I volunteered in Ukraine when Russia invaded and in Israel when Hamas attacked. In Ukraine, I saved lives. In Israel, I collected bodies.

I volunteered in Ukraine when Russia invaded and in Israel when Hamas attacked. In Ukraine, I saved lives. In Israel, I collected bodies.
  • Valerie Dyksztejn is a Ukrainian-Israeli woman and volunteer with Jewish rescue organization ZAKA.

  • Dyksztejn was living in Kyiv when Russia invaded and vacationing in Israel when Hamas attacked.

  • She said she helped save lives in Ukraine. But there were no happy endings in Israel.

This as-told-to story is based on a conversation with Valerie Dyksztejn, a 43-year-old Ukrainian-Israeli woman who was living in Kyiv when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and was vacationing in Israel when Hamas attacked in October.

Dyksztejn is an emergency response volunteer with ZAKA, an Israel-based collection of voluntary community emergency response teams whose members are primarily Jewish. ZAKA also provides rapid response to disasters around the world, including in Ukraine. Dyksztejn volunteered with ZAKA in both the Ukraine and Israel wars.

I was born in Kyiv and my family and I immigrated to Israel in the 90s. We lived near the Gaza border. I know the area very well. I grew up there.

I left young and was recruited to the Israeli military. I had a computer-job in the army.

After the army I went to study and got married. My husband is Belgian. We have five children and three grandchildren.

When we got married we first lived in Israel, but we worked in Ukraine. We traveled a lot back and forth between Israel and Ukraine.

About a decade ago, we moved to Ukraine permanently. Most of my kids still live in Israel.

At first, volunteering for ZAKA wasn't intensive. My husband and I spoke a lot of languages and it was mostly tourists in Ukraine asking for help.

Wherever Jews are, we help.

But when the war started, it took a dramatic turn.

When the war in Ukraine started, we were in Kyiv. We didn't leave our home for the first few days. It's not easy to leave a home, to leave a business behind.

We left only when the tanks were really outside Kyiv, in the last convoy.

At first, we decided to go to Antwerp, Belgium, because that's where my husband is from. We thought we would go for two weeks until things calmed down and then would go back.

We traveled through Moldova. It took us about 40 hours to get to the border. When we finally got to Moldova, it was insane. The chaos there was crazy. I can't explain the amount of people that were there. There were no places to sleep. Everything was occupied.

Valerie Dyksztejn wearing a yellow emergency response vest and helmet at the scene of destruction in Israel
Hamas militants attacked thousands of people at an outdoor Israeli music festival in the desert on Oct. 7. ZAKA later said it recovered 260 bodies at the site of the festival. Courtesy of Valerie Dyksztejn

People just needed help, so we tried to help as much as we could. After a few days ZAKA opened a 24/7 call center. We decided to stay in Moldova and help.

We managed to open a hotel that was converted into a place that provided medical attention to people who stayed there. We were getting people out on planes, the badly injured, and people who couldn't move by themselves. A lot of them were Holocaust survivors.

In Ukraine there are not many Jewish families left, and the Holocaust survivors are mostly completely alone. Their caregivers left and ran when the war started.

We ran the hotel in Moldova for eight months. Most of the requests for help were from Jews, but we also helped ethnically Ukrainian people. Anyone who reached out, we tried to help.

After eight months, the demand slowed down and there was no longer a need for a full hotel to operate. We closed the hotel and returned home to Kyiv.

I met amazing people with so many different stories. I am so proud of the opportunity I was given to do that. It's unfortunate that it happened under those sad circumstances, but I am proud of this opportunity.

We helped more than 100 Holocaust survivors who were not mobile. Most of them went to Israel.

About a month ago, we decided to go on vacation to Israel.

We went to celebrate the Sukkot holiday with our children. We saw friends and had fun.

We were staying with my daughter in Bet Shemesh that weekend. The air raid alarm woke us up at 6:30 a.m. We got up and looked at each other. We knew something was wrong.

I grew up in the Gaza envelope, so the alarms are not special for me; And I already went through the war in Ukraine.

But in Bet Shemesh, the air raid alarms are not a usual thing. I can't remember the last time before this one when there were rockets in Bet Shemesh. This is not something that happens often.

Valerie Dyksztejn standing with two other ZAKA volunteers amidst rubble in Israel.
Bet Shemesh, located in the west of Israel's Jerusalem District, is about 40 miles from the nearest site of Hamas attacks on Oct. 7.Courtesy of Valerie Dyksztejn

We are religious and keep Shabbat, so our phones were off and we couldn't really understand what was going on.

My husband took his ZAKA walkie-talkie with him from Ukraine. I left mine at home because I thought we wouldn't need it while on vacation in Israel.

We started getting messages on the radio. They asked for anyone who could come help to report. So we put on our yellow vests and started driving, not really knowing where we were going at first.

They sent us to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. I was helping catalog the bodies while my husband was helping take fingerprints.

A bit later, ZAKA was looking for volunteers to go to the area where the music festival was. My husband volunteered immediately. He and I are working together, volunteering together. To this day, we have done everything together. So I said: "I am coming with you."

I grew up in this area, I know every turn and every tree.

We got in an ambulance and went.

First we thought we were going to help people who were injured, but after we passed Ashkelon, we started seeing bodies on the road.

When we got closer to a shelter on the side of the road, we saw an unimaginable sight. The amount of bodies inside the shelter… they were thrown one on top of the other.

I have no words to describe it.

By the time we got to the music festival area, we thought we had seen everything. But we hadn't seen anything yet.

I was responsible for finding any kind of markers to identify people, cutting bags, and looking for information.

I would help volunteers when they reached a breaking point. I don't know how I had the power to do this. We had to call for backup because we didn't have enough people to deal with that amount of bodies.

Valerie Dyksztejn is comforted by another ZAKA volunteer.

All you can do at that moment is show these people a final sign of respect. There is nothing you can do beyond that.

The next day, when we already thought we had seen everything, we went inside people's homes. This was even worse.

On the first night we slept in our car for two or three hours and then we went back. It felt like it would never end. Two full weeks and we only saw bodies.

There is a person behind every single body. There are no words that can describe that. It was the most horrific thing a person could imagine. The worst of nightmares.

We returned to Kyiv last Thursday after three weeks. Our heart is broken. Our heart is there in Israel.

Right now, I feel more safe in Kyiv.

Kyiv is safer than Israel right now. But at the same time, you can't compare the two wars. They are very different.

Ukraine prepared me well to help people evacuate. I built resilience to see hard things.

The main difference between Israel and Ukraine was that in Ukraine, I helped rescue people who were still alive. We mostly had happy endings.

In Israel's case, I packed bags with bodies. There were no happy endings.

The sights we saw were hard, but we are still here, we are alive. We have a new generation to raise. And we will raise them with pride. If we give up, they'll win. The Jewish people are not the people who give up.

Translations by Alisa Shodiyev Kaff

Read the original article on Business Insider