Fear in a Library, then Aliyah to Israel

The Balaban family of Gorlovka, Ukraine, fled their home after Olga’s workplace was shelled. Now adjusting to their new home in Haifa, they look back at the home they left, and forward to the lives they hope to build here.

photo by Nathan Roie
photo by Nathan Roie

By Nathan Roie

Olga Balaban, 56, had just 10 months to go until she could retire from her job as a librarian at the medical school in her hometown of Gorlovka, in Eastern Ukraine, where she had lived her entire life.

Other than the fact that her husband suffers from a disability that complicates his daily life, things were good: she was surrounded by books, her son Andrei, 25, was working successfully as a computer programmer, and her older son, Roman, lived in Israel with his wife and two daughters. Olga was content. She, her husband, and Andrei were thinking that perhaps, after she retired, they’d all move to Israel to live near Roman.

But then battles began in Eastern Ukraine between separatist Russian forces and Ukraine, and the region became an increasingly dangerous place to live. “The violence came up right to our door,” Andrei said. “One by one, whole families were leaving Gorlovka.” There was an especial fear of an attack on a local chemical factory in the city; if it exploded, it would cause a humanitarian disaster.

Finally, the day came when the library where Olga was working was shelled, pulling down parts of the building from the roof to the ground floor.

“I saw a little girl ask her mother, as the building was falling around us and we feared for our lives, ‘Mommy, when this war is over can I go back to kindergarten?’ It’s all so terribly tragic,” Olga remembered with tears in her eyes, as Andrei puts his arms around her to comfort his mother.

The Balabans fled for their lives, leaving behind everything they own, and with the help of The Jewish Agency, made Aliyah almost immediately to Haifa where, somewhat in shock at the turn their lives have taken so quickly, Olga is studying Hebrew at The Jewish Agency’s Aba Hushi ulpan while also caring for her husband; Andrei is looking for a job.

They left on July 28, 2014. By the end of August, 33 residents of Gorlovka had been killed and 129 injured, by artillery fire. “I still think about my friends in Ukraine, with whom I lived for 56 years,” Olga says. “It’s hard for me to talk about because it is so tragic.”

With her painful memories, few assets, and foreign environment, Olga often feels alone. But in addition to the guidance available to her at the ulpan, her son Roman is a tremendous help. “He’s a good son,” she says. “He takes care of us as if we were the children and he were the father.”

Also, the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashana – starts in a few weeks, and Olga says she looks forward to new beginnings. “This year, for the first time, after being refugees from Ukraine, our whole family will be together for Rosh Hashana,” Olga said. “We hope that life will be good for us here in Haifa, and in Israel.”

courtesy The Jewish Agency