Poland Mission Reflections: From The Ground

By Steven Hirsch 

During the week of May 2nd, The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee sponsored a small delegation to Poland with the purpose of better understanding the refugee situation and providing some assistance to one particular group of Ukrainian refugees. One member of our group, Jacob Kleinrock, documented our progress with daily postings on Instagram. Rabbi Joshua Kullock, of West End Synagogue, also posted some material on Facebook along the way. Being the elder statesman of the group, I elected to do an old-fashioned journal and was able to write up a daily log of activities and observations. What follows is a summary of these journal entries in the form of my observations and lessons learned.  Anyone who is interested in the full text of the journal is welcome to contact me and I will be happy to share. 

Let’s be clear from the outset. There was nothing dangerous or heroic about our trip.  Rather, it was the fulfillment of an obligation on behalf of our Nashville Jewish community to understand what is happening with Ukrainian refugees and what assistance could make a difference. 

Personally, I had been feeling frustrated following the war news daily and not being able to do anything about it. When the opportunity to make this trip came along, I was grateful to be included. Here are my observations from the trip including some of the things that we learned along the way: 

  • The refugee crisis will be with us for a long time.  People who have lost their homes, their material possessions and their livelihoods will need help to get back on their feet for years to come. 

  • According to Jonathan Ornstein, Director of the Krakow JCC, 97% of the refugees are women and children.  Consequently, many of these families are looking to return to Ukraine when it is safe to go back so that they can be reunited with husbands, fathers, and sons. Unlike other refugee situations where whole families are permanently resettled to other countries, many of these folks are in limbo for as long as the war lasts, which also raises the burden on the Poles who are hosting the refugees. 

  • The experience for the Ukrainians has been traumatic and life-altering. Being treated with respect and compassion is an essential element of immediate aid. To the extent possible, this is happening. There are no refugee camps in Warsaw or Krakow, unlike some of the other European countries, refugees are being housed in hotels and in private homes. 

  • The Polish people, government, and NGOs have gone above and beyond in their efforts and deserve our respect and praise. To date, Poland has received 1.5 million refugees from the Ukraine. We heard many stories of how private citizens have opened their homes to refugees and how restaurants often provide meals at no charge. 

  • Two organizations that our Federation supports have been invaluable in dealing with this humanitarian crisis: 

  • The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) anticipated the need and reserved hundreds of hotel rooms in advance of the war and was prepared for the rush of people seeking to make aliyah. Their staff evacuated their Kyiv offices and set up a functioning operations center in Warsaw immediately. They have processed hundreds of refugee applications and take care of people as they await transportation to Israel. 

  • The American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) moved staff from other Eastern European locations to provide refugee support for those looking to relocate within Europe or who aspire to return to the Ukraine after the war is over. The care they provide is complete, from lodging to meals to social services and counseling. 

If these two organizations did not exist, it would have been impossible to organize quickly enough to deal with the volume of refugees as well as they have done. 

  • The Nashville Jewish community responded with its usual generosity to the call for action. By the time our delegation left, nearly $100K in Ukraine designated gifts had been received and we are hopeful that the reporting that we have done will inspire additional gifts.

  • Small miracles happen through the efforts of extraordinary people 

  • Schmuel is the director of the Jewish Agency in the Ukraine who was forced to evacuate the agency office in Kyiv. Without missing a beat, he moved his staff from Kyiv and called on staffers from Budapest and other former FSU countries to set up JAFI operations for Poland in Warsaw. 

  • Ohksana is Schmuel’s wife and not a JAFI employee, but she has jumped in as a volunteer to organize a clothing store from donated items to help people who have left the country with little or no clothing. 

  • Hannah is a JDC staff member who was on holiday with her husband and 10-month-old child when the war broke out. Unable to return home, she is now working with the Warsaw JDC operation to help organize housing and feeding hundreds of refugee families. 

  • Katja is a JAFI staffer who was at a conference outside of Ukraine when the war started. She is not able to return to her home in Odessa where her husband and parents are still residing. Katja has worked tirelessly to help other refugees through the process of applying for aliyah to Israel. 

  • Natalia is a Ukrainian who was evacuated to Krakow early in the war. She spends her days as a volunteer at the JCC in Krakow as part of the crew working the store where refugee families come every day to get food for the next day. 

What these people have in common is that they are all refugees themselves, being forced to leave their homes and in some cases their family members behind with no idea about when they might be able to return. Despite this, they choose to work long days on behalf of their fellow Ukrainians to help make their lives more bearable under very challenging conditions. They are demonstrating the same type of determination and bravery that their countrymen in the army show every day in confronting the Russian army. 

  • Jonathan Ornstein, Director of the Krakow JCC is a miracle worker in his own right. His efforts in community building in Krakow over the past 10 years has been nothing short of amazing. He has made the JCC the center of Jewish life in Krakow through his personal charisma and his ability to fundraise with an extensive North American donor network.  His decision to make the JCC a part of refugee relief has resulted in his organization taking care of housing, feeding, and providing social services to 250 refugee families. His organization is currently spending more than $20K per day on housing and food for these families. Ornstein points to the history of the Holocaust when no countries heard the cries of the Jewish people in their time of need. He says that we must respond to the needs of his Ukrainian neighbors in their time of need. 

Perhaps other people from our community will choose to make a trip to Poland to volunteer their time for refugee relief. For any future trips, I would share the following lessons learned: 

  • For any supplies brought from the US, smaller is better. I made the mistake of buying Costco-sized bottles of over-the-counter medications like aspirin and ibuprofen. These could not be distributed in the store. (They are going to be sent to a local pharmacy for breakdown and distribution). Small-sized bottles/packets are better as they can go directly to people. 

  • Likewise, large bottles of shampoo, body wash, etc., do not work as they need to be broken down into smaller portions. One of the shampoo bottles burst in transit and made a mess of everything in that bag. Hotel-sized amenities work much better.  

  • The best thing to bring and the easiest to pack is, of course, cash. The grocery shelves in Krakow are well stocked and the US dollar goes a long way in Poland. 

  • For those considering making the trip to volunteer, make sure that you have a local contact and a volunteer job that can add value. Anything working directly with Ukrainian refugees would require the ability to speak either Ukrainian or Russian. Volunteers with these language skills are in great demand.   

The experience of this trip has reinforced for me the importance of our Jewish Federation.  Every year, we raise money in our Annual Campaign to support local agencies and overseas partners including JAFI and the JDC. The Federation shines the brightest in times of crisis because of the structures in place that allow rapid response at times like this. Like many of you, I am making a designated gift to support Ukraine relief in addition to the pledge to the campaign that I have already made. 

I am grateful for the sponsorship of this trip by the Federation and for the work by Leslie Kirby and Deborah Oleshansky to pull the details together in such a short period of time. To my fellow travelers Jacob Kleinrock, Fred Zimmerman and Rabbi Kullock, it was my pleasure to be a part of the team. 


Add Comment
Subscribe to posts