Not since the Holocaust have there been this many Jewish refugees in Europe.

As humanitarian agencies sound the alarm on what may become the continent’s worst refugee crisis in 80 years, with the U.N. reporting that more than one million refugees have fled embattled Ukraine for safer ground, Chabad-Lubavitch in Europe has activated a network spanning the continent to absorb and assist the thousands of Jewish refugees running for their lives. Arriving with little more than a carry-on bag, their lives have been upended with no word on when—or if—they’ll ever return.

From cities like Zhitomir, Odessa, Kiev, Kharkov and Dnipro, Chabad emissaries on the ground have been evacuating the most vulnerable members of their communities en masse to safety.

As he sent off the tenth bus from the city he’s called home since 1994, an emotional Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm of Chabad-Lubavitch of Zhitomir called on the Jewish community to storm the Heavens in prayer. “Men, women and children are leaving their homes, why?!” the rabbi cried. “Why must we watch little children cry? What have we done?! Say a chapter of Psalms, do another good deed, give charity, beseech G‑d! We want Moshiach now!”

The massive operation to bring Ukraine’s Jews to safety will cost millions, and concerned people from around the world are contributing to the effort via Chabad’s Ukraine Relief Fund, which is working in close coordination with the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) of the former Soviet Union. At the same time, residents of European cities are dropping off supplies and providing funds to their local Chabad centers, as the thousands of refugees begin to flood the continent.

The routes of escape are few: Poland, Romania and Moldova—as well as the shorter Hungarian and Slovakian borders—though as many as 160,000 Ukrainians are internally displaced according to U.N. estimates. Among them is a contingent from shelled Kharkov, where the Chabad emissaries have evacuated together with 50 community members headed for Dnipro. “Missiles and bombs have been hammering the center of the city, and they were raining down all night. We were told this might be the last chance,” a tearful Miriam Moskovitz, who together with her husband, Kharkov chief rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, has directed Chabad of Kharkov since 1990, told Chabad.org.

First Port of Call is Romania

Refugee children play at Chabad of Romania. Rabbi Naftali Deutsch has already taken 20 children into his preschool.
Refugee children play at Chabad of Romania. Rabbi Naftali Deutsch has already taken 20 children into his preschool.

For many refugees, the first port of call is Romania. “We’re getting at least 250 refugees coming to our Chabad center every day,” reports Rabbi Naftali Deutsch, co-director of Chabad Lubavitchof Romania, from Bucharest. “Most are Jewish, some are not. We help everyone. Every five or ten minutes, another group comes through our doors.”

Chabad’s kitchen is cooking nonstop for the flood of refugees and Deutsch is assisting them with finding accommodations, tickets to Israel for those with citizenship and help making aliya for the many who wish to immigrate to the Holy Land. He’s taken 20 refugee children into Chabad’s preschool already, and says they’ll be hosting several hundred people this Shabbat.

Closer to the Ukrainian border—about 200 miles southwest—Chabad of Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg), Romania, is also providing aid to the massive influx of refugees. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, a group of 140 orphaned children from Zhitomir arrived, and another bus from Zhitomir arrived early Thursday morning. Many smaller groups and individuals are also passing though Chabad’s doors, says Rabbi Dovber Orgad, who directs Chabad of Cluj-Napoca with his wife, Fraidy. “Every minute I get another call or message, people in the city, non-Jews, offering to help with funds and toys for the children. From rural areas, farmers are offering fresh produce,” Orgad says, acknowledging that it’s difficult to source so much food all at once. “Our kitchen has been working non-stop. Tomorrow we have a shipment of meat and chicken arriving from Budapest.”

A Children's Home on the Run

A child from Zhitomir's Alumim children's home is excited to arrive in Romania.
A child from Zhitomir's Alumim children's home is excited to arrive in Romania.

Esther Wilhelm, co-director of Chabad of Zhitomir, shepherded a 40-person-strong group, including a dozen children, from Zhitomir via the western Ukraine’s Carpathian mountains, where they spent days before managing to cross the border into Romania. After days on the run, they finally arrived in Cluj-Napoca early Thursday morning, joining up with Malka Bukiet’s group of 140 children from Zhitomir’s Chabad-run Alumim orphanage. Wilhelm says the entire group plans on flying to Israel following Shabbat, where Chabad will continue to care for them until the next steps become clearer.

Speaking to Chabad.org late Wednesday night, Malka Bukiet recounted her lengthy ordeal, transporting her charges from Zhitomir to safety in Romania. Her group left the orphanage in Zhitomir last Thursday, as the war broke out, and headed to the Carpathian mountains for Shabbat. They headed to the Romanian border on Monday afternoon. It was a long, treacherous journey. Bukiet says that she sent a family member in New York to pray for their success and safety at the resting place of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. “We prayed that every single child would be able to cross the border,” she says, noting that some children were lacking proper documentation due to the harried escape and their disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It was a miracle,” she says. Ukraine didn’t allow their bus driver to cross the border, so they were dropped off at the checkpoint, where the entire group had to walk over the border, luggage in tow. “We crossed with tears of joy. Recalling it now, I’m almost crying.” At the Romanian side of the border, they were greeted by the Israeli consul to Romania who assisted them in entering the country. After several hours waiting at the border and arranging onward travel, they left for Cluj-Napoca.

Welcomed with Open Arms

The Chabad community in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, prepares to welcome 100 refugees
The Chabad community in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, prepares to welcome 100 refugees

“We were welcomed with open arms by the Orgads and their student volunteers [the Orgads serve a large student population],” Bukiet says. By 4 a.m., the children were in their hotel rooms, “smiling and happy. We felt the embrace of the Jewish people.”

Bukiet says that they’re arranging the last steps of their flight to Israel on Sunday. “G‑d willing, we’ll be able to fly out on Sunday. We don’t know how long we’ll be in Israel for.”

In Germany, Chabad of Berlin is preparing to receive a group of 120 children and staff from Odessa’s Chabad-run Mishpacha orphanage, in addition to the many other refugees making their way northwest to Germany. “Locals have been coming to Chabad all day, dropping off clothing, toys and other supplies,” says Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel from Berlin.

Part of Chabad’s yeshivah in Dnipro will find a safe haven in Dusseldorf, Germany, tonight while some students are still en route after their bus experienced mechanical issues in Moldova, said the yeshivah’s director, Rabbi Chaim Chazan.

In Berlin, residents have been donating food, toys and other essentials to Chabad of Berlin in anticipation of the arrival of the Mishpacha orphanage from Odessa.
In Berlin, residents have been donating food, toys and other essentials to Chabad of Berlin in anticipation of the arrival of the Mishpacha orphanage from Odessa.

Besides for the longer borders with Poland, Moldova and Romania, Ukraine also shares southwestern border with Hungary and Slovakia. The Hungarian border, at 84 miles long, is seeing several hundred Jewish refugees cross daily, estimates Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Hungary. 100 miles from Ukraine, Rabbi Shmuel Faigen, co-director of Chabad of Debrecen with his wife, Riki, says they’ve been welcoming a steady stream of refugees heading towards Budapest and other cities. “We’ve been providing accommodation and meals for them,” he says while welcoming a family from Kiev that had just arrived.

Oberlander says that on Monday, a community member approached him and offered a vacant home to house refugees. “Three hours later, it was filled with a family from Kiev.” One family that passed through made a deep impression on the rabbi. “A woman came with her two young boys, about nine and 10 years old,” he says. At the synagogue, Oberlander watched the boys pray. “Tears came from my eyes, they were praying with so much feeling. These boys got such a good Jewish education in Ukraine.”

Yeshiva students from Dnipro are in Bucharest, en route to Dusseldorf, Germany.
Yeshiva students from Dnipro are in Bucharest, en route to Dusseldorf, Germany.

A member of the Chabad community in Budapest traveled to the village of Kerestir, which has an established hospitality infrastructure as it hosts Jews from around the world who come to pray at the resting place of Rabbi Shayale of Kerestir, a revered early 20th century Hungarian Chassidic rabbi. He’ll be providing support for the refugees that now occupy the pilgrimage center.

In Slovakia, which shares a 60 mile long border with Ukraine, Rabbi Baruch Myers says that while not many refugees have contacted Chabad yet, as Jews flee western Ukraine due to the moving war front, he is ready and waiting to accept them and provide necessary support. Close to midnight, Myers will drive a carload of sandwiches, cakes and water to a highway near the border where he’ll meet a bus from Odessa’s Mishpacha orphanage on its way to Germany. “We need to stop to restock our food supply,” says Rabbi Mendy Wolff, 25, who’s chaperoning the bus full of young girls. They can’t stop in Bratislava itself, because the group is racing against the clock; they need to be in Berlin before Shabbat. “I’ll do anything to make their lives a little happier,” says Myers.

On the Ukrainian side of the Slovakian border, Chabad of Uzhgorod is welcoming hundreds fleeing the larger cities of Ukraine, such as Dnipro, Zaporozhye, and Kiev, says Rabbi Mendel Wilhelm, co-director of Chabad of Uzhgorod with his wife, Sarah. Wilhelm himself is currently in Israel, he had to leave Uzhgorod a week before the war broke out for urgent personal matters. But he’s worked with community members to welcome the many refugees at the Chabad center, where they’re fed and helped with accommodations. Most people he says will continue on to Romania or Hungary, though some without their documents will need to stay in Uzhgorod for longer.

Refugees arrive at Chabad of Romania for a hot meal after a long trip.
Refugees arrive at Chabad of Romania for a hot meal after a long trip.

Some refugees are fleeing as far afield as Cyprus, where Rabbi Zushe Neymark ofChabad of Ayia Napa, in eastern Cyprus, prepared to receive 100 refugees, many from Kiev. They’re flying from Moldova and Romania to Ayia Napa, where the Jewish community includes a number of Ukrainian expats. Neymark says his community has come together to help. “We’ve arranged a team to handle the hotel accommodations, and another to source essential supplies,” he says. “We’re helping in every way possible, collecting medications, food, toys, everything.”

Neymark says that while some will go on to Israel, many of the refugees will be in Ayia Napa for the long-haul. “They might be here for months.”

Bukiet sees her own miraculous escape as a precursor to the ultimate journey: “May it be a roadmap to our final redemption, with Moshiach’s coming very soon.”

The Ukraine Jewish Relief Fund has been established to help provide assistance to the Jewish communities in Ukraine impacted by the war.

Click here for a prayer you can say and a list of good deeds you can do in the merit of the protection of all those in harm’s way.