War on Ukraine Through the Lens of a Polish Activist

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I haven’t slept much in the past month. I bet you can relate. At first, my sleeplessness was caused by the anxiety brought about by the Russian aggression on Ukraine and the fate of innocent civilians trapped in the middle of a war. After two restless nights, I decided that–if I can’t sleep anyway–I might as well put this time to good use. That was the first time I drove my car to the Polish-Ukrainian border…

 

On the day the Russian invasion started, I attended a peaceful protest at the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. Later, I joined another group that was showing support at the Ukrainian embassy.

 

I soon realized that it wasn’t enough.

 

I went to my boss, Helise Lieberman, the Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning in Warsaw to let her know that I’ll be taking some time off to help at the border. She responded that I should do it on company time and that the Taube Center will immediately get involved in relief efforts and start fundraising for the refugees.

 

We didn’t have to wait long for our amazing community to respond. One of our key clients, Jeff Kosowitz, whom I know quite well (as I visited his family shtetl with him), was the first person who made a donation to the cause and actively promoted the fundraiser among his friends and family.

 

The pictures I took during my first trip to the border served as an incentive for the fundraising effort. At first, I didn’t exactly have a plan; I simply decided to go to the frontier city of Przemyśl and bring somebody to Warsaw.
When I arrived in Przemyśl on a cold Saturday morning, February 26, I encountered omnipresent and overwhelming chaos. Nothing was arranged yet, crowds of confused people were desperate for help, as many of them fled their homes as they stood. One of the volunteers helped me by writing in Ukrainian on a piece of paper:
 

WARSAW. 3-4 SEATS. FREE OF CHARGE.

The next couple of days were simply driving back and forth; getting some sleep, sometimes in my own bed, but more often in my car. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my passengers… Among them were two women with a teenage boy, who were trying to get to the Warsaw airport. They were hoping to join their family in Italy. I met a woman who wanted to go to Krakow to stay with her friend. I called my friend from Krakow and he came to take her. We spent a couple of hours waiting for my friend to come, talking and decompressing from the shock, I couldn’t help her, but found someone who could. I traveled with a mother who wanted to join her son who has been living in Warsaw for the past couple of years. But unfortunately, not everyone had someone they could turn to…

 

All in all, I took 8 trips to the border and back, taking over 50 people all the way to Warsaw. 

 

We could always count on the support of Helise and other friends, who donated their personal money to cover my fuel expenses. Then, a friend of mine offered his small van. That was when I changed my sign to:


WARSAW. 6 SEATS. FREE OF CHARGE.

This also gave me an idea. For our tour program, Taube Jewish Heritage Tours, we use the services of several small, private bus companies. After a few calls it turned out that most of our business partners were ready to help. On the night when the highest number of refugees (over 130 000) crossed the Polish border, we actually managed to move 400 people! I spent that night at the Korczowa reception point, which was adapted for this purpose from a shopping mall.
 
 

According to the current Ukrainian wartime legislation, men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country. That’s why, there are mostly women and children among the refugees. At first, many of them were overwhelmed and reluctant to get into a stranger’s car. I don’t blame them. When that happened, my Ukrainian friend would assure them over the phone that I can be trusted.

I could tell that everyone was extremely exhausted, because as soon as my car got warm, they would fall asleep. After a short nap, my passengers would wake up extremely hungry, so we quickly developed a routine of stopping for a delicious lunch at a roadside diner.

A few waitresses spoke Ukrainian, which created a basic level of comfort for my new friends.

I could see that many of them were embarrassed that someone had to pay for their meal; they often claimed not to be hungry. But after traveling with a young mother who kept passing out due to exhaustion, it was clear that offering food was not optional. After some convincing, they would agree to eat something with me and I could tell that they really enjoyed a warm meal.

I did too, as it was a great feeling to have a rare moment of peace and quiet over a bowl of hot soup.

 

 

It has to be said outright: the Russians are indiscriminately attacking civilian targets in Ukraine, with seemingly deliberate, deranged focus on hospitals and care centers. During my trips to the border I met many groups of sick, disabled and elderly people in need of immediate medical attention. My heart shattered into a million tiny pieces when I learned about a group of 14 cancer patients. They were all children. Thanks to financial support from the Taube Center, they were moved to hospitals in Lublin and Warsaw.

Honestly, it was hard for me to hold back tears. I’m sure it was part exhaustion and part emotional rollercoaster of fear, confusion, but also gratitude and joy when families were reunited. After a few days I understood why it was sometimes so difficult for my passengers to eat something. My stomach was also turned upside down from all the stress and would often refuse to accept food. I couldn’t imagine how much worse it was for my new friends, who–in many cases–had to leave everything behind and run for their lives.

On day 4, the stress took its toll on me. On my way to the border I actually had to stop a few times and even contemplated turning away: I couldn’t bear telling one more person that my car was full and I wouldn’t be able to help them.

I have to admit that sometimes we would squeeze more people into a car than was legally allowed; we couldn’t afford to separate families. The police officers at the border implied that patrols in the vicinity would turn a blind eye to such a violation of traffic rules. One time instead of 8 passengers, I had a group of 11 people, with an adorable addition of a dog and a kangaroo.

 


Apart from providing transportation, the Taube Center is continuously helping in many different ways. We are buying fuel that is used for power generators in a tent city on the Polish side of the border. We are also able to smuggle fuel in small cans all the way to the Ukrainian side. It is delivered to tents and cars waiting to cross the border and sometimes even used to fill up the trucks of Ukrainian soldiers.

One Saturday morning I got a call about a truck that was going back to Ukraine. It was half empty and it would be a wasted opportunity not to fill it up with aid. The Taube Center spent over 2.000 USD on medical supplies and food. Two other organizations I contacted donated tactical clothes and even more food. Most of the cargo was sent to the soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

Never in my life have I thought that I would come so close to seeing the consequences of a war with my own eyes. Living in Poland means that, from the day you are born, you are surrounded by the legacy of our complicated and often brutal past. I come from a small town in Western Poland, called Skwierzyna which, for a very long time, was actually a part of Germany. After World War II, it ended up within Polish territory, albeit under the control of a Soviet-installed communist regime. I am a historian by passion, deeply dedicated to the Polish-Jewish relations by trade and my background of studying and teaching about the Holocaust made the experience even more profound. If the scenes in front of me were presented in black and white, they would be eerily similar to the pictures I know from various accounts of World War II.

Despite those grim comparisons, there was one positive development that I didn’t see coming. For the past several years, the Polish authoritarian-leaning government and various right-wing grifters were promoting a strong anti-Ukrainian narrative based on historical ressentiments.

I think that the refugee crisis exposed this strategy for what it truly was: an artificially manufactured paranoia designed to achieve short term, cheap political wins. In reality, the reaction of Polish citizens to this huge wave of evacuees was overwhelmingly warm and welcoming.

Honestly, a month ago I wouldn’t have thought that we were capable of such a united, grassroots initiative. The care and concern directed towards the refugees probably has something to do with the deeply rooted war trauma that is still present in so many Poles.

At this point I want to emphasize that the support for the Ukrainians comes primarily from ordinary citizens. Even now, more than a month since the war started, the involvement of the Polish right-wing government is really limited to not interrupting the work of volunteers and the donations of concerned citizens from all over the world.

To many of us who are helping, it is clear that any governmental intervention would inevitably lead to the creation of refugee camps, which would–as history teaches us–lead to alienation and marginalization of war victims. It is thanks to the commitment of normal people that such camps do not exist!

Even though such manifestations of solidarity are extremely encouraging and inspirational, I do realize that the crisis we’re currently facing is not likely to end anytime soon. I can only hope to maintain my energy to provide long-term assistance. Luckily, I’m getting all the support I need from the Taube Center in Warsaw and its amazing international community. We keep receiving generous donations that keep us going.
To help us with our mission, you can donate via this link:


 

Please share it with others and encourage your friends and family to keep helping Ukrainian refugees.

Stand with Ukraine!

 

Jakub Łysiak

General Manager
Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning

More Posts

Field Guide to Jewish Warsaw

Order an e-book today ! USD 29.99!

Send Us A Message

1,000 Years of Jewish Life in Poland: A Timeline

Order an e-book today! USD 19.99