How rescue of Jewish sisters during Holocaust brought full-circle moment to Ukrainian refugee family

The spirit of love came full circle for two families who have been torn apart by war -- eight decades apart.

Christiane Cordero Image
Friday, April 7, 2023
SoCal family of Jewish Holocaust survivors help Ukrainian refugees
Their story begins with the rescue of two Jewish sisters during the Holocaust. Fast forward to present day and their descendants are now reciprocating that kindness.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (KABC) -- The spirit of love came full circle Thursday for two families who have been torn apart by war -- eight decades apart.

Their story begins with the rescue of two Jewish sisters during the Holocaust. Fast forward to present day and their descendants are now reciprocating that kindness.

Inside a home in Santa Monica, language and life experience intersected and now revolve around 18-year-old Alex Bogancha, who is currently finding a sense of home in Southern California, despite being 6,000 miles away from it.

"So many cultures, so many people, so many opportunities, yeah, it's just a very diverse city," said Bogancha, who adds that the delicious Mexican food isn't a bad perk.

The teen traveled alone from Ukraine in January and into the open arms - and guesthouse - of Michael Solomon. They don't know each other well, but they're getting there quickly.

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"Took him to a Seder last night and it's hard to explain to him what the food meant at the Seder because it's not about having piles of great Jewish food," said Solomon.

The history lessons are not lost on Bogancha - his family's own story is woven into it.

To understand it, you have to go back a few generations, and you can do that in a book titled "Hiding in the Spotlight" by author Greg Dawson.

"This book changed my life completely," said Marina Orlovetsky, who helped bring Bogancha to America. "First of all, when I read the book, I thought how [is it] possible that I lived in Kharkiv all my life and never knowing about what happened in Drobitsky Yar."

Orlovetsky said she read the book in one sitting. It explains the life of Zhanna Dawson, who was 14 years old when Nazi soldiers told her and her family to march into a ravine. Her father begged and bribed for his daughter's freedom. Sixteen thousand people, including Zhanna's parents, were eventually executed.

But Zhanna escaped and walked through winter, eventually finding warmth in a family's home who protected her, and helped her find her way.

She did find a way, through music and life, and one day, in America. Orlovetsky was so moved by her story that after reading it, she called her.

"I sat in the car for three hours," she said. "I couldn't drive, and we talked and talked and talked."

Through those conversations, she found the Boganchas, who were the ones who brought Zhanna in to safety more than 80 years ago.

So when the war in Ukraine happened a year ago, it all came full circle.

"How risky would be in 1941 to help two Jewish girls to escape and to hide them in your house?" said Orlovetsky. "It was more than helping today, and I thought, you know, what? We have to help. We have to help this family because now it's our turn."

Orlovetsky organized Bogancha's journey to the U.S. and it was a long one. When he finally arrived, a group of strangers who knew his name greeted him.

"It was like a relative who you never met but you know that you have relatives somewhere else that you never met," said Bogancha. "She felt like family."

Orlovetsky felt the same way.

"Knowing that somebody in this world suffers less, it gives you, I should say, desire to continue because, you know, goodness will prevail and kindness will win," she said.

Zhanna lived to be 95 years old, but died days before Bogancha's arrival. Greg Dawson, who happens to be her son, wrote her story that almost had the perfect ending.

"If I could wish anything it would've been for her to meet him and to thank the Bogancha family again," said the author.

The Bogancha family plans to arrive in America soon and of course, they'll be greeted with an extended family reunion.

"He's just turned out to be an amazing child. That's who I would want for a son," said Solomon about Bogancha.