AS reactor four was exploding at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1986, 80 kilometres away, Irina and Vladimir Chersky were celebrating their son’s 10th birthday.
“We had a nice day and a party and knew nothing about what happened,” Irina told The AJN.
“Our government then tried to conceal everything so for a few days there was no public announcement or any warnings or anything at all.”
Fortunately Anatoly Rozenfeld, a friend of the couple who is now a professor of nuclear medicine at Wollongong University, told them to send their children away.
“We managed to send our two sons with Irina’s parents about 450 kilometres away in the southern city of Odessa,” Vladimir said.
While the children stayed away for four months being moved between the cramped homes of relatives and friends, Irina and Vladimir went back to work in Kiev.
“The city of Kiev was completely deserted of kids, and that was very, very eerie,” Irina, who works at the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, recalled, adding she missed her own children terribly.
“The worst worry in the world is when you worry about kids.”
Having lived through that disaster, she said the shock then was “much greater” than the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
“What is happening now is terrible, but the level of fear and shock then was huge,” she said.
She said similarly, “People were told to stay home, to stay locked inside. We had to clean and clean and wash everything because radiation dust was on everything.
“Schools were closed for four months and then eventually in September when the new year started, kids returned home but still we were telling them, ‘Don’t touch this, don’t walk there, don’t walk on leaves, don’t walk on grass, don’t pick up anything from the ground.’”
Another difference was dealing with so many unknowns.
“We know what the virus is. Then, we had no idea what that radiation was and what it could do to us, especially to kids,” Irina said.
“Nobody’s trying to conceal anything from us, whereas over there, the government was trying to say there is no problem.”
She continued, “We thought we would never, ever recover. Every morning I was waking up, I was shaking in my sleep, scared and worried. Where are my kids? When are they coming home? What will happen?
“But in a few years we recovered and we got happy again and so I’m thinking that probably now the same thing will happen.”