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Yishai Corey

Saving Lives on the Frontline in Ukraine

The sound of artillery rumbled like thunder and the windows that were not boarded up rattled occasionally from the shockwaves. But in a small medical clinic in the Donbas region of Ukraine, no one seemed to notice as a medical examination took place. An elderly Ukrainian babushka (grandma) in a colorful headscarf described her symptoms to the doctor. The sounds of the battle of Bakhmut, raging a mere 10 kilometers away was ignored. For the civilians who remain in this area, the bloodiest battle of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been taking place just down the road for well over a year. They continue to live their lives as much as possible despite it.

For many, like the woman visiting the clinic that day, access to medical services has been a challenge since most medical workers evacuated the city long ago. In fact, the doctor conducting the examination is not in the room, or even in Ukraine! She is a volunteer from Israel, one of several Israeli doctors with Ukrainian roots volunteering their time to provide remote telemedicine appointments for the residents of Donbas. This project is one of many life-saving efforts being organized by Ukrainian-Jewish volunteers from the charity organization Zgraya.

To tell the full story of Zgraya’s acts of pikuach nefesh (saving lives), I need to explain how I ended up in this unexpected Jewish scene in the middle of war in Ukraine.

In the nearly two years since the Russian army launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I have found myself drawn to this conflict, motivated by a personal commitment to not remain indifferent in the face of evil; learned from studying Jewish history. In the words of Elie Wiesel refuse to be neutral and make any place where oppressors seek to victimize others “the center of the universe.” Ukraine has been the center of my universe since Feb 24, 2022. I have spent the past 22 months working in various volunteer capacities, alongside the Ukrainian people, including many Ukrainian Jews. One of the people I have had the privilege of assisting by supplying critically needed medical equipment from foreign donors is Oleksii Yudkevych, co-founder of Zgraya.

I sat down with Oleksii in Zgraya office in central Kyiv to talk about his experiences and perspectives during this war in his country. As I entered the office, I noticed a large menorah made from spent 20mm shell casings on the windowsill. Knowing the organization was a secular Ukrainian NGO, I began the interview by asking why they had a menorah.

Oleksii explained that 70 percent of the volunteers in Zgraya were Jewish. He and the other co-founder of the organization Eugenia had first met when they were attending a Jewish day school in Kyiv. Many of the volunteers were friends from Jewish summer camps and Israeli cultural events in their childhoods. With a chuckle, he said “So yes, you can say we have a lot of Jews here.” He went on to explain that it had never been their intention to start a charity organization, “We were just a group of friends, trying to help our country as it faces an existential threat.”

Despite it not being their intention, today Zgraya is a registered charity in Ukraine, with over 300 volunteers and projects including: supplying hospitals, providing medical care, delivering humanitarian aid to civilians, manufacturing and fundraising for military equipment and even caring for animals caught in the midst of war.

Their desire to help their country preceded the full-scale Russian invasion on 24 February 2022. Many of them were involved in the Maidan Revolution in 2014, as the Ukrainian people rose up against their pro-Russian government and in favor of closer ties with Europe. The Russians responded by invading and annexing Crimea and then sending troops into the Donbas region, to support a separatist movement there.

Oleksii in 2014 during the early stage of the war (Courtesy of Oleksii Yudkevych)

Oleksii had the chance to leave Ukraine during this turbulent time, as his family was in the process of making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) but instead he volunteered to fight in the “Anti-Terror Operation” that Ukraine had declared. “They went off to Israel, and I went off to Mariupol” he explained. Eugenia and some of their other friends began fundraising for equipment for him and other soldiers.

As we began to talk about Israel, Oleksii’s strong connection to the country was clear, not only his whole family has lived there since 2014, but they had also spent time there during his childhood. His grandmother is buried in Israel and his younger brother is currently serving in the IDF. “I really, really love Israel and am super grateful for what they did for my family. My grandma made aliyah at the age of 93 and the government took care of her. The government also helped my parents when my papa had health problems. I love Israel, but I don’t feel Israeli. My identity is Ukrainian Jewish and that is why I prefer to live here.

After their activities in 2014-2015 supporting the army, the friends of Zgraya went their separate ways. After participating in the liberation of Mariupol, Oleksii joined his family in Israel for a year, before eventually returning to Ukraine. But on 24 February they faced a greater need than ever before. Kyiv was under fire and had Russian armies advancing on two sides, attempting to carry out a lightning strike and take the capital. Many people fled the city and many regular services ceased functioning. Oleksii described a chaotic scene, where most shops were closed, and people relied on telegram channels that reported where shops were open and what food they had available. For many elderly people, it was overwhelming. Oleksii started a group with about six friends from a motorcycle club to coordinate delivering food to people in need. Within 24 hours, the group had six hundred members volunteering to help their neighbors!

Oleksii’s attention soon turned to a more critical need. A close friend who had served with him in 2014 (and had served in the IDF before that) had a sister living in the city of Chernihiv, which was surrounded by Russian forces. She was begging her brother to help her. He and Oleksii planned to go rescue her family. As they were preparing, they realized that two guys with rifles against the Russian army was not good odds, so they put away their tactical gear and put on civilian clothes. “We dressed like two silly billies and our plan was to drive in and pretend we didn’t know a war was happening.” The mission was a success and the sister, her husband, and two children were brought to safety. However, Oleksii explained “Jewish families have big networks and the news spread there were these two crazy Jewish guys who could get people out of the city.” Other people began to ask for help. Oleksii realized they would need more drivers, so they assembled a team that included his army buddies, friends from his biker club, and even guys he knew from a church! They began coordinating with the Jewish community in Chernihiv to gather people that needed to be evacuated.

Oleksii during an evacuation mission in Chernihiv (Courtesy of Oleksii Yudkevych)

They were all dangerous trips. But we didn’t take any unnecessary risks. We coordinated with our troops defending the city, did our own reconnaissance, and often had to park our vans in the forest and hide for hours until the roads were clear and safe to make a run for it. We were not playing any games when we were carrying mamas and babies. A lot of other volunteers tried to do the same type of thing that we were doing and a lot of them died on the road trying to get into the city.”

Not only where the roads under fire from Russian artillery, but bridges had been blown un which required Oleksii’s team to sometimes drive across a narrow pedestrian bridge, just large enough to get a vehicle over.

When I asked him if any memory from these trips stood out, he paused. “The hardest part was choosing who to take. We would have a crowd of 200 people and I was the guy who had to choose who we took and who we had to leave behind.” With a pained look on his face, he asked “Can you imagine a woman pulling on your arm, crying, and telling you she had a baby. But then the next woman would come, and she had a baby too. It was awful! I was very glad when this chapter was over. I hate this part of the story. I saw the filthy basements these people were living in to shelter from the shelling. It is one thing when soldiers, strong men go to war and must live in such conditions, but to see kids living like that is terrible

Shifting focus away from the horrible things he had witnessed, I inquired how many people they had been able to rescue. Oleksii explained that they did not have an exact count. “We would count how many seats we had available on each trip, but people were so desperate to leave they would sit on the floor. We know that we brought out at least 1,300 people over fourteen trips. And that does not include pets,” he added with a laugh. “We told people we had no room for pets because we had to choose people over animals. But often as we began driving, the small bags of personal items we allowed people to take would begin to meow.

He went on to explain that 400 of the people they rescued were Jewish,  evacuated in coordination with the Jewish community of Chernihiv. Once they brough the people to Kyiv, the Jewish community arraigned travel for them to continue their journey and many went to Israel.

Months later, Oleksii’s father, who was involved in helping Ukrainian refugees settle in Israel met a family from Chernihiv. They began telling him how “these funny Jewish guys with beards and tattoos” came and rescued them. His father showed them a photo of Oleksii and they immediately recognized him as one of their rescuers!

In late spring, after taking heavy losses, the Russian advance on Kyiv collapsed and they withdrew their forces from northern Ukraine. The encirclement of Chernihiv was over and normal access to the city restored.

Oleksii during an medical evacuation (Courtesy of Oleksii Yudkevych)

With the need for evacuations ended, Oleksii sought to fill what he felt was the most critical need in Ukraine. He realized that tactical medicine was the largest gap in the Ukrainian army and made this his primary focus. Zgraya obtained three ambulances and Oleksii began doing medical evacuations for wounded soldiers and civilians. He worked in Kharkiv Oblast, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Bakhmut. These places have seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. He told me, how in the early days he and one of his friends had kept track of how many people they had saved through providing medical aid. But on the frontlines of Donbas, “This game was not fun anymore, so I stopped counting” he admitted soberly. He recounted how in Bakhmut, they often treated 120 injured people a day. ‘It was a crazy amount of work.”

Oleksii with one of the telamedicine stations at the clinic in Donbas (Photo by author)

After about a year of this kind of work, Oleksii shifted his focus to civilian medicine. In the war-torn cities of Donetsk Oblast, many people had left including many medical personnel. However, the civilians who remained, the IDPs who sought shelter there, and the soldiers stationed there all still had routine medical needs. Getting doctors who were willing to volunteer to come to Donetsk would have been a major challenge, so Oleksii tried a different approach. With the help of the Israeli Medical Mission in Ukraine, they obtained technology that enabled them to carry out the type of telemedicine remote doctors appointments I had witnessed. Using cameras and ultrasounds operated by Ukrainian medical students and volunteers, Zgraya was able to connect the residents caught in the middle of a war with doctors from other parts of Ukraine, as well as volunteer Ukrainian expat doctors living in the USA and Israel.

This project launched in July 2023 and over 400 people have already been treated since then and Oleksii is in the process of expanding it to surrounding villages where large numbers of IDPs are housed temporarily. Once the doctor examines the patient, the volunteers call in the prescriptions to the Zgraya HQ in Kyiv and Oleksii or other volunteers deliver the needed medication which is provided free of charge to the patients.

Funding and enough qualified doctors who can speak Ukrainian or Russian remain a challenge, and Israeli doctors who volunteer now find themselves in the midst of another war. In fact, one doctor was in the middle of a remote consultation when he was forced to take shelter in his mamad (safe room) due to rocket fire from Gaza. Despite this, he continued the appointment, connecting from one warzone to another!

This story led to the subject of the war against Hamas in Israel. During my time in Ukraine, I have observed not only a thriving Jewish community but also how many Ukrainians feel a solidarity with Israel and identify Hamas and Iran with Russia as an axis of evil that both Israel and Ukraine are fighting. It’s an easy case to argue with Iranian supplied drones used to terrorize Ukrainian cities on an almost nightly basis and Russia hosting Hamas in Moscow days after 7 October. I wanted to hear Oleksii’s thoughts on this subject. He didn’t even give me the chance to finish asking the question. “The bastards have all joined the same team!” he declared empathically. He explained, “All over the world, you see so much antisemitism and pro-Palestinian demonstrations. You won’t find such protests here in Ukraine! We hear people say from the river to the sea. For us, it’s much easier to understand this evil. Ukraine has a deeper understanding of what Jews face than anyone else in the world at this point.

A few days after I spoke with Oleksii, a survey was released by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology which asked people if they sympathized with Israel or the Palestinians after the 7 October attack. The results confirm Oleksii’s claim with 69 percent of people surveyed expressing support for Israel. Only 1 percent expressed support for the Palestinians. The remaining percentage was divided between those who did not know or felt sympathy for both.

Knowing Ukraine has a complicated Jewish history with many associating it with pogroms and Nazi collaborators. Russian propaganda often relies on these historical events to level accusations that a country that today is led by a democratically elected and very popular Jewish president is a “Nazi” country. The reality is quite different with both Ukrainians supporting Israel and Ukrainian Jews seeing themselves as a part of the country battling for its existence against Russia.

Oleksii continued to describe what he saw in not only the Ukrainian people supporting Israel, but also Ukrainian Jews supporting Ukraine. “We have a huge Jewish community here still. They volunteer, work, serve in the army, and face the same challenges as other Ukrainians. We have not separated ourselves from Ukrainian problems. The Jewish community is one hundred percent involved in helping Ukraine.

An example of this mindset that he pointed out is Rabbi Moshe Azman, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. Rabbi Azman has been very active supplying humanitarian aid and assistance to those in need. “He’s a nice guy, he’s been very close to Russian shelling several times, but this does not stop him. He always asks what people needs and never shows up empty handed!

In Oleksii’s own family, the tie between Israel and Ukraine remains strong. He showed me a photo of his brother currently serving in miluim (reserve duty), who proudly wears a Ukrainian flag patch on his IDF vest. “And here in Ukraine, I have the Israeli flag on my vest!

To conclude the interview, I turned back to the menorah and asked if Hanukkah had taken on a special meaning this year for him and the Ukrainian-Jewish community.

We were just talking about this” he replied. He explained how Zgraya had celebrated the first day of Hanukkah. “We talked about the many parallels between the Hanukkah story and the Ukrainian story. How a small army fought against a large army, and how against all odds these small guys win, and lights defeats darkness. This is our big dream this year, that we would see a Hanukkah miracle here in our country!

More information about the work that Oleksii and Zgraya are doing can be found at https://zgraya-help.com/en/home/

About the Author
A Native of Upstate New York, Yishai Corey has spent the better part of the last eight years exploring the world. He is currently a Graduate Student at the Hebrew University in the field of Jewish Studies. His previous travels have taken him around the world pursuing Jewish history wherever it can be found, a quest that (not surprisingly) always brings him back to Jerusalem.
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