The entire world is watching as war has returned to Europe for the first time in three decades. The postwar order that the United States and its allies built was meant to head off the sort of aggression that the Russian state is now perpetrating in Ukraine. The rights-based regime and concert of nations that accompanied it were a direct response to the abject suffering of Jews in the Holocaust. Ethnic cleansing and wars of conquest – life and death matters to the Jews of Europe in historical times – cannot fail to raise our alarm today.
It was in this spirit that I visited the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine this week. As the chief executive officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, I felt it imperative to bear witness, declare our community’s solidarity with victims, and underline our commitment to the proposition of “Never Again.” And what I saw moved me beyond words.
This trip felt even more necessary as Russia distorts and weaponizes memories of World War II and the Holocaust to its own ends, notably the whopper that its invasion of its neighbor was a bid to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. These claims seem the more mendacious as memorials to the Holocaust, such as the one at Babyn Yar, come under threat from Russian bombardment.
Eastern Europe served as the center of world Jewish life for centuries. Most American Jews now view these lands through the lens of memory and mourning, as both the Holocaust and the later migration of Soviet Jewry decimated a population that once numbered over 10 million. But hundreds of thousands of Jews remain in the nations of the former Eastern Bloc. Jewish life and memory has been one of the greatest priorities of North American Jewry since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Organizations such as Hillel International have reconnected youngsters to their Jewish identity, lost in the anti-religious policies of the Soviet period. Multiple of our member groups continue to tend to the needs of the area’s Holocaust survivors. Past and present, Jew and Gentile, tie us to the region.
I was both crushed and heartened by what I saw in Poland just this past week. I started one day in Przemyśl and then as I continued on to Medyka, where I observed all the refugee relief efforts on the ground there. The world has rushed an immense amount of humanitarian aid to the frontier, amid enormous need for the now several million and growing population of displaced persons in Ukraine. I celebrated Purim with refugees, at an event sponsored by Chabad, and met Poland’s chief rabbi, my long-time friend Michael Schudrich. I also conferred with a senior aide to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. And on Sunday, I flew from Warsaw on a Jewish Agency aliyah flight to Tel Aviv, full of Ukrainians making their way to Israel.
I am incredibly impressed by the Polish people and their government. One does not need to be a professor of international relations to know that relations between Ukraine and Poland have been strained for as long as can be remembered. Nonetheless, nearly every Pole I saw was wearing the colors of Ukraine’s flag – yellow and blue – as ribbons or buttons on their clothing; thousands of Poles opened their homes to refugees in need of shelter; Ukrainian flags fly from many homes, businesses, and government buildings; many restaurants offer free meals to Ukrainian children; they also ride public transportation and trains for free, simply by showing their identity cards; and the Polish government is offering a generous package of financial and social service benefits to Ukrainian refugees.
The tireless volunteers and staff of the many Polish, international NGOs, and Jewish agencies are a remarkable example of tikkun olam (repairing the world) in action. Thousands of Poles are working along the borders, in train stations and airports, and in city centers to assist refugees in their plight. The Conference is focused on ensuring the security and well-being of the Jewish population, but we also are engaged, through our member organizations in assisting the general non-Jewish population, acting in concert with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, the HIAS, and Hadassah. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is deeply involved in rescue and relief efforts on both sides of the border: their diplomats are sleeplessly operating to help those in need, including by opening a field hospital near the Polish border in Ukraine.
There was not much to smile about for all the refugees I saw. I initially thought that when I would see them crossing the border, they would be joyous about getting out of harm’s way. But, in fact, the refugees were physically and emotionally exhausted. The only time I saw them smile in great numbers was when we were finally walking on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, where amazingly, by the time these homeless refugees left the airport grounds, they had found a new home – as citizens of the State of Israel.
It has been very emotional being in the midst of the greatest refugee crisis of my lifetime. It was a blessing to speak with the refugees. Three experiences stood out.
Lilia left Kyiv eight days after the war started – because she did not want to leave behind her husband, who could not leave, as men aged 18-60 are prohibited from exiting the country. She came with their four children – ages 3 to 12. They brought one backpack per person, standing outside in line at the border for eight hours before being processed. She said her kids were doing better because they did not have to listen to explosions and gunfire every day. But she did not know where they will go. Her husband suggested coming to the United States because he has an aunt in Brooklyn. But their initial visa application was rejected and now the family is waiting on word from Canada. Lilia is not sure if she will ever see her husband again.
Another refugee I met, Lyudmyla, is a 17-year-old woman who braved the border crossing alone with her 12-year-old sister. Their mom did not want to leave her husband – nor her 19-year-old son alone. So, she sent her daughters away, in the hopes they would be safe.
A third refugee, Darina, traveled for 30 hours by train from Metropol to Lvov, and then spent seven hours standing in line to cross the border into Poland. She came with her 6- and 8-year-old daughters and their chihuahua, Alla. When I asked Darina about her husband, she said that he was back at home defending their homeland, and she remarked tearfully that she had never been more proud of him.
These are three very human stories, really three human tragedies, at work here among literally millions. This is not just a geopolitical nightmare, but also a humanitarian catastrophe. And we must be attentive to this fact both in our lives as citizens and members of the Jewish community.
I pray for Ukraine, the refugees, aid workers, governments, NGOs, and Jewish agencies that are saving the world, one refugee at a time. The message of my visit could not be clearer: North American Jews will stand with Ukraine, both Jews and non-Jews, in this midst of this grinding war, which did not have to be, and must end now.