Fleeing Russia's invasion, Ukraine's Jewish refugees look to the future

UKRAINIAN AFFAIRS: A week in Poland with refugees from the Ukrainian Jewish community.

 UKRAINIAN REFUGEES this week at the border with Poland in Medyka. (photo credit: Hilik Magnus/Passport Card)
UKRAINIAN REFUGEES this week at the border with Poland in Medyka.
(photo credit: Hilik Magnus/Passport Card)

I arrived in Poland at the beginning of the week to reconnect with the Ukrainian Jewish community I’ve been writing about for more than a decade.

I was with them during the Maidan protests in Kyiv, a historic event that changed the country in so many ways. I wrote about the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in the winter of 2015; visited the extraordinary Dnipro Jewish community and what I then thought was a onetime tragic situation: refugee camps for the Jews of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were then occupied by pro-Russian separatists.

I wished that the goosebumps I got while hearing a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor singing at a Jewish refugee camp would never return. But this week was even more dramatic and depressing: the entire country is under attack, and so is Ukraine’s unique and special Jewish community.

If you’re asking yourself how refugees in European countries look in 2022, my answer is simple: they look like you and me. They have smartphones; are dressed in modern clothing and would love to eat a burger or some fresh pizza. But just a short conversation with these refugees exposes what an enormous trauma they are in. There are those who were organized and actually took suitcases with them. Yet a phenomenon I’ve seen throughout the week is that many Ukrainian refugees took very little with them from home. Thousands of tired and worn-out refugees passed by me at the border with just a small backpack or plastic bag.

On Monday, I met Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina (12) and Max (6). Up until a week ago, they lived outside of Kyiv near Boryspil airport. They arrived at the Jewish Agency’s facilities at a Warsaw hotel just on Sunday.

 A MAN walks past destroyed military vehicles in the Kyiv region on March 1. (credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters) A MAN walks past destroyed military vehicles in the Kyiv region on March 1. (credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)

“We are focusing on the future,” Natalia said to me. Her parents and brother are still in Kyiv. “I feel terrible that we left them behind, but we needed to leave for our own safety. As a mother, I decided that I want my children to have a better future. I’ve been speaking to my parents a few times a day.

“We are here only with the clothes on our backs and documents. That’s all,” she said with a small tear in her eye.

I visited them every day this week; and right before they left for the airport, they asked to hug me and my Polish-Jewish friend, who bought them clothes and shoes. We helped them with the few items they now possess, and accompanied them to a van that took them to the airport. On Thursday morning they landed in Israel, now, as citizens.

On Tuesday, I spent time at the border. A family with young children walked through the Poland-Ukraine border crossing. They had no suitcases, just a few bags, the young children each hugging a teddy bear. It was freezing cold on the border, and I felt bad for complaining about the fact, after waiting around for a few hours. I thought to myself: You’re surrounded by people who haven’t slept on a bed for close to a week, who haven’t showered or had hot meals.

The eyes and body language of the Ukrainians who crossed the border to Poland said it all. They were exhausted. Many of them had been on the go for days, even a week. Imagine walking tens of kilometers during night and day, when the temperatures are way below zero degrees Celsius.

The border crossing looks like one big improvised refugee camp. The smell of fire was in the air from several groups of people lighting a fire to warm up.

I assumed I would see huts or even just tables with personnel from Jewish organizations or Israeli government officials. I know that there were Israeli diplomats on the Ukrainian side of the border, but I didn’t meet them. If there is one major conclusion I have regarding how official Israeli and Jewish organization workers are handling this crisis, it is that they are doing an amazing job, doing far more than any other country or nation. Yet the people on ground are tired and working around the clock. Adrenaline and a sense of Jewish peoplehood is keeping them focused. But I think there is a need for more people on the ground.

BACK IN WARSAW, I met so many positive and humane people this week. One of them was Maimon Ben Ezra (64), owner of the BeKeF kosher restaurant in Warsaw. He’s an Israeli, living in Poland for the past 14 years. He’s a quiet and simple guy, and decided to offer free food to all of the refugees who arrived in Poland’s capital – Jews and non-Jews alike.

“Yesterday and today, refugees came to the restaurant and I offered them a hot meal. I couldn’t ask them to pay for the food; this is my small contribution,” Ben Ezra told me during the Israeli-style lunch that he served me. “Yesterday I sent food to the synagogue for three families who came in from Ukraine. Warsaw’s Jewish community is hosting them in apartments and hotels organized by Chief Rabbi [Michael] Schudrich.”

But not all of those Ben Ezra cooked for were Jewish.

“Two Moroccan college students from a Ukrainian university were wandering the streets nearby,” he pointed outside. “One of them was learning mechanical engineering and the other was studying medicine. I immediately realized they were lost and had no idea where to go. I invited them in, and they told me that they haven’t slept for 30 hours while traveling on a train.

“I made them schnitzels, hummus, falafel, Israeli salad and pita. It made them feel at home. I’m not looking for any gratitude; this is just something small that I was able to contribute to this terrible crisis,” Ben Ezra shared with me.

What made him decide to feed all the refugees? “Because I’m a Jew. Is there any Jew who would behave otherwise?”

Ben Ezra isn’t optimistic when it comes to the situation in the region. “I’m closely following many social issues here in Poland. In just a few months many Polish people will be fed up with the refugees. I already see talkbacks of Poles who think Poland is putting too much money and resources into humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees.”

He added that one of the Moroccan students was asked to wear a Ukrainian army uniform at the border and assist with translating and communicating with the refugees. This is just one example of the chaos going on at the border crossings.

The Jewish Agency established temporary refugee camps in four countries: Poland, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Their amazing work is funded by organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, United Israel Appeal and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Each hotel hosted hundreds of Jews, young and old, while they filled out their paperwork with Israeli officials in order to finalize their aliyah.

I met Alona Sverdlova (45) in the hotel lobby, after her good friend Aharon Aharonchik, an Israeli resident of Lithuania, flew especially to Poland and entered the border crossing into Ukraine to accompany her and her family to the other side. She has two sons, Alex (11) and Reuven (13); and her mother, Maria Lviv (68), joined them on the long trip to Poland. Sverdlova, a psychologist by profession, says they were in a traffic jam on the way to the border for almost five days.

I asked her how a person can survive a five-day ride in a car. “You don’t want to know,” she said. “It was mostly hard for my mom but also for the kids. It was a nightmare.”

Her ex-husband and father of the children drove them to the border but couldn’t cross it himself since the Ukrainian army forbids men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country, since they are expected to volunteer to fight.

Now that she has arrived at a hotel in Poland and has begun her process of aliyah, she is slowly beginning to digest what she went through.

“I really liked my Jewish life in Odessa,” she said, adding that she is a member of the Chabad community in Odessa, and even sent her children to a school run by hassidic emissaries in the city.

“I have many friends in Israel, not family. I know that life in Israel will not be easy for me. But I feel this country deep down in my heart,” she said about Israel, with sparkly eyes, but immediately came back to reality: “I’m worried about my sons; I know they will have a hard time.”

But she wanted to end our conversation with optimism: “Please tell everyone in Israel that the second I’m settled, I want to have everyone over for a meal. Everyone who knows me will tell you there is nothing like Alona’s home. To me, all Israelis are one big family, and I can’t wait to be with them.”

“I’M TIRED, but I can’t complain, because I’m serving the Jewish people in this critical time of need,” said Yehuda Setton, the Jewish Agency’s chief operating officer, who has barely slept all week. From the agency’s situation room in Jerusalem, he is one of the key figures running the official emergency operation for the Jewish organization and the Israeli government, helping Jewish refugees from Ukraine who have arrived in Warsaw.

Almost every evening I’ve been asked to speak via Zoom for a different American Jewish foundation and tell them what is actually happening on the ground, and surprisingly, Setton is always on the call. He patiently updates major donors from around the world about the current numbers, trends and plans, despite the pressing matters that await him on the ground. He is so patient while speaking to them. His WhatsApp and email can contain urgent and at times life-threatening information.

The agency and the Jewish people are also lucky to have leaders such as Shmuel Shpak working on its behalf. Shpak is the agency’s most senior emissary in Ukraine, and now runs the temporary facility for refugees in Warsaw. At the beginning of the week he was the only agency representative at the hotel, and as more and more refugees arrived, it was more and more difficult for him.

He’s 65 and wears suspenders and is probably the oldest emissary the agency has. He grew up in Ukraine but made aliyah as a teenager.

“This is my third career,” he smiled underneath his tired face. He served as CEO and chairman of industrial companies, but in the past three years has decided to do something more meaningful.

He arrived in Poland Sunday night, and on Monday only about 25 Ukrainian Jews were at the hotel. Hundreds of Jews stayed at the hotel during the week, and were offered three hot meals a day, sponsored by the Israeli government and many Jewish foundations.

Two days later, Shpak told me that a fellow emissary would come to assist him at the hotel, and that “we are hiring two local workers to help us with organization and management.”

Back to my final Zoom update for a Jewish fundraising organization. “We just want to tell you that we appreciate all that you are doing,” a major donor and leader told Setton. “You are doing amazing work, and we couldn’t be more proud.”

Setton was flattered but didn’t lose his focus on the larger cause. In the upcoming weeks, it is estimated, 10,000 Ukrainian refugees will make aliyah in an operation the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since the 1990s. •