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Injured in the Jenin raid of 2002, a captain overcomes trauma of his own to aid Ukrainian refugees.

Pini Schwartzman, a former captain in an elite IDF combat unit, in training (top) and now in Moldova (above) to help refugees from Ukraine.

By Paul Cainer in Chisinau.

He was severely injured when he lost 13 of his troops in an ambush during the battle for Jenin in 2002.   Now, Captain Pini Schwartzman has been leading a new mission: to aid refugees from the conflict in Ukraine.

“For me, this is taking my life full circle,” Schwartzman told me on the Ukraine-Moldova border.  “When he was three, my late father had to escape from Ukraine during World War Two with his mother.  They were fleeing from Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. 

“In those days Jews could do nothing to help people like my grandfather. Now we have our own strong State and our people can come to the aid of people who need us.

“”Now I’m back at the border he crossed, from Ukraine to Moldova. I’m itching to go in and rescue people.”

Schwartzman, who fought in Jenin and in Lebanon four years later with the elite Givati Brigade, was leading a team of six former IDF soldiers in Moldova. Wounded in battles, they had been sent by Brothers for Life (Achim Le’Chaim), which had been founded in 2009 for injured ex-combat soldiers to provide support to the next generations of IDF soldiers, and to use their experiences for good.

“I know how to approach people.  I can identify with them.  I know how to hug them,” Schwartzman said. “It makes no difference to us if they are Jewish or not.  But I was particularly moved when I supported a 94-year-old Jewish lady who had survived the Holocaust in Ukraine. When we find Jewish refugees, they often cling on to us in tears.”

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Captain Schwartzman with a Holocaust survivor from Ukraine

Schwartzman was attending to a 74-year-old man whose shoulder had been dislocated when he fell when he and his wife were running for the bus that would get them out of the war-zone.  

“The man was refusing to go to hospital, still probably traumatised.  So I had to do it myself, even though I had no suitable pain relief stuff with me, just a bandage.   I looked up ‘dislocated shoulder’ on YouTube.  Then I sat on the ground with him, and with my leg I pushed under his arm and yanked his hand hard.  There was a loud click. It worked!”

Another success he chalked up was to identify an old man as a potential heart attack victim.  Brothers for Life and Hatzalah rushed him to a hospital, where a catheter tube was inserted from his thigh to his heart.  It was a heart attack, and the man has survived.

His own experience of suffering PTSD has, says Schwartzman, been of some help.  “I saw a woman, seven months pregnant and with a 4-year-old boy, sobbing uncontrollably by the roadside after her 20-hour bus journey had ended.  It turned out it was from the release of emotions after all she had been through. 

“A Russian-speaking Brother is a doctor, who gave her sedation. “She’s upset that her husband is still in the war-zone, fighting. They have been bombing her town but are not inside. .  And she had to leave behind her very old parents who say they are too old to travel.”

Schwartzman’s own injuries in Jenin were very severe.  He had entered the lobby of a house in the Jenin refugee camp when he radioed for his group to join him. As they were arriving an IED exploded, blasting him unconscious. 

He woke up several days later in an Israeli hospital, to be told that 13 of his platoon had died seconds after the IED.  It had been a trap. As the soldiers backed into the street, gunmen and snipers had fired from rooftops.  Schwartzman survived because he had remained lying inside the house.  

“I got PTSD, but not from Jenin.  It was one month after I returned from Lebanon in 2006, where our Brigade had been fighting near the Litani River.  I was just jogging along the beach in my home-town Haifa when suddenly I burst out crying.  

“I staggered home, but for the next months I was a different person.  I could hardly even communicate with my wife, and could not tell anyone about my feelings or emotions.  I had a psychologist but it did not help.  Gradually though I’ve come right. I returned to work as a government administration official eight months later.

“I’ve learned to recognise the warning signals and to do exercises.   And I can express my feelings and emotions openly to my wife.  I’m a very happy grandfather now. 

 “My wife is still suffering,” he joked. “suffering – from me!”

He added: “My wife is very proud of me for going to the Ukrainian border.  But she now says I’m just too old to do this again.” 

Alongside Schwartzman was a British Israeli who declined to give his surname.  ‘Ben’ had been a lone soldier when he emigrated to Israel from Manchester aged 18, and had been severely burned in a ‘friendly fire’ incident in Lebanon in 2006. 

“When you get hit by the enemy you can usually handle that,” said Pini.  “But if you nearly die from an artillery round from your own side, that’s even more traumatic.”

Pini says he was, and remains, unphased at the thought of going back again, this time into Ukraine’s most dangerous areas, on rescue missions.  “This is my life.  I love danger.  I know that’s not normal, but that’s just me,” he said.

END

‘Brothers for Life’ adds: Team leader Pini Schwartzman and his team are at the Moldova/Ukrainian border where they have been meeting buses filled with elderly Jewish refugees and children. They’re getting their first real meal in days as well as medical care. They’re also getting life-affirming hugs and being told: ‘We’re Israeli soldiers and we have your back’. 

Schwartzman says: “When some of these Jewish refugees find out we are former IDF soldiers, they literally grab onto us.  It’s very emotional as they are scared and need to feel they are safe.”

A version for the JC:

He was severely injured when he lost 13 of his troops in an infamous ambush during the battle for Jenin in 2002. Now, Pini Schwartzman has been leading a new mission: to help refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

The former elite IDF captain travelled to the Ukraine-Moldova border along with five other ex-army men as part of an operation run by Brothers for Life (Achim Le’Chaim), an Israeli charity that helps wounded ex-troops use their knowledge for the benefit of all.

“For me, this is taking my life full circle,” Mr Schwartzman told the JC. “My late father had to flee Ukraine during the Second World War with his mother. They were fleeing from Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. I’m back at the border he crossed, from Ukraine to Moldova.”

Mr Schwartzman explained how he has applied his battlefield experience to several emergencies in the war zone.

One 74-year-old man had dislocated his shoulder when he fell while running for the bus to escape his bombarded city. 

Mr Schwartzman said: “The man was refusing to go to hospital, still probably traumatised.  So I had to click it back into place myself, even though I had no suitable pain-relief stuff with me, just a bandage. I looked up ‘dislocated shoulder’ on YouTube. ” He also identified an old man as a potential heart attack victim. He was rushed to a hospital. It was a heart attack, and the man survived.

Mr Schwartzman says his own experience of suffering from PTSD has been of some help. He said: “I saw a woman, seven months pregnant and with a four-year-old boy, sobbing uncontrollably by the roadside after her 20-hour bus journey had ended.  It turned out it was from the release of emotions after all she had been through.

“A Russian-speaking ‘Brother’ is a doctor, and he gave her sedation. She was upset that her husband was still in the war-zone, fighting. The Russians had been bombing her town. And she had to leave behind her very elderly parents who were too old to travel.”

Mr Schwartzman added: “I know how to approach people. I can identify with them. It makes no difference to us if they are Jewish or not. 

“But I was particularly moved when I supported a 94-year-old Jewish lady who had survived the Holocaust in Ukraine.   When we find Jewish refugees, they often cling on to us in tears.”

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Captain Schwartzman with a Holocaust survivor from Ukraine

In Jenin, Mr Schwartzman had entered the lobby of a house in the refugee camp when he radioed for his group to join him. As they arrived, an IED exploded, blasting him unconscious. He woke up several days later in an Israeli hospital to be told that 13 of his platoon had died. It had been a trap. Gunmen and snipers had fired from rooftops as they backed into the street. Mr Schwartzman survived because he had remained lying inside the house. 

“I got PTSD, but not from Jenin. It was one month after I returned from Lebanon in 2006, where our Brigade had been fighting near the Litani River. I was just jogging along the beach in my home-town Haifa when suddenly I burst out crying. For the next few months I was a different person. Gradually, though, I’ve come right.

“I’ve learned to recognise the warning signals … and these days I can express my feelings and emotions openly to my wife”.

He said he was unphased at the thought going further, this time  into Ukraine’s most perilous areas.

 “I love danger. I know that’s not normal, but that’s just me.”