Holocaust survivor in Israel: New home after the second escape

Status: 04/28/2022 03:58 am

More than 24,000 people have fled to Israel since the beginning of the war – including Holocaust survivors like Valery Benderski. He thinks back to his homeland of Kharkiv in songs.

By Tim Aßmann, ARD Studio Tel Aviv

“We are refugees,” sings Valery Benderski. “With fear in our hearts, we fled from Putin as I fled from Hitler before.” In his song, the old man tells of friends who helped him in times of need – and that he will never forget this willingness to help.

Benderski is sitting in the still sparsely furnished living room of his new apartment in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv. The 85-year-old has little left of his old life in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. He and his daughter fled the apartment they shared in the first hours after the war began, he says: Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, they had talked about a possible war and discussed what they would do then.

When the first rockets hit the area and woke them up, they just took the cat, their passports and some money. There wasn’t enough time for more. They wanted to leave. The flight initially led to western Ukraine; later it went to Warsaw. There, the Israeli immigration organization Jewish Agency took care of them and arranged the flight to Israel.

Few news from Kharkiv

Benderski knows the country from visits. His brother and granddaughter have lived here for years. After their arrival, Bendersky and his daughter were initially accommodated in a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya. He raves about the good food there and is still overwhelmed by the willingness to help. He has little information from Kharkiv: all his friends and acquaintances have fled. Benderski found out in a roundabout way that the building in which his apartment is located was hit. He doesn’t know what condition his former home is in.

For Benderski, it is the second flight from bombs in his life: in 1941, his mother and her two sons fled from Kharkiv to Kazakhstan from the German Wehrmacht. Now, as an old man, the Holocaust survivor had to flee again.

He tells about his brother who has been living in Israel for many years. As the war loomed, both talked about what fate it would be to have to flee again, to lose your home. He couldn’t explain it, says Benderski. Maybe God has an answer.

“The feelings from back then come back”

In Israel, authorities and various organizations help refugees like Benderski – one of them is the “World Jewish Restitution Organization”, which handles the claims of Holocaust survivors and their compensation. The organization’s Israel director, Nachliel Dison, keeps in touch with Valery and his family. “We don’t know exactly how things will continue and whether we can help him,” he says. “But we helped others so that they didn’t suffer another blow. The first blow was the Holocaust and now they are losing again.”

Benderski’s song performance on the guitar made him think. “Even though he was a toddler at the time, these memories are a deep part of him, of his soul. His songs show that,” he says. “He combines past and present in it. It’s a story. His story. The feelings from back then come back. Maybe in a different form, but they’re there.”

“Here I feel like among my own people,” says Valery Benderski about his refuge in Israel. He does not know whether he will ever be able to return to Kharkiv.

Image: Tim Aßmann

A total of around 24,000 people from Ukraine and Russia have come to Israel since the beginning of the war. Almost 9,000 Jewish refugees from Ukraine have already submitted an official immigration application to Israel. Does Valery Benderski think he can ever go back to Kharkiv? At first he had this wish, says the thin man with thick white hair. But now he no longer believes that this will ever be possible again soon or at all. Then he talks about the warm welcome in Israel and says: “Here I feel like I’m among my own people.”

In his song, Benderski sings about how he wandered around and was received in Israel with love and sunshine. After the second escape in his life, he now feels very comfortable in Petah Tikva.

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