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In a Polish church hall, UK Jewish students meet Ukraine’s newest refugees

The teens were quick to pitch in to help the Ukrainians, with all the moral clarity I'd hoped they'd absorb from studying the Righteous Among the Nations
Ukrainian refugee children at a shelter in Krakow, Poland, February 26, 2022. (photo credit - author)
Ukrainian refugee children at a shelter in Krakow, Poland, February 26, 2022. (photo credit - author)

Young children wide-eyed with exhaustion, three to a bunk. Bewildered after being plucked from their homes in Ukraine, and spending many hours in transit across the border to Poland for their own safety.

Across the street from this Krakow church hall, a group of teenagers from a Jewish school in England eats in a kosher restaurant. I’m the guide for their Jewish heritage journey, and I’ve wandered off because I heard rumors of a rescue operation in the neighborhood. 

It’s surreal. We have just finished a long day learning about the Holocaust and, specifically, the Righteous Among the Nations and what propelled them to act. It wasn’t their suffering, but they felt they simply must act. And now, I’m watching Christian Poles of today show that the very same fundamental values are alive and well. 

Volunteers at a Krakow refugee center prepare meals, on February 26, 2022. (photo credit – author)

I went back to the restaurant, told the teenagers from Manchester what I had just seen, and  the penny dropped. They realized immediately that modern day heroes were epitomizing the very values we’d been learning about, on the doorstep of the building where they were. 

It took no prompting from me or any teachers. The students, a credit to their families, community and school, spontaneously emptied their wallets and pockets. 

Students and staff from King David High School Manchester and Aish UK giving donations to a refugee center in Krakow, Poland. (photo credit – author)

Within minutes Bogdan, the church activist who is running things across the street is heading to the local supermarket with a large pile of money to buy everything needed to keep the new refugees warm and fed. 

News spread on Facebook, and quickly donors, most of them Orthodox Jews, bolstered this effort inspired by Christian values, to the tune of 25,000 shekels ($8,000).  

I had to navigate trucks and cars blocking the street in order to get inside. I found myself among countless young Poles and Ukrainians carrying boxes of supplies loading trucks to be dispatched to the border. On one of them stood a man adding a Ukrainian flag to the outside of the building alongside the Polish flag. There was no doubt that these people were here to help.

Piles of donations to be given to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland. (photo credit – author)

The traffic wasn’t just outbound. Cars arrived as I stood outside and volunteers rushed to help women and children out, carrying their suitcases and unbuckling their car seats. Bleary-eyed toddlers were picked up as the mothers tried to comfort them. They are missing home, and their dads. Adult men are unable to flee Ukraine, they are expected to pick up arms to defend their freedom. The people I saw had made the unfathomable decision of separating the family. 

Despite being experienced packing the trunk of my car with my family’s baggage for a weekend away, only now was I truly struck by the realization of how little you can really fit in the back of your car. I was overwhelmed by imagining what would be in my two suitcases; sure that I would abandon the stroller in favor of clothes but not quite sure how I’d manage without it.

I walked inside, conspicuous by my kippa and lack of Polish or Ukrainian asking who was in charge, or at least who speaks English. When I found someone to speak to I was nervous to say the only thing I could say: “I want to help, what can I do?”

It was Bogdan who I had found. A member of the local church, in his late 20s who is helping run the shelter. We were moved five or six times while we spoke, as every available space was being used for piling boxes of shampoo, crates of diapers or piles of blankets. As we moved deeper inside the cavern, which saw a place of worship become a warehouse overnight, I turned around to see a sight which I couldn’t quite believe. 

Ukrainian refugee children at a shelter in Krakow, Poland, February 26, 2022. (photo credit – author)

There in front of me were rows of bunkbeds and at 11 o’clock at night pairs of eyes stared out at me, multiple pairs of eyes from each bunk. These children, spending their first night outside of their home country watching the greatest kindness of strangers working 24/7, while somehow realizing that their world is crumbling in front of them. Just as the image will haunt me forever I am terrified by the thought that this will be the defining experience of their lives. The night they became a refugee.

Bogdan told me what they needed, blankets, bedding, food and toiletries. My students, on a Jewish heritage journey with JRoots, just 50 meters (164 feet) away, sat eating their dinner and processing the night’s activity. We had just visited Schindler’s Factory recounting the bravery of the Righteous Among the Nations.

My daughter is named after such a woman from Krakow, Paulina Kisielewska, who passed away childless three years ago. We had met often and I had always been struck by her answer to the inevitable question of “why did you save Jews?” She would nod her head and although I never understood her Polish, her eyes said it all: “It was obvious,” she said. “We had the opportunity to help so we did.” I had just implored my students to absorb just a drop of her moral clarity and I couldn’t believe that an opportunity would present itself for them to act so quickly, emboldened by her example.

Paulina Kisielewska, Polish Righteous among the Nations. (screenshot, YouTube)

We have become used to talking about current events as the defining moment of our generation. The unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Ukraine may or may not be the worst thing that we ever witness. But maybe the lesson is that our reaction to helping those in need should always be as if this is the greatest tragedy, with no time for equivocating or feeling content with what we have done. This is the clarity of purpose I saw in my students. If we can absorb this message, maybe then, we can hope that our actions will not come up short in the eyes of history.

JRoots is now working to support a number of “on the ground” initiatives to assist refugees from the Jewish community and beyond. Our ground staff will be ensuring that all donations go directly to assist refugees in need.

To donate visit www.jroots.org/donate (please write “Ukraine Campaign” in the donation category)

About the Author
Zak works for JRoots, leading Jewish heritage trips to Poland, Italy, Ukraine and beyond. He has a degree in History and a master’s in Jewish Education. Zak also guides at Yad Vashem. He made Aliyah from the UK and was involved in founding Darchei Tzion, a growing community in Modiin. He previously served as Mazkir of Bnei Akiva UK and Head of Informal Jewish Education at JFS.
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