A Reflection from the Poland Fly-In Mission

I am reflecting on my experience as I sit on a plane taking off from Warsaw, Poland. I just spent a day and a half with 30 other lay leaders and professionals bearing witness to the mass crisis happening as war rages on in Ukraine. We are in tears reflecting on the stories of the people we met. We heard about their exit from Ukraine, and we saw the fear, desperation, and uncertainty in their eyes. We are in tears thinking of the enormity of the humanitarian effort that is taking place and all the volunteers who are helping. We are in tears thinking this crisis is a "today" problem and a very long-term problem.

We have an awesome responsibility as Jews to help the world. The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, said, “It is our responsibility as Jews to help other Jews and all human beings who need help. We are all children of G-d.”

In our communities we often have taglines. Some examples include “Stronger Together,” “We are Built for Times Like This,” and “The Power of the Collective.” I always knew - and I know even more so now - that these are not just slogans or phrases. These words breathe the truth. The last two days I saw… this is what we do!

Our international partners, JDC (the Joint Distribution Committee) and The Jewish Agency for Israel, are on the ground today because they were on the ground yesterday. Because our partner agencies had the infrastructure in Ukraine and surrounding areas, they can leverage existing relationships to provide urgent aid. They are providing shelter, food, medicine, assistance to make aliyah. The need is unimaginable. The stories are heartbreaking. Most refugees are women and children. They are mothers, grandmothers, and children. They left their husbands, fathers, and brothers behind in Ukraine. Men age 18 to 60 cannot leave the country. These women left their lives behind not knowing if they will see the men in their lives again. They left not knowing if they would ever return to their homes again.

During our 36 hours on the ground in Poland and on the Ukraine border, we met with many fragmented refugee families. We greeted them at the border with love, support, and 2,000 pounds of supplies. We watched them cross the border exhausted, frightened, relieved, and hopeful. The Israeli flag billowing in the wind was the first thing they could see as they entered Poland.

I could share story after story of the refugees' desperate and frightening escape from Ukraine. I will share the story of Irina, a single mother, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sophia, who came from Kyiv. Irina is so broken. Through her tears, clutching her heart, she told us she is having nightmares and psychological problems from the pain she has endured. Irina had an intuition to prepare for the worst. She packed her suitcase, prepared documents, and even prepared her daughter to go on alone if she wasn’t there. She said she had to be brutally honest with Sophia. She told her daughter, “ At 15 you can grow up.” Ironically, the day we met her, Sophia was wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.

Irina and Sophia heard the first bombs start to drop. In panic and fear, Irina grabbed her suitcase and ran looking for a shelter. People were running in the streets. All the shelters were full. Eventually they broke into a shelter that had been sealed for 30 years. Hundreds joined them.

For days they lived in unimaginable conditions: no electricity, no water, no toilets… filth. They went to the bathroom in old dresser drawers. There were so many people in the shelter that they had to sleep sitting up. The building constantly shook from bombs landing in the area.

After four days, Irina and Sophia left and were able to stay at a friend’s house. Ultimately, with help from our international partners, Irina and Sophia were able to make their way across the border to Lublin, Poland, where an old yeshiva has been transformed by JDC into a hotel for refugees.

Irina's 15-year-old daughter, Sophia, is an artist. She is using her art to help her through this frightening time. Irina told us, “[The] character [Sophia] drew gives her the power to continue and to have hope.” Sophia looked at us and said, “I wish you to never give up. I am following my dream through my art. Keep dreaming. Dreams come true!”

Let’s all take Sophia's advice. We cannot give up. People need our help. There is so much work to be done, and we can all do it together. We are stronger together. We are built for times like this, and there is power in the collective.

Shabbat shalom!

Carolyn Gitlin
Chair Emerita, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
National Women's Philanthropy Chair, Jewish Federations of North America