Chabad Airlifts Soviet Jewish Kids Thought to Be Ill from Chernobyl

A group of 196 Jewish children from the Chernobyl area in the Soviet Union, who may be suffering from radiation sickness, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday after a delay of 60 hours because of an error by Romanian airline officials.

The youngsters are the vanguard of 3,000 who are being brought to Israel by the Chabad Lubavitch movement on a humanitarian mission.

Chabad, aided by its affiliate organization, Lishkas Ezras Achim, worked six months on the project, called “Children of Chernobyl.”

The children, some of whom are known to be ailing as a result of the 1986 nuclear disaster, will be checked for medical problems at a special clinic at Kfar Chabad.

Currently unaccompanied by parents, they will live at Kfar Chabad, a religious township about 15 miles southeast of Tel Aviv.

Their arrival was delayed initially because of an error made by Tarom, the Romanian airline from which Chabad chartered two planes to pick up the children at Minsk in the Soviet Union.

All necessary authorizations had been obtained and they were ready to be flown to London, where a chartered El Al plane was waiting to take them to Israel.

The Tarom officials requested landing rights from the Soviets for the purpose of emigration, rather than for humanitarian or medical reasons. Soviet authorities declined permission.

FRESH CREW BROUGHT IN

Once that snag was unraveled, the El Al jet was no longer available. A British Airways jet was substituted, but had to be sent to Kuwait to bring home British subjects after the Iraqi invasion.

The Tarom crew was willing to fly to Israel but was not allowed to fly the extra hours.

At that point, British press magnate Robert Maxwell intervened, providing his private plane, which brought fresh Tarom crews to London.

The Tarom planes flew to Israel with the children, who had waited with their families 60 hours at the Minsk airport, about 600 people all told.

During that period, a 13-year-old girl became seriously ill and was advised to go to the hospital.

She refused, fearing she might miss the flight to Israel, and was treated by a medical team brought in by Chabad.

Chabad also provided food, clothes and blankets at the airport.

The children, ages 6 to 15, are virtually all from secular Jewish homes in the Ukrainian cities of Gomel and Mozyr, within a 100-mile radius of Chernobyl. (Soviet medical treatment was reportedly limited to people living within a 30-mile radius of Chernobyl.)

The children’s parents were anxious to remove the children from the area, where soil and water was dangerously irradiated and the food too contaminated to safely eat.

Of the initial group of 196, five children are known to be suffering from leukemia. The medical condition of the others is unknown.

The ailing children will be treated by Dr. Ze’ev Washler, a former Soviet citizen who is director of the radiology department at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. Washler, sole survivor of a group of children who were together during the Holocaust, has dedicated himself to helping Jewish children.

He set up the special clinic at Kfar Chabad. Psychological care will be part of the treatment regimen.

A key figure in the airlift is Yitzhak Kogan, a longtime refusenik and religious activist from Leningrad who immigrated to Israel in 1986. He has been visiting Minsk and other cities regularly to coordinate the program.

Last week, Kogan received a telephone call from the prime minister of Byelorussia, giving him full authorization to complete the mission.

Kogan has been working with Rabbi Yosef Aronov, the associate director of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the main Chabad organization in Israel.

The Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, asked that everything possible be done to assure the proper care and safety of the children.

ANTIQUATED AIRPORT

Minsk, whose small, antiquated airport is surrounded by pastoral land and is an unlikely place for international flights, has been a coordinating site for Jewish activists from several countries who are intent on rescuing the children.

The city, the capital of Byelorussia, still suffers from the effects of the Chernobyl accident. Food grown in Byelorussia, a heavily agricultural area, is badly contaminated by winds that blew the radioactive fallout.

Children are dying from eating irradiated food, Minsk Jewish leader Yaakov Guttman said at the end of June.

Jabbing at a map of Byelorussia that he unfolded on the occasion, Guttman spoke of the dimensions of the disaster.

“In southern Byelorussia, there are officially more than 112,000 Jews. If we think that a quarter of them are children, that is at least 25,000 Jewish children who are potentially sick and getting sicker,” he said.

“I speak about this with all Jews who I meet. But only Christians from Finland did anything. They invited 27 children,” he said.

A Jewish source said the Finns were well-meaning but probably Christian missionaries. It is not known if anything transpired.

Danish rescuers took in some non-Jewish children from the area.

LINGERING PROBLEMS

Guttman asked that Jewish communities, particularly in Israel, offer to take Jewish children out immediately, before their parents can get visas or arrange to leave.

Guttman was one of 36 adults accompanying the children to Israel.

In Minsk, he was visited by some British Jews, who have been trying to get Jewish communities in England to also offer help.

The lingering problems that arose with Chernobyl have not been highly publicized, but natives of Byelorussia and the Ukraine know them well.

Viktoria, a young woman from Kiev who was visiting Moscow in June, told of friends who had miscarried; of her grandfather who died of radiation poisoning; of her grandmother who “sleeps all the time.” In Kiev, she said, “many people sleep a lot now.”

(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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