Hundreds of Ukrainian orphans have been saved from the killing zone by a Jewish father-of-10 from north London in an extraordinary rescue operation.
In a two-week humanitarian effort, aid worker Jeremy Posen braved the war in Ukraine and brought more than 1,000 Jews to safety himself, including 270 orphans.
Together with their carers and hundreds of other children, they are now safe in Romania, following a Herculean feat of logistics by Jewish charity Tikva.
Mr Posen, who planned and led the operation on the ground, told the JC that those rescued included babies a few weeks old, and children with diabetes who need daily injections of insulin.
He revealed that in the rescue’s first phase, refugees faced Russian airstrikes and shelling from the road as they left the Tikva “hub” in Odessa in 24 buses, accompanied by four food trucks.
“That first drive took more than 28 hours and it was very hairy,” Mr Posen said. “I knew we were doing the right thing because Odessa was likely to be attacked, but we could see shelling in the distance.
“We were held up at countless roadblocks, where the police and soldiers were coming on to the buses to check everyone and their papers. With so many young kids, it was quite tense.”
The cost of chartering the buses had already risen tenfold above usual rates. But halfway between Odessa and a refuge in western Ukraine — whose location Mr Posen declined to reveal — the drivers refused to go any further, “demanding still more”.
Tikva had no choice but to pay up.
Mr Posen, 53, who went to Golders Green’s Menorah Primary and Grammar schools, has been Tikva’s chief financial officer in Ukraine for three years.
His wife and younger children live in Israel, where he normally travels for Shabbat every week. But almost two months ago, as the threat of war grew, he and his colleagues began to plan to rescue Tikva’s “one big family”.
After that, Mr Posen stayed put in Ukraine.
The charity set up a network of orphanages for Jewish children soon after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, and many of its “alumni” have since married and had children of their own.
In the event of war, Mr Posen said, Tikva was determined to do everything it could to rescue all of them.
However, Ukraine imposed martial law on the first day of hostilities, meaning that men under the age of 60 had to be left behind.
“In my head, I didn’t really believe Russia would invade,” Mr Posen told the JC. “But we took the threat very seriously, and I thought: ‘Ok, we’ll make sure we have food to last three months and reserves of cash, and if we don’t need it immediately, we can still use it over time.’ It was vital to have a plan.”
Odessa quickly became a staging post for orphans and families from other parts of the country, Mr Posen said.
A week before the Russian invasion, staff from an Israeli security firm arrived to help protect the convoy if the time came to leave.
As well as food, “we were stockpiling fuel and generators, and reconnoitring evacuation routes out of Odessa”, he recalled.
Some of the children had already undergone traumatic experiences before arriving in Tikva orphanages, and were now facing new ones.
“They come to us with serious issues, and we work closely with psychologists,” he said. “They came too. As soon as we were a little bit settled, they began to organise activities for the kids.”
While in the western Ukrainian refuge – which Mr Posen described as “fantastic” - some of the children dealt with their experiences by producing artwork, such as a painted banner saying “I miss my bed” and another reading “no war”.
Mr Posen said that when the Russian attack began on 24 February, “as soon as we heard the first bomb, we gathered everyone at the command centres we had set up in Odessa”. Shortly afterwards, the convoy was ready to leave. “We left almost everything behind in Odessa,” he said.
“All the infrastructure that Tikva had built up over 30 years. Some of the alumni with young families own their apartments, but they upended everything and left with one wheelie suitcase each.
“We don’t know if we’ll ever see what we left behind again. I didn’t even have a suitcase – all I had was hand luggage. I’ve had to find second-hand clothes, old T-shirts in rural charity shops.”
Once the 1,000-strong convoy reached the Ukrainian refuge, more than 200 refugees, including many orphans, were able to cross quickly into nearby Moldova.
The rest, Mr Posen told the JC, faced a long wait, amid bureaucratic headaches. Some of the refugees had no passports, for example, and others’ were out-of-date.
Typically, it would take about five hours to get through the frontier, a period split between the border formalities on either side.
“Every night I spent making lists for the next day,” Mr Posen said. “Every day I was trying to get them through. I’ve not had much sleep in days.”
From Moldova, the Tikva passengers travelled to Romania. The last three refugees, plus Mr Posen, arrived in Romania on Wednesday.
However, he revealed that Tikva had been forced to leave two women in Odessa who had been too heavily pregnant to be able to travel in the convoy.
“We are doing what we can to get them out now,” he said, “and in due course, to organise a brit for the babies.”
Karen Bodenstein, Tikva’s UK chief executive, said that the charity’s board was due to arrive in Romania on a chartered plane on Wednesday to make plans for the future. Travelling with them were a doctor and two nurses who would be staying behind, along with a shipment of medicine and clothes.
She told the JC: “Some of the children are quite traumatised, but they’re very resilient kids. They’ve been through a lot. There are some medical issues that we need to deal with.
“Everyone is loving each other and looking after each other like one enormous family.
“And with all they’ve gone through, and the fact that the children are absolutely exhausted, the high of it has been that the community has come together to support each other.”
An appeal has raised close to $2 million (£1.5m) for the charity, but “costs today far exceed that,” Ms Bodenstein said.