Harrowing Escape from Ukraine
The action-packed, miraculous escape of Kyiv’s Chief Rabbi.
Rabbi Yonatan Benyamin Markovitch’s escape from Kyiv is a combination Hollywood adventure movie and Hasidic tale. A high-speed drive in the dead of night through roadless fields, past ax and knife wielding Ukrainian volunteer soldiers, attended by miracles, and led by an “angel” – this is the true story that unfolded this past week.
Yonatan was born in Uzhorod, a town in the western Ukraine, in 1967. His grandfather, the rabbi of a synagogue there, lost his wife and three daughters in the Holocaust. Returning from Auschwitz, he rebuilt his life, remarried, and had a daughter, Yonatan’s mother.
At the age of five, Yonatan and his family moved to Israel. Yonatan studied in Hasidic yeshivahs, got rabbinic ordination, and joined the Israeli Air Force. At the age of 22, he married 20-year-old Elka Inna, who had been born in Leningrad and had moved to Israel as a young child. The Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged Yonatan to stay in the Air Force. He excelled and became a career officer.
Rabbi Yonatan and Inna Markovitch
In 1998, after 12 years in the Air Force, Yonatan joined a group that was visiting the graves of holy rabbis in the Ukraine. He decided to detour to visit his grandfather’s synagogue in Uzhorod. There he had an epiphany about his life’s mission. He returned to Israel and told his wife that he wanted to go to work at reviving Jewish life in the Ukraine.
Pregnant with their fourth child, Inna replied, “Fine. Every summer you can volunteer there for two weeks.”
“No,” Yonatan insisted, “I want to move there.” Then he played his ace card. Inna was a teacher of Jewish studies and English. For years she had dreamed of starting her own school where she could implement her ideals of education through love rather than discipline. “In Ukraine,” Yonatan promised, “you can start your own school.”
Speaking in the Ukrainian Parliament marking Holocaust Remembrance Day (Photo: Ian Dobronosov)
Yonatan was privy to too many military secrets to emigrate immediately. He retired from the Air Force, and after a mandatory two-year period, in 2000, he and Inna and their five children moved to Kyiv. (Inna would give birth to two more children in Kyiv.) Yonatan had grown up speaking Yiddish, and Inna, Hebrew. Their first job was to learn Russian and Ukrainian.
In Kyiv Yonatan and Inna “planted a tree.” Trees grow slowly, and take years to produce fruit. Rabbi Yonatan’s vision was to unite the Jews of Kyiv into a community. The logo he designed for the Jewish Community Center was a menorah resembling a tree, with roots – their Jewish roots.
They started with a kindergarten. It had six pupils, four of them the Markovitches’ own children. Gradually, it became an elementary school and a middle school. By 2022, the school had 115 children.
The society they faced in Ukraine was radically different than the family-oriented society they had known in Israel. “Before we showed them what a Jewish family was,” Inna reminisces, “we had to show them what a family was.” The local family structure was grandmother, mother, and child living in one apartment. One boy who came to the Markovitches for a Shabbat dinner wrote in his diary that it was the first time he had ever seen a father and mother and children living together.
The Ukraine, a country of 40 million people, had not a single school for autistic children. In 2012, Inna and Inna Sergiyenko opened a kindergarten with five children suffering from autism. They called it, “Child with a Future.” Ten years later, the school had 32 children and a long waiting list.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yonatan had become the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv. He built a synagogue and community center. Together with his oldest son, he ran programs for young people, from computer lessons to Jewish singles events. They hosted Shabbos meals where people were free to skip the synagogue services and just enjoy the comradery and the Shabbos fare. In the last few months, they held four chuppahs – Jewish couples who met and married under their auspices.
In Ukraine, the average pension for an elderly person is less than $100 per month. The Markovitches fed hot meals to 40 senior citizens daily at the community center, and delivered food parcels to 800 seniors, including Holocaust survivors, monthly.
By the time the Russians invaded, the Kyiv Chabad Jewish Community Center was servicing some 2500 Jews. The tree was producing prodigious fruits.
As the Russian army massed 100,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine, the American and Israeli embassies warned the Markovitches that an invasion was imminent. Like most Ukrainians, the Markovitches didn’t believe it. “I must admit,” confesses Inna, “that a Russian invasion looked to me like a very low probability.”
As fear and uncertainty started to grip the population, Rabbi Markovitch, by now a well-known public personality, appeared on Ukrainian television and radio projecting an air of positivity. All over Kyiv he mounted lit-up signs of the Lubavitcher Rebbe with the quote in Ukrainian, “Think good and it will be good.”
The group of 15 who escaped
In the Ukraine there are no bomb shelters. The government announced that in the event of an attack, people were to seek shelter in the underground metro. But the nearest metro station to the Jewish Community Center was 20 minutes away. The Markovitches prepared for the worse by stocking six tons of food, 50 mattresses, water, and fuel in the basement of the community center.
In the early hours of Thursday, February 24, the Markovitches were awakened by the sounds of bombs exploding. Chaos ensued. Wealthy members of the community, who had sponsored the projects of the JCC, fled. The Israeli embassy barraged the Markovitches with messages, “Leave urgently.” Indeed, those with the physical and financial ability to do so, left. But the Markovitches faced a dilemma. How could they desert their community? “We were left with scared people,” Inna explains, “many of them in dire need.”
They decided to move to the JCC and protect the community in the basement there. Sixty frightened Jews joined them, plus some non-Jewish neighbors. “There’s no bomb shelter here,” Rabbi Moskovitch told the press, “but at least we can be together.” His wife added: “We spent a lot of effort to quell the panic.”
Friday, just before Shabbat, a television crew from ABC news filmed Jews in the JCC synagogue preparing to celebrate Shabbat. Was the congregants’ calm demeanor a mask?
The Markovitches realized that the only way to protect their community was to leave, but they were determined to take as many Jews as they could.
At 3 AM Friday night, Kyiv was targeted with massive bombing. No one in the JCC could sleep. Toward morning, a person from the Ukrainian Special Services appeared. He disclosed to the Markovitches that Putin, frustrated with the slow progress of the invasion, was bringing in fierce warriors from Chechnya. These, he warned, were Muslim extremists who hated Jews and would likely target the famous Rabbi Markovitch. “You want to protect your people,” he told them ominously. “But by staying here, you are drawing a target on their backs.”
The Markovitches reluctantly realized that the only way to protect their community was to leave, but they were determined to take as many Jews as they could with them. By this time the government had prohibited all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. As Israeli citizens, Rabbi Markovitch and his sons could evacuate, but most of the men in the Jewish community were trapped, and their mothers, wives, or sisters refused to abandon them. Others were afraid to leave everything behind and face the dangers of the road, as Russian bombs, missiles, and rockets kept falling.
In the end, only 13 people joined Rabbi Yonatan and Inna. Their 22-year-old son plus a young couple with their two daughters would ride in the Markovitch 7-seater. The Markvitch’s oldest son, his French wife, and three daughters would ride in another car, donated by a man in the community. The third car would carry a just-married couple with Israeli citizenship, the husband’s terrified mother, whose apartment building had been bombed while she was out food shopping, and a 21-year-old student.
The convoy would be led by the man from the Special Services. As soon as Shabbat was over, he told them they had ten minutes before leaving. They would be driving at top-speed, and could not be weighed down by suitcases. Inna ran home and grabbed their documents. She left all their possessions behind – including her Shabbat candlesticks.
It was already dark, and a curfew was in effect. How could they travel? The man from the Special Services, whom they soon started calling, “the angel,” assured them that he would get them through. As to which border they would head towards, text messages from the nearest border, with Poland, told of a 70-hour wait. “The angel told us he would monitor the situation as we travelled,” says Inna, “so we followed his car, not knowing where we were going.”
The highway out of Kyiv was jammed with a solid line of barely moving cars. “The angel” sailed his convoy down the oncoming traffic lane, apparently immune to censure.
At every stop, our hearts stopped. The soldiers and volunteers were nervous, and we were afraid that someone accidently would shoot.
Every few kilometers, they were stopped at checkpoints manned by both Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers wielding axes, knives, and sticks. “The angel” had instructed them to open their car windows (in the freezing cold) so they could be clearly seen as he produced documentation that eventually got them waved through. “At every stop, our hearts stopped,” Inna remembers. “The soldiers and volunteers were nervous, and we were afraid that someone accidently would shoot.” Indeed, one Israeli man trying to reach the border was accidently killed in just such an incident.
As soon as they left the vicinity of Kyiv, “the angel” bypassed the congested highways of fleeing refugees. He sped up to 160 km per hour (100 mph) and started driving on dirt roads and through bumpy fields where no road existed. Inna was terrified that their tires would be punctured in the rough terrain, and that their escape would end, helpless, in the dark remote countryside. But somehow, for 14 hours, their convoy barreled through.
“Every ten minutes with me,” he later told them, “you saved three hours.”
Only twice did “the angel” allow them ten-minute bathroom stops. They did have to stop to refuel. When they did, they encountered a problem. The Markovitch car took only diesel, and with the start of the war, diesel was prohibited to be sold to non-military vehicles. Again, “the angel” produced a document and the gas station attendant duly filled the Markovitch car with diesel and even sold them some to take with them.
In Budapest hotel, the Jewish desk clerk recognized the rabbi.
Their tires held out until they reached the Rumanian border; then, at the point of safety, they got two flat tires. They waited at the crowded border for ten hours. When it was their turn to pass, they were stopped due to document problems with two of the vehicles. The insurance on the Markovitch car had expired, and the car their son was driving was registered to a different owner. They explained that the owner had given them his car, and on the phone he testified to that effect.
The Ukrainian border guard, however, was unmoved. He insisted that those two cars could not leave Ukraine. He demanded that they abandon the cars at the border and march 13 kilometers in the rain (with young children) to the nearest Rumanian bus stop. Rabbi Markowitz prevailed on him, “Please, we’re exhausted, hungry, and dirty.”
“You Jews are always dirty,” the border guard retorted.
“Shame on you!” Rabbi Markovitch, the former IDF officer, shouted. “How dare you show such antisemitism! I’m the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv.”
Hearing the tumult, a higher-ranking border guard came running to the scene. Perhaps he recognized the rabbi from numerous TV broadcasts. Full of apologies, he told Rabbi Markovitch, “We’re very sorry. Please just go. Go in peace. Goodbye.” And he gestured all four vehicles through the border.
In 22 years in Ukraine, we encountered antisemitism not more than two or three times. But at that crucial moment we faced antisemitism, and miraculously it saved us!
Inna would later relate, “In 22 years in Ukraine, we encountered antisemitism not more than two or three times. But at that crucial moment, we faced antisemitism, and miraculously it saved us!”
Once over the border, they were able to repair their two flat tires. “The angel” checked them into a hotel in the first Rumanian town, and the next morning took his leave. Was he Elijah the Prophet, known in Jewish lore to appear periodically for miraculous salvation? “I don’t know,” says Inna, smiling.
Arriving in Israel
The Markovitches were safe, but their community was still in lethal danger as the Russian invasion intensified. The rabbi spent the next three days tirelessly organizing busses to evacuate more Jews from Kyiv. As of this writing, five buses, each carrying 50 people, have reached the border safely.
We Left in Body, But We’re Still There
On Thursday, March 3, the Markovitch family and their companions crossed into Hungary and boarded an El Al plane to Israel. When they landed on Thursday night, they were greeted by 200 people waving Israeli flags, as well as numerous TV crews thrusting microphones toward their mouths.
Asked how she felt reaching Israel, Inna said, “I’m happy I’m a Jew. I want to praise and thank all the thousands of people who called us in Kyiv to ask how they can help. This is the greatness of the Jewish heart. This is the real Jewish essence.”
Rabbi Markovitch is on his way back to the Ukrainian border to conduct further rescue efforts.
Since reaching Israel, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Markovitch have not stopped their unflagging efforts for the Jews of Kyiv. “We left in body, but we’re still there,” Inna remarked. As you read this, Rabbi Markovitch is on his way back to the Ukrainian border to conduct further rescue efforts.
The tree that the Markovitches planted 22 years ago has been chopped down by the invading Russian army, and its fruits scattered. The intact community has exploded like a Russian bomb. But there are still individual Jews whose lives must be saved. As Rabbi Markovitch declared upon landing in Israel: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, ‘Always be happy, but never be satisfied.’”
To help Rabbi and Rebbetzin Markovitch rescue the Jews of Kyiv, please donate to: https://www.charidy.com/helpjewsofkyiv.