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What I learned at the Ukraine-Poland border

‘Never forget what your eyes have seen.’ Those words from Deuteronomy speak to me, louder than ever.

Refugees flee the war in Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland, April 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

(RNS) — File this one under “First World problems.”

I am in the Krakow, Poland, airport. My flight back to the United States has been canceled. For a while, I think that I might be stranded here all weekend, meaning that I would miss the first two seders.

This is annoying and frustrating. 

But over the past few days, I have encountered hundreds of people who would envy this relatively minor life hiccup, and would gladly offer to trade their plight for mine. 

Let me put it to you this way.

  • When you have seen mothers and children sleeping together on one mattress, with perhaps one piece of luggage, their homes destroyed, wondering if and when they will see their husbands and fathers again …
  • When you meet refugees who want to go back home, and yet they know their cities have been completely destroyed, and everything they knew is now in ashes …
  • When you meet a Ukrainian woman at a refugee center, with a toddler in tow, looking at a map of Europe with the distances to various cities, and she says she is going to try to go to Denmark because the Czech Republic and Germany are full …
  • When you hear workers for Natan, an Israeli nongovernmental organization at the Ukraine-Poland border, saying “We are running out of rape kits” — because the women are reporting that they, and sometimes their children, have been raped …

So, yes: I can take a cab back to Krakow, and stay in a hotel for two more nights. 

The last few days have been the most intense days of my career, and I have not yet begun to process them.

The rabbinical delegation that visited Poland in mid-April brought 2 tons of supplies for Ukrainian refugees crossing the border into Poland. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Steve Engel

The rabbinical delegation that visited Poland in mid-April brought 2 tons of supplies for Ukrainian refugees crossing the border into Poland. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Steve Engel

This past week, I accompanied 30 Reform rabbinical and cantorial colleagues, from the United States, Europe and Israel. It was the Hineini trip — a journey to Krakow to help Ukrainian refugees. The trip was a major success, thanks to the organization and planning by J2 Adventures. We brought more than 2 tons of supplies for refugees. We brought donations and pledges of close to a million dollars.

But, most of all, we brought our selves, our souls, our willingness to say “Hinein.” I am here. We are here — to bear witness.

  • To bear witness to the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since 1945 — in the very heartland of Eastern European Jewish history, that lost 90% of its Jews in the Shoah.
  • To bear witness as Poland has opened its hearts and homes to at least 2 million refugees. Krakow alone has seen its population increase 25% since the end of February. Ask yourselves: What American city would do that? As Clementina, a young Polish Jewish worker, told us: “Poland is doing for the Ukrainians what no one did for us in 1939.“ 
  • To bear witness to personal responsibility and legacy. Ten years from now, when I am sitting with my grandchildren at the Seder, they will ask me: “Grandpa, when the Ukrainian nation and people were being destroyed, what did you do?” I want to have a good answer. The Torah says: “And you shall tell your child on that day … ” I want to get that narrative right. 

We Jews like to say God has called on the Jewish people to be a “light to the nations.” I never understood that phrase — until this week. 

Refugee women with children walk to board transport at the central train station in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, April 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Refugee women with children walk to board transport at the central train station in Warsaw, Poland, April 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

We came to Krakow under the aegis of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow and its indefatigable executive director, Jonathan Ornstein. 

To coin a phrase from this season: How is this JCC different from every other JCC in the world?

Because it is a cultural center, and an educational center and a social center. Every JCC has non-Jewish members, whose lives it has enriched.

The JCC in Krakow is the only JCC that not only enriches non-Jewish lives, it saves them. Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, the Krakow JCC has been a refugee center — with no fewer than 14 different programs for refugees.

There is that line in the Passover Haggadah — “All who are hungry, come and eat.”

That is what the JCC is saying. All who are hungry. All — as in: There will be no distinctions between Jewish refugees and non-Jewish refugees.

The Krakow JCC has a sweet and unexpected story. Its founder was none other than Prince Charles. He had been visiting Krakow, and he arranged to meet with some Holocaust survivors in a cafe. They told him that Krakow had seven synagogues but that it lacked a senior center.

Perhaps His Royal Highness remembered that his grandmother, Princess Alice, saved the lives of Jewish children in Greece — which earned her the designation of “righteous among the nations.” Perhaps that memory caused a spark.

Prince Charles returned to the U.K., and he connected with World Jewish Relief, for which he has served as royal patron. They had been involved with the Kindertransport. They decided to build the JCC in Krakow — which Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, formally dedicated in 2008. 

You want more of that “light to the nations” thing? By one estimate, no less than a third of all NGOs at the border were Israeli. The vast majority of religious organizations providing aid to refugees are Jewish.

But, hardly just Jews. My colleagues and I ran a mini-Seder at the border — with Israelis, evangelical Christians and Ukrainian refugees in traditional costume. My young colleague Miriam Klimova, born in Ukraine, now in Israel, led us in a rousing rendition of “Echad Mi Yodea,” reminding us all there is “one God in heavens and earth.”

Aid workers and refugees attend a multi-faith Passover Seder dinner in Przemysl, Poland, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Two hundred people attended the celebration organized by the NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief aid organization, which includes volunteer doctors, nurses, social workers and healthcare experts who are trained to mobilize for human-made and natural disasters worldwide. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Aid workers and refugees attend a multifaith Passover Seder dinner in Przemysl, Poland, on April 12, 2022. Two hundred people attended the celebration organized by the Natan Worldwide Disaster Relief aid organization, which includes volunteer doctors, nurses, social workers and health care experts who are trained to mobilize for human-made and natural disasters worldwide. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

It is that one God of our traditions that brought us together, and united us. It was the stubborn sense that the divine presence is uniquely revealed in the face of the Other.

An Hugh Hewitt wrote in The Washington Post:

The vast majority of Americans loathe the tyrant Putin and his savage war of unprovoked aggression against a neighbor. It turns out that the American public still broadly, if not entirely, views the slaughter of innocents with a revulsion that is ancient and storied among a free and, in the main, religious people. A fierce opposition to tyranny remains at the core of America’s civic religion.

Or, let me put it this way. Weeks ago, when President Joe Biden declared that “for God’s sake, this man (Putin) cannot remain in power,” he was not blurting out mere words, out of the depth of his frustration. The Exodus from Egypt teaches us that there can be God, and there can be Pharaoh — but never in the same spiritual space. For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.

Because the Pharaohs of history never win.

There is a charming medieval legend — about how the Crusaders swept through Germany and drove the Jews eastward in search of refuge. As they headed ever farther east, they heard birds singing “Po-lin! Po-lin!” — Hebrew for Poland, and a Hebrew pun: “You will lodge here.” 

That is the story of Polish Jewry. For a thousand years, we lodged there — so much so, that the Polish Jewish story and legacy came to define Eastern European Jewry. 

So it was with my colleagues as well. For the last several days, we lodged here. 

But the memories and experiences will not merely lodge in our minds and our souls. They will become concrete commitments to action and testimony that we will bring back to our communities. 

So, yes, Hineini. The best word in the Hebrew Bible, IMHO.

We said it, over and over again: to history, to the future, to ourselves, and to God.