Ukrainian refugees arrive at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland. (Photo/Eyal Warsavsky for Jewish Federations of North America)
Ukrainian refugees arrive at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland. (Photo/Eyal Warsavsky for Jewish Federations of North America)

Our recent mission to Poland is a Passover story and call to action

If you had 30 minutes to decide whether to leave your whole life behind, what would you do? What items would you take?

So many of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine we talked to on our recent trip to Poland had just minutes to decide whether to flee and then made long, agonizing journeys to get to safety. Many ran for their lives, with nothing except the clothes on their backs.

This trip in mid-March was part of a small delegation of Federation leaders from across the country, organized by the Jewish Federations of North America. It was a very particular kind of mission with a narrow focus: to bear witness at this monumental time in history, to get a sense of the magnitude of the crisis, to welcome refugees at the Poland-Ukraine border with compassion and love, and to accept their testimony with a promise to share it back with our community.

So many have asked us, “How was your trip?”

Although it’s been only a few weeks, we still struggle to find the words to answer this question. What we saw was horrifying, and the stories we heard and the images we saw are heartbreaking and etched into our memories.

From the moment we arrived in Warsaw, there were signs of the war all around us. We stayed at a hotel across from the central train station where we watched hundreds of refugees arrive every hour by train and bus. Inside the station, it is disorienting and chaotic, because next steps require a series of decisions that will forever change their lives. Stay close to be able to go back to Ukraine as soon as possible? Move on? But to where?

Refugees arrive by bus at the Warsaw train station. (Photo/Joy Sisisky)
Refugees arrive by bus at the Warsaw train station. (Photo/Joy Sisisky)

Trains in Poland are a shared trauma for the Jewish people. In 1942, more than 250,000 Jews boarded at the umschlagplatz (the collecting place) in the Warsaw Ghetto, headed to the Treblinka concentration camp. It’s hard to believe that today, less than half a mile away, a train station in the center of Warsaw is a refuge for people who have fled Ukraine, including Jews. In 1942 when Jews boarded trains, it was to certain death. Today, it is to save your life.

We were moved by so many stories, particularly Anna’s and Fredrik’s.

Anna is a young mother from eastern Ukraine who escaped with her two children. We met her at a hotel in Warsaw where the Israeli Embassy set up a temporary consulate in the ballroom, and the Jewish Agency for Israel has turned conference rooms into processing centers. Staff and volunteers were meeting individually with refugee families to develop a plan for next steps.

Anna was waiting to make aliyah.

She said, “For days, we didn’t believe it. One day we woke up and read that the nuclear power plant nearby would be targeted. My husband told me, ‘You have 15 minutes. Take what you need, just save our children, and go. Go! Go!’ I took some documents, the clothes on me, my children, and left.”

Anna and her children boarded a private train car meant for four people, squeezing in with 18 others including 11 children. They stood up the entire ride, not sleeping or moving for 19 hours. She lost feeling in her arms from holding her daughter the whole time. When they finally arrived at the border, they waited in line for hours, with no end in sight. Her son, only 6 years old, fainted from total exhaustion and lack of food or water.

Fredrik is a Nazi victim and survivor. He is from Kharkiv, where he was a university professor for 50 years. Fredrik did not want to leave, but his daughter insisted.

When they learned that the Jewish community had organized a bus that was about to depart, he only had minutes to run from his house, and he left wearing slippers. They joined an evacuation transport organized by the Jewish community. Days later, Fredrik arrived in Poland, crying. He spoke slowly, haltingly, the trauma of his experience etched on his face as he said, “We could not have left without you. Thank you.”

Fredrik with his daughter. (Photo/Eyal Warsavsky for Jewish Federations of North America)
Fredrik with his daughter. (Photo/Eyal Warshavsky for Jewish Federations of North America)

We met Fredrik in Lublin, where the old and famous Chachmei yeshiva, long ago converted into a hotel, was serving as a transit center for mostly Jewish refugees, operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). More than 200 refugee families, Jewish and non-Jewish, are housed there at any given time, giving families a five-day respite while they get assistance in making more long-term plans. Families told us about children being frightened by the sound of shelling, gunfire and missiles going off all day and all night long. Of air raid sirens reverberating every few hours. Of having to hide for hours under staircases because no bomb shelters were available.

Lublin is also home to Majdanek, one of the largest concentration camps during World War II. The fact that Fredrik would be welcomed back is almost beyond belief. Many survivors like Fredrik are reliving a second trauma in this war, as they are once again on the move.

Our next stop was Medyka, the largest Poland-Ukraine border crossing. We watched thousands of people pour in by foot, some who had been walking for miles or days with a single suitcase, a plastic bag filled with the contents of their lives, or just a purse.

One of the first things those fleeing see as they walk through the gate into Poland is an Israeli flag, and the tents set up by the JDC, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the medical teams of United Hatzalah of Israel. Volunteers offer them water and food, and there are tents filled with donated clothing, toys, diapers and places to rest.

These Jewish organizations are joined at the border by relief agencies from all over the world, who have come to provide sustenance of all kinds to the refugees, as well as assistance with transportation and relocation.

We saw World Central Kitchen teams walking around with trays of soup, a group from Barcelona serving up paella, and even a delegation from Italy running around sharing pizza with everyone. The scene is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Thousands of refugees are fleeing the horrendous evil that has been unleashed on their people and their country, and they are met at the border by love and compassion and the best of what humanity has to offer.

Humanitarian assistance on offer at Medyka. (Photo/Joy Sisisky)
Humanitarian assistance on offer at Medyka. (Photo/Joy Sisisky)

The vast majority of refugees are women and children or elderly. In general, if you are a man between the ages of 18 and 65, you may not leave Ukraine unless you have three or more children. Even then, at the border, we watched fathers and husbands leave their families and turn around to go back into Ukraine. Families were ripped apart before our very eyes.

More than half of refugees are children under 18 years old. It was overwhelming to think that just a week earlier they were in a classroom, playing soccer with friends or headed to a doctor’s appointment. Now they’re on the run, and their lives have been turned upside down.

Despite being surrounded by thousands of refugees and volunteers, we were surprised at how quiet it was at the border and at the transit centers we visited. You would think you would hear crying or shouting, chaos — but it was nearly silent. As thousands streamed across the border, you could hear a pin drop. The depth of the trauma is stunning.

What adds to the pain of this story is that so many of us, including ourselves, have deep family and emotional ties to this part of the world. Many of us trace our roots to parents, grandparents or great-grandparents that fled Eastern Europe through the 19th and 20th centuries, including those who escaped the persecution and slaughter of the Nazis.

And, remarkably, over the past several decades there has been a renaissance of Jewish life in Ukraine, as the elderly population, some of whom are survivors of the Holocaust, have been joined by many younger people eager to rediscover their Jewish roots.

When the Russian invasion began, Ukraine’s Jewish community numbered some 200,000 people, 40,000 of whom are especially vulnerable including the elderly and at-risk families. And the vast majority are still there. We have recently learned that only about 10 percent have left. Many more are internally displaced — refugees in their own country.

There are nine members of the Ukrainian Jewish community who are at least 105 years old, and unable to evacuate. The fact that we know this is testament to our work on the ground. Every Jew matters.

And of course, it’s much more than that. Someone on the trip asked the Chief Rabbi of Poland,  “When someone crosses the border, how do you know they are a Jew?” He replied, “We don’t,” and added, “What I do know is that everyone we are helping was created by God.”

Irina, her mother and sister are not Jewish, but JDC helped evacuate them to safety after they escaped Kyiv. She told us, “The kindness that the Jews have shown to us is something that we will spend the rest of our lives repaying and paying forward in good deeds.”

Joy Sisisky (center) and Arthur Slepian (right) with a JDC official (left). (Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)
Joy Sisisky (center) and Arthur Slepian (right) with a JDC official. (Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Federations and JDC have been partners for nearly 100 years — providing critical welfare relief to the world’s most impoverished Jews, partners in the renewal of Jewish life around the world, and to the rescue of Jews in need.

JDC is the manifestation of our Federation on the ground, and over the years we have provided tens of millions of dollars to them to carry out our work in Jewish peoplehood, including in Ukraine.

This overseas infrastructure, supported largely through dollars raised by the North American Federation system over many decades, is one of the great achievements of the past century of Jewish communal life. And our historic partnership made it possible for the Bay Area Jewish community to respond immediately to the needs on the ground in Ukraine starting on day one.

To date, our Federation has mobilized more than $4 million for the crisis in Ukraine, including more than $2.5 million for the Ukraine Emergency Response Fund. Combined with the more than 150 other Federations across North America, we have raised more than $43 million.

When you make a gift through the Federation, you leverage yours with more than 1,300 other families as a sign of solidarity from the Bay Area to Ukraine. Each gift is full of generosity and meaning.

And still, it’s not enough.

If you have not made a gift, please do, at JewishFed.org. If you have already made one, thank you. And please meet the call to action when we ask again, because we will need to ask you again.The aftershocks of this war, including for the Jewish community, will be with us for years, and we will be there every step of the way. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Passover story reminds us that Jews were once slaves, refugees out of Egypt. And we are reminded of that again today. As the famous Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

The Federation was built for moments like this, but we can’t do it alone. We need you.

So much is at stake.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Joy Sisisky
Joy Sisisky

Joy Sisisky is the interim CEO and chief philanthropy officer of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. She lived and worked in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine as a JDC Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, and her family was from the same town before leaving Ukraine 101 years ago. She is co-founder of Do Good Ukraine!, an organization dedicated to building civil society through volunteerism.

Arthur Slepian
Arthur Slepian

Arthur Slepian is the Board Chair of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.