My pride in the Jewish response at the Polish border

JRoots co-founder Tzvi Sperber (left) coordinates the arrangement of emergency supplies for Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border. (via Jewish News)
JRoots co-founder Tzvi Sperber (left) coordinates the arrangement of emergency supplies for Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border. (via Jewish News)

There are scenes that you desperately want to wipe clean from the hard disk in your brain. I have witnessed many of those during the last two weeks in Poland.

At the same time, however, I realise what an exceptional people we are. With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, large organizations began to mobilize their systems of humanitarian aid and, unsurprisingly, Jews around the world wanted to help.

As the founding Director of JRoots, a non-profit organization based in the UK and Israel, I have been running educational journeys to Poland for over 15 years and have taught hundreds of groups and thousands of people of all ages about the Holocaust.

Instinctively, upon hearing the unfolding news in Ukraine, I felt we needed to put into practice everything we have been teaching and have learned from Holocaust history.

With an infrastructure in Poland and the contacts necessary to be able to help in a very real way we immediately restructured and repurposed JRoots’ work to aid refugees and those trapped in Ukraine.

JRoots mobilized our Polish staff on the ground and announced a Ukraine Campaign for funds and medicines. Within a few days we had collected 150kg of medical supplies, and donations from all over the world.

I jumped on a plane two weeks ago, together with Zak Jeffay from JRoots, and we managed to set up a distribution centre, provide buses and transport for refugees at the border wishing to come into Poland, pay for hundreds of beds in hotels, acquire buildings to house refugees, provide meals, set up a child day care centre, and make deliveries of supplies, generators, toys and medicine into Kyiv and Lviv, all donated through our wonderful network.

When we first arrived at the Ukrainian border, we were shocked by what we saw.

Thousands of people, mainly women and children were streaming over the border, standing in -7C for hours on end with a plastic bag or small rucksack in one hand and usually a child in the other. Crying children standing in the cold trying to jostle for a place on a bus to anywhere.

There were a couple of tents from first responder  organizations such as Rescuers Without Borders and a good hearted Christian working for the Jewish Agency.

The Polish police and army were of course present and helping in any way possible. Mounds of goods, donated by kind hearted Polish people, were in big piles out in the open, the first rain ready to ruin them all.

Realising the importance of centralizing efforts, word spread and my phone has not stopped with requests from organizations around the globe, including government ministries, local Polish institutions and large Jewish organisations asking for guidance regarding their humanitarian efforts in the attempt to coordinate and join forces efficiently.

I am on numerous Whatsapp groups and am willing to work with anyone who is prepared to make a difference. Money is raised and it goes straight out to the countless projects that JRoots have built over the last two weeks.

Visiting the the same border one week later, I was met with a different scene. Judaism states, “Olam Chesed Yibane” (We will build this world on love and kindness) – every humanitarian organisation was there, and of course a welcome disproportionate number of Jewish organisations.

The first thing the refugees are greeted with when they cross the border into Poland is an Israeli flag.

Cadena the incredible Jewish charity from Mexico had a tent, the Jewish Agency, Natan is running the medical center at the largest refugee center in Prezyml, Hadassah hospital sent its doctors and Shomer Hatzair is running a day care center at the border, to name but a few.

It is known that the Jewish organisations have come out in all their strength to help the Ukrainians.

The Torah teaches us time and again, “because you were strangers in a foreign land.” We have taken those teachings to heart and have turned them into action.

As Holocaust educators, there was no question for the JRoots team. We are proud to make a small difference to peoples lives and shall carry on working to alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainians.

About the Author
Tzvi Sperber grew up in London and founded JRoots with his partner Rabbi Naftali Schiff 15 years ago. He lives in Israel with his wife Liv and their three daughters.