If people in Ukraine cannot sleep because of bombs falling in their midst, family members and friends half a world away on the North Shore are not sleeping, either.
Leo and Olga Gernovski are trying to sleep in their Beverly home, but their hearts are in their homeland, and in the East Ukraine city of Dnipro where they grew up and where shelling has already begun. Olga said of the invading Russian army, “They are savage, like animals.”
Reaching dear childhood friends and family by every means of social media – text, Skype, Viber, Facebook – they’re living the daily horror along with their loved ones.
“They’re very depressed. They lack medications for their medical conditions. In Dnipro the pharmacies are out of medicines – there’s nothing left,” said Leo, a software engineer. His friend said the sounds of sirens are unnerving. Olga’s friend’s apartment trembled from the sounds of explosions, he added.
He talked to former contractors from Kharkiv he used to work with. “We talked on Skype. We heard planes, not just sirens. My friends said they could hear bombers above them dropping bombs not far from them. I was in Kharkiv a few years ago. It’s a very beautiful city. It is destroyed now, unrecognizable,” said Leo.
Leo said some of his friends are still managing to work. They’re software developers working for multiple companies across the world and are now working in basements.
People are protecting their loved ones as best they can. Leo recounted that recently, when a family had to run to a bomb shelter, one young woman wouldn’t leave until she found her cat.
“They were looking for their cat that was under the sofa so they ended up having to stay in their apartment. Fortunately, their apartment building wasn’t targeted. They went to the subway and stayed for a day then tried to get out and get on a train to Western Ukraine,” said Leo.
Olga’s best friend from grade school is with her pregnant daughter, her grandson and her husband, who had surgery and is without medications. The Gernovskis sent some medications to them with someone traveling to the area. “We’re praying he gets it quickly,” said Leo.
“They are so depressed. They live in a nine-story building in Dnipro. There are no shelters, only the basements of buildings. Hiding in the basements is not the best because of all that can go wrong – there’s no heat, no water, no ventilation, not enough exits, and the danger of the building above crushing it if destroyed. They can’t leave because of the traffic problems on the roads and railways. They don’t want to leave. Men ages 18 to 60 are called to serve. The women don’t want to leave their men.”
The Gernovskis visited their friends 10 years ago for a wedding. Even though it was hard to make a living there, “they had a beautiful life,” said Olga. Her friend’s daughter was a manager in a large company. “My friend was a hairdresser and her husband was the best barber in the city,” she said.
One special friend of Leo’s had become an entrepreneur. He did well, despite the antisemitism. “He’s getting ready. He showed me a bulletproof vest and a gun. He told me the situation is such that this war brought everyone together. Everyone is helping each other – Jews and gentiles, the army and the police.”
“People are manufacturing bulletproof vests,” said Olga, who is an exhibiting fine artist. “They are not thinking about leaving the city. They are preparing to meet the enemy.”
Asked about Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Olga said her mother, who lives in Lynn, said, “I’m so worried about our Jewish boy.”
“He’s one of us. I identify with him closely. He has the same background, from the same place. He’s a secular Jew, like half the Jews in Ukraine. That’s what we are,” Olga said. “I can’t imagine ourselves without Ukraine; it’s such a big part of our identity. I’m now proud to be a Ukrainian Jew. Zelensky brought it to me. Zelensky is inspirational. He used to make people laugh and now he inspires them.”
“We’ve been listening to him every day,” said Leo. “He gives very powerful speeches. We understand what he’s saying in Ukrainian or Russian. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I laugh. I always get inspired.”
Zelensky berated democratic nations for being in “self-imposed hypnosis” for not helping Ukraine militarily. “People think the conflict is local to Ukraine, but it’s a delusion,” said Olga.
The Gernovskis view Russian President Vladimir Putin as calculating, not crazy. “He thinks the West is weak, Ukraine is weak, and he just needs to terrorize and bully everyone to achieve his imperial ambitions,” said Leo.
Olga and Leo left Ukraine in 1994. Asked why, Leo shakes his head, “many reasons.” He had been beaten on the streets and denied acceptance to a university even though he completed his earlier education with honors.
“Antisemitism didn’t get any better as the Soviet Union was falling apart. In 1989 we weren’t ready to leave yet, hoping for the best.” But when that didn’t happen, they decided to leave, make a new life and seek better treatment in the U.S. for their autistic son.
“It’s so bad. My heart is broken,” said Yana Sapozhnikova, born and raised in Kyiv, and now living in Swampscott. She has been texting and calling her cousin and close friends in Kyiv.
“They’re just regular citizens. They [the Russian military] are killing families. They want to liquidate every person from Ukraine and not leave anyone alive,” said Sapozhnikova.
Childhood friends she has known since she was three years old and thinks of as brothers and sisters have told her it’s scary to sleep at night because “they can bomb your building. You have to leave your building and go into a basement or someplace near you. It’s dangerous to be on the street even if you’re not a soldier.”
Sapozhnikova said Russians soldiers were robbing stores and citizens “because they are hungry.”
A cousin and her older son made it from Kyiv to Moldova. Another cousin with her husband and two dogs are on their way to Moldova, too.
“Traveling is a nightmare because of the traffic and getting gas means staying in long lines. My friend was sleeping in a school. I would never have imagined that this would happen. I can’t help,” said Sapozhnikova.
“I’m just sending money through my synagogue and CJP [Combined Jewish Philanthropies]. At my bank where I work, they’re collecting money through the Red Cross.”