A Prague journey: The trauma of Russia's Ukraine invasion - opinion

We Jews draw strength from each other and our history – making layer after layer, standing strong against evil, and caring for our own people and for all others who need our help.

 THE WRITER visits Prague in February.  (photo credit: Victoria Neznansky)
THE WRITER visits Prague in February.
(photo credit: Victoria Neznansky)

In February, as a licensed clinical social worker and harnessing my experience as chief development and social services officer at New York City’s YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, I spent two weeks in Prague, working with Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic. During my stay, I wrote the following reflection that details one way the Jewish Community Center Movement, the North American Jewish Federations, and the wider Jewish community are supporting the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Here I am, back in my “home” after a full day of psychological assessments and crisis interventions. A day of listening, breathing, crying, and, yes, laughing and hugging. This is what I came to Prague to do – to listen and support some of the 100,000 Ukrainian refugees this city has absorbed since February 2022, and those who help them. Today, it was seven individual sessions with children; four individual sessions with parents and staff; one support group session for parents. 

As I witness the trauma of an invasion, it feels as if I myself have been living here for a year; it feels like my husband stayed behind, unable to escape with me and my kids; it feels like my husband, my sons, are the next to die or lose limbs. It feels like I myself left my frail parents behind because they simply refused to leave their land; like I am the one with survivor guilt; like it could be my teenage son turning into an unresponsive man, turning to the wall, harboring his pain.

Was it me who was separated from my children when they made it to the train while I was pushed away by the frightened crowd? Was it my home that was pierced by a rocket but somehow did not burst into flames? My own toes turning black, about to be amputated? My own heart that stopped beating?

The contagiousness of trauma is real, and I cannot sleep. Of course, there is jet lag, but all day, the images shared with me are utterly vivid. Because the assault is against my own country, I can see – in my mind’s eye – the streets from which they fled, and I can feel the country’s pain. I am asked if I can be hugged, as if I could share my strength and energy. And so, I hug.

Prague old town from town hall (credit: MarkDavidPod)Prague old town from town hall (credit: MarkDavidPod)

Long walks through one of the most beautiful European cities help me reorient myself. There is the abundance of gold peaks on churches – so many they can be overwhelming, but nevertheless impressive. In Prague, the old and new are seamlessly integrated into the physical narrative of the city – art nouveau-stained glass windows decorate Gothic cathedrals, and cubism interlocks with a mysterious black Madonna. And all the time, the brightly colored trams roam quickly and soundlessly through the city, endlessly photographed as the backdrop of the stunning architecture.

The Czech Republic’s own freedom is celebrated in unique sculptures positioned across the city center, sarcastically depicting rulers without heads or heads without rulers. I saw deeply moving and accurate depictions of the country’s fight against the totalitarian Soviet regime, celebrating the victory of democracy, of good over evil. Little did the country that broke free of communist evil know that it would one day open its doors to new victims of that regime, that it would welcome women and children in the most human way. 

When this war is over, will there be another John Lennon graffiti wall dedicated to the victory of freedom? Will the scandalous and playful Czech artist David Cherry, a master of kinetic art and the creator of a rotating Kafka head, add a monument to the Ukrainians who found refuge in this stunning city? 

Words about the people in Prague who hosted and organized

A FEW words about the people – my hosts and the program organizers – who became my close friends:

  • Julie Khromchenko – Early Starters International’s Eastern Europe program manager and an Israeli professional, has been working tirelessly to connect volunteers to respond to the growing needs of refugees, focusing on early childhood education for children and families who have undergone trauma. 

Brightly colored rooms, equipped with educational materials, books, toys, games and porcelain tea sets, create a welcoming, safe and happy space for children and offer mothers much-needed personal time for whatever they need – from working, shopping, resting or simply crying.

  • Evgeny Neymer – an Israeli volunteer and a local resident, welcomed me at the Prague airport, rented a convenient, cozy apartment, and ensured everything worked the way it is supposed to – from an introductory welcome dinner to connecting me to refugees for sessions and to Ukrainian psychologists for support. 

I will never forget the endless hours he spent moving furniture, advocating for extra playrooms for the children, buying new gym and recreational equipment, and supporting staff and refugees, all while organizing the transport and delivery of expensive generators and medications to Ukrainian cities left without power or light.

  • The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), through its Global Volunteer Hub, has placed more than 125 North American Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking, skilled volunteers across Europe to help Ukrainian refugees. My dear friend, Hannah Miranda Miller, program director of the Global Volunteer Hub, oversaw every detail of this meaningful placement.

I am so proud to be part of the organization, and so proud to be part of JResponse®, a signature program of the JCC Association of North America, which trained and supported JCC professionals like me as trauma first responders, using a model from IsraAID, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization similar to the Red Cross. They are my family.

I remain so proud to represent the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, which generously sponsored my trip and lent my uniquely positioned skills to an overseas mission. I’m so grateful to everyone who donated, shared and supported me.

The Jews of Prague, out of deep respect for their ancestors, buried their loved ones on top of their elders, making up to 12 layers. In the same way, we Jews draw strength from each other and our history – making layer after layer, standing strong against evil, and caring for our own people and for all others who need our help.