Outside the Jewish Community Center in the Polish city of Krakow, more than a dozen members wait to greet their guest of honor as snow falls.
A yellow ambulance arrives and 82-year-old Margaryta Zatuchna, slight of frame with thick round glasses and a never-ending smile, steps out. She is handed two bouquets of roses, one orange and the other white.
She bows her head slightly and inhales deeply to smell each bunch. She is finally safe.
Born in January 1940 in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Margaryta’s life began as Adolf Hitler ordered the extermination of Jewish communities across Europe.
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 then Soviet-owned turbine plant, where her father was employed.
“His plant was evacuated with all the equipment to the east,” she said, adding that she and her mother went too.
Between 1941 to 1943, the plant’s workers switched from making turbines to manufacturing mortars and repairing tanks for Soviet troops, she said.
“We were put in a small village with little huts, at the end of it there was a forest,” she recalled. “Sometimes wolves would come to us, but the little children did not understand the danger.”
During this same period, back in Kharkiv, the Nazis rounded up and murdered an estimated 16,000 Jews. Many were shot at close range or pushed into mass graves and left to die.
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 her university education and became an engineer, got married and had a son. Later she divorced and remarried in her 40s to Valerii Verbitski, whom she described as a “good man.”
Her life was simple and peaceful.
‘Explosion after explosion’
That peace lasted until February 24, when Russian forces launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine, barreling through her city, shelling neighborhoods, blowing up a government building, and encircling Kharkiv’s estimated 1.4 million residents.
“There was no water or power, we couldn’t buy food. It became impossible to live,” she said, “The air raid sirens never stopped, there was explosion after explosion. A real war.”
Weeks of indiscriminate shelling by Russian forces have terrorized the residents of Kharkiv. Tens of thousands have now fled Ukraine’s second-largest city in moments when rare and unreliable evacuation corridors are agreed.
At first, Margaryta chose to stay and care for her now-frail and sick husband, while leaning on a generous neighbor for support. But the fighting grew closer and closer to their home.
“An explosion blew out all our windows,” she recalled. “After that shock, Valerii grew weaker. It was like his legs were cut out from under him.”
The siege and relentless bombardment took its toll: Margaryta awoke on the morning of March 20 to find her husband had passed away in his sleep.
“We couldn’t bury him because of the fighting,” she said. “His body is still in the morgue.”
Not even a memorial that honors Kharkiv’s Holocaust victims was spared from Putin’s so-called denazification campaign. The menorah-shaped monument was pockmarked by shelling, two of its branches twisted and blown off.
A nearby plaque reads: “In December 1941 - January 1942 Nazis annihilated the prisoners of the Kharkov Jewish Ghetto in Drobitsky Yar - more than 16 thousands people - the aged, women, children - only because they were Jews.”
Margaryta knew it was time to go. She reached out to her younger brother in New Jersey, in the United States, and he hastily set in motion her evacuation with the help of multiple charities across three countries.
“It is very difficult to see that my lovely town, my beautiful town, where I lived all my life, is destroyed,” she said, “I can’t understand such destruction – what for?”
On Wednesday, March 30, a driver collected Margaryta in a blue SUV, damaged in an earlier missile attack, its blown-out windows covered with plastic wrap.
“It was a very difficult road,” she said. “We would get information along the way of places that were bombed and take bumpy, unpaved roads. I felt so nauseous.”
The pair traveled for two days, stopping overnight, across hundreds of miles of dangerous territory until they reached the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
After a night in a hotel, a volunteer Norwegian ambulance driver ferried her across the Polish border to Krakow. This part of the journey was easier, she sat comfortably smiling and chatting about geography – stopping only to take the occasional brief nap.
But her journey is not yet over, Margaryta is waiting to receive a US visa to visit her brother in the US. She seems unfazed by all that she has endured.
“I was not terrified,” she said of her five weeks under Russian bombardment.
When asked where she found her bravery, she answered simply, “It comes to me.”
Margaryta insists she does not want to become a refugee. The survivor – of both the Holocaust and now Russia’s onslaught – hopes to return to Kharkiv to bury her husband of almost 40 years and see her beloved city at peace again.