At night, someone called that a mother with four children had been suddenly left homeless because the landlord had “changed his plans”. The woman did not know what was happening. When Lesław found her, she was standing on the pavement. The children were clinging to her, not even saying a word. Looking completely absent, they gazed into the distance with their beautiful blue eyes, as if they did not want to betray their presence at all cost. They looked like dolls thrown into a car. Lesław drove them to a bed & breakfast that the Warsaw Jewish Community had recently bought in Kazimierz (a small town on the eastern bank of the Vistula river, with a vast Jewish population before the Second World War). He said they could stay there as long as they needed. Exhausted, he returned to Warsaw in the morning. The woman later asked for a contact at the nearest Orthodox church because she was not Jewish and wanted to be among people of her own.
Already on Thursday morning, a few hours after the Russian attack on Ukraine, Karina Sokołowska, the director of Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) in Poland, was discussing with Lesław Piszewski, the chairman of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw, what to do. Things developed very quickly: on Friday they decided to set up a hotline for refugees, and on Saturday they were already on their way to Lublin, where the Community runs the Ilan Hotel in the former Chachamei Yeshiva. “We were still completely relaxed while driving there,” Karina recalls. “We even stopped to have breakfast. It was probably the last meal we ate normally. Then we drove to Kazimierz, where we received a group of Hasidic Jews. On Sunday we started organising our team at the border. First, we sent them as volunteers, because we thought it would be a short action.
In Lublin, the first refugees were already waiting for them. They were mainly people with money, well prepared to flee. They rested at the Ilan Hotel, paid for their stay and drove on in their cars. Already then, however, there also appeared people without any means of subsistence. “Without hesitation, we decided that we would cover their living expenses. And, of course, we cancelled all previous hotel bookings,” says Lesław. All were given rooms, food and all assistance possible.
On Monday, four days after the Russian invasion, there was a meeting of Jewish organisations operating in Warsaw. Back then, no one could have imagined that the world would so quickly show enormous support. The idea was to join forces and act as effectively as possible. This is how the Jewish Crisis Management Team was established in the so-called White Building (part of the complex of the Warsaw Jewish Community), right next to the Nożyk Synagogue at 6 Twarda Street. Almost since the beginning of the war, it has been operating seven days a week, 24 hours a day. At the peak, when tens of thousands of refugees were crossing the border every day, nine people answered the phone at the hotline. “Transports with aid also came in the middle of the night. I can’t even count how many tonnes I moved with my own hands,” recalls Lesław. “Life presented us with a challenge that we were not prepared for at all, but to put it immodestly, we rose to it”.
The Jewish Community delegated almost all of its employees to help refugees. In fact, everyday duties were abandoned and, within a few days, an enormous aid network was set up. “We are helping Jews and non-Jews, warriors, civilians, anyone who approaches us,” Lesław ads: “We have started to cooperate with the Orthodox Church because I feel that they have the best contacts in Ukraine and know where those most in need are”. In addition to the Community and the Joint, the crisis management team is made up of the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning, European Jewish Congress, JCC Warsaw, AJC Central Europe, Jewish Historical Institute Association, Hillel Warsaw, Puszke Foundation, Makabi Warsaw, JCC Krakow, Lauder-Morasha Primary School, Zuzanna Ginczanka Private Secondary School and the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ).
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A few days later, it was already clear that new places for the refugees had to be found. The decision was made at Twarda to rent Śródborowianka Guesthouse from the Jewish Social and Cultural Association (TSKŻ). “Śródborów may not be luxurious, but it has a wonderful Jewish history,” Lesław stresses. “Before the war it housed a popular sanatorium, after 1945 a home for Jewish orphans, and later, thanks to the Joint, children’s camps were organised there. Most members of our community have been there at least once. In recent years, the centre has not really functioned at all and was about to be closed down, which makes me all the more pleased that we have brought it back to life”.
A home for almost sixty people has been created in Śródborów near Warsaw. It is staffed mainly by refugees themselves – they cook, clean and carry out minor repairs. There is also a doctor and a psychologist among them. They do real work, earn money and, above all, speak the same language as the other residents. This is important, because some people arrive, others leave, some are waiting for their documents. There is always something going on.
“At the very beginning we took care of everything ourselves,” says Lesław. “Then, our friends from the Joint and various Israeli organizations came to observe how we were working, and suggested changes. They told us not to do all those activities that volunteers could do. They suggested that we should only focus on management. So we created different departments and now our work is much more structured. We are already a really specialised group”.
They came to Śródborów with a very aggressive Persian cat. It only got along with one lady. For a month, the cat had to be kept in a separate room. We had to arrange for a vet, feed it, make sure it didn’t turn everything into dust. Refugees bring not only themselves, but their whole worlds. They do not abandon their pets.
The crisis management team found a place for this family in Ireland. They left a few days ago. They also managed to find a new home for the cat, here in Warsaw. Someone took it under their care, knowing that it is a very difficult animal. They are becoming comfortable with each other. The family happily flew to Ireland and now they keep calling the hotline asking how the cat is doing. They don’t understand that nobody has time for such questions.
Before that memorable Thursday, there were over two hundred thousand Jews living in Ukraine, most of whom have remained there to this day. The Joint (i.e. the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee or JDC) directly cared for nearly fifty thousand beneficiaries gathered in small aid organizations, the so-called Cheseds (Hebrew: grace, kindness). These were people about whom, simply put, we could say that they received social assistance in a greater or lesser extent. Many of them could not have survived without it. There were around five thousand Chesed workers alone, most of whom were non-Jews.
In February 2022, there were more Holocaust survivors in Ukraine than all the members of Jewish organisations in Poland put together.
What were your volunteers at the border supposed to be taking care of?
Karina Sokołowska: We wanted them to put up posters promoting the hotline and to inform staff assisting refugees at border crossings about our activities. The idea was that people crossing the border would know whom to address when they wanted to seek support from Jewish organisations. What we did not realise, however, was what “staff assisting refugees at border crossings” meant and what chaos it was. And above all, we did not realise what the scale of it all would be. The Ukrainian Cheseds began to contact us, telling us that here they were sending twenty people to us, and suddenly there arrived forty. There is a multi-generation family standing there, and elsewhere someone is stuck in a village. Our people at the border were absolutely essential and… they have stayed there to this day.
A moment ago someone came in here and said you were waiting for eleven women who had been raped.
Yes, this is a new case. They are from Bucha. They will arrive today. Because of what they have been through, they cannot be in any of our centres, we have to find them a separate five-bedroom flat.
Are they Jewish?
We don’t ask people who come to us who they are or what their background is. If someone was sent by a Chesed from the other side of the border, they probably have some Jewish background, but not necessarily. At our centres and hotels, for example, there is a woman whose husband is Jewish and is fighting in Ukraine, and she has fled with their three children. Or another woman – her husband, an Israeli, may or may not come back for her. Another man flew to Tel Aviv and there is no trace of him – his Ukrainian wife stayed behind. Anyone who needs help and assistance can also come to our warehouse on Twarda street. They will certainly receive it. We only realised the number of people we are helping, who have no connection to Jewishness in the broadest sense of the word, when we started celebrating Purim and Sabbaths at the centres. A lot of people didn’t know what it was all about [laughs].
How many people and how much time does it take to help one family? Let’s assume that someone took them to the border and they made it to Warsaw without a problem – with the help of your volunteers.
I will give you some examples instead.
We have a family in Lublin who escaped from Mariupol. The eldest lady survived the Holocaust, her daughter takes care of her, together with them there is a granddaughter, a great-granddaughter and a dog. When they crossed the border, Darek, who heads our group of border workers, called us and said that the ladies wanted to go to Denmark. Since Denmark is one of the countries that I work in on behalf of JDC, I came to an agreement with the local rabbi that we would probably send the family to him. However, on the following day, they changed their minds and wanted to stay in Poland. A day later they decided to go to Germany, because there was no chance of finding a reasonable nursing home for the elderly woman in Poland. That, in fact, was true. The next day the rabbi from Denmark calls me and says that the ladies have dug up some family history – the grandmother, who is long dead, had a sister in Frankfurt, who is also long dead, but they have written down the story briefly and ask me to find her descendants… So I get a small sheet of paper with handwritten names and dates.
Can we be surprised that they want any point of reference?
In Środborow there is a gentleman with severe frostbite because he walked for a long time. It was still winter not long ago. There is someone with a very rare genetic disease for which he was given medicine once a month, but he did not bring his medical records with him. We are relying on what he says. Even with the best possible cooperation from the National Health Service (NFZ), no doctor will prescribe this medicine without proper documentation. We have to go through a lot of trouble to arrange all this. And what to do with diabetics? Where to get insulin for them? And then there are the emotions you can’t help when someone tells you how they saved their life and now they’re afraid they won’t get their medication.
How many hours a day do you work?
At the beginning I didn’t actually stop working at all. At one point I felt like all people had our phone numbers. You helped one person, they passed your number on to several others. I had about two hundred phone calls a day. I basically never took my hands off the phone, and yet it was only one part of my job. People were calling in the middle of the night, asking for help, telling me where they were trying to cross the border. It made it impossible to sleep. Anyway, I felt guilty whenever I did anything other than work. Now things are calmer. Some time ago we started sleeping. Even though that may be an overstatement – I’m fifty and have never needed sleeping pills. Until now.
A few days ago you carried out medical transports of Holocaust survivors.
Most of them were non-walking persons, often lying down. Our guys are coordinating this at the border. Ambulances from Germany come and take them to their hospitals and nursing homes. There are still at least a thousand people to be transported. This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the support of the Claims Conference.
Now that not so many refugees are coming to Poland, what becomes your biggest priority?
We received a call yesterday from a woman who is somewhere in a village near Łódź with her mother, daughter and granddaughter. Incidentally, the four-generation phenomenon is very common among refugee families from Ukraine. The daughter of this lady is a pharmacist, she has even gone to work, but the family wants to live in Warsaw. They are not planning to leave Poland. Now is the stage when we collect information about flats, because we want to subsidise them. We don’t know yet how this will be arranged. After all, it is not possible for four ladies to live on the salary of one pharmacist. There are usually no men in such families, because they are fighting in Ukraine. It turns out that, on average, only one person can work, and that is not enough.
Providing that she has someone to leave the child with or manages to arrange schooling.
The truth is that no country could cope with such a large number of refugees in such a short time. Especially as they are often elderly women and very young children. There is also another four-generation family in Śródborów. One of the ladies taught at university, in the evening she was at a banquet to celebrate the end of term. Then she drove seven hours home, and while she was on her way, Russia attacked Ukraine. The woman took her 85-year-old mother in her car and they started to flee to Poland. They were very determined. After a few days, they finally crossed the border. Their goal was achieved – they escaped. They stopped the car on the side of the road and then realised that they had nowhere to go. Luckily, the old lady was a beneficiary of the Chesed in Mariupol. They called there and were given our hotline number. We accommodated them in Śródborów. Once they were in Warsaw, they found their daughter and granddaughter in some tent at the refugees reception centre. The four of them are with us now. We have many such families. It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes. You lose everything, rockets fly over your head and you have to decide. You run away and only later do you realise that you don’t actually know where to go. We are at such a stage of the war that the refugees who come to us don’t want to go anywhere else – they have no other goal than to return home. And we don’t know if this will happen at all.
[Lesław, who has just come into the Joint office for a moment, joins the conversation.]
Lesław Piszewski: I think a lot of people will stay in Poland. We already have the first membership declarations to our Community. Not everyone wants to go to Israel or the West. Many people have problems with their papers, the Jewish Agency rejects them, moreover, the policy of Israel in general leaves much to be desired. I have repeatedly said this to the representatives of the Knesset: Israel has not responded to the migration crisis as we would have hoped. It took the Jewish Agency two weeks to reorganise its work in Warsaw – in a way, we took over its duties for a while, although it is not our job to send people to Israel. We work mainly for those who live in Poland.
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Is it true that in the most difficult moment everyone at Twarda street caught Covid?
Karina: It was just when there was the most work. Because I was undergoing the illness mildly, I was locked in my bedroom and I was on my phone all day, and in the meantime I was writing emails. My body, regardless of Covid, tells me every now and then that I won’t last long like this. But it’s hard for me to imagine suddenly getting up again in the morning and wondering whether to walk the dog, or work from home, or maybe cook dinner at long last? This is absurd, you can’t live like this. My husband will divorce me. In a way, I missed my daughter’s high school exams and graduation – the other day I got a message from her that she had passed her oral English exam brilliantly. I didn’t remember that she had it at all, although she had certainly told me.
In all the evil that is going on, there is also something positive. I haven’t had such a strong sense of supportive community in a long time. I have tears in my eyes as I think about it. It’s amazing how many people have got involved, how dedicated they are! A lot of volunteers came to us, some of whom we later employed. The Community sent its own employees to help, but bear in mind that in the first weeks they didn’t work eight hours a day as before, but over ten hours a day, if not twenty. Constantly on the phone. And in the meantime, of which there really isn’t any time, they are trying to catch up on the Community duties. The men we sent to the border are sleeping in the RVs we rented so they are always as close to the people as possible.
A three-generation family arrived in Warsaw recently. They thought it would just be a stopover for them for a few days, as they already had tickets to Israel. Yet, the grandmother caught Covid and was taken to a hospital. They had to wait until she recovered. When they heard how much it cost to rent a flat, they broke down. They didn’t know what to do. They ended up at our centre on Twarda street. They got two rooms in a hotel and the assurance that they could stay there as long as they needed. They could not believe that this was really happening. They came back later with chocolates.
Margot Jin is a social worker at the Puszke Foundation, which looks after the needy among the Jewish community in Poland. After the outbreak of war, she organised a warehouse on the ground floor of the White Building from which refugees can take whatever they need – from shoes and toys for children to medicines and food. It is also used by those who live in the refugee centres and hotels run by the Joint and the community. It started in Lublin and Śródborów, and now most of the refugees are in Warsaw, staying at several large hotels. Some donations are sent to other aid organisations in Poland and directly to Ukraine.
“Almost since the beginning of the Russian aggression I have been here from morning till evening,” Margot tells us. “I have no time for my own life, luckily my son is already a teenager. I deal with the Puszke Foundations’ issues in the evenings and during the weekends, but the people I am taking care of understand that there is war going on. Usually around midnight I can’t cope anymore and go to bed. In the morning, before coming to Twarda street, I do some shopping, because we keep buying what the refugees need at the moment. I’ll have to excuse you for a moment, because a delivery from Ikea has just arrived. We are arranging things for those who have decided to stay in Poland and are trying to settle here somehow. We don’t ask anyone who comes here about their background.
Ala Rotfeld, a computer graphic designer, is responsible for running the warehouse together with Margot. After 24 February, she came to the Community as a volunteer, but the Joint quickly hired her on a permanent basis. “We managed to connect to a lady recently who came to get something to eat, but in the conversation it turned out that she was a doctor,” she reports. “For the past two days she has been sorting out the medicines that arrive in huge blue bags from the States. Medical consultations are taking place between cardboard boxes. Someone came in a moment ago with a child, saying that the boy had avitaminosis. It turned out to be an allergy”.
The warehouse could not exist without volunteers. After a month of the war, there are actually only refugees working here. We walk into a room filled with clothes. “Here are our fantastic girls from Kharkiv,” says Margot. “They came for help, stayed and are working with us every day”.
The women catch the word “fantastic”, realise that it is about them and, embarrassed, cannot stop thanking for the kind words.
The Jewish community from all over the world is sending charitable deliveries to Twarda. By cruise planes, private jets, trucks. There are days when several shipments arrive, which have to be quickly unloaded, sorted and forwarded for further distribution. The bags contain everything from socks to oxygen masks. “In fact, we don’t need oxygen masks in Warsaw. If we collect a carton of such things, we send it to Ukraine,” Ala explains.
A bus with Jewish students from New York arrives at Twarda street. They are very hard-working, moving suitcases between rooms of the warehouse. They sort the items that arrived the day before. Margot is happy: “I thought that we would be doing this for a week, but it took them just a few hours”.
“We also rented a large warehouse near Warsaw and another one in Lublin, because there was no room at Twarda anymore,” says Lesław. “These are where the largest shipments are distributed. The goal is to keep the warehouses empty at all times so that they can accept new donations. In this regard, our cooperation with Father Wadim from Chełmno, who knows perfectly well where and what is needed, is invaluable. Aid is flowing widely to large cities in Ukraine, but not so widely to towns and villages. Food, medicine, bandages, water and electricity are often scarce there. We have therefore decided that our aid will focus on reaching those who are often forgotten”.
Transports destined for the army are also dispatched from the warehouses. “We support the Ukrainians in their fight for independence,” he adds. “Russia attacked Ukraine without declaring war, and it is our moral duty to help the weaker. This is a simple human reflex, not politics”.
Someone put their rucksack and jacket on the table, and someone else thought these were gifts. And sent them to Kharkov. A moment of consternation and, fortunately, a quick reaction – the transport had not yet left Poland and the things were returned to their owner.
A woman packs a bag with her belongings and puts it aside. A volunteer passes by and, without thinking long, carefully unpacks everything. But these are only funny exceptions. More often than not, someone comes for a toy for their child, saying that they ran away from a burning flat and didn’t take anything with them. “When our volunteers first came here, there was a huge emptiness in their eyes,” says Margot. “One of them could not even say whether she wanted to eat, drink or sleep. She was completely shaken. After a few days, she started to flourish. Now she is working at our hotline, she helps in the warehouse, she is a great worker”.
Among the gifts there are drawings from children, many yellow and blue painted hearts. “Our volunteers also write letters to the soldiers, when we prepare transports to the front”, adds Ala.
Ala and Margot, just like everyone I talk to, do not want to talk about their own merits. They praise others and stress that they are merely little wheels in a huge machine which is working, because hundreds if not thousands of people donate their money to help.
“An elderly man came to Twarda and said that he had been sleeping at the railway station for a few days,” says Ala. “I don’t remember where he came from. I cannot tell you how happy I was when I was able to tell him that we had a free hotel room for him and that in a few minutes his problem would be solved. I am extremely grateful to the Jewish organisations from all over the world for being able to participate in this assistance”.
He is a psychiatrist with an Israeli passport, she is Ukrainian without any documents. They escaped with a small child from Kharkiv. Tired and dirty, they arrived at the Central Railway Station in Warsaw nearly a week later. Someone directed them to Twarda street. They found Lesław, who offered them a room in Śródborów.
“Mr. Leszek,” groaned the psychiatrist in Polish, getting into the car, “excuse me, but my hands are dirty, I haven’t had a chance to wash them for a week”.
He wanted to stay in Poland and help here, but she insisted on leaving. They promised their son the seaside. They couldn’t reach an agreement, they were arguing badly. Finally, they asked for separate rooms. Things got ugly. The crisis management team found a psychologist who helped reunite the family. They are now in Israel.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich: On the second day of the war, Polish Jewish organisations jointly created the Jewish Crisis Management Team. For hundreds of years it was we, Polish Jews, who were in “crisis” and now we are the crisis management team.
Have you been to the border yourself?
The first time I went, I took a bag of candy with me. I thought I would greet every child I met with sweets. Every time I gave sweets, the carers – mothers, aunts, grandmothers – made sure I heard “thank you, spasiba, dziękuję” from them. I was very touched that the women, who had often travelled such a murderous journey, still found the strength to make sure they thanked me for a piece of chocolate.
I was touched by the fact that, at Twarda street, anyone who comes forward will be helped. Regardless of nationality or religion.
A woman calls me – it was probably the third day of the war – she tells me that her daughter, her daughter-in-law and their children cannot get on a plane to Israel because they do not have up-to-date Covid tests. And the plane leaves in ten minutes. I say to her that in that case we must do something quickly. To which she says to me that neither she nor her daughter and daughter-in-law are Jewish. “My husband is Israeli and the children are from my first marriage,” she says. This was very charming – apparently she thought that when she talks to a rabbi, she has to explain such things right away. I told her that it didn’t matter at the moment. I booked them a room in a hotel at the Warsaw Airport. It wasn’t even that they needed money. The situation became too difficult – they were running away from Ukraine, they got to the airport, and when the nightmare was about to end, it turned out that they could not fly anywhere. It’s that moment when you sit on your suitcase, tears in your eyes and you can’t move. In that situation, you need to lead someone by the hand: “Get up, go out the main exit of the airport, there is a hotel opposite, go inside and give your name”. It all worked out, they have been in Israel for quite a while now.
There are actually quite a few Israeli organisations at the border.
I was fascinated when I saw an Israeli field hospital with two hundred beds. One of the doctors called me and said they were looking for help for an elderly couple – ninety-two and ninety-three years old – who survived the Holocaust. We managed to bring them to Przemyśl, by the border with Ukraine; one of the sponsors flew in from Israel in a private plane to pick them up. The problem was that their passports were expired, and arranging new ones would involve a long stay in Warsaw. Israel was ready to receive them, but it was rightly feared that they would not be able to fly out of Poland. I managed to talk to the ministry. One day they were escaping from a burning house, the next they were sitting in a luxury private plane. And so it happens, too.
At night, someone called that a mother with four children had been suddenly left homeless because the landlord had “changed his plans”. The woman did not know what was happening. When Lesław found her, she was standing on the pavement. The children were clinging to her, not even saying a word. Looking completely absent, they gazed into the distance with their beautiful blue eyes, as if they did not want to betray their presence at all cost. They looked like dolls thrown into a car. Lesław drove them to a bed and breakfast house that the Warsaw Jewish Community had recently bought in Kazimierz. He said they could stay there as long as they needed. Exhausted, he returned to Warsaw in the morning. The woman later asked for a contact at the nearest Orthodox church because she was not Jewish and wanted to be among people of her own. “Every situation where we manage to help someone is a huge success for us,” stresses Lesław.
“Women are the heroines in fleeing from Ukraine,” says Igor Susid, one of the founders of the Puszke Foundation. “After all, it is not uncommon for them to take both their own children and other people’s children with them. They arrive at the border exhausted. After a few days of murderous travel, they are dirty, hungry and extremely tired; they do not even have a change of nappies for their children. It often happens that before we send them to Warsaw, they stay for 24 hours in Przemyśl. In a rented flat, they can sleep, wash and eat. It is a period of 24 hours for a bit of humanity. Later, we ask them if they want to stay with us or go somewhere else. But what are they supposed to tell us? They want to wait and see what happens. Their husbands, sons and parents stayed in Ukraine. They are here alone. What kind of prospect is this for planning a new life?”
When I walk into his office, Igor is in the middle of a debate with someone from the crisis team about a woman living in Israel who has asked to escort her parents from the border to the plane at the Warsaw Airport. “We need to be more assertive,” Igor argues. “If she is an Israeli citizen who normally works, she has to get on a plane and take care of her parents herself. We don’t have that many volunteers,” he turns to me. “People can be very demanding. And we are getting more and more tired every day.”
He says that the crisis management team at Twarda street is made up of a group of twenty managers and about fifty volunteers. Before 24 February, there were contracts for twenty-two phone numbers in the community, now there are sixty.
How do you remember the first days of your work here?
Igor Susid: At first we were a bit confused. We knew that thousands of people were crossing the border, including many Jews. And as long as they are not religious people, it does not matter that much. If, on the other hand, Hasidic Jews queue for two days and get a ham sandwich on the Polish side, then there is a problem. It is great that there is a ham sandwich, but they will not eat it.
Among the many non-obvious situations, there was also the problem of what to do with Ukrainian Jews who long ago went to Israel for a while, acquired citizenship and crossed the border with passports that had been invalid for years. We had about fifty such guys who had thrown away their Ukrainian documents and crossed the border as Israelis. They didn’t take into account that in Poland they became ordinary tourists – without any of the rights that refugees were entitled to, starting with free transport. And by the way, the hryvnias turned out to be worthless. We do not judge the fact that they did not go to fight. Just like hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians across Europe who have not returned home. It is their decision. All we want is for as many as possible to settle in Poland or to move on and make room for more people in need.
What is the situation like now?
Everything is well taken care of at the border – our people are there with cars, credit cards, cash. We have rented RVs and a van, signed contracts with transport companies. If someone needs to be transported, all it takes is one phone call and everything goes very smoothly. The same goes for accommodation – our staff will always find a bed and if they can’t find one, they will rent something new. Recently we picked up a group of twenty Jews from the border. We provided a coach, but nearly half of the seats were empty. We offered them to anyone who happened to be passing by and wanted to go to Warsaw. We did not make a fuss when someone brought animals onto the bus. We did not ask if they had money. Of course, we did not leave anyone on the street. We found places to sleep, food, clothes and medicines for everyone.
One of the biggest challenges now is the health problems that refugees come with. They will get a personal identification number…
… but how to get an appointment with a doctor?
Exactly. There are a lot of pregnant women, someone has gangrene on his leg, another has diabetes and he needs to be given a dose of insulin immediately. One man in Śródborów has high blood pressure, he can’t sleep, and calling an ambulance won’t help, because he is a chronically ill person. It turns out that we need to employ social workers who will work in groups of two – to speak Ukrainian, Russian and Polish at the same time.
It is often the case that you want to help someone with one small thing, and this opens up a whole range of other problems. It already seemed to us that everything was working like clockwork. We signed agreements with taxi companies in Warsaw to drive refugees around the city at all hours. This is a huge step, because in the first weeks we were doing it ourselves. Then, last night, we got a call that someone had dropped off a pregnant woman in the wrong place and several taxi drivers couldn’t find her. To make things worse, this lady fainted and there is no contact with her. She is probably lying in the street somewhere. We managed to locate her, took her to a hotel, but we also had to find a doctor for her quickly. In fact, four staff members looked after her from ten o’clock in the evening until three in the morning. And after a few hours of sleep, they had to return to the crisis center, to continue their regular work.
How much do you work?
Like all of us, I spend all day at the crisis management center. Sunday comes and then I sit down to write emails. Puszke is a small foundation, but compared to giants such as the Joint, which has procedures for everything, we can react quickly and deal with many small matters right away.
What is your opinion on Israel aid efforts?
You should know that the Israelis were the first at the border. They immediately sent doctors and nurses. In the second day of the war, Israel offered to put up two fully equipped field hospitals in designated places to carry out complex surgeries. They have unheard of technologies. A nurse examines a patient with an ultrasound machine the size of a mobile phone, while in Israel a doctor consults in real time, reading the image on the screen.
When hospitals had to be evacuated, hundreds of German ambulances took patients across our western border. Of course, one can hold a grudge against governments – whether German, Israeli (why do Ukrainians have to pay for these temporary passports?!) or Polish – but the NGOs work really well.
The Joint did not send its representative from New York to us and say it would give us ten thousand dollars if we made a nice table and evaluation of the project with a photo. They didn’t. They came right away with all their might, offering tremendous support. When we needed IT people, fifteen guys from Israel flew in the next day – one sat on our hotline because he spoke Russian, another set up the phones, others improved the system. When they finished, a few of them worked in the warehouse and the rest helped out at railway stations. I remember that we received information then that we needed hygiene products for women in Lviv. Someone from the Joint took out a credit card and bought all the sanitary pads and diapers they could find at the wholesale store.
We were able to pick up a woman from the border. She got a room in a hotel in the centre of Warsaw. She had absolutely nothing with her. But it turned out that she had such a solid criminal record that she would not be allowed into Israel. One day she started shouting about how great Putin was. She came to Twarda and continued her ranting. The Polish workers got over it, but the Ukrainian volunteers who were helping her lost a lot of nerves and tears.
When I arrive at Chmielna street in Warsaw, classes are just finishing at the day centre for refugees. I meet Marta Saracyn, who deals with programmes and communication on a daily basis and sits on the board of the JCC Warsaw Foundation.
Who benefits from your help?
Marta Saracyn: Our community is very small, so theoretically we should only be involved in helping Jews. However, we decided that anyone who needs help can come to us. Whether they are refugees from Ukraine or have miraculously slipped across the Polish-Belarusian border. Both “good” and “bad” refugees can drop in for a coffee. This also applies to our Sunday Boker Tow breakfasts and, in fact, to all our programmes.
Recently you baked challah for refugee families.
At first, they were supposed to go to Śródborów, because there are many Jewish families there, but it turned out that members of Ec Chaim Synagogue, the progressive part of the Warsaw Community, had already taken care of them. So our challahs ended up in one of the hotels, where we organised a Shabbat dinner. And although the refugees still need their basic needs met, the moment of a nice, festive dinner, when you can stop thinking about the war for a moment, was good for everyone.
The most important element of your help for refugees is the day care centre.
Agata Rakowiecka – the head of the JCC – and I decided to open a day care centre. It was great, the children came, they had a nice time. It took us a few days to realise that we didn’t even know their names. Now, every day, the guardians fill in the appropriate applications – first name, surname, passport number.
This is probably normal. Everyone has been learning to help on the job.
Now, fortunately, things are calmer. The idea of our day centre is simple: any refugee who has a child in their care can leave them with us between eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. It doesn’t matter whether they want to have a coffee at the JCC, go shopping, to the administration office or go for a walk. The children are looked after by teachers who are also refugees. The idea was for them to speak the same language as the children and to earn money in this way. After three weeks of operation, we have a group of about 20 children. If more come, we send them to Hillel, where a similar day centre operates. The little ones feel at home with us, they often come upstairs to the office to play with my dog. They get two meals a day from our kosher kitchen. The kids are all over the place. They run, scream, laugh, jump on the cushions. I think that means a good children’s life. Every day we offer a new programme and a new intake, because we are not an institution registered with the board of education. Even though the government has cancelled the pandemic, we still test every child for Covid before entering.
Do only Jewish children come to the day care centre?
Mostly non-Jewish. We are slowly reaching out to people in “Jewish” hotels (rented by the Jewish organizations) and resorts with our offerings. What makes us happy is that those who have already settled down in Warsaw bring their children to the JCC for our regular programs, e.g. to the Moadon club, because they did something similar before escaping, in Kyiv. It even came to the point where two friends from Ukraine found each other during our classes. It was tragic and charming at the same time.
One day a girl came to us and asked if she could use the computer. She couldn’t manage, so I sat down next to her. I helped her fill out her visa application. She spoke to me in Russian, I answered in Polish. We struggled together, the process was really hard. The website refers you to the hotline, the hotline to the website. You can still write an email, but it doesn’t change anything. Eventually, we managed. I’m able to get visas to Canada now.
What plans does the JCC have for the future?
If the demand continues, we will open a second classroom and hire more tutors. In the meantime, next week we are organising a weekend trip for Jewish and non-Jewish refugee families. We have also booked places for children at our summer camps. Further on, we are planning meetings with a psychologist and language courses. For now, those who come here have to satisfy their most basic needs – to eat, get dressed and sleep. Another thing is that it may soon turn out that the kind of education we provide here will be the only option for refugee children, as the Polish system simply cannot cope. And if the migration crisis worsens, the JCC will house those in need.
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A woman escaped by car with her two daughters, a cat and a parrot without a cage. Refugees, as I wrote earlier, do not leave their animals behind. Before leaving, they took out all their savings from the bank. The amount was small, but it was supposed to be enough to get them to Germany. They got accommodation in Kazimierz. They asked for help in exchanging cash. In a Polish exchange office, 14 thousand hryvnias turned into less than 140 zlotys. They did not even have enough money for petrol to continue their journey.
On that memorable Thursday when the invasion started, Jakub Łysiak, general manager of the tourist programme of the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning in Warsaw, goes to an ecumenical prayer at the Ukrainian Embassy and then to a peaceful demonstration at the Russian Embassy. He feels, however, that this is not enough.
Did you go to Przemyśl alone?
Jakub Łysiak: Yes, I had the time and the car. I didn’t know what to do. The police sent me to a car park near Tesco, where the local authorities were bringing refugees from the border. I asked the first person who spoke Ukrainian to write on a piece of paper that I could take four people to Warsaw for free. Another bus from the border pulled up. I stood there with my card and immediately two ladies and a teenage boy came forward. They were going to join their family in Italy. After returning, I slept for a few hours and on Sunday morning I set off for Korczowa, the border crossing town. The volunteers found three people who wanted to go to their family in Warsaw.
I think I saw your post on Facebook around that time.
I didn’t want to show off, it’s not in my nature, but a friend convinced me that if I started writing about it, I would convince other people to act.
And so it happened.
I heard from Jeff Kosovitz, one of our former clients and a friend of the foundation. He asked if I needed any money for petrol. In consultation with Helise Lieberman, the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning, we provided our American clients with a fundraising link. And so donations started coming in from people who had been on trips to Poland with us in the past. A friend of mine made his minivan available so that I wouldn’t have to drive in a smaller car, but the funds that started coming in quickly allowed us to rent coaches. At the time when most people were crossing the Polish border, I spent forty-eight hours non-stop in Korczowa. I managed to clear five hundred people then. What was happening there looked like the beginning of a humanitarian crisis, so we tried to get as many people out of there as possible within the shortest time possible.
I was getting buses from my acquainted firms in Kraków and Warsaw. Every hour I was spending much more than we managed to collect. I decided that either we would raise the money later or, as a last resort, I would pay with my own money. Fortunately, our fundraising went great. That’s when I started posting even more actively on Facebook, so people could see what they were participating in. I continued it for a fortnight and then I collapsed. I was in bed for four days, basically not moving. Physically and emotionally, it was very demanding.
How many people did you transport?
Over nine hundred.
What happened to them afterwards?
Those I carried usually had relatives somewhere in Poland, but I don’t know what happened to the people in the coaches. I hope that someone took care of them. At that moment, the priority was to get the refugees away from the border. It wasn’t that these places were bursting at the seams – they had burst long ago and it was impossible to control that.
Did you talk to the people you were driving with?
I would stop with them for a hot meal. And it always involved negotiation. They claimed they were not hungry. I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, so each time I called a friend to talk to them. And it always turned out that they were very hungry and that this was their first hot meal in many days.
Many times I had more people in the vehicle than it was legally allowed.
Weren’t you afraid of the police?
They asked for it themselves. For two reasons. Apart from the obvious one, to help the refugees as quickly as possible, it was also about not separating them. How would a mother and her daughter or some friends fleeing together find each other? One person in Kraków and another in Warsaw. This would create even more chaos. The women took the children on their laps and we travelled in fourteen, not eight people. Coming back to your question about talking to refugees… There was decompression in the car, people were falling apart. They already knew that they were safe, that they were going somewhere in a warm car, so they let their nerves go. After a while, everyone usually fell asleep. I didn’t want to impose myself on them in any way, but sometimes we talked through my friends. Anyway, at the beginning of the journey I always called someone to calm down the people in the bus. Remember that they were mainly women and children. The fact that they could talk to someone about me helped a lot. I saw the tension go away from their faces when they heard that I was OK.
Eventually there would be no more space in the car.
There was a time when I stopped at a petrol station and had a nervous breakdown. I knew that in a few moments I would have to tell someone again that I was sorry, but there was no room for them. This is not about courtesy. Imagine a woman walks up to you with a few-month-old baby. She hasn’t eaten for two days, so we still need to get her a doctor before we leave. The volunteers were feeding her with baby food because she couldn’t swallow anything out of nervousness. Imagine having to say no to her.
What was the cooperation with the local authorities like?
It was strange. You are aware that a few dozen kilometres to the north the same authorities’ representatives behave so completely differently towards other refugees. I remember a uniformed officer explaining to Ukrainians that they would not fit into the bus. He said that they were safe, that no bombs were falling on their heads, that they were warm and that there was plenty of food. That they would have to wait a while and transport would be found for them. And a little further north…
Later, when the number of refugees arriving at the border decreased significantly, the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning focused on other forms of assistance. In everything it does, it does not look at the origin of the people it helps. Together with Hillel and the Jewish Historical Institute, it opened a day centre for refugees in the Blue Building (at the spot where the Great Synagogue in Tłomackie stood until 1943). The foundation donated prepaid cards to an orphanage in Łódź which received eighty Ukrainian orphans so that the children could do their own shopping. The Centre has also supported the construction of a hostel for refugees and distributed suitcases, as those fleeing often did not even have time to take their rucksacks with them.
“From time to time we also make large purchases of hygiene products and food, mainly for the refugee centre in Nadarzyn. We have also sent shipments of medicines and food to the border,” explains Aleksandra Makuch, deputy director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning. “By 7 Aprilh alone, thanks to our donors, we had raised 65 thousand dollars to help the refugees”.
He is a deaf Jew with an Israeli passport. She is a Ukrainian woman, pregnant, with speech impediments. They came to Warsaw with five children, but his was only the sixth, in her belly. The man found out that he had an opportunity to go to Israel. He promised that he would definitely come back for them. He didn’t. The only thing he was forced to was a declaration that the child in this woman’s womb was his. She was left alone, with nothing. To communicate with her you didn’t only have to speak Russian – you had to speak through the daughter, because she was the only one who understood her. A few days ago, we managed to involve one of the Swedish Jewish communities, which decided to take care of this family. And yet, at Twarda, not everyone is happy. The family will get a roof over their heads and perhaps a better future, but they will definitely be separated.
Vitalina Paskarenko, who has long been associated with Hillel in Warsaw, works at the day centre run by Hillel, the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning and the Jewish Historical Institute in the Blue Building in Warsaw. She has been in Poland for eight years. First she studied in Katowice, and since 2017 she has been living in Warsaw. “I come from Borodianka,” she begins, “that well-known Borodianka near Kiyv, which is now virtually destroyed”.
Do you work here, at the day centre for children?
Vitalina Paskarenko: Actually, this is a day centre for their mothers. A place where they can rest, talk to each other, convince themselves that they have not betrayed Ukraine. They often have a huge sense of guilt. They thought about their children and ran away with them, and now they are being consumed by remorse. Many of them are returning to Ukraine. Even from a practical point of view, one cannot be surprised: they have no one in Poland, most of them have never been abroad. And suddenly they find themselves in a huge city. They really don’t know how to find their way here. They have no support, they are confused, and they still have to look after their children. Back in Ukraine, they had the support of their mothers, mothers-in-law, husbands, friends. Children had kindergartens, friends, pets, toys. Now they have nothing. That is why they are coming here.
How many women use the day centre?
Sometimes the room is full, sometimes there are a bit fewer of them.
Are they Jewish women?
No. Anyone can use our community centre, regardless of their background or religion.
I was planning to come earlier, but Magda Dorosz said that there was a session with a psychologist.
We have a great lady who runs group sessions here. Women can express themselves, get it off their chests. Convince themselves that they have not betrayed their homeland.
Is the remorse so strong?
Imagine that girls from Odessa’s Hillel came to us on Friday. We organised everything for them: accommodation, food, clothes. But they could not sleep, they could not eat. They felt that they had betrayed their Odessa. And they went back. They said that since their grandmothers survived the Holocaust there, they would survive the war with Russia.
What about your family?
I was begging them to come to Poland. My mother decided that she would first take the family from Borodianka to Lviv and then she would return to collect their belongings. She was driving a small car in which there was my sister with her husband, their two children and my brother-in-law’s mother. I don’t know how they managed to fit in. On the way, they were passed by tanks, my mother told me that she didn’t even know whether they were our tanks or not. “I closed my eyes, clenched my lips and drove forward,” she said. “I have a family, children, grandchildren, I have to get them to Lviv”. Her brother-in-law stayed in Lviv, and mum could no longer return to Borodianka to get her possessions. It was too late.
Are they in Warsaw?
They made it. We rented a small, old house, a luxury for us. There is somewhere to sleep and it is safe. Nothing else matters now.
“Apart from the day centre, Hillel permanently helps over sixty people,” says Magda Dorosz, executive director of Hillel Poland. “We arrange doctors, documents, schools and kindergartens for them, we support them financially with food vouchers. We teach them Polish, organise transport, buy medicines and clothes. We also help those who do not settle in Warsaw, but pass through Poland and tell us that they need something. We have also supported financially one of the night shelters in Warsaw”.
Eleventh, don’t be indifferent.
“I am a descendant of Holocaust survivors,” says Lesław. “And although I was born more than ten years after the war, I remember that during my childhood the war was constantly present at my home. We lived without a Jewish background, completely assimilated, but the fear of war, frightening children that they must eat everything, that bread must always be in the house, was our everyday life. I am all the more proud of the Poles – not the Polish Government – for opening their hearts and homes to help their sisters and brothers from Ukraine. I am sincerely heartened by the attitude of those who joined in to help at our team. I would like to thank everyone for even the smallest things they do. After all, these small things are often the most important”.
“We are learning the lesson that the Righteous gave us,” stresses Rabbi Michael Schudrich. “When the Jewish people needed rescuing during the Holocaust, non-Jews lent us a helping hand. Now we are saving refugees, regardless of their origin or religion. This is a commitment that stems from our painful history”.
All interviews were conducted in the first half of April.