A three-year-old Ukrainian boy on a scooter whizzed through the cavernous dining hall in my great-aunt’s pre-war hotel, now a Jewish cultural center outside Warsaw.
In 1927, on the outskirts of the majority-Jewish spa-town of Otwock, famed for its balconied villas and tuberculosis sanatoriums, my great-aunt and her husband built the grandiose modernist resort. She was one of three million Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, dozens of refugees, including six Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, have passed through this former hotel. Some waited for visas to Portugal and Israel. Others returned to Ukraine.
Elena, the 38-year-old mother of the boy on the scooter, wanted to stay in Poland and work. She’s not alone. The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that of the 3.7 million Ukrainians who crossed into Poland, around 1.2 million remain. Over 100,000 have found jobs so far.
Elena arrived in March after an 18-hour bus journey with only a small gym bag. Her husband and in-laws remained in a southern Ukrainian town she asked me not to name. “The worst is being responsible for my child and not knowing what our future will be,” she said, her face etched with pain.
Her words echoed those of my grandfather. Days after the US Army liberated him from Dachau, he told filmmakers documenting the atrocities: “Our future is a question we cannot picture now. We have no place to go back. We are like beggars without homes.”
“Our future is a question we cannot picture now. We have no place to go back. We are like beggars without homes.”The writers grandfather
It took three years for my grandparents and mother to receive refugee visas for Australia, where I was eventually born. In between, they lived in a refugee camp until the US Army hired my grandfather, a lawyer in Poland, to help with the Dachau and Nuremberg trials.
When Germany bombed Poland in 1939, my great-grandmother fed refugees with my great-aunt from her hotel’s kitchen. At the end of the war, after she had escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit camp, she returned to her sister’s hotel to help manage the orphanage established there for 130 traumatized Jewish children.
Now, the dorm-style rooms that housed up to 69 Ukrainian refugees, dogs, cats, and a parrot, are basic. But for children who had cowered in basements from Russian bombs, the pine-forested grounds offered serenity. They rode donated bikes. Girls from eastern Ukraine, who had never seen a sky without missiles, danced to music on their phones.
Elena’s son had difficulty adjusting at first, but his tantrums and anxiety dissipated after Elena’s sessions with a psychologist.
In Ukraine, Elena worked in the civil service and earned enough with her husband to pay for a comfortable middle-class existence. She was pragmatic about how much she would earn in Poland. “It’s unrealistic to start a job at the same level I achieved in Ukraine,” she said.
To improve her employment prospects, Elena was learning Polish from another refugee, who taught mothers at a dining table while their children molded cakes from play dough at a makeshift kindergarten in the next room.
Refugees in Poland
MY GREAT-aunt’s former hotel is a temporary solution, but refugees will remain in Poland for some time. The Polish government recently appointed a minister to integrate them and cut the $7 per day allowance for Polish households hosting refugees.
“Right now, refugees live through the generosity of people in Poland and around the world, which is amazing,” Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told me. “But many say to me, ‘I don’t want money. I want a job.’”
Schudrich helped establish a crisis management center with activists in Poland’s 10,000-strong and growing Jewish community. Together with the American Joint Distribution Committee, which had aided my mother and grandparents, the community provided food, playrooms, psychologists, teachers, and accommodation to thousands of refugees of all backgrounds, including those at my great-aunt’s former hotel.
Schudrich is spearheading an incubator to help Ukrainians find remote work in the US. Employment is critical to propagating the self-respect many who have fled home lost, he explained.
For hundreds of JDC clients living mostly in high-rise hotels behind Warsaw’s central railway station, helping them move from cramped rooms with no kitchens into scarce apartments is a crucial next step. JDC organizes activities to counter stress, to build self-esteem and independence, including a children’s summer camp and a pierogi-making class; delivers a cake for an eight-year-old’s birthday, and helps refugees get Polish social security numbers to access education and healthcare.
For Elena’s mother Nadhezhda and grandmother, who arrived weeks after Elena and her son, healthcare for them was crucial. Nadhezhda, 61, a professor who lectured her Ukrainian students online, struggled with an untreated hernia and was waiting for surgery in the overwhelmed Polish system. After video calls with her husband, who showed her photos of bombed-out homes, her stomach seized up; she had difficulty eating.
Nadhezhda told me that if something happened to her, she worried about who would bathe and dress her mostly deaf and blind 85-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor.
Cannot ignore Ukraine crisis
IN AMERICA and Israel, we have crises of our own. And while each news event, no matter how horrific, holds our attention for an average of seven days, we cannot afford to look away from the crisis in Ukraine.
The economic gains for countries accepting refugees could be enormous. First-year costs to support refugees are repaid within a few years. Studies show that refugees who have fled war, and immigrants, are more entrepreneurial.
That was the case for my grandfather, who, with $500 launched a thriving art-supply business that employed over 20 people.
Schudrich told me, “After World War II, Polish Jews were the crisis. Now they are the solution.”
As the daughter and granddaughter of refugees, I have learned that showing respect and kindness toward people who have lost everything empowers them. It’s important to remember that now. Because one day, it could be any of us.
The writer is an Australian-American educator on the Holocaust and author of a forthcoming memoir.