Messi the cat comes back

Messi the cat comes back

Father and son return from a relief visit to Ukraine with the idea for a children’s book

Trevor Osfeld and his father, Scott, are in Warsaw together.
Trevor Osfeld and his father, Scott, are in Warsaw together.

Trevor Ostfeld and his father, Scott, came back from the Polish-Ukrainian border a little over a year ago with three good stories and a best-selling children’s book about a young girl and her cat.

Their journey into a war zone began in what may seem an unlikely setting: Temple Emanu-El in Closter, led by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner.

With war clouds brewing in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Kirshner wanted to put together a relief mission to the beleaguered area. “So he sent out a text or an email to see if people were interested in going on a trip to bring humanitarian supplies to Poland to help with the influx of people coming in from Ukraine,” Scott said.

“I don’t know if you’ve spent any time with Rabbi Kirshner. I think he’s been to Poland like 37 times or something like that. He has an incredible network of organizations that were able to build an itinerary for us.”

In a separate interview, Rabbi Kirshner suggests that Scott exaggerates. It’s actually fewer than 30 trips, he told me, but whenever there’s a crisis in the world, he’s likely to be there. “Well, I hope I’m there after the crisis, too,” he added.

“If I remember correctly, we collected about 130 duffel bags of bulk supplies and brought about 12 to 15 people,” including Rabbi Chaim Poupko and a small contingent from Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.

“We did this early in in the war, and we were definitely one of the first synagogues to do this. It’s important that we don’t only pray words, but we pray with our feet, get up and do things that help people in their times of need.”

But by the time the details were finalized, the Ostfelds, who live in Bergen County, were in Florida, part of an annual family visit when Trevor and his sisters, Vivian and Evelyn, are on spring break. There was no time to fly back to New York and join the relief party.

Trevor Osfeld, left, stands next to Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner in Krakow. (Photos courtesy Scott Ostfeld)

So they ordered about a dozen large duffel bags from Amazon, went to Costco, and likely made that manager’s monthly quota of diapers, tampons, and bandages. The pair spent more than $1,300 on supplies. They flew directly from Miami to Krakow on Lufthansa; once airline officials learned about their mission, they waived overweight baggage charges.

At the Polish end, efforts were coordinated by Jonathan Ornstein, who ran the Krakow JCC and the JDC. The Emanu-El contingent toured the city, including, as Trevor recalls, a large and apparently abandoned shopping center. “It was a mall with a huge department store and multiple stores all converted to temporary housing,” he said.

They went to the border where Trevor, then a 16-year-old high school junior, distributed candy to children getting off the train from Ukraine. Then the group switched to smaller buses and actually entered the country to deliver medical supplies to a hospital treating bombing victims.

“It was the saddest hospital I’ve ever seen,” Trevor recalled. “The equipment was 40 tears old. They didn’t even have an elevator, so they had to put people on a stretcher and run up the stairs. It was bad.”

Asked if he was concerned about safety, Scott said, “Yes. At first it was not clear that we were going to be traveling into Ukraine. That was sort of a later decision after we obtained some medical supplies. We were a little concerned because it was getting dark when we were driving back, which is usually when you have the bombs. Also, we saw NATO trucks going the other way right by us delivering weapons. So it probably wasn’t a great road to be on.

“But we were right near the Polish border. There had been one bombing a few weeks earlier in that area, but, for the most part, it was a pretty quiet zone within Ukraine — notwithstanding the fact that along the road there were big piles of sandbags and soldiers stationed there with guns.”

The next morning, father and son went to Warsaw, visited with refugees, and had several remarkable conversations. One was with a non-Jewish couple whose grandparents and great-grandparents had taken in and a protected a 10-year-old Jewish child and were memorialized as Righteous Among the Nations. The couple contacted Yad Vashem, which arranged to get them out of Ukraine.

Here, the Ostfelds are over the border in Ukraine.

The Ostfelds also met two sisters from Dnipro (then Yekaterinoslav), where both sides of Scott’s family are from, including Trevor’s great-grandfather, after whom he was named.

But the encounter that affected them the most was when they met 12-year-old Iryna Chernyak. “Her story was very sad,” Trevor said. “You hear all these stories about how we had to leave our home, it got bombed, it was a very dangerous time. But she was only focused on her cat.

“I think that was part of the reason I wanted to write the book, because it is about how war affects children. For her it was missing the cat.”

The idea for a book percolated after the two returned home. “We couldn’t stop talking about the story, and as my dad said this really needs to be made into a book,” Trevor said.

By then, Iryna had recovered her cat, named Messi after the soccer star. But getting back in contact with her proved difficult. Eventually, with the help of aid organizations working in Poland, the Ostfelds were able to locate her mother.

Language difficulties and Iryna’s mother Alexandra’s natural suspicion of random people trying to contact her and her daughter got in the way. But after Trevor made a connection via WhatsApp and they found a good translator, Iryna became a more enthusiastic participant. “She was excited to speak to someone from America who was interested in her story,” Scott noted. “And she’d already gotten her cat back at this point.”

They agreed to tell Iryna’s story in a picture book, “Finding Messi, the Miracle Cat From Kyiv,” by Trevor Ostfeld and Iryna Chernyak, that movingly describes the relationship between Iryna and her pet, the pain she felt when they were separated, and her joy when Messi made it home.

Or, as the book concludes, “Well, not exactly home. I don’t know when we will be back in Kyiv, But for now, home is where we are together.”

Advance orders made the book a prepublication instant best seller on Amazon. It went on sale officially on April 16, and all proceeds are being donated to charities that support victims of the Ukrainian war.

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