MyHeritage Employee Escapes Ukraine Thanks to His Grandfather’s Heroic Rescue of Jewish Refugees During WWII

MyHeritage Employee Escapes Ukraine Thanks to His Grandfather’s Heroic Rescue of Jewish Refugees During WWII

When the Catholic Galonski family made the brave and dangerous decision to protect a pair of Jewish refugees from the Nazis 80 years ago, they had no way to know how this decision would affect their family. They could never have dreamed that, many decades later, that good deed would open the door to their own grandchildren’s escape from danger.

This is the story of how, thanks to that act of kindness, MyHeritage staff was able to orchestrate the safe passage of a MyHeritage employee and his family out of Ukraine.

A place of refuge

The story begins in early June 1943 in the Tarnopol District, modern-day Ukraine. After the third Aktion against the Jews of the Trembowla ghetto, 10-year-old Sofia Kalski and her mother, Sarah Hartzman, fled for their lives to the fields far from the city. For about two months, they wandered through the fields, living off gifts of food that good farmers gave them, but nobody was willing to hide them for fear of punishment by the Germans. At one point, they arrived in the village of Humnisko, where Sofia’s grandparents had lived until the German occupation and where they had friends among their Polish neighbors.

One night, little Sofia entered the home of the Gałoński family and identified herself as the granddaughter of Meir and Roza Sztern, who had lived in the village. The woman of the house, Anna Gałońska, also took in Sofia’s mother and gave them both a meal, but she did not dare keep them in her home. She suggested that they hide in the vegetable garden nearby. The next day, she urged them to leave. However, they were both exhausted, and she decided to let them stay another day in the garden. That night, they said, a miracle happened. Sofia’s grandfather Meir appeared to the man of the house, Wojtek, in a dream, and warned him of a disaster if Wojtek dared to drive Meir’s daughter and granddaughter from his home. Wojtek told his wife to bring the two back into the house immediately and he prepared a hiding place for them in the barn.

The Gałońskis were a poor farming family, and God-fearing Catholics. They shared their meager sustenance with their wards. Apart from the parents, two of their children were still living at home: Tadek, their youngest son, and his older sister Paulina. The children actively helped their parents protect the two Jewish refugees. Tadek stood watch to ensure that no strangers approached the area of the hiding place, and he was not allowed to bring friends into the yard. Paulina served as liaison, carrying messages and provisions to the hidden pair. Sofia and her mother remained in the hiding place with the Gałońskis for about nine months until the area was liberated in March 1944.

 On February 15, 2001, Yad Vashem recognized Wojtek and Anna Gałoński and their children, Tadek Gałoński and Paulina Gałońska-Kobyalko, as “Righteous Among the Nations” — non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish people during the Holocaust.

This house was adjacent to the barn where the Jewish family was hidden

This house was adjacent to the barn where the Jewish family was hidden

After the Holocaust, Sofia made a painting of the house, as she remembered it from memory. The house and the barn next door were imprinted in her mind and her depiction was quite accurate.

Stuck in Ukraine

Fast forward to 2022. War was threatening Ukraine, and MyHeritage staff was concerned about the safety of our Kyiv-based employees. The MyHeritage team was doing everything they could to help, arranging temporary relocation for a majority of employees from our Kyiv office. However, there were a few employees who did not accept the offer, and one of them was Nazar.

Our staff tried everything they could to talk him into leaving before the invasion began. Katerina Breitman, our Facilities Manager, even traveled to the Kyiv office personally to speak to the remaining employees a couple of weeks before the invasion. No matter what Katerina said, Nazar told us he could not leave the country, and later we found out why: his wife did not have an international passport, and he was not willing to leave her behind.

When Russia invaded, Nazar had no choice but to move towards the border. After a week in a small town of Truskavets, he understood that supplies were running low and soon he would not be able to feed his family. What’s worse, as a man over the age of 18, he was supposed to be drafted to fight in the Ukrainian army — which would mean leaving his family behind and not knowing when or if he would ever return to them.

He shared his concerns with his manager, Jason, who kept calling Katerina and begging for her help. Katerina didn’t know what to do: how could she help? If Nazar’s wife could cross the border without documents, what could she do about Nazar?

We wanted to send him to the Romanian border to wait for possible passage and pay whatever was needed, but without a passport, his wife would not be able to cross the border and they didn’t want to be separated.

That’s when Jason said something to Katerina that changed everything: “If it might help,” he said, “Nazar is the grandson of someone recognized as ‘Righteous Among the Nations.’”

Yes, this could definitely help!

Gathering evidence

Katerina called Nazar and asked him what he knew. He sent her a photo with his aunt Daria holding a certificate:

Left to right: Amit Harpaz, Daria Galonski (niece of Tadek, Nazar’s grandfather), Anat Gadish, and Oren Harpaz. Amit and Oren are descendants of Sofia.

Left to right: Amit Harpaz, Daria Galonski (niece of Tadek, Nazar’s grandfather), Anat Gadish, and Oren Harpaz. Amit and Oren are descendants of Sofia.

He also sent the Israeli phone number of Anat Gadish, who has her arm around the Nazar’s aunt in the picture.

Katerina immediately called Roi Mandel, our Director of Research, even though it was a Friday evening. At this point, they had already found the names of Nazar’s family members in the Yad Vashem database, and Katerina’s husband had already sent these materials to his colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“I firmly believed that as a grandson of someone recognized as ‘Righteous Among the Nations,’ it was our sacred duty to get him out of danger and repay the kindness his ancestors did for our people,” says Katerina.

In no time, Roi contacted Anat’s family and found out that Anat is the granddaughter of Sofia — the girl who was rescued by Tadek, Nazar’s grandfather! She sent over multiple documents proving the connection and offered her help with whatever was needed.

Katerina’s husband sent all the documentation to the relevant department and proved beyond a doubt that Nazar’s ancestors rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Nazar and his family with Sofia’s descendants in the place where her family was hidden during the war.

Nazar and his family with Sofia’s descendants in the place where her family was hidden during the war.

That very moment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted Nazar and scheduled to meet him at the Polish border.

Nazar’s harrowing journey to safety

The next morning, Nazar began his journey to the Polish border. After a six- or seven-hour drive, our staff learned that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives could not reach him at that crossing and they needed to coordinate a new meeting point. Nazar would have to drive another three hours with women and children in the car.

Finally, he reached the 14-kilometer-long line of traffic waiting to cross the border.

He exchanged license plate numbers and live locations with the representatives, and at long last, they found each other:

Nazar (center), with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives.

Nazar (center), with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives.

The representatives handed the necessary documents over to Nazar and coached him on how to explain the situation to border control when he reached them.

At this point, none of them knew that it would take him another 24 hours to get there — another sleepless night with no stops for rest. Katerina suggested to Nazar that he stop to sleep for a while, but he refused: stopping for even a short nap would mean losing his place in line, and it was a jungle there.

Katerina followed him via GPS location and understood that he was moving at the excruciating pace of a few hundred meters every few hours.

They chatted with Nazar throughout this time, and answered questions about what would happen when they reached the border. Nazar was nervous and not convinced that everything would be alright. During the call, Katerina heard children’s voices on the line, so she asked who was in the car with him. It was Nazar’s wife, her sister, and her children. Not an easy trip for small children!

Should he pass the border control with the family or alone? What documents should he present and when? Katerina checked again and again, answering his questions, trying to encourage him.

At long last, Nazar reached the border.

 They had decided to cross together: Nazar would go first, and then his wife and her sister with the children.

Katerina anxiously waited for his call, prepared to answer the questions from border control… and then, finally, the voice message arrived: “We passed the Ukrainian border!!!!!”

Now Katerina understood that the hardest part was behind them, and getting Nazar and his family to safety was only a matter of time. Nazar was still not certain and kept asking how to go ahead. Katerina encouraged him, but was still waiting to see his car on the web camera that would show him crossing the border.

Then, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs executive informed the family in Israel that Nazar had crossed the border. They were so happy!

A few minutes later, there it was:

Nazar crossed the border! Mission accomplished!

Katerina, her husband, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Roi, and Jason worked together and made it happen.

Thanks to his ancestor’s actions and to the teamwork between Katerina, her husband, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Roi, and Jason — Nazar and his family are now safe in Warsaw, Poland.

Nazar is still in disbelief looking back at all that has transpired, “I never thought that my morning could start with explosions and waking up my wife with the words “wake up, the war has started, we need to leave our house!“… It was all a nightmare. It is difficult for me to describe in words the fear and panic that overwhelmed us at that moment. We didn’t know what was waiting for us, but we realized that our peaceful life will not be the same in the near future. We can’t describe how much the MyHeritage team and Sofia’s family have done for us. The support that they gave us was invaluable. They have done the impossible for us to make us safe! It is unbelievable that the good deed once done by my grandfather Tadek has returned over the decades as a good deed towards us! We will remember this great kindness with so much love for the rest of our lives!”

We hope that wherever they are, Nazar’s ancestors are comforted to know that their act of courage led directly to the passage of their descendants to safety in their time of need. Katerina and her colleagues are honored to have helped pay forward the kindness Nazar’s ancestors showed the Jewish people so many years ago.

Our thoughts and prayers are with those still suffering from the situation in Ukraine, and we hope that the conflict will come to a peaceful end very soon.