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Forced to flee the Nazis as a baby, this Ukrainian Holocaust survivor runs away from home again

A yellow ambulance arrives and 82-year-old Margaryta Zatuchna, slim built with thick round glasses and an endless smile, gets out. She gets two bouquets of roses, one orange and one white.

She tilts her head slightly and takes deep breaths to sniff each bundle. Finally she is safe.

Born in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in January 1940, Margaryta’s life began when Adolf Hitler ordered the annihilation of Jewish communities across Europe.

Margaryta Zatuchna pictured with her mother in 1940.

Days before the Nazis invaded her hometown in October 1941, she and her family were evacuated from the then Soviet turbine factory where her father worked to a village in the Ural Mountains, now part of Russia.

“His factory was evacuated east with all the equipment,” she said, adding that she and her mother also left.

Between 1941 and 1943, workers at the plant switched from making turbines to making mortars and repairing tanks for Soviet troops, she said.

“We were taken to a small village with small huts, at the end there was a forest,” she recalls. “Sometimes wolves came to us, but the little children didn’t understand the danger.”

During the same period, the Nazis rounded up and murdered an estimated 16,000 Jews in Kharkiv. Many were shot at close range or driven into mass graves and left to die.

After the Red Army regained control of the city in 1943, Margaryta returned to Kharkiv with her family and grew up under Soviet rule.

She finished her university education and became an engineer, married and had a son. She later divorced and in her forties remarried Valerii Verbitski, whom she described as a “good man”.

Her life was simple and peaceful.

Margaryta arrives from her hometown in Lviv in western Ukraine after a long journey across the country.

“Explosion After Explosion”

That peace lasted until February 24, when Russian forces launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine, tearing through its city, shelling neighborhoods, blowing up a government building and encircling Kharkiv’s estimated 1.4 million residents.

“There was no water or electricity, we couldn’t buy food. It became impossible to live,” she said. “The air raid sirens never stopped, there was one explosion after another. A real war.”

weeks from indiscriminate shelling by Russian forces terrorized the residents of Kharkiv. Tens of thousands have now fled Ukraine’s second-largest city at moments when rare and unreliable evacuation corridors have been agreed.
A photo taken about 25 years ago shows Margaryta Zatuchna with her family. She is pictured in the second row, fourth from left, wearing glasses and a pink blouse. To her right is her late husband Valerii.

At first, Margaryta chose to stay and care for her now frail and ailing husband while leaning on the support of a generous neighbor. But the fighting was getting closer and closer to their homeland.

“An explosion blew all our windows down,” she recalls. “After this shock, Valerii weakened. It was as if his legs were being cut away from under him.”

The siege and relentless bombardment took their toll: Margaryta awoke on the morning of March 20 to find that her husband had died in his sleep.

“We couldn’t bury him because of the fighting,” she said. “His body is still in the morgue.”

Not even a memorial honoring the victims of the Holocaust in Kharkiv was spared by Putin’s so-called denazification campaign. the Menorah-shaped monument pockmarked by shellingtwo of its branches twisted and blown away.

A plaque nearby reads: “From December 1941 to January 1942, Nazis exterminated the prisoners of the Kharkov Jewish ghetto in Drobitsky Yar – more than 16,000 people – old people, women, children – just because they were Jews.”

Day-long journey

Margaryta knew it was time to go. She reached out to her younger brother in New Jersey, United States, and he hastily initiated her evacuation with the help of multiple charities in three countries.

Margaryta speaks in a video call with her brother, who lives in New Jersey, USA.

“It’s very hard to see my beautiful city, my beautiful city, where I’ve lived my whole life, being destroyed,” she said. “I cannot understand such destruction – why?”

On Wednesday, March 30, a driver picked up Margaryta in a blue SUV that had been damaged in a previous missile attack and had blown windows covered with plastic sheeting.

“It was a very difficult path,” she said. “We collected information about places that were bombed along the way and drove on bumpy dirt roads. I was so nauseous.”

The couple traveled through hundreds of kilometers of dangerous territory for two days, with overnight stops, until they reached the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

After a night in a hotel, a Norwegian volunteer ambulance driver took her across the Polish border to Kraków. This part of the trip was easier, she sat comfortably smiling and chatting about geography – only stopping for the occasional short nap.

Margaryta is welcomed at the Jewish community center in the Polish city of Kraków after fleeing Ukraine following the Russian invasion.

But her journey is not over yet, Margaryta is waiting for a US visa to visit her brother in the US. She seems unfazed by all she’s been through.

“I wasn’t scared,” she said of her five weeks under Russian bombardment.

When asked where she found her courage, she simply replied, “It occurs to me.”

Margaryta insists that she does not want to become a refugee. The survivor – of both the Holocaust and the Russian attack – hopes to return to Kharkiv to bury her nearly 40-year-old husband and see her beloved city at peace again.

https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/04/europe/ukraine-kharkiv-holocaust-survivor-intl-cmd/index.html Forced to flee the Nazis as a baby, this Ukrainian Holocaust survivor runs away from home again

Chris Estrada

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