It was only 10 years ago that she was a little girl wandering the streets of Ukraine, neglected, alone and unloved. No one believed in her, and her future was bleak. At the age of 13 she was brought to Israel by the organization Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl, and her life turned around. Today she’s happily married with three children. She sings and tells the story of her unusual life to groups of women.

This is the story of Anya Kabanovsky's personal exodus.

Sleeping Behind the Curtains

“I was born in Kiev, Ukraine. I was the only child of parents who separated when I was very young. My mother was a singer in a successful band, a true artist, with all that that involves. I grew up in a house that was filled with music all day, and sometimes, when Mommy went out to perform at night, I went with her. I got used to spending a lot of time with adults, to hearing many types of music and to sleeping behind the stage curtains. While all the girls in kindergarten were interested in dolls and pink clothes, I was preoccupied with deep thoughts and my rich inner life. Perhaps that’s why I had no friends.

“When I was seven, Mommy thought I was big enough and responsible enough to be left alone when she went out to perform. I was independent from the time I was very young, and by the time I was nine, I was cooking for myself and for my mother.”

My Daughter, You Are Jewish

“When I was five, Mommy surprised me by telling me that she’d signed me up for a Jewish school. When I asked her why, she told me that we are Jewish, and that the Jewish school is considered the best in Kiev. I was very excited. I had no friends in kindergarten anyway, and I was curious about what a Jewish kindergarten would be like, especially a kindergarten that was considered the best in the city.

“I enjoyed learning in the Jewish school. Before every holiday we would learn about the holiday themes, as well as songs and dances about the holiday. We performed for our parents. Mommy, and sometimes Grandma, would come to see me, and I was proud and happy.

“Every Friday we baked delicious challahs. I would bring them home, and everyone enjoyed eating them. The Jewish concepts that we learned in school never made it into the house, though. We didn’t start keeping mitzvahs or Shabbat, but I was discovering a complete and wonderful world of mitzvahs and traditions, and I loved it very much.”

Anya arriving in Israel.
Anya arriving in Israel.

Becoming Mommy’s Mommy

“When I was four, Mommy fell from the fourth floor of our building. The damage this did to her nervous system became apparent only years later.

“I was only in third grade when Mommy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and started to limp. Her situation quickly deteriorated, and she needed to be cared for. Mommy, the successful singer who had made me so proud, was trapped in a broken body.

“Her physical state affected her emotional state. She became depressed and almost ceased functioning. I would come home from school and take care of her. I’d cook and feed her, clean the house and do the shopping. We lived on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator, so Mommy hardly ever left the house. I was her only connection to the outside world.

“As Mommy’s situation worsened, mine did too. I had no stable adult I could rely on. I paid no attention to anything Mommy said, and became a child with no limits. No one came to my parent-teacher’s meetings at school, and so I wasn’t afraid of what anyone would say about me. I cut school a lot and wandered the streets, which was just as bad as it sounds.

“Our financial situation was critical. We couldn’t afford even the staples, like oil and salt; we just made gruel cooked in water. Sometimes I ate that three times a day. During the school year, the teachers had pity on me and let me stay until 6 PM, so that I would be off the streets and could eat nutritious meals; but during the vacations, Mommy and I went hungry.

“I didn’t have a uniform until the parents’ committee collected money and bought one for me. After school, I’d change into my grandmother’s old clothes. The situation destroyed my self-image. The neighborhood girls would smirk at me, and I was full of self-pity. In the winter, when they’d ask me why I didn’t have boots, I’d tell them it was because I wasn’t cold, but the truth was that both my body and soul were freezing.”

Children of Chernobyl

Anya’s school housed the office of the organization Children of Chernobyl. This project was initiated by the Rebbe in 1990, four years after the meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, when it became clear that the radioactive contamination in the area was not decreasing. The Rebbe told his chassidim to remove the children from Ukraine and Belarus and take them to Israel, to remove them from the danger zone. These children were housed in a dormitory and received full medical care, along with a Jewish education and a lot of love.

Anya asked the office to facilitate her emigration to Israel. Her mother agreed immediately. She knew that Anya needed someone to take care of her, that if she remained in Ukraine and continued to wander the streets, her future would be bleak. Anya promised the people in charge of the project that she would get a grip on herself; she would obey the rules and concentrate on her education. Anya left her mother knowing that she would receive some care from her father, who still maintained a connection with his ex-wife and was able to provide for her most basic needs.

Anya arriving with fellow children brought to Israel by Chabad Children of Chernobyl.
Anya arriving with fellow children brought to Israel by Chabad Children of Chernobyl.

Does Anybody Care About Me?

“I got to Kfar Chabad and began studying in an ulpan (a school for learning Hebrew), which was to prepare me to enter 8th grade. As soon as I got there, they bought me clothes and other things I was lacking. I enjoyed the filling meals and the way they pampered me. People were always complimenting me and asking me how I was. For me, who had had no love and had gone without life’s necessities for several years, this was a huge shock. I couldn’t digest it. I couldn’t believe anybody cared about me. When someone would ask, ‘How are you?’ I would answer, ‘What do you care?’ I resisted all limits and rules, I was angry all the time, and I hated everyone.

“To get out of school, I kept saying that I was sick, that my head hurt or my stomach hurt. The staff understood, but they explained that in Israel you get to stay home for only two days of sickness. I was coming from Ukraine, where a child with a runny nose could stay home for two weeks.

“The staff saw me as a challenge, and they didn’t give up on me. They kept telling me that they believed in me, and they complimented me on any little thing I did right. They set limits on my behavior, but put no limits on their nurturing. Within six months I’d changed completely. I began to believe that people loved me as I was, and even more importantly, I began to believe in myself. I wanted to show the staff that their investment in me was worthwhile. I wanted to prove myself.”

A Visit to Ukraine

“Sometimes I’d call Mommy. The Parkinson’s made it hard for her to talk, but she listened to me. These conversations weren’t easy for me, but I still called.”

After two years in Israel, Anya asked to go visit her mother. She wanted to return, well-dressed and well-groomed, to the place where she’d had to wear her grandmother’s cast-offs. But the visit was difficult for her. Seeing how her mother lived shook her to the core.

During her visit, friends introduced her, via the Internet, to a Jewish man in Canada named Ronen. They corresponded by e‑mail and felt an amazing connection. When she got back to the dormitory, she told the house mother that she’d met a man. He was older than her, but she was sure that someday she would marry him. The house mother understood that she wasn’t going to be able to forbid their relationship, and just asked Anya to limit their contact to telephone calls and letters.

While Anya got more interested in Torah and mitzvahs, Ronen didn’t, and their connection weakened.

“He actually had a certain connection to Judaism. He carried a picture of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in his wallet. He had been born sickly and had to be connected to a respirator as a baby. After his mother asked for and received a blessing from the Rebbe, his situation improved immediately, and he began to breathe on his own. His mother told him to carry a picture of the Rebbe with him wherever he went.”

One day, when Ronen was cleaning out his wallet and came across the picture of the Rebbe, he decided to find out a little about him. He went to a Chabad website, read about the Rebbe and listened to a sound clip of him singing. The melody moved him.

“It turned out that the day was the 11th of Nissan, the Rebbe’s birthday,” Anya says. “Shortly afterwards, Ronen called me to tell me he was starting to keep Shabbat and to learn about Judaism with Rabbi Zaltzman, Chabad’s emissary to the Russian community in Toronto. I was in the clouds: my prayers had been answered!”

Some time later, Ronen and Anya were married.

A family Purim photo
A family Purim photo

“The people of Children of Chernobyl married me off as if I were their daughter, providing everything from the dress to the photographer and the hall, and everything else we needed. They shared in my joy and made me feel like I deserved the best. My husband paid his half, and helped pay for a ticket for Mommy.”

Bringing Mommy to Israel

“My father died a year and a half ago. I started to think about Mommy’s situation, and felt that I had the ability to care for her. I brought her to Israel, took care of all the paperwork, and for now she lives next door to us. I’m happy that I can help her and care for her, and that she can enjoy her grandchildren. In Ukraine, the state refused to help her. They have no appreciation for the value of a human life. Here, she gets medical care that has significantly improved her quality of life.”

A doting grandmother with her smiling grandchildren
A doting grandmother with her smiling grandchildren

To Make Music and to Sing—A Mission and the Closing of a Circle

Recently, Anya has begun to sing and tell her story to women.

“From a young age, I knew that I wanted to make music, but I had no chance to express myself musically. I was very embarrassed to perform before Mommy, who being a perfectionist would criticize me. In the dormitory I was given many chances to show my abilities. We had a recital at the end of the first year that I learned music. I participated and received many compliments. I’ve recently decided that I want to do something with music. I’m studying voice, and through musical competitions aimed at performances based on life stories, I’m becoming self-empowered.

“When I perform, I feel that the circle is closing. But music by itself is not enough. It needs the added value of being used to strengthen others.”

Thank you, G‑d, for giving me strength
to be brave, and not to forget
that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
When I get there, I’ll find it’s just the beginning.

(Anya Kabanovsky)