On Feb. 26, two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, security forces in Kyiv decided that the city’s chief rabbi, Yonatan Markovitch, and his family, had to leave the country as their lives were in danger. They feared the rabbi would be targeted by pro-Russian elements.

There was only one problem—Markovitch refused to leave, insisting that the captain should be the last off the ship. “They had to drag him into the car,” said Markovitch’s wife, Ina, recalling events she said had felt like “a combination of a Hollywood movie and a Hassidic story.” The two were taken by security forces to the Ukrainian-Romanian border. 

Several weeks prior, the couple had assumed the heavy responsibility of preparing for the war, and—when the shelling began—sheltering Kyiv’s Jews in the local Chabad house and helping the elderly, such as Holocaust survivors, and people with disabilities, who had to remain at home. 

Although they were forced to flee, the Markovitches have not stopped helping Kyiv Jewry for a moment, while living in an empty apartment provided by a family friend, devastated to have left their home in Ukraine, not to mention having witnessed their lifes’ work—building the Kyiv Jewish community—destroyed. 

“I cannot afford to break down,” said Ina. “As Golda Meir said, it is not a luxury a Jew can afford. We do not have time to be refugees. … Our community members are now scattered across several countries and we try to help them. We work 14 hours a day.”

Yonatan and Ina have known each other almost from birth. The families of both made aliyah in the 1970s and lived in the same city, Kiryat Gat. 

Yonatan was born in 1967 in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, and Ina in 1969 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, then called Leningrad. 

“We first met when I was 7 and Ina 5,” he recalled. Ina said, “We would go out with our bikes next to the house [in an area] that had mud and would catch frogs. Already back then, he asked me to marry him.”

The two lost touch when Ina’s parents decided to move to a different city, but reconnected in their 20s with the help of Yonatan’s aunt, who was Ina’s mother’s good friend. 

“She said she wanted me to meet a boy,” Ina said. “When we met, he immediately recognized me. A few months later, in August 1990, we wed.” 

Yonatan made the decision to return to Ukraine in 1997 while on a trip to the country to visit the graves of the Jewish sages. 

“I understood that I need to follow in the footsteps of my great grandfather, whom I am named after, who was the rabbi and butcher in Uzhhorod, where I was born,” he said. “That is why I wanted to be the rabbi of the city. Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is the [chief] rabbi of Russia today, was at the time overseeing all of the Chabad emissaries in the former Soviet Union. He said it was not a problem. [But] he suggested first establishing a community in Kyiv and continuing from there. It’s been 22 years since then.”

According to Ina, when they arrived in Ukraine, it was still a third-world country.

“There wasn’t even a supermarket in Kyiv. We arrived at a two-bedroom apartment with five children back then, and there was no washing machine. The landlady said I was spoiled because I didn’t want to hand wash the laundry.”

Over the next two decades, the Markovitches built a Jewish empire, with the help of philanthropists and donors and created a community that boasted thousands of Jews.

The two set up a private Jewish kindergarten, a school, a kashrut system, a program for youth, a Chabad house for Israelis and a center that provides the elderly and those in need with medication and food. The pinnacle of their work is the special school they set up for children with disabilities that accepts both Jewish and non-Jewish students.

For his work, Yonatan has been recognized by the European Parliament and was awarded a presidential medal in Ukraine.

While trying to keep the community calm, as Russian forces continued massing on the border, the Markovitches began to prepare for war, stocking up on food, mattresses and hygiene products, all of which they stored in the basement of the Chabad house. The makeshift warehouse was filled with flour, rice, sugar, pasta and other non-perishable foods.

“Little did we know that the day after the war began Kyiv’s very last supermarket would close,” said Yonatan.

As for Ina, she understood the matter was serious when the Israeli embassy in Ukraine evacuated its staff from Kyiv within a few hours on Feb. 21.

“I got really scared. For us, the war began then. We called whoever we could and told them to leave, but already then it was more difficult to leave the country. Yonatan said he was not leaving, that he would be the last one to leave,” she said.

’The panic we were in cannot be described’

On Feb. 24, at dawn, the invasion began.

“Suddenly, at five in the morning, I heard loud explosions and the phone began ringing non-stop,” recaled Yonatan. “I looked out the window and saw smoke billowing.”

Dozens of Jews and non-Jewish neighbors sought shelter in the basement of the Chabad house, hearing the explosions above and watching on the news how millions of Ukrainians had begun to flee.

Despite their courage, the Markovitches, too, were afraid.

“I am familiar with such situations from Israel, both from the military and [from] the rockets launched by Hamas and Hezbollah,” said Yonatan, who served in the Israel Defense Forces and was discharged to the reserves with the rank of major. But in Ukraine, “it was different, [because the Russian] military is well-trained, strong and angry, [and] because there is great resistance by the Ukrainian troops.”

“The panic we were in cannot be described,” said Ina. “We are Israelis, and as such are used to sirens and missiles, unfortunately. But in Ukraine, there is nothing. They did not understand what was happening at all. People heard sirens and missiles for the first time in their lives and hysteria ensued. The systems collapsed.

“We were asked a million questions, no one knew what to do and the responsibility for it all fell on us. Yonatan instructed community members to pack their valuables and documents and come to the Chabad House. He managed the logistics and calmed everyone down,” she continued.

“To this day, there is a young man who lives in the Chabad House, and every time there is a siren, he calls—and it’s been a month. He calls in the middle of the night, and I calm him down and tell him to go down to the basement.”

As mentioned above, when Ukrainian security forces first showed up on his doorstep, Yonatan refused to leave.

“At first, I explicitly said that I was not leaving. I felt and still feel that I am responsible for the people there, those in need of help. It still pains me that I had to leave, but at the same time, I understand it was needed. My heart did not want to go, but my mind understood I had to,” he said.

Ina said, “The security officers gave us 15 minutes to pack. How could we possibly pack up our house in such a short time? I took a carry-on suitcase and filled it with as many documents as possible, some frozen challah [bread] for the road, canned tuna and water. We had no idea where we were going.”

Yonatan finally agreed to leave, on one condition: that every Jew in the community who wanted to leave the country with him would be able to do so. And although the security officers were not thrilled with the idea, they eventually agreed, and a small group set out for the road.

Members of the Markovitch family and other Jews were seated in four cars, with a secret service vehicle driving ahead of them. The vehicles carried the symbolic number 770,  the same as the address of the iconic Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Yonatan and Ina insisted on sitting in the last car to make sure the security forces left no one behind; their task was to only get the rabbi to the border.

“There were thousands of people on the road. Cars lined up at Ukrainian checkpoints, where they made sure, among other things, that Ukrainian men [ages 18 to 60, who might be called to fight] did not leave. One could have waited for 20 hours at any point, but our escort turned on the siren and bypassed them all,” said Yonatan.

Fourteen hours later, the convoy reached the Romanian-Ukrainian border, but the challenges were not over yet.

“We waited for ten hours at the border, and we were only about 100 meters away from the gate,” Ina recalled.

“At the last checkpoint, cars lined up for 50 kilometers [30 miles], close to each other, and although the security forces bypassed most, at one point, it was no longer possible, and we had to wait with everyone. There were thousands of people blocking the road. It was raining. We did not eat for four days, there were no bathrooms, and it was terribly cold. We were with small children. It was a nightmare.”

On top of all that, the group also had to endure anti-Semitism. After being held up at the border, Yonatan explained to the guards that the convoy had had an arduous journey, had not showered or slept in a long time, and one of them replied Jews were used to being dirty.

A commotion ensured that prompted the arrival of the guard’s commander, who allowed the convoy to pass after recognizing Yonatan, having previously seen him on television.

Five days after setting out on the journey, on March 4, the Markovitches reached Israel. They were welcomed home by members of the Bnei Akiva youth group, who have been greeting refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport from Ukraine with singing and dancing ever since the war began.

“We were shocked to be received like this, it was not planned,” Yonatan said. “All of a sudden, I was filled with this feeling that I am part of my people. Our people are good at being united. While we were still in Ukraine, we got phone calls from Jewish communities from all over the world—South Africa, Australia, India and more—they all asked how they could help.”

The moment the Markovitches landed in Israel, they resumed their responsibilities of helping the Jews of Kyiv.

“People turn to us all the time—one needs a bed, another needs accommodations. We also help refugees who fled to Israel and other countries. Members of our community have spread to various places. They fled without their documents, and when they arrive and say that they are Jewish, they need to be able to prove it, and then they call the rabbi and the rebbetzin.

“People cry on the phone, tell us how afraid they are, and we try to help as much as possible. There were 2,500 people in our community and we would distribute 800 food parcels a month before the war. We used to have department heads and a secretary, now we are alone, without even a computer. We cannot afford to break,” said Ina.

Yonatan concurred, “We don’t have time to be sad and depressed, because many people depend on us. Only at night, sometimes, we allow ourselves some hysteria, because we have no idea what will happen to us. It only happens when no one but God hears us.”

After the war broke out, the Markovitches launched a fundraising campaign to help Jews in Kyiv. But with funds scarce, often the family has to pay out of its pocket.

“We rented dozens of buses full of refugees and transported them to the borders—to Moldova, Hungary, Romania,” said Yonatan. “We have no money, but what can we do. We’ll find ways to repay later.”

Yonatan and Ina are soon leaving for Washington to work vis-a-vis U.S. lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on the matter of Ukraine. 

As their credit cards had been canceled in Ukraine, “Ina’s brother had to pay for the tickets.”

Two weeks ago, despite the risks, Yonatan returned to Kyiv.

“We were taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to do everything for the good of the Jewish people,” he explained. “Yes, it is scary, but the people need me. I came with food, medicine and hygiene products. My son Ezekiel insisted on coming as well. I intend to go back to Kyiv again. They need our help.”

Ina explained the only people left in Kyiv are the ones who were not able to leave the capital, for financial or other reasons.

“The Ukrainian pension is approximately 70 dollars, which people didn’t receive now because of the war. The situation is terrible. People are waiting for the messiah. That is why Yonatan returned. Not to bring people chocolate, but food. These are the requests we receive.”

But while most would describe the Markovitches’ work as heroic, they insist anyone in their shoes would do the same.

“You just cannot abandon a community you spent 20 years building,” Ina said. “We have good friends who are stuck in the war zone, people that need our help, and we will not leave them despite the challenge and the danger.”

Yonatan explained, “We haven’t thought of what we have accomplished, because we are still in the process. We cannot now focus on ourselves or we’ll be stressed, which is why we suppress [the feelings]. There are so many questions—What will we do? Where will we live? But we cannot allow ourselves to think about it.

“For now, we are doing everything we can for the Jewish people, without thinking whether we will be hurt or not. We need to save the Jews from hell.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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