Inside the Jewish response to the mounting Ukrainian refugee crisis in Poland

With buses, temporary shelters and lots of phone calls, growing number of Jewish locals and groups join efforts to help countless masses fleeing savage fighting in Ukraine

Volunteers work together at a Jewish community crisis center in Warsaw. (Toby Axelrod)
Volunteers work together at a Jewish community crisis center in Warsaw. (Toby Axelrod)

JTA – It is nearly 10 p.m. at the emergency refugee shelter in Tomaszow Lubelski, Poland, near the Ukrainian border. It’s bitter cold; snowflakes catch in the headlights of the huge tourist bus from Hanover, Germany, as it pulls up at the guard post.

Zohar Spivack’s bus company, Kings Travel — “the logo is blue and white, and I don’t have to tell you why,” he said — has been picking up refugees every day since Russia’s attacks began. Leaving Warsaw empty after sundown, stopping at shelters near the border, and returning after sunrise, carrying mothers, children, grandmas, and men too old or disabled to fight.

“It is the thing to do,” says Spivack, who was born in Ukraine in 1987 and moved with his family to Israel before coming to Germany during the Gulf War. “People are suffering because of politics. We want to help, because at one point we have been refugees.”

This night, it has taken driver Vitali Kopniak four hours to reach the first shelter. Julia, a 19-year-old soldier who is on board, knows this team already; she’s seen Vitaly or his co-driver, Jakob Mauer, every day since the war began. They politely greet each other. Her blond hair is pulled back and she is wearing khaki camouflage.

“Don’t worry, we will not allow anyone on the bus who is not a Ukrainian woman or child,” she tells the driver. Now her eyes are shining and this soldier is brushing away tears. “I am very worried. It’s my country, and for the people coming here I need to give them safety. We have a lot of kids who are crying, and have nowhere else to go.”

Minutes later they appear: the first refugees to board the bus tonight. Dragging suitcases and gripping plastic bags with food, carrying babies. Accompanied by police or soldiers. Most have spent several days getting to the western border by car or train, and then waited more than 20 hours on the Ukrainian side, where able-bodied men aged 18 to 60 are immediately conscripted. These partial families board the bus silently, settle into the plush seats, and pull out their cellphones.

It will be a long night, they know, with many more refugees to pick up. At least they are safe now. But “we very much want to go home,” says Yustyna Omelian, 21, who is here with the family of her boyfriend, Yulian. “My son is fighting,” adds his mother, Alexandra, smiling as she holds up an imaginary machine gun.

Art student Yustyna Omelian of Lviv, holding her artwork of a soldier stepping on Putin, came with her boyfriend’s family. He stayed behind to fight. (Toby Alexrod)

Spivack is one of a growing number of Jewish individuals and organizations propelled into action by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine. With the exception of the Jewish Agency’s emergency fast-tracking of applications for immigration to Israel, which is available only to Jews, most of the help is given regardless of religion. According to the United Nations, 1 to 3 million Ukrainians are likely to leave their country in the coming weeks. Many are coming through Poland.

And Poles, including Jews, are rising to the occasion. Student Kamilla Czesnyk was at a meeting of Limmud Europe, a Jewish learning initiative, in Gdansk when the war broke out. She quickly switched gears to help organize donated medications — like heparin and morphine — for soldiers in Ukraine. “We really need a good doctor who understands the situation,” said Czesnyk.

Also at Limmud, Natalia Czakowska took a midnight phone call and ended up sheltering a Ukrainian woman in her Warsaw apartment for the night. Czakowska has also heard that “people are crossing the Ukrainian border to rescue pets that were abandoned … Maybe the people did not know they could bring their pets.”

Aldona Zawada, an employee of the American Jewish Committee of Central Europe, invited her parents to move in with her so their apartment could be used by refugees. They took in a family that had traveled for three days and then waited on a line at the border for 23 hours.

The Jewish Agency has doubled down its efforts to bring out Jews who had already started the process of emigration to Israel before the war. Warsaw is one of the hubs where Jews are waiting to fly out; the first Ukrainian immigrants are expected to arrive in Israel on Sunday.

About 300 Ukrainians are expected on three flights from Warsaw, Moldova and Romania, according to the Jewish Agency. A third of them are orphans who were evacuated to Romania under the supervision of Chabad, which ran their Ukrainian orphanage.

Student Kamilla Czosnyk is helping get donated morphine and heparin to Ukrainian soldiers. (Toby Axelrod)

That’s a tiny fraction of the Jews who have fled Ukraine over the last week, as part of an abrupt migration of 1 million Ukrainians. To meet their needs, a handful of independent Jewish groups joined forces to create a crisis management center at Warsaw’s Jewish Community Center.

“We created a crisis management team as soon as the war broke out on Thursday,” says Magda Dorosz, executive director of Hillel Poland. They had done some of the legwork in advance, not knowing what would be. And now, while they are focusing on Jewish refugees, they are “going to help whomever we can.”

The crisis center, upstairs in the Warsaw Jewish Community Center, has about 30 volunteers so far, Dorosz said. They are taking calls, organizing sleeping bags and food, medical help and counseling, driving to the border and offering transportation westward, and bringing food to refugees in hotels.

On Tuesday morning, several volunteers with Ukrainian roots were staffing the hotline.

“Someone called because he does not know how to get to the border,” said Alexandra Roskawska, head of communications for the Warsaw Jewish Community group. Another man with dual Israeli-Ukrainian passports was blocked from crossing into Poland because he’s within the conscription age.

“His wife and child could cross the border but he couldn’t,” Roskawska said. “We managed papers for him with the help of the Israeli embassy.”

There have been a few waves of exodus, observers say. The first to leave were the wealthy, who had cars and could drive all the way into Poland. “They grabbed their passports and their kids and put them in the car and left,” said Igor Susid, co-founder and vice president of the Puszke Foundation, which is part of the new crisis center. “A lot of Jews came with this wave.  But they did not want anything for free. We put them up in two hotels and they paid us and left.”

“Then the new situation came, where the border was closed to men between 18 and 60. That started a whole new machlokes [the Hebrew word for disagreement]: There were a lot of young guys with double citizenship. But they did not have their Israeli passports. … They didn’t want to show their Ukrainian passports, so they could not leave.”

At this point, most of the Jews coming out want to move to Israel, Roskawska said. The others “don’t come — we don’t know if it’s because they want to stay or because it’s so dangerous to go to the border.”

Gennadi Valigura, a hotline volunteer with roots in Kharkiv, knows this dichotomy well. His sister-in-law stayed because she didn’t want to leave her husband. And his mother waited too long; now the roads of Kharkiv are impassable, whether she would flee to the east or west.

So, while answering calls from distraught strangers at the crisis center, Valigura also is constantly keeping an eye on his own phone: His mother sends a text every three hours just to say she’s still alive.

“The roads are destroyed,” says Valigura, a 36-year-old lawyer and father of two. “It is not possible to drive to the railway station. … So now we wait and pray.”

Karina Sokolowska, the Joint Distribution Committee’s director for Poland and Scandinavia, is used to taking practical action. She used to tell people, she said, “Support us, we will know how to use it.” That isn’t the message she’s delivering now. “Now I tell them: Just pray for [the people of Ukraine] — and for us.”

Karina Sokolowska is the Joint Distribution Committee’s director for Poland and Scandinavia. (Toby Axelrod)

Sitting in her office down the hall from the hotline room, Sokolowska said most of the Jews leaving Ukraine now do not intend to return.

“I went to the border last weekend and you know, it doesn’t matter whether these are Jews or not: All these girls with little babies, kids crying … they are suddenly in a situation where they have no idea what to do with themselves and [they are cut off from] their husbands or boyfriends or partners and it is a war: people are dying. It is not a rehearsal. It is real.”

“There was one woman who was crying: Her mother stayed back because she didn’t want to leave a dog. It is just terrible. Like most people in the world, I will never understand how one person can do this to other people.”

David Gidron of Jerusalem has been putting his skills as a social psychologist to good use.

“Yesterday I was at the airport hotel with families going off to Israel,” said Gidron, a consultant with the JDC-Europe community resilience program. “They had a high level of anxiety and guilt.” His goal was to “help them become functional on a much better level.”

One couple — “the husband got over the border, I don’t know how” — had made it to Poland with their daughters ages 12 and 8.

“They spent a long time on the road, left their car somewhere along the way because they ran out of gas, and crossed the border by foot.” They will join family in Israel, “but the woman’s parents and brother are still in Kyiv. She was trying to persuade them to get out. She got her children out because she did not want them to see things and experience things, and she was successful. But she feels very guilty about leaving behind her family and friends.”

“They were getting a lot of pressure from family in Israel and were pulled both ways,” he added. “People who are strong are put in an impossible situation.”

Jana, 35, and daughter Viktoria, 14, are non-Jewish refugees from Chmelnitzki. (Toby Axelrod)

In his office upstairs at the adjacent synagogue, Rabbi Michael Schudrich is fielding one call after another. Between organizing resources for refugees, he has to officiate at a funeral this afternoon and meet with the new American ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski, to discuss plans to receive 120 Jewish orphans on their way from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, he picks up a call: “You know the family we were waiting for? We found a priest to take them in to sleep over night. They will be here in four to five hours.”

And another one: “I want to rent two or three campers to go to the border, I can kasher [make kosher] the stoves so the volunteers can serve soup and hot tea, and they can stay there for a week at a time.”

“Something is going on here,” says Igor Susid of the Puszke Foundation, which in ordinary times supports Jewish education and cultural events in Poland. People are donating items to Puszke for refugee relief, and the rooms at the Jewish Community Center are filling up with donated hygiene articles, clothing, sleeping bags and other items.

“People who were not involved [in the Jewish community] on a daily basis are coming here to be together, and everyone has brought something. And suddenly this place looks different,” he said.

Back near the border, Vitaly is picking up more refugees at another center. Out of the darkness comes the gravelly sound of suitcases on wheels. Young women with children, an elderly man, and a younger man with crutches. They climb aboard the bus and find seats upstairs. There are four such stops in the night.

Finally, at about 2 a.m., Vitaly heads back west. Two-lane roads in pitch dark become four-lane highways under bright streetlights. The sun rises as the bus enters the city. And the passengers awaken to the next phase of their odyssey.

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