(RNS) — When Rabbi David Wilfond was invited last month to join 18 other New York-area rabbis on a mission to the Polish-Ukrainian border, he jumped at the chance.
Wilfond, the rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform synagogue in Westchester County, was eager to deliver vital supplies to refugees fleeing war-torn Ukraine. But he had another goal, no matter how far-fetched: he dreamed of seeing his Ukrainian cousins from kyiv again.
It would take a miracle, he realized, given that he would only be in Poland for two nights (March 13-15) and by that time 3 million Ukrainians had fled their country, with millions more internally displaced. Just in case, he bought sweets, vitamins and other essentials, in the unlikely event that they meet.
Wilfond first learned of his cousins in the late 1990s when he was a rabbi in Kyiv. While visiting another synagogue, a worshiper told him of a family with the extremely rare same name.
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“We thought everyone died in the Holocaust,” Wilfond said, recalling the moment, so learning that part of the family had survived was an unexpected blessing.
“When I called the family on the phone, a 92-year-old woman named Malka Vilfand (as the surname is spelled in Ukraine) invited me to come meet four generations of my family,” Wilfond said. “Her husband, who had already passed away, grew up in the same shtetl as my grandfather.”
Over the past 25 years, after moving to Israel and eventually returning to the United States, Wilfond has stayed in touch with the Kyiv Vilfands, primarily on Facebook.
When it looked like Russia might attack Ukraine, Wilfond and his cousins - Natalia Vilfand, a psychotherapist, and Yurii Vilfand, an engineer – started texting each other every day. After Russia began bombing residential areas of kyiv, nine members of the extended Vilfand 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, for their part, were among those millions of refugees. They had been frantically seeking safety since February 24, three days after the war began. Natalia was at home in her kyiv apartment with her 12-year-old daughter, Karina, and 24-year-old son, Maks.
“I woke up around 5 a.m. to unusual and scary sounds. I was shaking with fear,” Natalia said in an interview conducted in Russian on Messenger. His son’s girlfriend, Tanya, learned from his 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 drive with my mother-in-law, who was recovering from a stroke,” Natalia said.
Natalia, Yurii and Karina drove to the kyiv suburb of Vorzel in a car, thinking it would be safe. Maks and his girlfriend’s family did the same in another car.
A trip that should have taken 30 minutes took the family seven hours. When they arrived, they found the shelling following them. The house where they sheltered had two basements, each about 6 feet by 6 feet and accessible only via a removable iron ladder.
“The most terrible and difficult part was getting 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. Using the sheets, we carried my mother-in-law. There were explosions night and day.
When a shell exploded near the house, Yurii quickly grabbed her mother’s things, picked her up in his arms, and carried her to the car.
They fled again, this time to Rovno, 12 hours away by car, and took shelter there for 10 days. When it was clear that the war would continue, they slowly moved towards the Polish border.
In Rovno, Maks and Tanya got married.
At the Ukraine-Poland border, women said a heartbreaking farewell to Yurii and Maks, who, like all men between the ages of 18 and 60, are considered conscription age and banned from leaving Ukraine .
“My son and my husband are in Ukraine. We miss them. We don’t know when we’ll see them next. We miss them so much. It’s hard to be so far apart. It’s hard for me to see the tears and sadness in my daughter’s eyes,” Natalia said.
As soon as they passed through Poland, the women, who now included Tanya’s mother, grandmother and sister, as well as a dog named York, were welcomed by aid workers. They were sent to a hotel in Warsaw before Natalia, Karina and Yurii’s mother received the necessary documents to travel 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 are texting and Natalia told me that she and the other women had arrived in Poland and would be sent to the Novotel.” When Wilfond received the text, he was at the Novotel, where the Jewish Agency’s refugee center had been set up.
The women arrived at the Novotel late Sunday evening, and Wilfond met them in a tearful meeting the next day.
“It’s miraculous that we met,” Natalia said. “I was thrilled that this trip brought me to one of my loved ones.”
She is grateful for the gifts her American cousin brought from New York.
“I accepted all the gifts with gratitude,” Natalia said. “I was upset that I couldn’t give them gifts in return. I hope the next time we see each other. I hope we will see each other.”
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Natalia, who was flown to Israel on March 18, is still somewhat in shock. Despite her trauma and speaking no Hebrew and little English, she managed to rent an apartment and started offering online psychotherapy sessions to other traumatized Ukrainian refugees.
Karina, who was bubbly and talkative before the war but withdrawn and cried frequently after the war began, has begun to recover since arriving in Israel.
“She goes to school now and people are so helpful. Everything will be fine,” Natalia said.