Ilia Golberg: Humble Hero on the Frontlines of War
Join host Yael Eckstein as she talks with one of the unsung heroes on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine — Ilia Golberg, Chief Security Officer for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Ilia Golberg has been an instrumental partner with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jew (The Fellowship) in rescuing Jews from war-torn Ukraine and in providing safety and lifesaving assistance to those who remain behind. Ilia shares with Yael how the landscape and Jewish communities have changed throughout the war — from those disbelieving that war would ever come to their country to those who are now returning so their children can resume their lives as best they can. The podcast is a fascinating look behind-the-scenes of this horrendous conflict and a poignant call to not forget that people are still living in a war zone and that the needs are even greater as the colder winter months set in. You don’t want to miss this inspiring conversation with this humble hero from the frontlines of war. Listen today!
Ilia Golberg grew up in the former Soviet Union (FSU) under conditions where he was not allowed to discuss his Judaism with anyone outside of his family. It was challenging growing up as a Jewish man when he was unable to talk openly about his identity.
He also grew up hearing the stories of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Because of that knowledge, Ilia was unable to sit by when Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year. He knew that if he could save even one family from being destroyed all his work would be worth it.
Ilia headed security services for the Israeli National Airlines (El Al) for Ukraine and the other FSU countries for fifteen years before becoming Chief Security Officer for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine just months before the war broke out in Ukraine. His background and previous experience in security enabled Ilia to respond quickly to the rapidly unfolding events during those first weeks of the invasion.
As Yael recalls, while rumors of war were circulating, she and Ilia were touring the Jewish communities in Kyiv and the surrounding area to discuss what would be needed if war did break out. “At that time, when we talked with people, everyone said that war breaking out was a very, very small possibility,” Yael said.
Ilia agreed. “I think in this century we’re living in everybody thought we already passed the point when you would see tanks rolling on streets and in the cities or being bombarded with heavy artillery. What everybody was thinking was the possibility of some kind of guerrilla warfare and the special units coming in and sabotaging certain locations in certain infrastructures. Maybe some cyber-attacks but not real full-on invasion. And especially Ukrainians, not only the Jewish communities but everybody in Ukraine, were hoping for diplomacy to do the actual work and for diplomats to resolve the conflict. Now we see that it wasn’t the case.”
In the beginning, conditions were harsh. “The first week or two weeks even, all of the stores suddenly were locked. Everything was put on hold so really basic things that people needed like food and medicine they weren’t able to get,” Ilia said. People, too, stood in very long lines for basics like bread and milk in sub-zero temperatures, Ilia said, which was particularly difficult for the elderly.
In recent weeks, Ilia and others on the ground have witnessed an influx of people returning to Ukraine. With a new school year rapidly approaching, many families are thinking twice about having their children start school in a new country with a new language. So they are returning despite the conditions.
As Ilia says, the main issue in the coming months will be to keep the Jewish community safe, to provide security for teachers and students as they resume school, and with the winter months just ahead, efforts will turn to providing food supplies and fuel for heating.
“What I want everyone to know is that there is still war going on in the middle of Europe,” Ilia said. “We need to get the message out on social media and not forget that there are still people in the war zone. They all need our help in spreading the word and obviously the financial help will be more than welcomed because people are still losing their jobs and trying to get their needs met.”