On March 8th, exactly four months after my father’s death, I entered Poland for the first time as a Polish citizen. In the process, I was reclaiming the citizenship that my four grandparents had to leave behind when they moved to Argentina. Entering through the Warsaw airport with my Polish passport was a symbolic act of reestablishing balance through a century of collective and family tragedy and rebuilding across four generations of my family. A story not unlike those of millions of other Jewish families around the world.
My father was the last of his generation in our family to pass away. Bernardo Diener, like my mother Sofia Zynger and an aunt and uncle, was born in Buenos Aires to Polish parents who escaped right before the Holocaust. However, they lost their siblings and parents in the Nazi death camps. Although they all worked hard to collect enough funds to rescue their loved ones from the destruction that they saw coming in Europe, they could only evacuate their spouses and baby children.
A couple of days before my father died, I had my last chance of interacting with him. Right after landing in Buenos Aires from my hometown in Tel Aviv, I spent a full day talking with him in Yiddish, the language I heard as a child from my grandfather, a lower-middle class tailor who was born in the small town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki in southern Poland.
On that last day of consciousness, my dad’s mind was somehow flying between the real and abstract, like in a Marc Chagall painting. In the middle of that mix of deep sadness and laughter from the jokes he was making, I received notification of my official Polish status. For me, it was a way to reclaim the place that my grandparents were forced to leave. Born and raised in Argentina, I became Israeli by choice; while they lost the land where they lived, out of choice.
Who could have told me as I was saying farewell to my father that a few months later I would be returning to Poland, not only to close a family circle, but to face history repeating itself? This time with Poland as the place of shelter for millions of children, women and elderly displaced by the madness of a brutal war caused by evil attackers.
For me, the living memory of the Holocaust was always much more than an act of remembrance, it was a pillar in defining my identity, my ideological DNA. The inhuman dimension of the Shoah paved the way for the life I have chosen to live, a life of mission-driven actions to promote human values, respect, tolerance, and to fight against any type of discrimination.
Today we face the largest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe in generations with almost four million refugees having crossed Ukrainian borders – mostly into Poland. I was privileged, as Executive Director of Hadassah International, to come to Poland with a medical humanitarian mission and play a leading role together with my colleagues from the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem and Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
In the beginning, we humbly came to do a quick needs assessment on the ground. Having established a connection with the Medical University Hospital of Lublin, about three hours from the border, we were able to see firsthand how the landscape in Poland had already dramatically changed. For the first few days, we maintained our base at a hotel in Lublin that used to be one of the largest Yeshivot (Jewish religious learning centers) before the war, only to find that we were the only residents at the hotel who were not refugees. Mothers with babies would come to the lobby of the hotel to pick up baby supplies, older people searched donated clothes for something that would fit them. They had obviously come with just what they could take with them.
Hadassah’s initial medical team from Jerusalem consisted of internal medicine and trauma/orthopedics doctors. They initiated a collaboration and training with the Polish doctors who suddenly needed to absorb millions of new patients in an already stretched public health system.
Hadassah’s expertise proved to be critical in sharing knowledge that can be instrumental in dealing with this new situation. With a war that keeps unfolding in unprecedented and unexpected scenarios, the team of Hadassah trauma experts brought with them the trauma protocols that they have created in Israel for mass casualties, including how to act during potential radioactive, chemical and biological attacks.
I stood in the conference room at the Medical University Hospital of Lublin observing the many local doctors watching and listening to the presentation of complicated war scenarios that could have seemed like science fiction just a while ago. I couldn’t help but think how this looks like something doctors might need to be dealing with in the near future. The worried faces of our Polish partners expressed the same fear.
The Hadassah team quickly understood that while we were building capacity at the back end in Lublin, the real immediate medical needs were right at the border. Together with Dr. Yaarit Ribak, the Hadassah internal medicine physician who now is considered the pioneer of our medical mission, we drove all the way to the border. She had decided to stay longer than planned, leaving her four daughters and husband at home, because she said she didn’t come here just to understand the need, but to respond with actions.
We both shared that inner drive for drowning ourselves in immediate action. From the beginning of this crisis, I woke up every morning crying with a mix of sadness and anger. The only way I had to immediately process that was to switch into doing something, into performing the role we came here for, healing people in deep distress. Not being a doctor myself, I knew I could put all my skills and energy into organizing the operation and building partnerships on the ground to get as much support as we could.
While driving, it was apparent that we were getting closer and closer to the border. Military trucks carrying supplies, minivans with logos of humanitarian aid organizations, ambulances and buses coming to pick up refugees escaping the Russian attacks.
But nothing prepared us for the saddening live images of thousands of refugees in transit at the largest refugee center on the Polish Ukrainian border in the small town of Przemysl, right next to the Medyka border crossing, where over fifty percent of all Ukrainians have entered Europe.
In what used to be a shopping mall, several aid organizations from Poland and around the world had set up an amazing relief platform, providing temporary bedding, food, clothing and arrangements for moving into other destinations in the country and beyond. Collaborating with the Polish local authorities, what looked like a chaotic scene worked like one organism trying to help each of the almost four thousand refuges passing through this center every day. The solidarity of the Polish people, young and old, official and not, has been remarkable in extraordinary ways, welcoming Ukrainians like sisters and brothers.
Walking into that refugee center for the first time, it immediately became apparent to us how we could help. In an improvised Polish Red Cross paramedics room, we met our partners from the Israel disaster relief NGO Natan and jumped into treating patients. Dr. Ribak was called into the main room where about two thousand people, mostly women and children, were lying next to each other in camp beds, sleeping bags and mattresses. These were people who hours ago were escaping heavy bombardments, mothers who had taken their babies from shelters where they were no longer protected, grandmothers who stood in crowded trains for days to put the bombing behind them. I will never forget my first impression of seeing their faces, their lost eyes and confused expressions.
At that moment, I thought about many of the pictures I had seen from our past human catastrophe in Europe. Those old black and white photos could have been of the people I was seeing before me now.
After treating the first refugee, a suspected Covid patient, work started very quickly. A team of four doctors, including pediatricians and two nurses landed the next day and started staffing the Hadassah Clinic 24/7 in cooperation with Natan and the Polish Red Cross. Coordinated with the World Health Organization, the operation moved into high gear through the incredible fundraising campaign run by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America in the US and our own team of Hadassah International volunteers and staff around the world.
Since then, as I conclude my third week in Poland, four delegations of Hadassah healthcare professionals have travelled from Israel for rotating shifts, and I have seen the coin flip from bad to good.
The awful story of a mother whose baby’s feet were burned by boiling water on an escape train that couldn’t stop for medical care for the next four days. But then the dedicated work of the Hadassah doctors to heal the wound and reconstruct the damaged skin of the child.
A single mother with terminal cancer who reached the border with her teenage daughter, hoping to get her daughter to Europe so that the daughter wouldn’t see her die. While the doctors were relieving her incredible pain, a result of metastatic cancer, working together with our Polish friends, including the former First Lady of Poland, we secured a new home in northern Poland for the mother and her daughter with a family who would care for the daughter in any future eventuality.
The mother who ran away from the bombing and forgot to take the pills for her daughter who suffers from a disease that could cause death without medication, and who gratefully found relief as she desperately entered our Hadassah Clinic.
The two-year-old boy who was undergoing open stomach surgery for the fourth time who had his surgery interrupted because the hospital was being bombed; and on coming to the Hadassah Clinic for refugees, had his stoma put in place again.
Each story is one of many. Our team has already treated over 3000 patients. Each one needed something different, a different medicine, a different treatment. However, they all needed one common thing: a hug, a moment of getting back on track though the emotional support we could give.
I am proud of being part of an organization that can give a response to one single patient but also to a world that is bleeding. Every second, a child in Ukraine is losing her/his home. Every child is a life, is a future teacher, doctor, actor, anything they want to be.
Every child has a dream. They are now living their nightmares in daylight. We are here to bring light.
When I was a child, it took me time to understand the darkness of our family history. It took me more time to understand that our family story while original, wasn’t unique. That the worst part of that story is that there was somebody at that time who planned to destroy the lives of millions of people. And indeed, to a considerable extent, succeeded.
As I see what is happening now in Ukraine and by extension in neighboring countries such as Poland with the refugee humanitarian crisis we see unfolding, I know I have so much more to do. I know the task has just begun.
I also believe that everyone has the human responsibility to help the suffering people in and from Ukraine. But for those of us who justifiably claim to be the living memory of the Holocaust, we can’t see the destruction of lives and livelihoods of an entire nation and remain indifferent. Not act.
Because we don’t just remember just OUR suffering and struggle, we remember THE HUMAN suffering and struggle of anyone confronting evil powers ready to annihilate lives systematically.
In these extraordinary transformational times, everybody talks about being on the right side of history.
Hadassah has chosen to be on the righteous side of history, doing what is right for humans, for humankind and for humanity. Because this is who we are.
Executive Director, Hadassah International
March 27th, 2022
For more information on Hadassah’s humanitarian role relieving the suffering of Ukrainian refugees, please visit here.