cnnheroes survivor mitzvah project zane buzby
Helping Ukraine's Holocaust survivors
01:34 - Source: CNN
Los Angeles CNN  — 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has evoked echoes of World War II. And for Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, the crisis is especially alarming.

These elderly Jewish citizens, most in their 80s or 90s, endured profound struggles during the 1940s at the hands of the Nazis. Now, they find themselves, once again, at risk.

“This is terrible for the Ukrainian people and absolutely horrendous for the Holocaust survivors,” said Zane Buzby, whose non-profit Survivor Mitzvah Project has been helping this vulnerable population for almost 15 years. “A lot of these people are the last person in their family – the only one who survived. … These people went through this once already.”

Earlier this week in Kyiv, Russian missiles struck the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial, which commemorates the site where more than 33,000 Jews were shot to death in 1941. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, who is Jewish, tweeted that it was “History repeating…”

Buzby’s mission is now taking on new urgency. Since 2008, she has been a lifeline for more than 2,500 survivors in nine eastern European countries, including Ukraine, providing them with humanitarian aid. It’s work that earned her recognition as a CNN Hero in 2014.

Based in Los Angeles, her organization supports nearly 350 people in Ukraine. When Russian forces invaded, Buzby was shocked.

“It was just devastating because I know people in all these places that were on the news,” she said. “They’re texting that, ‘We’re hearing explosions,’ ‘We’re moving down into the basement.’”

Now, she’s working with her translators and volunteers on the ground to check on the people she supports.

“They’re spread out across this vast country. They don’t have extended families,” Buzby said. “We don’t want food sources to run out. We’re getting them as much medication as possible now because who knows in two weeks what’s going to happen.”

The group also provides valuable companionship for these elderly survivors through letters, phone calls and visits. Buzby says this emotional support is even more vital now, during this daunting time.

“This is so hard for them, this invasion. … It makes it scarier because they know the real thing,” she said. “The early memories come back and haunt them at night.”

The friendship offered by Buzby and her group means a great deal to those they help. One volunteer recently told Buzby about a phone conversation she’d had with a survivor who had taken refuge in a bomb shelter. The elderly woman had told the volunteer, “Your call is as if I found a diamond.”

Responses like that are the fuel that keep Buzby going. Coordinating logistics in a war zone thousands of miles away isn’t easy, but she knows her efforts are needed.

“The important thing is to give them some comfort and care. Just like a family,” she said. “We have to make sure that these survivors are not left alone during this devastating time. … It’s so important that they know they haven’t been forgotten.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Survivor Mitzvah Project website and see how to help.

CNN’s Stephanie Becker contributed to this report.