how I walked the last three kilometers; I will just say that I put a note in my breast pocket, next to my passport: "If you find my body, please notify my father” and his phone number.

Anyway, I had to save my pets. I reached the house under the roar of artillery and machine gun bursts. Several shells had hit our nine-story building, killing five neighbors, but my apartment had survived, except that all the windows had been smashed out. My frightened cats were hiding under the bathtub, and the turtle had almost gone into hibernation because of the cold. I put them all into my backpack and bags and started to make my way back out the same way. On the way I passed one of our snipers lying in a trench on the lawn.

At the checkpoint entering Kyiv, the officers examined my live baggage and let me through without any problems. The whole trip took five hours, but it took me another week to recover, listening to every distant explosion.

April, the Russians retreated, and a couple of days after the end of hostilities, I went to Irpin and Bucha. At the entrance to my building I saw three graves, and a family of five was buried in the next yard. They all died together from a missile attack.

In the first weeks after liberation, when very few people returned, I brought food for abandoned animals: there were a lot of them! Sometimes I had to climb balconies or throw food through broken windows to cats and dogs locked in apartments.

In May, power and water were restored in Irpin, and then gas. Very quickly much was restored, and by winter destroyed and burned out houses were being demolished.

Russian soldiers took over my mother's apartment in Bucha, and they left behind a complete pigsty! They put out cigarettes right on the wallpaper without getting out of bed. They threw half-eaten food onto the floor, and left behind garbage and dirt, but they didn’t forget to steal two new TV sets. My mother is now in Germany; my wife and daughter are in Poland.

In the summer, I was able to get to the town of Narodichi on the border with Belarus to preserve unique wooden grave monuments. I also managed to secure permission to install a monument on the site of the former Jewish cemetery in Obukhiv, Kyiv region. Before the war, with the support of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, I had planned to erect monuments at the sites of former Jewish agricultural colonies in the area of Chernobyl, as well as in cemeteries in abandoned shtetls. Prior to the current conflict, the worry was only radiation, but after the Russian army, it also became mines. Therefore, I had to put away this idea until more peaceful times.

The testimony was chronicled on March 13, 2022

Translation: Dr. Viktoria Barsky