Witnessing in Poland – Reporter Newspapers & Atlanta Intown

Eric M. Robbins, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, just returned from Poland with Jewish leaders from 10 US cities. This is his personal account.

At the Ukrainian border post in Medyka. (Photos courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta)

See the ghosts of our grandparents

It is a seven-hour drive from Warsaw to the Ukrainian border crossing at Medyka, where thousands of people are seeking refuge and safety in Poland. This is the second day of my pilgrimage to Poland with Jewish leaders from ten American cities. We are all here to bear witness to the current refugee crisis which has displaced millions of Ukrainians in a matter of weeks. We are all here to do all we can to fund and support the massive humanitarian effort underway to rescue Ukrainian Jews and other displaced Ukrainians. We pledge to go home and tell American Jews a story we never imagined would happen again.

Ironically, we pass through the Poland of our grandparents – once home to the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world and the intellectual birthplace of countless thought leaders, rabbis and Jewish artists. As our bus continues east, it is haunting to pass towns with names like Lublin and Chelm, made famous in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem. It is even more haunting to see signs pointing to Polish towns like Oswiecim, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka – the places where our people were herded like cattle, tortured and gassed.

Only 10,000 Jews remain in Poland. But today, millions of refugees, Jews and non-Jews, are pouring into Poland seeking safety and shelter from the destruction and brutality of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. This time we are there for them.

Our partners in the field

My flight to Poland and the Ukrainian border was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) which coordinates the heroic work on the ground of our partners abroad, the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Both of these organizations do vital work to protect and support Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Both have been deeply involved with the Jews of Ukraine for more than 75 years. Both have established a strong infrastructure as they work in coordination with each other and with other Eastern European NGOs.

Since there is an annual community campaign in Atlanta, JAFI and JDC have received significant financial support from us. This support, along with a collective of federations around the world, has enabled them to build a solid infrastructure that strengthens Jewish communities in Ukraine and meets basic needs.

Back in Warsaw after 20 years

This is not my first time in Warsaw, Poland. Twenty years ago I came here to visit the small village, now part of Lithuania, where my grandfather was born. On this surprisingly warm and bright day, Warsaw impressed me with its combination of modern and historic architecture. There was a surprising calm in the city, and strangely, it was reminiscent of the vibrant Jewish community of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill where I had the privilege of growing up. My Jewish community in Pittsburgh was started by Jews who fled Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Still, it’s strange to be in this modern city where parts of the Warsaw Ghetto walls still exist.

The reality is that American Jews like me were born in the best place, at the absolute best time in the history of the world. How amazing it is now to be a 21st century American visiting a country that is absorbing millions of refugees, most of whom were living fairly modern lives just a month ago. That so many of them are Jewish sounds like an old nightmare.

In Warsaw, I almost got knocked down by a bike while walking distractedly on the bike path. Later, I ran into the individual who nearly ran me over at a nearby cafe and we had coffee together. He let me interview him and I recorded him on my phone. He was a Pole who hosted refugees in his apartment and had many friends who did the same. He was not surprised by the war in Ukraine and said he knew it had been brewing for years. The current situation reminded him of the world’s response to World War II and how long it had taken the world to realize what was happening. He said it was easy to imagine that we were like two people having coffee in Paris in 1939, talking about what was happening in Germany. This underscored the unpredictability of this war and all the possible scenarios that could unfold.

As I walked through the streets of Warsaw and approached the Central Station, I saw refugees everywhere. Fatherless families camped on inflatable beds, resting on benches, eating meals, and stocking up in temporary tents. Some were passing through and others were trying to settle in Warsaw. The magnitude of it was heartbreaking.

The hope of making Aliyah

On my first evening in Warsaw, I visited a Jewish Agency for Israel treatment center housed in a local hotel. Anyone who is Jewish or related to someone in Israel could enter and learn the steps necessary to emigrate to Israel. Families of all shapes and sizes were getting the help they needed. Thousands had already landed in Israel. It was moving to see the State of Israel living out its mission to be a safe home for all Jews whenever they needed it. At the JAFI center, I heard stories of Holocaust survivors and righteous Gentiles choosing a future in Israel, and stories of people who left in such a hurry that they had no documents. Here it didn’t matter. Everyone who wanted to go to Israel was helped. It was heartwarming to meet the many doctors and trauma counselors, so familiar with the wounds of war and displacement, who had come to help Jews and non-Jews alike find comfort, safety and optimism.

At the Ukrainian border

Arriving at the Medyka border post was the emotional crescendo of my journey, where the enormity of this crisis became real. We stopped along the way at another treatment center run by JDC and JAFI where we donated more than a ton of relief supplies collected at home. We met many families. Perhaps because I am the father of a teenage girl, I was most touched by a mother and her 15-year-old daughter who left their home in Kyiv. Their story, like all the others, was horrible. They lived in an air-raid shelter for weeks and left kyiv with what little they could carry and their pets. The young girl, Sophia, was withdrawn and distraught and her mother spoke through tears. When mom finished talking, she asked Sophia to talk about some drawings she had done. I will never forget how Sophia ran up to one of them and explained how they described her emotions and fears, as well as her dreams and yearnings for peace.

The border felt unexpectedly sacred. Seeing JDC and JAFI professionals in uniform alongside other NGOs, I knew we were doing what we do best. A steady stream of families crossed the border pushing strollers, pulling suitcases and looking exhausted. It seemed quite inhuman to me that all these people, no different from me, were moved. Some of them were in wheelchairs or holding the hands of traumatized children with notable special needs. At the same time, I witnessed incredible gemilut chasadim (human kindness) in a way I’ve never seen before. Our partners were there to accept and embrace the traumatized and courageous people as they crossed the border. It was a scene I will never forget. The scale of the refugee crisis is immense. And there are literally millions of people who have chosen to stay or who cannot leave Ukraine. What will happen to them?

Like Sophia, I don’t and never will understand war. No one wins in a war and every life lost is one too many. History repeatedly teaches us that power, ego and evil are destructive forces. Echoing the words of Anne Frank, I believe most people are good. Somehow we must fight the Amaleks who appear in every generation, who dedicate themselves to darkness and destruction. I am grateful to be part of a community and a profession that is trying to do all it can to help the people so terribly affected by this unnecessary war. I will return to Atlanta after this brief flight and make a deeper commitment to do whatever I can to help.

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