Cousins and Ukrainian refugees Lesia Orshoko and Alona Chugai are among the millions who are running for their lives as Russian forces invade their country. But in a wartime twist of fate, the cousins landed in Israel last week to a friendly face — someone who was repaying a decades-old kindness.
The friendly face was Sharon Bass, whose Jewish grandmother was sheltered and saved by Lesia’s grandmother in Ukraine during the Holocaust.
Sharon said it was her honor to take in the cousins and return the immeasurable kindness from nearly 80 years ago.
It felt like history repeating itself, she said. But in this case, it’s an inversion of the norm. Jews have been persecuted throughout our entire history. We’ve been killed, kicked out or forced to flee from every country we’ve stayed in long enough. But this time we have the privilege and responsibility of being a safe haven for other fleeing refugees.
Sharon, 46, said that when she saw the attacks in Ukraine, her thoughts immediately turned to her grandmother, Fania Rosenfeld Bass, and her remarkable survival as she hid from the Nazis.
Fania was a teenager in the Ukrainian town of Rafalowka when the Germans invaded, forcing Jews into ghettos and slave-labor camps. Most of her family was killed, including her parents and five siblings, whose bodies were dumped into unmarked, open pits in the forest of Rafalowka. Her youngest sister was just 6. But Fania fled and survived, and would return, years later, with other survivors and her daughter Chagit in tow, to create a memorial at the site of the slaughter.
Fania wasn’t spared by accident or coincidence. Her life was very actively saved by a courageous non-Jewish Ukrainian woman named Maria Blyshchik. Maria and her extended family hid Fania during the last two years of the war, until shortly before Rafalowka was liberated by the Red Army in February 1944.
Fania relocated to Israel and started a family, telling the story over and over to her children and grandchildren, letting them know about the good people who held on to their humanity and quietly rebelled against the horrors of the war. Fania and Maria’s family, who stayed in Ukraine, lost touch in the immediate aftermath of liberation and for years following. But then technology made communicating easier, and the families reconnected in the 1990s and have been in regular communication since.
Sharon grew up hearing the story of Maria’s bravery and Fania’s survival. She said she didn’t hesitate for a moment to reach out to Lesia, 36, and Alona, 47, last month to offer help when the war broke out.
I spoke by phone with Sharon to ask her about getting the cousins out of Ukraine and into Israel. She explained that the families were in frequent contact even before the invasion, describing them as “part of the family” and “even closer than a blood connection.”
As soon as the situation turned bleak in Ukraine, Sharon began brainstorming how to get them to safety in Israel. She explained that “neither I nor they could imagine the situation would develop like it did — into war — but when it did and it was time for action, we decided the best thing to do would be to bring them here to a place where they can be safe.”
At first, Sharon encountered a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. Then, Sharon shared the extraordinary story with Roy Rubinstein of Israel’s YNET news. Suddenly, people were captivated and eager to help. Israel is a tiny country, roughly the size of New Jersey, and it often operates like a small village. Public pressure began to mount. The story got an even wider audience when Stop Antisemitism, an Instagram page, translated some of Roy’s reporting.
In short order, Sharon’s plea for help reached a former head of the Jewish Agency, and from there, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where senior politicians got personally involved to help her cut through the usual red tape.
Hauntingly, Lesia and Alona’s visa approval came through on the third anniversary of Fania’s death. She lived to be 97.
Once the bureaucracy was out of the way, there were still the logistics on the ground. Lesia and Alona had to make their way out of Ukraine. They went first by bus from their homes in the small towns of Volodymyrets and Borova to the Polish border, and then on to Warsaw, where they boarded a plane for Munich. From there, Sharon and a friend of Alona’s split the cost of the cousins’ flights to Tel Aviv. They landed in Israel on March 6.
Hearing Fania’s daughter Chagit tell me about their arduous journey out of Ukraine, I found myself thinking of my own grandparents’ panicked flights from Vienna and Berlin to New York in the late 1930s. It all felt so familiar, wartime refugees running for their lives.
But Fania’s story couldn’t be more different from that of her descendants, and the same goes for Maria, the woman who saved her. Now the same story of a persecuted people needing help is playing out again, but in reverse for these families.
Israel has actually played an important role in the lives of Maria’s family for some time.
Lesia, Maria’s granddaughter, and Alona, Maria’s great-niece, have been to Israel before, and their extended families have had roots in Israel since long before the current war in Ukraine.
In 1995, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, honored the entire extended family as “Righteous Among the Nations,” the award bestowed upon non-Jews who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. In the years since, several of the extended family members have traveled to Israel to work for a few years at a time, with economic prospects in the “start-up nation” more promising than in Ukraine.
One of them has stayed permanently: Luba Blyshchik, one of Maria’s 10 children, began working as the elderly Fania’s caretaker almost 20 years ago, and continued to do so until her death in 2019. Luba’s mother saved Fania’s life; Luba helped to preserve it.
When I asked Sharon and Chagit if there were more members of the family beyond Lesia and Alona who wanted to immigrate to Israel, Sharon told me, “Yes, many more. Right now we are trying to work on rescuing two different women — one who has seven children and another one who has four.”
Leaving isn’t a simple decision. For Alona and Lesia, the decision was fraught. Sharon described their tears upon landing in Tel Aviv and reuniting with Sharon as “complicated and full of mixed feelings.”
I spoke with Alona five days after she arrived in Israel, and she told me, “I’m happy to be here and in the warmth and security of the Bass family, who are like a second family to me, but I am also thinking of all the family I left behind in Ukraine who are still in danger.” Alona’s mother, father, brother and nephews are still in Ukraine.
There is guilt that comes with survival and escape, a psychological phenomenon that Fania’s family understands well.
For now, Alona and Lesia have received temporary visas. Sharon, along with her family, is trying to help them secure permanent citizenship, and she says that for as long as they like, her house is their house.
She told me: “Maria didn’t put a time limit on how long she sheltered Fania, and neither should we.”