A yellow ambulance arrives and Margaryta Zatuchna, 82, slight with thick round glasses and an endless smile, comes out. He is given two bouquets of roses, one orange and the other white.
She tilts her head slightly and inhales deeply to smell each bouquet. She is finally safe.
Born in January 1940 in the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, Margaryta’s life began when Adolf Hitler ordered the extermination of Jewish communities across Europe.
A few days before the Nazis invaded her hometown in October 1941, she was evacuated to a village in the Ural Mountains, now part of Russia, with her family by the turbine factory then owned by the Soviets, where his father was employed.
“His factory was evacuated with all the material to the east,” she said, adding that she and her mother also left.
Between 1941 and 1943, factory workers shifted from making turbines to making mortars and repairing tanks for Soviet troops, she said.
“We were put in a small village with small huts, at the end there was a forest,” she recalls. “Sometimes the wolves came to us, but the little children didn’t understand the danger.”
After the Red Army regained control of the city in 1943, Margaryta returned to Kharkiv with her family and grew up under Soviet rule.
She finished college and became an engineer, got married and had a son. She later divorced and remarried in her 40s to Valerii Verbitski, whom she described as a “good man”.
His life was simple and peaceful.
“Blast After Blast”
This peace lasted until February 24, when Russian forces launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine, driving through its city, bombing neighborhoods, blowing up a government building and encircling the estimated 1.4 million people of Kharkov.
“There was no water or electricity, we couldn’t buy food. It had become impossible to live,” she said. “The air raid sirens never stopped, there was explosion after explosion. A real war.”
At first, Margaryta chose to stay and care for her now frail and ailing husband, while relying on a generous neighbor for support. But the fighting got closer and closer to home.
“An explosion blew out all of our windows,” she recalls. “After this shock, Valerii weakened. It was as if his legs had been severed from under him.”
The relentless siege and shelling took their toll: Margaryta awoke on the morning of March 20 to find her husband had died in his sleep.
“We couldn’t bury him because of the fighting,” she said. “His body is still in the morgue.
A nearby plaque reads: “In December 1941 – January 1942, the Nazis wiped out the prisoners of the Jewish Kharkov ghetto at Drobitsky Yar – over 16,000 people – old people, women, children – just because they were Jews.”
Margaryta knew it was time to leave. She contacted her younger brother in New Jersey, USA, and he quickly triggered her evacuation with the help of several charities in three countries.
“It’s very hard to see that my beautiful city, my beautiful city, where I’ve lived all my life, is destroyed,” she said, “I can’t understand such destruction – why?”
On Wednesday, March 30, a driver picked up Margaryta in a blue SUV, damaged in a previous missile attack, its blown windows covered with plastic wrap.
“It was a very difficult road,” she said. “We were getting information along the way about places that had been bombed and going on bumpy, unpaved roads. I was so nauseous.”
The couple traveled for two days, stopping overnight, through hundreds of miles of dangerous territory until they reached the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.
After a night in a hotel, a volunteer Norwegian ambulance driver transported her across the Polish border to Krakow. This part of the trip was easier, she sat comfortably smiling and chatting about the geography – only stopping for the occasional brief nap.
But her journey is not over yet, Margaryta is waiting to receive an American visa to visit her brother in the United States. She seems indifferent to everything she’s been through.
“I wasn’t terrified,” she said of her five weeks under Russian bombardment.
When asked where she found her bravery, she simply replied, “It comes to me.”
Margaryta insists that she does not want to become a refugee. The survivor – both of the Holocaust and now of the Russian onslaught – hopes to return to Kharkiv to bury her husband of nearly 40 years and see her beloved city in peace.