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We were once strangers too: Reflections from the Poland-Ukraine border

It’s a windy and freezing Wednesday afternoon at the Medyka border crossing between Poland and Ukraine. 

The time is 4:30 p.m., and even with my multiple layers I am shivering as a mixture of snow and sleet hit the ground. There are hundreds of women and children lining up, waiting to cross from Ukraine into Poland. This is my first time in Poland, the place where three of my grandparents once lived and where their families were ultimately sent to their deaths during the Holocaust. 

Our Israel MFA team at the Medyka border crossing. (courtesy)

The purpose of this trip is not to explore my family roots or to pay tribute to those who died, but to help save lives. 

I arrived in Poland on the first of March  as a part of an official Israeli delegation to deliver more than 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukrainians affected by the war. The mission organized by the Israel MFA, and MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for Development Cooperation, was just one of Israel’s many ongoing humanitarian activities to help Israelis and Ukrainians caught in the crosshairs of the fighting.

I had read and heard about the important work that our diplomats are doing on the ground to help Israeli citizens, Jews and Ukrainian civilians, but it is one thing to hear about the devastating effects of war and another thing to experience it with your own eyes. There are horrific images from my time in Poland and at the Poland-Ukraine border that I can’t shake. 

Israel’s Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne meets with Israeli volunteers and medics at the Medyka border. (courtesy)

The mother in a light jacket, transporting her toddler in a shopping cart across the border, unprotected from the freezing and stormy weather. The young mother frantically begging our diplomats to help her and her children (eventually boarding a bus organized by the Israel MFA to transport her and her family across the border and back to Israel). Or the woman who sat next to me on the plane back to Israel who did not speak English or Hebrew but was visibly shaken up. All I could understand was “Kyiv, PTSD, boom,” and that was more than enough. 

Ukrainian refugees cross from Ukraine into Poland. (courtesy)

When we talk about war and conflict, we usually think about the horrific remnants, like blood, death, trauma, and loss. Unfortunately, we in Israel are no strangers to these kinds of images. Just this week (March 22nd), four Israelis were murdered in a stabbing attack in Be’er Sheva by an Israeli-Arab Islamic State sympathizer.

But alongside the unimaginable events I witnessed in Poland and Ukraine, I also witnessed incredible acts of kindness and compassion. I saw our diplomats and staff (including our spokesperson, Lior Hiatt) field hundreds of calls from stranded Israelis and calmly direct them to the border where Israeli representatives and buses were waiting for them. I watched Eli, one of our representatives from our consular department in Jerusalem, hand out hot coffee and snacks to Ukrainians in cars waiting to cross the border with their children, emotionally and physically exhausted from the journey. 

Israeli diplomats and consular staff field phone calls at the emergency call and crisis center in Poland. (courtesy)

While my own eyes could barely stay open, I watched the head of Mashav, Eynat Shlein stay up until dawn coordinating the safe transfer of 100 tons of humanitarian aid (coats, tents, water purification systems, blankets) to Ukrainian civilians. This included a complex mission to make sure that the Ukrainian truck drivers in the midst of a gas shortage, would have enough gas to make it across the border. Each and every one of these individuals operated from a place of love and compassion, patiently assisting civilians with their requests, all while chaos and turmoil unfolded around them. 

Israel MFA staff deliver humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. (courtesy)

I saw the fear, pain and eventually relief and gratitude of so many Ukrainians and Israelis who were greeted by our Israeli representatives at the border. I also witnessed the exhaustion, sadness and strength of our incredible diplomats and staff who left their families behind in Israel to help those in need (without any questions or hesitation). 

These few experiences that I am sharing, are just the ones that I saw with my own eyes. There are hundreds of stories involving our Israeli diplomats and staff on the ground in countries like Romania, Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. Take for example our non-resident Ambassador to Moldova Joel Lion, who facilitated the safe transfer of Israeli-Arab students to Israel via the Moldova-Ukraine border. Or our Ambassador to Romania David Saranga, Consul General Roni Shabtai, and Deputy Ambassador Amir Sagron, who have been working day and night to bring Ukrainian orphans and cancer patients in need of life-saving treatment to Israel via Romania.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. This week Israel became the first country to open a humanitarian field hospital in Ukraine, treating hundreds of Ukrainian patients every day. 

“Shining Star” Israeli Humanitarian Field Hospital in Ukraine. (courtesy)

Eighty years ago, my own grandparents and their families were also victims of war, forced to leave their homes behind in countries not far from Ukraine like Poland and Romania, subjected to history’s greatest tragedy, the Holocaust. The difference is, back then no one was waiting for them at the border. 

In a recent interview with Tablet Magazine, Natan Sharansky who spent nine years as a refusenik in Soviet prison noted: 

“When I was growing up in Donetsk, ‘Jew’ was the worst thing you could have in your papers. It was like being born with a disease, and many parents dreamed of how to bribe officers to write in anything else for their children. Today, when refugees move to the border, the best thing they can have in their ID is the word ‘Jew,’ because the only country that sends official representatives there to get people and give them citizenship is Israel.” 

On my final day in Poland, I stopped at the last remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto to pay tribute to the millions of men, women and children who just eight decades before were murdered for being Jewish. I recited a prayer for the victims of the Holocaust, while adorned with my grandmother’s necklace, one of the first items she purchased after being liberated from Auschwitz. 

My grandmother’s necklace, one of the first items she bought after liberation. (courtesy)

As I reflected on my time in Poland and Ukraine, I kept revisiting the images of Ukrainian refugees alongside our diplomats wearing identifiable symbols of Israel, including the Israeli flag. I could almost hear the voices of my ancestors beside me whispering “Am Yisrael Chai.”

About the Author
Tamar Schwarzbard is the Head of New Media and Digital Operations at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responsible for managing the State of Israel's digital presence in English, including the State of Israel's official Twitter account @Israel.
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