Jewish Ukrainian’s life blew up with the first bombs in Odessa.
Odessa native Diana Bukhman, 38, never wanted to make Aliyah. Yet here she is. Ripped from her former life, a good life she mourns the loss of, and she has to reinvent herself.
Aliyah is difficult enough when the immigrant makes a conscious decision to move to Israel. But, as a Keren Hayesod spokesperson explains, “Most immigrants from Ukraine did not plan to immigrate. Reality forced it upon them. Families were torn apart; the men stayed behind to fight and only women and children escaped for their lives. Everything had to be done very quickly, and they left everything they owned behind.”
Diana is one of the approximately 50,000 Jews who have immigrated to Israel from Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Her parents are among the 150,000 Jews who either decided to stay there or are unable to leave for some reason, with 300-500 still immigrating to Israel each month.
The story Diana told me in a Zoom conversation is a story of loss and resilience.
Tell us a bit about what your life was like before the war and what happened when the war began.
I have two boys who were 8 and 9 when the war broke out. I had an excellent life. I had a job, my parents lived nearby and they helped me with the children. I had a lot of friends.
I have two degrees – in psychology and management – and I worked as the director of the Jewish Volunteer Center. We helped people with special needs, the elderly, families at risk. I developed projects to resolve problems people in the Jewish community were facing.
I didn’t want to believe that there will be war. Many people told me to get out and I said, no. We live in the 21st century. There cannot be war.
Then I woke up at 4 in the morning from the bombing. I didn’t understand. I looked on the Internet; there was no official statement about this. A lot of my friends wrote that there was bombing in Kyiv and here and there – bombing everywhere, but there was no official announcement.
I lived near the port in the center of Odessa – the port was a critical target and they tried to bomb it and it is very close to my house.
But I also think it cannot be bombing because if something happens, my father comes to my house because of the children. I begin to panic and at the same time, I tell myself not to panic, if your father is not here, everything is okay. No official announcement, your father isn’t here – everything is okay.
But on Facebook and Messenger, everybody was saying the war has started and we discuss how it will be and who will leave and I don’t want to leave because I am Director of the Volunteer Center and I want to help people.
Then at 6 in the morning, President Zelenskyy announces that the war has begun. Then we all understand that [taking a breath between each word] . . . yes . . . it starts . . . so . . . it’s real . . . so what to do? Do we have shelters? Where are they? Can we map the shelters? I look on the Internet for a shelter near my house but I still believe the war will last one or two days and it will be over.
So after the first shock, how did you cope?
For the first days, I still couldn’t believe this because I didn’t want to believe it. I slept near the window and every day my brother called me telling me not to sleep near the windows but in the hall. He has been living in Israel for seven years so he knows about coping with bombing. But I didn’t want to do what he said.
If I don’t do this, it will not be true, I thought.
My brother said that at least my kids need to be sleeping in the hall and you can tell them they are in training for hiking in the mountains and they need to sleep on the floor. They made a tent and slept on the floor in the hall.
With the volunteers at the Center, we made a map of shelters and there was so much we had to do. The shelter nearest my house was a 7-minute walk away.
This is not good, I thought. And my mother said it will be a long war and you need to get out. When it is over, you can come back.
So, if you want me to leave, I told her, find everything. Find a house, pack my suitcases. I don’t know what to take. I open my closet and I don’t know what to take. Where am I going? For how long? I started to cry.
My mother found a Keren Hayesod bus to take us to Romania. And on the third or fourth day at 6 in the morning, my parents and I went to this bus. The only thing I took for the kids was play station because I didn’t know where we would be and play station can keep them calm for some time. We didn’t tell the kids what was really happening because every time we wanted to say something we started to cry.
When we were sitting on the bus, the parting words from my father were, “if there are bombs, lie the kids face down on the floor and cover them with your body.”
That is how we started our trip. My kids were excited: “Wow. We’re going on holiday.” And I smiled with tear-filled eyes and said, “Yes. Yes.”
Where did you go?
Keren Hayesod found a small border crossing into Romania at Isaccea that you get to by ferry. It took us 8 hours to get there. I was the youngest adult and people said I would be the leader. I always want to help people so I took myself in hand and, like my job with volunteers, I helped them calm down.
Until that point, I wanted to cry. I felt like a child abandoned by my parents. To keep my kids safe, I had to go. But I felt safe next to my parents. I knew that if something went wrong, my father would fix it, everything would be okay if my father is near.
There was so much traffic we were told it would be quicker if we took our bags and walked. We were at the border for two hours and then the border guards let old people and women with children go first.
Suddenly, we heard bombs not far from us and my boys started to cry and everyone started to cry.
The border guards shouted to everyone to fall to the floor. I remembered what my father said, I put the kids down on their faces and I lay on them. It was winter and cold, and the floor was wet and we were wet. [She covers her face and you can see she is reliving it.]
We lay there for maybe five minutes but in such a situation it feels like your whole life and not only five minutes. At that moment, I understood why my parents sent me away and I was very afraid and then I remembered stories my grandmother always told me about her childhood in the Holocaust. I was lying on my kids thinking about this and then I thought, I have a suitcase, I have a smartphone, I have clothing, they didn’t have anything. Yes, they were on the floor, but they weren’t being saved, they were on the way to the ghetto. And you want to cry? To panic? You’re only on the floor, cold, and wet, but you have food and will be saved by the Romanians.
We know history and now the Romanians and Polish are saving Ukrainians from Russia. It’s all so [covers face with her hands] crazy. My grandmother told us that Romanians broke her leg. You know, there were a lot of dissonances in my head. Also flashbacks from history. It was crazy. But my grandmother’s stories helped me to understand that I was not in a bad situation.
Why did your parents stay?
My father went to the army. He is over 61 so he couldn’t fight but, as a famous photographer, he joined the army as a member of the press.
My mother wanted to stay for him. We have a joke – when my mother said to my father that she is not going because she won’t leave him, my father answered, no, don’t worry, I will not be alone, and she answered Yes! THIS is the reason.
So your father is off documenting the war and I imagine there are no university classes for your mother to teach.
About a month into the war, university classes continued on Zoom – to continue life as if there was no war. Also, schools — when we were in Romania and for the first few days in Israel, my sons studied in the Ukrainian school on Zoom.
Diana spent about three weeks in Romania. Keren Hayesod had rented hotel space for the refugees. They had food, clothing, and psychological support as the organization arranged for the documentation they would need to make aliyah. Throughout this time, Diana kept thinking that the war will soon be over and she can go back to Odessa.
Of course, the war did not end and Diana found herself in Israel. Just a few days ago, on 10 March, she had her first aliyah anniversary.
Keren Hayesod continued to help her until she received the standard absorption basket from Israel’s Aliyah and Absorption Ministry.
Ironically, her brother, who had been calling her every day for seven years telling her to make aliyah, was abroad when she arrived as his wife had just got a position as assistant to the Israeli consul in Georgia. This left her totally alone in Israel.
Her sons adjusted well and adopted Israeli chutzpah quite readily. Now she knows that she will not return to Ukraine when the war ends as she sees no future for her sons there. Life will be better for them here in Israel.
For me, Diana continues, I feel my life is finished. I see a psychologist twice a week. I had an excellent life in Odessa. I was near my parents. They supported me a lot. I like to work hard and I like to go to parties. I had everything. Everybody knew me. Everybody who needed something turned to me. I helped a lot of people.
Right after university, I worked as director of the Chabad orphanage. Then I become the art director of the biggest nightclub in Ukraine. Famous people came. I managed all the events. Everybody knew my father, and my mother is a famous psychologist. I was on a Ukrainian TV show.
Now nobody knows me and I am a person who needs help. In Israel, a lot of people take care of me. It is not easy for me to take it. It puts me in a bad mood because I need to ask for help.
Diana expresses her gratitude to Keren Hayesod for getting her safely to Israel. And with her ready smile, vivacious nature, and ability to talk openly about her feelings and experiences, you cannot help but be optimistic about the Israeli chapter of her life that has begun to unfold for her and her two sons.
First published in Israel National News.
Feature Image used with permission.