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I turned on cartoons, so my kids would not hear the artillery
Yuliya Pototskaya, Hillel director, mother of three children
Yulia's children
At 5 am on the 24th I heard explosions… I was lying in bed and thinking: “well, it has started.” My younger daughter (5 years old) woke up and told me: “Mom, someone is beating out the carpets outside.” I agreed: “yes, someone is cleaning out rugs. Go back to sleep.” By 7 am my oldest daughter (13) woke up and said “Mom, I think, the war has started.” And I have an 8 year old son.

My younger daughter was shaking like a leaf

The worst part was not knowing how to explain all of it to them. We tried to pack our things, and then we sat down and felt lost. And then I just turned on the TV and upped the sound on cartoons, so the kids would not hear the artillery. So we watched cartoons the whole day, and I tried to wrap my brains around what was happening.

The ruined building of the Karazin University
Photo: Wikipedia
The ruined museum of Grigory Skovoroda

Photo: Wikipedia
On the 26th my oldest daughter, a student at the Kharkiv Ballet School, was supposed to perform in their Chipollino show. But the performance happened at home…

Really, the war has been going on for eight years, and up till the last moment I believed that it would not get to the point of the full-scale invasion. Then I thought that it would all be done in 2-3 days, a week at the most.

Approximately 15 people from the Russian Hillel wrote to me on the first day of the war: “Yuliya, we will never be clean of this; we feel guilty.” Some of them still keep in touch with me and even sent me money, and many planned to leave Russia….

We lived at the Saltovka neighborhood — you all know what was happening there. We took down the mirrors in our apartment and went down to the basement for a few hours. Then our younger daughter said that it was more dangerous there that at home, so we listened to her point and came back.

We set up a big bed by the load bearing wall in one of the rooms, and at night I turned on relaxing music that tuned out the explosions, because I just couldn’t take those. And during the day we watched cartoons to avoid hearing it all. At first I said that they would not make me leave, because it was my home, but when the air raids started the following week, and I had to cover the kids with my body… it was awful. My youngest was shaking like a leaf, and there was nothing she could do with it. Children should not see stuff like that, hear it, and be afraid of being blown up.

I told them to grab the toys that were important for them so they would keep a piece of home. On the night of March 2nd we loaded up two cars, and at 8 am we picked up my husband’s parents (78 and 83 years old) and left on our way. I was in the car with the kids, and my husband was with the parents.

Mom, who are refugees?

Approximately at 9 am we went by the Hillel office, and an hour later it was bombed to nothing. Blown to smithereens. The Jewish school was also shelled, and the synagogue windows were blown out.

At 9 am we went by the Hillel office, and an hour later it was bombed to nothing. Blown to smithereens. The Jewish school was also shelled, and the synagogue windows were blown out
My son asked: “mom, who are refugees?” And I answered: “Danechka, we are refugees…” At first we thought we would stay with friends at Dnipro for about a week, but we only spent two days with them, and then on March 4th the fighting at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Station started. So we left with those friends at 6 am the next morning. We did not know where we were going or where we would stop. It was a long journey. We crossed the border on March 11th. Sometimes we spent the night in the car (for example, in Uman), then we slept at the assembly hall of the Hesed Jewish Community Center in Khmelnitzky (there Danya drew his home in Kharkiv with a caption “Ukraine!”), and we spent a night at Lviv Hillel.

An hour before the curfew I could see what we could reasonably reach and would start looking for lodgings. We thought about living in Uzhgorod, but there were no rental apartments left. Also, in Kharkiv we could barely hear the sirens; otherwise I would have gone mad. I turned off the phone at night, and when I woke up in the morning there would be 10 alarm notifications. I slept through them, which was good. And in Western Ukraine the sirens worked fine, and I could not get used to them.

In the end, thanks to the Bratislava rabbi Misha Kapustin and his wife, we found shelter in that city. When I walked into the hotel room that they rented for us, I just started crying. And I still remember how their little daughter said “We are a family now!”

We spent eight days there, sent my husband’s parents to Israel and moved on to France. The Nice conservative Judaism community offered us a three-room apartment for three months.

My children still jump from loud noises, and a sudden bang can make them drop on the floor. And they really want to come home. Sometimes one of them starts crying, then another one. When we went to a pro-Ukrainian demonstration here, the kid cried for an hour straight. And now they are working through all of it. Sometimes they cry and they dream about coming back to Kharkiv.

My children still jump from loud noises, and a sudden bang can make them drop on the floor. And they really want to come home
Instead of a post scriptum. A year later

We learned to live here and now, with no past and no future. Because it hurts to remember the past, and it’s scary to think about the future. The kids are going to the French school, and everyone takes really good care of them. Danya takes soccer classes, and he was invited to Nice to play for a big team. My youngest dances in a Ukrainian dance group, and the oldest continues with her ballet studies. She performed a few times, even as a soloist.

I thank God every day that we ended up here, in France. I thank Jean-Francois and Judith who gave us, complete strangers to them, an apartment. And I thank the Cagnes-Sur-Mer municipal office that has a Ukrainian flag on the building. I feel support every minute of every day, in the smiles of people on the street, of our kids’ teachers and just passersby who wave at us when they see a Ukrainian flag on our car. I am thankful that my kids feel safe here. I am thankful to the Jewish community. And I am thankful to the Mediterranean sea that I cried into during our first months here.

My family and I took part in the photo project of messier Renoir. He is a famous photographer, a descendant of a famous artist. He did a series of photos with Ukrainian refugees. He took a photo of me and my kids holding a picture of the bombed out Hillel. The photo even ended up on a magazine cover.

My husband and I are still working at the Kharkiv Hillel, which has been working from the space of its Lviv counterpart for more than a year. My deputy moved to Lviv, and about 30 of our students are there now. At the same time, one of the young women came back to Kharkiv. We rented a space for the club in the same building, but on the other side that has not been so impacted by the shelling. They hold Shabbat and observe all holidays.

Despite the beauty of this place and 300 sunny days per year, we believe that we will come home and will rebuild our Hillel, and Kharkiv, and Ukraine. But it won’t happen before the end of the war. I am not going to move the kids in the middle of the school year. Right now Kharkiv does not have a single in-person school.

It is hard to live between two countries, splitting plans between Ukraine and France, but…

Yulia and her children in a photo project dedicated to refugees from Ukraine
The testimony was chronicled on April 12, 2022