“I woke up on February 24 at 7am and heard the phone ring. My mother said, ‘Do you know that Kiev has been bombed?’ I thought she was making fun. Within a few seconds I heard a sound that was very different from anything I’ve heard before. It was cold and my windows were insulated and largely soundproof, but the noise resonated throughout. “My apartment. I started researching online and discovered that there were bombings all over the country, except Kiev, the city where I lived, was bombed harder and more often.”
Malka Bondar is 39 years old, very articulate and a professional journalist. She also had her own PR agency, is a Sabbath-keeper, had attended conferences in the United States, and frequently visited Crown Heights, Brooklyn for public holidays. She never expected this country to provide a refuge, albeit temporarily, as her own country was torn to pieces by Putin.
Wednesday, February 23, was a normal day. Malka met friends for lunch at a kosher restaurant in Kiev and ate lasagna and a Greek salad. They went for a walk, enjoyed the beautiful view of Kiev and discussed the political situation. The day before, she had posted a picture in the city with the text “So far, everything is peaceful.” Little did she know that on Friday, February 25, she would flee with a small backpack of clothes, just a few belongings, and see her apartment for what might be the very last time.
She is a seasoned journalist and has worked with the staff of Focus Magazine, a popular national magazine in Ukraine, where she wrote everything from celebrity interviews to in-depth analyzes of social trends. Her regular column is called “Masha Against Everyone” (Masha is a nickname for Maria, which is her name in Ukrainian). Her work as an investigative journalist included exposing stories of corruption in the local government, such as how city officials handed out illegal permits to build unsafe buildings if they made a big enough profit, or how they secretly sold pieces of land intended for agriculture. to property developers who were willing to pay bribes.
Ironically, just before the bombing, Malka had written an article about anxiety among Ukrainians because of the looming war potential. ‘I was supposed to send it to my editor that morning, but then I had to start rewriting when the shelling began. I was not even sure the media still existed, but I had to distract myself. Writing is a clear and understandable process for me, and it was a sure relic of the past, even though that past was only a few hours earlier. I wanted the situation to be normal for me. “
She did not want to be alone, and a friend’s husband picked her up so Malka could join them in their nearby apartment. It was not safe to walk the streets, and they passed long queues at two pharmacies with people desperately trying to gather their medicine for a long journey ahead.
Escape to Anatevka
“I could not stay home,” she said. “I lived near a large military hospital along with several military buildings.” This could have been one of the most unsafe places in town. “I heard there was a three-hour ‘tactical break’ in the bombing, even though I did not know when those three hours started or would stop.” She put her life on the line and quickly packed a small bag of clothes, imagining she would go to her friends for three nights and return home after the Sabbath. The next day, she ran in and out of the apartment to pick up papers proving that she was Jewish, and the three of them drove quickly to the Kiev suburb of Anatevka – the famous former shtetl who was immortalized in “Fiddler on the Roof” .
When Sholem Aleichem’s original Yiddish story was turned into a Broadway musical, Philip Roth criticized it as “shtetl kitsch”, and one complaint was that the Russian officer was portrayed as kind rather than brutal and cruel. At the end of the play, Reb Tevye’s family is scattered and emigrates to America. Certain elements of “Fiddler” proved to be a shocking sign for the Jewish Ukrainian community in 2022.
“I suddenly felt dry and cold,” Malka said. “It was a new experience, that feeling I had not had before, and it continued throughout my stay in Ukraine. My body felt the trauma. At the time, my body just felt frozen by trauma, and I could not express my feelings. I held a cup and my fingers shook. ”She still has that traumatic feeling today, even in the Los Angeles sunshine.
When she arrived in Anatevka, she had another strange experience when she saw rabbis and other religious Jews using their cell phones throughout the Sabbath. “It was pikuach nefesh (a life-threatening situation when it is permissible to break the Sabbath rules). She discovered a system that was starting to get organized, including a WhatsApp group where members of the community shared information, and on Saturday morning, there were groups of people in the yard discussing opposing views. Some people thought it was safe to stay while others wanted away. There was the sound of bombing that had begun at. 4 in the morning and it got closer and closer.
Escape to Moldova
That night, she joined four other people in a packed car as they traveled toward the border with Moldova. “The journey usually takes five hours, but we had to take the safest route instead of the fastest route,” Malka said. “There was a police escort who was constantly updating people on which roads were safer.” They stopped along the way and were asked by volunteers if they needed clothes. “My shoes were wet and my feet froze. The only thing they had was a pair of oversized men’s sneakers, but in that moment it saved the situation.”
Eleven hours later, they were greeted by friendly Moldovan volunteers in the village of Soroka, who gave them hot drinks, which was a welcome respite from many hours of frost in their crowded car.
It seemed that every single room in Soroka was filled with refugees, and they were discussing whether to sleep in the car or not. It was untenable, but a small miracle happened and someone found a hotel. There was temporary shelter even though the building did not have heat. In the morning, they traveled to Kishniev, the capital of Moldova, which they had been told was an important transportation hub and the local Jewish community would be able to help them.
Escape to Kishniev
There were no planes flying from Kishniev airport, but it was yet another temporary refuge, and the local Jewish community paid for rooms at the Cosmos Hotel. The nearby Chabad House served hot meals 24/7 and there were queues for food around the clock.
Escape to Romania
Malka heard that her 75-year-old mother Devorah, who lived in her hometown of Dniepro, had started bleeding due to a medical condition. While trying to save her own life, Malka quickly began making phone calls to evacuate her mother to the Ukrainian city of Odessa, where she would take a bus to the border with Moldova and then be transported to Bucharest, Romania. Malka would meet her in Bucharest and escort her to Berlin, Germany, where they would meet a cousin and receive immediate hospital treatment.
The next morning, Malka took a bus and took the 9-hour journey from Kishniev to Bucharest. When she arrived, she was called to say that the bus that was to transport her from the Moldovan border to Bucharest had never appeared, and instead they reached another bus to Kishniev. Devorah was bleeding profusely in the central synagogue and needed emergency medical attention. Malka immediately got back on the same bus she had arrived on and traveled the 9-hour journey directly back to Moldova.
Escape to Berlin
The situation was even more challenging as Malka’s mother did not have a valid passport and time was running out. Two more miracles happened when she was allowed to fly to Germany. Their plane was met by a medical team from the Hatzolah medical service, including two doctors who put them in an emergency vehicle and drove them to the hospital for homeostatic treatment to stop the bleeding. Devorah is now stabilized and lives near her cousin in a senior residence in Berlin.
Escape to Los Angeles
Malka visited the nursing home every day and did her best to translate the doctors’ words even though they spoke German and Malka does not know the language. Before long, it became difficult to stay in Germany due to various factors, including not being able to speak German, not knowing anyone in Berlin’s religious community, not having a place to live, as her cousins only have a small home without space and did not have money to rent elsewhere. She was invited to the United States by her close friend Malka Naomi Feldman, whom she had met at the Machon Chana seminar in New York. A flight to Los Angeles was arranged with her husband Mordechai Yosef, and Malka lives temporarily with them in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. She has daily contact with her mother in Germany, but the future is uncertain.
Purim and Hollywood
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Malka attended the Purim party hosted by Pico Shul and the Chai Center in St. Louis. Felix bar in Hollywood. “It was a strange feeling to get back to normal. I went to Jewish singles parties in Kiev, and after all that just happened, it felt familiar. That day also felt like a game-changer because I unpacked my suitcase. for the first time since I fled Kiev.I feel I can relax and enjoy some time here, at least for now.
The day the world changed
It is now a month ago that Malka heard the bombing near his apartment in Kiev, leaving behind his whole life. The day before it had been unthinkable, but last Sunday morning a friend took her for a walk on the beach and she saw the Pacific Ocean for the very first time. It was a short respite from the massive uncertainty ahead, not knowing which country would allow her to be permanently established, or what would happen to her mother.
I met Malka last Sabbath at the home of Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein, the founders of Pico Shul, and she was in good spirits. She is optimistic. “I feel like I have a future. I’m not trying to predict it anymore. I learned that I have to be very flexible in my plans and always assume that no matter what situation I plan, it can go in a completely different direction, and I have to be psychologically ready for it. ”
Malka arrived in America with a purse full of Ukrainian money and enough to pay a month’s rent. She quickly discovered that the entire currency has been completely devalued and no banks in the US are interested in taking Ukrainian banknotes. They are useless pieces of paper, and even though she could access her Ukrainian bank account, all her savings are now worthless.
How you can help
Malka’s history represents so many of the Ukrainian community who are suffering and displaced. So many of us are asking how we can help and one way is to donate money so we can help her through this difficult time until she can re-establish her life and it will also allow her to send some money to her mother in Germany. There is a crowdfunding campaign on the Los Angeles Jewish Community platform Jewcer. The Talmud teaches that “if you save one life, you will save the whole world” (BT Sanhedrin 37a). Now our part is to do what we can to help save the world. Please give what you can to help this remarkable woman.
You can donate to the crowdfunding campaign for Malka Bondar at http://picoshul.org/malka
Marcus J Friday is an actor, author and Jewish teacher. www.marcusjfreed.com and on social @marcusjfreed.