Striding into the courtyard of the Agudath Israel complex in Chisinau in Moldova, a 29-year-old Israeli breaks down in tears and recites the first six words of the Shema. “Hear o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” he declares. His 29-year-old wife stands alongside him.
The couple have just emerged after a ten hour drive — a “journey through hell”. Inside the vehicle were their travelling companions: five large dogs, two cats, and a ferret.
Anton and Yulia Lev have told the JC of their terrifying three weeks under the invading Russian forces, and how they were able to escape — thanks to their dogs and cats and a Russian soldier who loved animals almost as much as they did.
The couple met working in Kyiv, married and then moved to a tiny village called Babyntsi in the countryside because of their love of animals.
“On the 3rd day of the war, the electricity disappeared. We had lost count of vehicles on the convoy coming from Belarus. We decided to sleep in the very cold cellar, keeping a bit warmer by lying down on top of our harvest of potatoes. Some neighbours joined us each night.”
“Then the Chechens rolled into the streets and demanded that people come out of their houses. We were afraid of them - they were known as killers. They moved into our neighbours’ houses and made a big mess searching, but they stole nothing. They didn’t come into our house because it looked like it was not inhabited — the building work was still continuing.
“The amazing thing was that our animals, especially our 5 dogs, who were downstairs, did not bark at all. I do not know what powers stopped them. Usually they bark like crazy at anything, but I sat and prayed that they keep quiet, and they did.
“In any case, the Chechens were only looking for weapons and did not loot. They were even kind to one neighbour who had only one lung after an operation. They gave him $100 USD and1,000 Russian roubles and they also gave food to the people who needed it.
“They had a code of honour. They told people: ‘We are mercenaries. We’re professionals. We’re not hitting civilians.’
“They continued going south, and we were sure that the worst was behind us. We were wrong.
“About 40 armoured personnel carriers rolled into our village, about 25 miles outside Kyiv. At first they just occupied empty houses where people had fled. They were just kids of 20 or 21 years old, and they looked hungry and cold.
“Our neighbour gave them food - the same that she provided for her cows. The soldiers were very grateful, even though it was cows’ food, and they were quite polite. But much worse was yet to come.
“A new group of Russian soldiers replaced them. These were getting more and more paranoid and accused us of knowing who was sending up flares from the nearby forest to call for Ukrainian counter-attack. We were warned that unless we handed over the ‘traitor’ the Russians would smash our home up and either kill us all or take us captive.
“We’d by then heard about rapes, soldiers drunken on looting our home-made vodka were swivelling rifles without safety-catches on, sometimes firing randomly. We thought we were doomed.
“One Russian soldier had demanded food from us, as many of them were doing — underfed, without warm enough clothing and miserable from the freezing cold. But when he met our five dogs and our cat, the soldier, Andrei, changed completely. He petted the animals and started showing us pictures of his own cat and dog back in Russia.
“The new commander was often drunk in the street, swaying with his machine gun. His men stole and drove civilian cars without tyres making grooves in the road.
“Later, they set up some big cannons and were shooting from near our house. It was very frightening. Meanwhile, they were now breaking into occupied houses and started to take things.
“I started to pray and found my tefillin — I’d brought them from Israel to Ukraine, but I had never worn them... till then.
“I decided that if we survived I should go back to Israel and do teshuvah (repentance). I am not religious, but in our Ukrainian village, I had to live. My neighbour saw me putting on these strange things and praying in Hebrew, and he said: ‘Please do it again. We need it. It probably works!’.
“We were getting increasingly nervous. The soldiers often looted alcohol and pointed rifles at women — without putting on the safety catch. They looked at my wife like she’s a piece of meat.
“They found out I had an Israeli passport and a soldier cursed me for being a Jew. I never had to hide being Jewish from Ukrainians ever — they had never made me uncomfortable about it — so this was another shock.
“The next morning at 6am Andrei, the soldier who liked our dogs, came back alone. He said it was urgent that we get out of the village — even though we were all under a curfew.
“We hesitated but he insisted. So we put provisions in our car — there was not much food for us but we loaded up 60kg of food for the animals. He came back again 40 minutes later, and implored us: ‘Don’t you understand? Get out of this village now! I’ve spoken to the guards, they won’t shoot.’
“We took all five dogs, our cat and our ferret, but we had to leave our rabbits, and the hedgehog we were nursing back to health after one of the dogs injured it.
“Thinking this could be our last moment, we drove straight towards the nearest checkpoint. That could have been the end for us. But they did not shoot. Andrej had arranged for them to ignore us.
“Our animals, plus the Russian soldier’s love of dogs, saved us.
“We felt after we’d got past the first checkpoint that we would die at the next one or the one after that - if not from gunfire from the checkpoint, then bombing and shelling on the road itself. We would become sitting ducks.”
“It was a journey through hell.” Yulia shudders as she remembers the dead bodies and body parts, hands or arms, strewn on the roadside.
“There were people on the side of the roads carrying little children pleading for a ride,” she said. “But our car was full. We felt so bad.”
Anton says he cannot forget the dead soldiers. “They were lying there with blackened skills. Their skulls were protruding from their army uniforms - like something in a horror movie.
“As we drove through the second village, which had a big V on the checkpoint, I counted seven bodies of soldiers. We saw the body of a child, body of an old lady. We could see bullet holes in and out of houses.”
Yulia adds: “I tried to keep my eyes closed, and I was crying all the time. If you asked me what hell is like, that was hell.”
Anton continues: “After getting through three Russian checkpoints we suddenly saw the next checkpoint was manned by Ukrainians. Thank God. They looked astonished we’d got that far unharmed. They told us to drive like mad as there were many shells landing around them.
“It took us ten hours to reach the border. Russian-speaking Christians took us over into Moldova and gave us food, clothing, a roof over our heads, and even a Moldovan mobile sim-card.
“After all the evil we saw, my faith in humanity started to return.
“Two days later we drove to Chisinau, because Yulia had a friend who said we could get flown from there to Israel. Once we got here I began to relax, being with Jews and with Israeli rescuers. Seeing and hearing Israelis, I started to cry. I finally felt: wow, we’re safe.
“They’ve been fantastic at the Agudath Israel synagogue. They’ve got veterans helping out, as well paramedics. And rabbis’ families. And volunteers, some from foreign countries.
“We’ve just bought cages for four of our five dogs, the cats and the ferret. We hope in a month or so, once we’ve recovered, we’ll all be flown out to Israel. We’re just worried if we can afford to rent a place that can accommodate all our animals.
“One dog is so old we cannot put her in the cargo, we’re insisting she must fly with us in the main part of the plane — otherwise we’re not going to leave.
“Of course all the animals have a right to come too. They saved our lives!”