(RNS) – When Rabbi David Wilfond was asked last month to join 18 other New York area rabbis on a mission to the Polish border with Ukraine, he jumped at the chance.
Wilfond, the rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila, a reformed synagogue in Westchester County, was enthusiastic about providing vital supplies to refugees fleeing war-torn Ukraine. But he had another goal, however far-fetched: he dreamed of seeing his Ukrainian cousins from Kiev.
It would take a miracle, he realized, given that he would only be in Poland for two nights (March 13-15) and that by then 3 million Ukrainians had fled their country, with millions more internally displaced. Just in case, he bought candy and vitamins and other essential items, in the unlikely event they would meet.
Wilfond first learned of the existence of his nephews in the late 1990s, when he served as a rabbi in Kiev. During a visit to another synagogue, a congregation told him about a family with the same extremely rare name.
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“We thought everyone died in the Holocaust,” Wilfond said, recalling that moment, so learning that part of the family survived was an unexpected blessing.
“When I called the family on the phone, a then 92-year-old woman named Malka Vilfand (as the last name is spelled in Ukraine) invited me to meet four generations of my family,” Wilfond said. . “Her husband, who had already died, grew up in the same shtetl as my grandfather.”
For the past 25 years, after moving to Israel and eventually returning to the US, Wilfond has kept in touch with the Kyiv Vilfands, especially on Facebook.
When it looked like Russia was going to attack Ukraine, Wilfond and his cousins - Natalia Vilfand, a psychotherapist, and Yurii Vilfand, an engineer – started sending each other every day. After Russia began bombing residential areas in Kiev, nine members of Vilfands’ extended family were forced to flee the city.
“I knew finding them would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” Wilfond said.
Natalia and Yurii Vilfand, meanwhile, were among those millions of refugees. They have been searching since Feb. 24, three days after the start of the war. Natalia was at home in her Kiev apartment with her 12-year-old daughter, Karina, and 24-year-old son, Max.
“I woke up at 5 o’clock from unusual and horrible noises. I was shaking with fear,” Natalia said in an interview in Russian about Messenger. Her son’s girlfriend, Tanya, learned from her father, a diplomat, that the war had begun.
“Each of us grabbed a suitcase and started packing our things. We had to be together. We had to ride together with my mother-in-law, who was recovering from a stroke,” Natalia said.
Natalia, Yurii and Karina drove to the suburb of Vorzel in Kiev in one car, believing it would be safe. Max and his girlfriend’s family did the same thing in another car.
A 30-minute ride took the family seven hours. When they arrived, they found that the bombings were following them. The house where they hid had two basements, each about 6-by-6-feet and only accessible via a removable iron ladder.
“The scariest and most difficult part was bringing my mother-in-law, a sick woman, down into this small space. We threw blankets on a wooden pallet to make a bed. When the explosions stopped for a while, we climbed the vertical ladder. “With the bed linen we carried my mother-in-law. There were night and day explosions.”
When a shell exploded near the house, Yurii quickly collected his mother’s belongings, took her in her arms and took her to the car.
They fled again, this time to Rovno, a 12-hour drive away, and stayed there for 10 days. When it became clear that the war would continue, they gradually made their way to the Polish border.
In Rovno, Max and Tanya are married.
At the border between Ukraine and Poland, the women took a passionate farewell from Yurii and Max, who, like all men aged 18 to 60, are considered of draft age and it is forbidden to leave Ukraine.
“My son and husband are in Ukraine. We miss them. We do not know when we will see them next. We miss them so much. It’s hard to be so far apart. It’s hard for me to understand the tears and sadness in my daughter’s eyes, “Natalia said.
As soon as they crossed into Poland, the women, who now included Tanya’s mother, grandmother and sister, plus a dog named York, were welcomed by humanitarian aid workers. They were sent to a hotel in Warsaw before Natalia, Karina and Yurii’s mother received the necessary documents to fly to Israel. Tanya joined them two weeks later.
Wilfond says he will never forget the message he received from Natalia on his second day in Poland.
“We texted and Natalia told me she and the other women were coming to Poland and being sent to the Novotel.” When Wilfond received the text, he was sitting in the Novotel, where the Jewish Agency’s Refugee Center had been set up.
The women arrived at the Novotel late Sunday night, and Wilfond met them the next day in a tearful reunion.
“It’s amazing we met,” Natalia said. “I was glad this trip took me to one of my relatives.”
She is grateful for the gifts her American cousin brought from New York.
“I gratefully accepted all the gifts,” Natalia said. “I felt overwhelmed that I could not give them gifts back. I hope that next time we see each other. I hope we will see each other again.”
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Natalia, who flew to Israel on March 18, is still somewhat shell-shocked. Despite her trauma and not speaking Hebrew and a little English, she has managed to rent an apartment and has started offering online psychotherapy sessions to other traumatized Ukrainian refugees.
Karina, who was bubbly and talkative before the war, but who was withdrawn and often cried after it started, has started to recover since moving to Israel.
“She’s going to school now and people are so helpful. It’s going well with us,” Natalia said.