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My son helped capture a Russian pilot
Yakov Yankulenko (Lerner), director of a kosher hotel affiliated with the Podol synagogue
Destruction after Russian bombing raids
At 11 pm on Feb. 23rd I got a phone call from Gershon Beloritzky, an assistant to the head rabbi of Ukraine, who told me that rav Blaykh recommended leaving town as soon as possible. I had my doubts because the rabbi said multiple times that the war was a possibility etc. Was it another way to instill fear? Gershon said: “No, this time it is all very serious. Leave now, it will be too late in the morning.”

We celebrated Shabbat in the basement; the bombing was bad

I woke up my family; we gathered what we could and went to the Jewish camp Makhane Shuva. Our car was the last one to get gas in Hostomel: it was at sunrise. Then they made an announcement through the loudspeaker saying that the gas station was closing and asking everyone to leave.

Torah reading
Yakov Yankulenko (Lerner)
Back in 2014 we organized self-defense groups at our Podol synagogue and guarded Jewish sites. I joined a sniper school then and legally bought a rifle. At the beginning of 2022 the tensions were rising, and we could feel that the war was getting closer, but it was still a shock.

The camp was located between Bucha and Borodyanka, and the first day there was relatively quiet. We all hoped that it was some kind of a provocation, and that the situation would normalize quickly, but by Friday the 25th it was pretty much impossible to leave Kyiv. We heard explosions on the same day. They seemed far away, but the windows shook a bit.

Gradually the cannonade was getting closer, and we celebrated Shabbat in the basement; by then the bombing got bad. We could hear shots; the windows trembled, and the earth shook. During the night they wanted to evacuate us, but then changed their mind: it was too dangerous. In the end many people went down to huge storage freezers. The children were wrapped in blankets and shivered from the cold. In the morning a full bus and a few cars left towards Zhytomyr. We were there too: me, my wife, and our three kids (our older son just graduated from high school, and then we have a 13 year old and a 10-year old). The younger ones were scared. We tried to sing songs with them, but it did not really help.

After about half an hour they started to bomb the highway, with planes over our heads it was really scary. “Do you even know where we are going?” - my wife Sara asked me. “Are you sure that it will be safe there?” And we returned to the camp, where we would definitely have shelter and food. At that point the only people at Makhane Shuva were my family, kitchen workers, and two armed security guards.

The guards turned out to be traitors

Things settled into a routine of sorts. There were a few bombings each day, but other than that it was quiet. Then the Ukrainian forces downed a Russian plane nearby, and two pilots catapulted out. The territorial defense forces warned everyone to be on the lookout. My oldest son Zoar took aerospace classes and used training programs to learn to be a pilot. He said that according to the manual, the pilot has a special emergency set and has to get to the highest point possible, and use a special signal mirror to communicate their location to the passing planes, and then they would be picked up at night. The guys from the territorial defense forces started looking and did catch one of the pilots at the water tower.

One of the guards started talking about what a great guy Putin was, and he and his partner tried to take my weapons
Then the bombings got very close. The windows were blasted out. The electricity and heating turned off, and it got very cold. And then the two security guards turned out to be traitors… One of them started talking about what a great guy Putin was, and he and his partner tried to take my weapons; they even called some fake police officer. I agreed to surrender the weapons, but only at the police station and with signed documents. While they were distracted, we quickly went from the camp to the village where the family of one of the cooks lived. We were driving along the forest road and came upon a checkpoint, with local residents, who did not even have proper uniforms. They saw that my passport listed my place of birth as the Russian Federation and dragged me and my son from the car. They had us on the ground with guns to our heads. I screamed at one of them: “You are an idiot! First ask me who I am and where I am from, and then point the gun at me!” He asked: “Well, who are you?” I blurted out: “Dikoe pole sniper school, Kurskaya street, 26, ID number such and such, code name such and such.” And then a guy stepped in and asked if I knew Max (my instructor). I realized that this was my chance, called Max, had him on speakerphone, and said that I could get killed. Then I gave my phone to that guy who studied at the same sniper school. Anyway, everything got sorted out, but we went from the frying pan into the fire. At that area we basically had first row seats to watch real tank battles starting, the planes flew over, the mines making whistling sounds…

“Look, they are dragging your son somewhere”

For two weeks we hid in the basement with the owner of the house in the Migalky village or Bucha region. We ate the food we managed to bring from the camp. There was complete round the clock blackout. We cut up the carpets and nailed them to the windows. I stood guard at the yard every night armed with a machine gun. I was listening carefully: there was a rumor that the Russians sometimes entered the village at night.

I turned around to see a few men drag Zorik along the street like a sack of potatoes. They figured that he was placing the marks, not erasing them! I caught up with them in my car and asked them to let my kid go, and they shouted that he was a spy!
Once the owner’s relative said that someone put a mark on their fence. Zoar and I went there; we found the mark and painted over it. Then my son said that he would walk around and look to see if maybe there were other marks on the fences in the neighborhood. He left, and I was standing there talking to this woman, when suddenly she pointed: “Look, they are dragging your son somewhere!” I turned around to see a few men drag Zorik along the street like a sack of potatoes. They figured that he was placing the marks, not erasing them! I caught up with them in my car and asked them to let my kid go, and they shouted that he was a spy! They were armed with sticks and knives, and I had a machine gun on the next seat. One of them got so scared when he saw my Kalashnikov that he dropped the knife and bent over to pick it up. And I just acted on a reflex. I kicked him as hard as I could, grabbed my Zorik, threw him in the car and drove off. But it was scary.

Soon we found out that our community settled in Peremyshlyany in the Lviv region at a Jewish hotel. At the same time the local territorial defense guys warned us that there would be a battle around the village in the next couple of days. So we were back on the road heading west. The trip was long and hard, and there were a lot of checkpoints with regular army forces.

The kids jumped to the floor without waking up and covered their necks

As soon as we settled in Peremyshlyany, Gershon asked us to go back to the camp to pick up the Torah scroll and get several hundred kilograms of kosher chicken meat that would last the community for a long time. So I went back there with him and my wife. Sara did not want to let me go for a long time. At first I wanted to go to the front, and she threatened that she would not let me back etc (I have to note that the First Brigade, where I was enrolled at some point, went down from 700 people to 350).

Anyway, we were on our way back through the Zhytomyr region, when we heard on the radio: “Citizens, air raid alert.” And suddenly a Russian SU-27 was flying right over our heads, and then it was shot downed by two Ukrainian planes… Zhytomyr itself looked terrible too: the rigged up bridge, blown up roads, an entire street block without windows, everything was charred.

When we were leaving the Zhytomyr region, we got stopped at the checkpoint and asked where we were going. We explained. They asked: “Aren’t you afraid?” By then the camp had been looted, but the guards did not find the underground storage with the chicken. We got the Torah scroll and the meat and went back to Peremyshlyany, and then moved to Irshava, where the Kyiv community settled.

I clearly remember the first night at the new place. The resort was close to the highway. We were drifting off to sleep when a truck drove by making a huge ruckus. At that point our two younger kids jumped down to the floor without waking up and covered up their necks to protect the arteries as I taught them. I felt a lump in my throat. They are true children of the war with honed reflexes. We had a lot of “adventures,” and our lives hung in the balance multiple times, but the most scared I felt was in that hotel room, when I was looking at my kids lying on the floor.

My father-in-law and mother-in-law live in Crimea at a military base

In a while we moved to Hungary, where rav Blaykh partially restored the Kyiv community. I was so exhausted on the way that I fell asleep at the wheel. The car was basically totalled, but all of us were completely fine…

Approximately 200 people settled in Budapest, and the rabbi told me to set up a dining hall for them. I hired some people; we bought the equipment and were able to provide food for the entire community, daycare, and school, as well as festive meals. We spent a year like that, and then the funding ran out. Now I live in Vienna and work as a mashgiach in a Sephardic restaurant. At first I spent two months living out of my car until I saved up the money to rent an apartment and send for my family. Unfortunately, the children of Ukrainian refugees only receive assistance in Austria for one year, and it is mostly focused on learning German. Now even that is not available. We might have to take the kids out of school.

Still, the main ordeals are behind us. The kids have relaxed: at first they were unusually quiet, stayed at home, and did not go anywhere.

The war really played a trick on our family. My brother was in the occupied territory in the Kharkiv region for a bit. And my parents in law, military retirees, live in Crimea on the territory of a military base. And they are very pro-Russian.

Friends and acquaintances in Russia stopped getting in touch once the war started. And before that they talked in TV-slogans: why did you start Maidan and the revolution etc. They (Ukrainians) are the enemies; they killed Jews, how could you support them…

At Balaton Lake
The testimony was chronicled on September 11, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina