Heroic Jewish aid worker Emma Igual killed in Ukraine by Russian shell

‘I don’t know how long my luck will last’ she told the JC recently


It was a disaster Jewish aid worker Emma Igual accepted could happen to her at any time in war-torn Ukraine.

Last weekend a rescue vehicle carrying Emma, 32, and three colleagues was struck by a projectile, probably a Russian mortar shell, killing her and a Canadian colleague, and severely injuring the two others in the minivan.

“In hundreds of rescues I have not even had a scratch — I have been so lucky,” she told me recently when I interviewed her for the JC in Ukraine. “I think my Jewish grandmother, who died of Covid over two years ago, must still be protecting me somehow. I don’t know how long that will last.”

That ‘luck’, and the grandmotherly protection, finally ran out as she and colleagues assessed how to rescue civilians trapped in a village near Bakhmut, the city notoriously pummelled into nothingness by many months of warfare.

Images of this astonishing young Spanish woman bring me some comfort. She sent me a video of her and a French colleague driving in a very dangerous town, Severodonetsk, as shells rained down nearby. The bangs were loud, and she was seen wide-eyed and clearly scared. She puffs a cigarette. When they eventually stop, Emma puts on, of all things, some red lipstick.

I also will remember another wonderful image from her photograph album: Emma emerging from a bunker with a smiling man who, it turned out, was Jewish. The man insisted on going to his deserted home and bringing her a prized treasure: the blue-and-white flag of Israel. He tells her that’s where he wants to end up if he can get out of this war zone. He insists she takes the flag as a present.

Emma was proud of her Jewish roots, stemming from her grandmother’s escape from Austria during the Holocaust. She settled in Barcelona, where neither she nor her child, Emma’s mother, could give Emma much Jewish education.

Still, Emma’s time at the University of California, Berkeley, rekindled a spark. She decided that aiding other humans was a Jewish value to which she would dedicate her life. She switched her degree to humanitarian aid, and also had a spell with the International Red Cross, and stints in various international aid operations.

She told the JC she worked 20 hours a day and that she only could have friends who understood and accepted her obsessive focus.

In Ukraine, Emma co-founded her rescue charity Road to Relief. She and her cofounder Henri expanded its activities beyond the rescue of civilians and soldiers and delivering vital humanitarian aid. She began bringing out specialist doctors and creating a frontline mobile surgery, vital where the bumpy ride to a hospital could have been fatal.

Emma connected with Jews in Dnipro who helped her rescue charity, and with a Ukrainian-born Israeli who was later injured while conducting a rescue effort. The JC reported on that too.

Maksym Vainer, a 29-year-old paramedic, was struck by shrapnel from a Russian Cornet rocket. It had smashed into the Mercedes Benz alongside him, killing his colleague, American Peter Reed. “My left leg, penetrated by shrapnel, was broken and bleeding but adrenalin allowed me somehow to run to the second rescue car,” he said. “The pain only came later.”

The Israeli-Ukrainian had survived the blast by having stepped out of his vehicle about a minute before. Emma was inside her vehicle and the blast was unsurvivable. The minivan flipped over and burst into flames.

Close shaves with death are standard for rescue workers, but even by war-zone standards Emma’s actions were exceptionally brave.

South African-born British citizen Peter Fouche, a colleague running a different rescue operation, paid this tribute in a WhatsApp voice message to the JC from the frontlines:

“Emma was by far the most hard-working civilian aid worker in Ukraine. She could not keep still. She had her fingers in many pies. She was wonderfully, shockingly beautiful as well.

“One of her friends called her a beast. Yes, she was a work beast.

“She was incredibly brave, irritatingly so, and she would piss a lot of people off. That’s because she would go into danger zones against their advice.

“But because of her, a lot of people are alive, and hundreds of villages have been fed.

“She was almost like a visionary. She could see things long before they were needed. You know, I would be out there on the front, and would think we needed something, and message her, and she would say: ‘Yeh, I’ve been working on that since last week’.”

Fouche concluded: “We paint our dead colleagues’ call-signs or names on the bonnet of our rescue vehicles. The next vehicle we can bring over from Britain will be named Emma. A tribute to a truly heroic spirit.”

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