War on Ukraine Through the Lens of a Polish Activist
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.
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Stand with Ukraine!
Taube Center for Jewish Life & Learning