Driven by the need to help and the need to see for themselves, fueled by the understanding that no matter how much you know intellectually, you gain a different kind of knowledge when some of it is sensory — when you feel the air of a place on your skin and breathe it in, when you hear the language and smell the food and see the way the light plays on the letters, which are arranged in ways that don’t make sense to you — Jewish community leaders have been going to the Polish border with Ukraine.
They’ve been bringing stuff with them — it’s a very good idea to give the refugees and the organizations helping them money, because it’s impractical to lug bulky objects around the world, but it’s also a good idea to bring the things, the diapers and spring jackets and toothpaste and underwear, that are in short supply because so many people need them so suddenly.
Locally, the leaders who have gone to Poland for short, intense, focused trips include Jason Shames, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, who went on a mission for federation executives and lay leaders sponsored by the Jewish Federations of Northern New Jersey, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, who put together a trip that included members of his shul, Rabbi Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood and members of his shul, and the CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Steve Rogers, and some members of his board.
The travelers on both trips brought huge duffel bags packed with supplies, which can make just the smallest dent in the need, but every tiny bit helps.
Both Mr. Shames and Rabbi Kirshner were overwhelmed by what they saw; it wasn’t unexpected, but it was powerful, both said.
It was personal for Mr. Shames. “My grandmother was born in a town about 80 kilometers from here,” he said from Warsaw. “She moved to Warsaw when she was young. When she was about 15, the Nazis invaded. In the middle of the night, she begged her father to leave, to lead the whole family out. But he said no. God will provide.
“My grandmother was one of a family of 12. She left on her own, and she was the only one who survived.”
But, Mr. Shames said, “This is Poland, but it is not 1939.”
In fact, the Poles — both the government and the people — have been generous, giving, and loving, he said. “There are so many similarities between World War II and today, and there are so many things that are different.
“Poland has been so welcoming. Tents are up all around, very close to the train stations and other points of entry into the country, serving food, delivering medicine.
“Thank God we have Israel today. And the American Jewish community is united in its support for refugees, both Jews and non-Jews.”
Jewish organizations have been very active, he said, particularly the Joint — that’s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — and the Sachnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps people make aliyah.
This is a nightmare come alive, and the stories are not all nice ones, with giftwrapped happy endings.
Out of all the stories that he’s heard on this trip, two sprang most immediately to mind, Mr. Shames said. “One that I heard from the Israeli ambassador to Poland was about a 12-year-old girl who is not Jewish but showed up at the embassy a few days ago, begging to be reunited with her mother.”
The mother was in Israel because she’d been trafficked there and then became involved in prostitution, as victims of human trafficking so often do; the girl’s father was abusive. “The Israeli government took the girl to Israel to be reunited with her mother,” Mr. Shames said.
The other was about “a retired gentleman who moved from Kyiv to the suburbs because of covid.” (And covid is a problem among refugees, Mr. Shames added. “The calamity is far greater and far more intense than you can imagine.”)
“His house was hit in one of the bombings, about a week ago, and every single thing in the house was burned, including all their documentation, their paperwork; also all their life savings.”
Far worse, “his wife was severely burned. And it took them over three days traveling by bus to get to the border to get to the hotel,” a place where some refugees are staying. “The Jewish Agency is giving her medical care, and the Joint is helping them. And they will make aliyah.”
There are many stories about their journeys from their homes to safety; in fact, everyone has a story. Each story is different in detail but it’s basically the same story. Everyone had been living a normal life, a life not so different from our lives here. “I met a math professor, and a woman who ran a nail salon, and another women who owned a store,” Mr. Shames said. And then Russia invaded and death rained on them.
Few of the refugees can be certain about what they’ll do next, but many of the Jews want to go to Israel. “More than 5,000 Ukrainians have made aliyah in the last three weeks,” Mr. Shames said. Last year, the total number was 3,000.
“A JDC employee said, ‘Look, a certain percentage of the people know that they want to go to Israel. Others have friends or relatives in Europe and they want to go there. Some are undecided. Some want to go home. It’s unknown now.”
One thing that struck him was how many people from how many places are in Poland now, offering help. “I didn’t expect that there would be so many humanitarian efforts, all lined up,” he said. “It’s not just Jewish groups. Everyone is there. There’s the Egyptian Red Crescent, there are Sikhs, there’s a group from the Mexican Jewish community. Everyone is offering everything they can think of. There’s an organization helping refugees’ pets.” (As anyone who has a dog or a cat knows, those animals are not disposable. Unless you absolutely cannot help it, you take them with you. Many of the refugees did.) “Everything is covered. Once the refugees cross the border, literally everything is there. If you need a diaper, if you are hungry, if you need medication — everything is there.”
Refugees come across in waves, Mr. Shames said. He was there at a time when the Russian advance had been stalled, so there were no groups of people coming in from new places. Instead, the new arrivals were people who had taken a few days to plan their escape; some of them already knew where they wanted to go. “But that can change at any time,” he said. It’s all in response to Putin’s actions — who he wants to kill next, and how well supplied his fighters are.
“It’s not much different than we had anticipated, but it is so bad,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “It is a full-fledged humanitarian crisis; our world has not seen anything like it since World War II. It’s very different from a natural disaster. It’s human-made. There is no reason for it. And every single one of these people has a life that has been radically disrupted.
“The people and the country of Poland have done amazing things,” he continued. “Cracow has about 800,000 people, and it has taken in about 80,000 other people who are part of the refugee crisis.”
He’s also impressed by the Krakow JCC, which has “a pretty amazing support system.
“There is a lot to be proud of, both in being Jewish and in being part of the human race.”
He talked about the border town called Medyka, where Ukrainians are pouring in. “The first thing they will see is an Israeli flag,” he said. “It’s the first outpost. And then there are flags of so many other countries — we saw Italians, Egyptians, Sikhs, all giving away food.
“It’s really beautiful generosity.”
He had just gone to a city — in the fog of sleeplessness and loss and confusion and evil and goodness, much of it in Polish or Ukrainian or Russian, he could neither pronounce its name or spell it — “where they had a shopping mall, about the size of five or six basketball courts, entirely repurposed for refugees.
“They’d set up a play center for kids, a pharmacy, a medical area, a grocery store, and the largest part of it is basically a warehouse full of people. It’s full of cots for people. People sleep there, shoulder to shoulder; most of them are there for two to four days.
“They’re helping people get to different organizations. Do they have family in Greece? In France? We can get you to Vienna, by bus or by train.
“And they’re very protective, making sure that there is no trafficking going on. Because this is very fertile ground for human trafficking in women and in children. It is a really dangerous place for those kinds of things.”
How does he deal with what he’s seeing? “It hurts my heart to see it,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “The outward pump of my heart is angry. How can a madman do this to such innocent people? But then, when it does the reverse pump, I am buoyed by how much good there is in the world, by how many people are coming here and helping.
“Look at the JDC. It’s helping beautifully. Masterfully. There is no form of litmus test. If you need help, we will help you. If you are Jewish or not, not what else you are or are not, no one cares.
“If you are a human being, we will help you.”