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Ukrainian Holocaust Survivors Forced to Flee Again

Over 600 Ukrainian Jews have emigrated to Israel since the start of hostilies in East Ukraine

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This article originally appeared at CNN

One war was enough for Gregory Margolin.

<figcaption>WWII survivor forced to flee Ukrainian violence | Source: CNN</figcaption>
WWII survivor forced to flee Ukrainian violence | Source: CNN

Now 87 years old, he was a 16-year-old Jewish recruit when he fought in the Soviet Red Army. As he fought the Nazis in World War II, his family fled.

"I did not show that I was Jewish," Margolin says. "But it did not matter because people were being killed left and right. All around me."

This year, in Ukraine, he found himself again surrounded by war.

Margolin was a sniper who rose to be a commander in the army. His old uniform is still adorned with medals from his time in the military. His granddaughter Liora still marvels at his stories from the war. She is amazed that he managed to survive. Suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative condition that impairs memory, he struggles to remember his own life sometimes, but he remembers the horrors of war.

    His eyes slowly shift back and forth as he seeks the right word. Or perhaps the right memory. His hands shake ever so slightly. It seems he knows he has lived a life. He is just trying to remember all the details.

    "People were hiding in shelters under the ground," Liora says of the stories Margolin once told. "They were being shot at point blank range. It was terrible."

    "[The Nazis] would have erased us from the Earth," Margolin remembers. "They attacked us and we fought back."

    After the war, Margolin settled in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. His family grew. He built a life. Then, decades later, he found himself in the middle of a war once again.

    "A missile fell and the house was destroyed. We were attacked," Margolin says. "A missile fell. I remember."

    Margolin's family lived in a neighborhood next to the Donetsk airport, near some of the most intense fighting in Eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian rebels [separatists] battled the Ukrainian army. Margolin, who had survived one war, was able to survive another, even as the stray missile hit his house on February 10. It spared him, but it killed his daughter Ira.

    "The moment it happened, we decided that's it. Here and now, we're moving to Israel," says Liora. "This is the safest place."

    Margolin arrived in Israel on March 24. Asked why the family waited to leave the war-torn region of Eastern Ukraine, Liora says they felt they would be fine in Donetsk, while Liora prayed for their safety from Israel.

    "No matter how much we're afraid of the next war here and as much as it's not quiet here, it is the quietest place."

    Margolin came over in a wave of Ukrainian Jewish immigration to Israel that coincided with the beginning of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that works to build interfaith understanding and support for Israel, has brought 600 Jews to Israel since December, Margolin among them.

    Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the fellowship's founder, says, "We set up a refugee center. It's the first time since the Holocaust that the Jewish world has had to set up a refugee center for these Jews who are fleeing and have nowhere to go."

    Among the Ukrainian Jews moving to Israel, Eckstein says they have worked with approximately a dozen Holocaust survivors. On Yom HaShoah, Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews, these stories of survival reverberate with a renewed energy. Jews who struggled to survive once find themselves fleeing to survive now.

    "Most of the [Jewish] people in the Ukraine are Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors. These are the people who made it, who are able to flee or come back or to stay or to somehow survive the Holocaust."

    Margolin was one of these people, able to survive the Holocaust as a soldier in the Soviet Army. His story can be difficult for him to remember sometimes, but it is impossible for his family to forget.

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