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Reflections on Bearing Witness: Ukraine 2022

Following are reflections I shared with friends and family after returning from a trip with members of Stephen Wise Synagogue in New York to Poland and the Ukrainian border. These friends and family members had generously provided relief supplies and funding for the purchase of those supplies, which our group then packed and brought for distribution to Ukrainian refugees, through local NGOs in Poland. I departed for Krakow on Sunday, April 24, 2002, and returned from Warsaw on Friday, April 29th. 

As I reflect more on the recent experience of being in Poland/at the border with Ukraine, I also want to be honest in sharing how I felt. I do not consider this a life-changing experience. I did not come back a changed person. Maybe that surprises you, maybe not. But I think it’s for several reasons.

No, I have not been to other “war adjacent” zones, unless you count Israel, to which I have been many times, and which is arguably always a war adjacent zone, if not an outright war zone. But I am a child of war. I exist because of war. I am the child of a refugee. So this current crisis is hardwired, in a sense, in my DNA.
This is also not the first “mission” I’ve been on to a crisis zone. In 2015, I went with my oldest son and my daughter to Haiti, on a journey organized by the JDC to revisit the nation it assisted in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010. JDC had continued to provide support and relief in Haiti since that time, and we were there–as in this most recent journey of mine–to learn and to bear witness.  It was an eye-opening, and soul-crushing journey. I did not imagine that such excruciating poverty, and such overt devastation, could exist just a four-hour plane ride from my home.
I was the only person who had children with me on that trip. And what they saw was objectively horrifying. That human beings could live day in and out in such conditions was almost unimaginable. And yet, there it was. And there it surely still is.
In 2019, my daughter and I joined a Stephen Wise trip to the southern border of the US, again to learn and to bear witness, this time regarding the situation of migrants crossing the border from Mexico. Nothing like the visible devastation of Haiti, but displaced families, heading to unknown places, left its mark.
Following the Haiti journey, my daughter took it upon herself to fundraise for a school we had visited. Her heart then, when she was only fifteen, was already enlarged, in the best possible way. Following the southern border trip, I reached out to a nun we met there and shared my idea to start a library for kids in the transit center she ran, providing books they could then take with them when they left to go to their sponsor families. She leapt at the idea, and thousands of books I was able to purchase and collect wound up in the hands of grateful children and families. That is to this day a very deep source of pride for me.
I share these non-Ukraine stories as a way to provide context for the fact that this trip to Eastern Europe was not life-changing for me. It was, simply put, a thing I felt compelled to do because I am not cut out to be a bystander, and if I have the ability to step up and into a situation requiring some combination of bearing witness and bringing relief, then I feel compelled to do so.
But I also found myself in Poland with a kind of split-screen brain. I heard about all the efforts of Poles, of local officials (pointedly NOT of the national government), and of NGOs to help Ukrainian refugees, and I was impressed. The hotel cook, Alesio, who maxed out his credit card and just started cooking thousands of meals for Ukrainians that he then drove across the border. The social purpose architect I met, who was volunteering at a refugee hub for Ukrainians, and was working with Romani families–who are discriminated against by white Ukrainians and Poles, and sometimes discriminate against one another. The JCC in Krakow, which pivoted entirely from its core work nurturing a nascent Jewish community to helping Ukrainian refugees, 95 percent of whom are not Jewish. All of this is impressive, and a testament to the human capacity for good.
And yet, as I heard of these efforts, as I saw the work in action, I could not help but see the Poland of World War II, the Poland whose citizens eagerly turned on their Jewish neighbors. As did their Ukrainian counterparts. So I watched and I listened and I realized that for me it remains true that we don’t live in a cartoon world of saints and sinners. We live in precisely the world described by my former employer, Facing History and Ourselves, a world in which people make choices, and choices make history. Those choices and that history look different today for Ukrainian refugees than they did for the refugees I carry with me in my heart, the ones who were not welcomed by chefs and architects. But the ones who, in a world in which being humane is too infrequently the natural impulse, should have been.
About the Author
Nina has a long history of working in the non-profit, philanthropic, and government sectors. She has also been an opinion writer for The Jewish Week, and a contributor to The Forward, and to The New Normal, a disabilities-focused blog. However, Nina is most proud of her role as a parent to three unique young adults, and two rescue dogs, whom she co-parents with her wiser, better half. She blogs about that experience now and again at parentjungle.blogspot.com
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