Lessons from a Passover in Poland
Social media testifies to the dozens of well-meaning Jewish professionals who have been taking trips to Poland to witness the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the borders of Ukraine. To be sure, American Jews’ intentions are pure: they feel a sense of moral obligation to address this humanitarian crisis. They want to help. Some of them speak about what they saw after the visit to raise the great sums needed. However, many of these visitors come totally unprepared for what it is like to help forced migrants.
One month ago, we stood in the drab modernist dining room of a high-rise hotel in downtown Warsaw filled with more than 100 former residents of Ukraine. One of us is a cantor (at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas), and a native Russian and Ukrainian speaker; the other, a Columbia University professor who specializes in Jewish migration and a frequent Warsaw visitor.
But this was unlike any previous visit as we had come to run a Seder, organized by the Joint Distribution Committee, for Ukrainian refugees who had fled their former homes, and found themselves hovering in a hotel in central Warsaw. For over half of those in attendance, it was the first Seder they had ever attended. The overwhelming majority of the group were women and children, with a sprinkling of older couples. No one knew what to expect as we handed out treats, asked questions and sang songs in Russian and Hebrew. As we introduced them to the order of the meal, the liturgy from the Haggadah, the special ritual foods, and the story of ancient Jews’ servitude and flight, many things needed to be explained, but some things required no explanation at all for this group.
As people who had experienced firsthand the trauma of war, traveled for days to reach Warsaw in pitch dark trains with no bathrooms and lived in fear of being trampled or losing their children, the adults at the seder understood viscerally the central themes of the seder. They appreciated what it meant to leave behind everything and to venture into an unknown future. Most of them had left spouses, neighbors, friends and family behind. Despite all they had experienced since the start of the war, the evening was boisterous and joyful, ending with a spirited singing and dancing of Hava Nagila, a song beloved by Ukrainian Jews.
While we could feel the tremendous impact of our presence on the refugees, our road to leading this group Seder was far from straightforward. Numerous organizations based in the United States, but with active offices in Europe, ignored or rebuffed our inquiries to volunteer. This was surprising because our firsthand experience made us assume the need in Poland is overwhelming. And it was. Aside from leading the Seder, we spent evenings with the refugees and mornings playing with their children. We also volunteered at Warsaw’s central train station, where refugees needed help getting life-saving documents back into Ukraine, finding places to stay and arranging transportation for their next steps. Some just wanted to talk about their experiences with someone who would listen and empathize.
So why was the local Jewish community pushing away volunteers when the need on the ground was so evident and overwhelming?
The answer is complex but appears to be linked to the numerous American visitors who preceded us and overwhelmed an already inundated small Polish Jewish community. Social media testifies to the dozens of well-meaning Jewish professionals who have been taking trips to Poland to witness the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the borders of Ukraine. To be sure, American Jews’ intentions are pure: they feel a sense of moral obligation to address this humanitarian crisis. They want to help. Some of them speak about what they saw after the visit to raise the great sums needed. However, many of these visitors come totally unprepared for what it is like to help forced migrants. On a recent trip from my daughter’s high school to ‘help’ refugees in Vienna, the Jewish teachers organized a paintball game – a war-game simulation – as a way for the kids to interact with each other. Not surprisingly, none of the refugees showed up; for them aiming and shooting guns at one another is not a game. But even those who are more sensitive to the trauma of forced migration are not prepared and rely on the local community to help them get transportation, arrange sight-seeing itineraries, shuttle them to shelters and organize meals and accomodations. They turn to the same people who daily must address the needs of the increasing numbers of refugees from Ukraine. In short, the American Jewish visitors do not speak Russian or Ukrainian. They cannot interact with the refugees. They look from afar, take pictures often with or of the unwitting refugees. These visitors make the refugees feel, as one shared, ‘like we are in the zoo.’ Indeed, the unfortunate reality is that it’s easier for the local community to tell everyone not to come, rather than to weed through the pipeline of potential volunteers, many of whom can aid in this critical moment.
We need to support Poland’s tiny Jewish community, like the greater people of Poland, who have acted inspirationally in their welcoming of hundreds thousands of Ukrainian refugees. The people of Poland have led the government in coordinating arrangements for food, shelter, mental health support, education and healthcare. We are in awe of the speed and precision with which they have organized themselves. Other Jewish communities in Europe are similarly stepping up to help.
So what is the best way for American Jewry to show their support for Ukrainian Jewish refugees and their Polish hosts at this moment? As the military conflict escalates, civilian casualties grow and evidence of horrific war crimes mounts, more will surely come. It’s our job to provide support for those fleeing by sending funds, medical supplies, toys and clothes but not necessarily visiting them and taking pictures with them. Organizations like the JDC, Hillel, the Taube Foundation, the JCC of Warsaw and the JCC of Krakow have expanded and adapted to the moment and deserve more financial support as they roll out new programs daily. But before one decides to travel to Poland in the coming months, ask yourself whether you possess the necessary skills to be helpful in the current moment in time. [Can you speak Russian? Or Ukrainian? Are you a self-sufficient traveler, who can independently navigate the city where you’re hoping to volunteer? Do you possess the pastoral skills to support people who have experienced significant trauma? Do you understand what their lives were like before reaching Western Europe? If your answer to any of the questions above is “no,” perhaps this is not the time to volunteer in Poland, or in any other country that’s absorbing large numbers of refugees.] Anyone who wishes to help needs to be self-sufficient and available to help with any task at hand and must remember: every bus used to bring American Jewish volunteers to tourist sights cannot bring supplies to Ukraine or refugees back to Poland.
This is a historic moment for Polish Jewry: Poland, which has been the recipient of aid for over a century, is now charged with doling out aid to needy Jews. Indeed, American Jewish philanthropic activism in interwar Poland spawned revolutionary changes in the Polish-Jewish organizational landscape that forever changed the lives of Jews in Poland and many others living in the wider Second Polish Republic (1919-1939). Similarly, while the contemporary Polish Jewish community is overwhelmed by what has been thrust upon them, we believe it will be reshaped and revitalized by this task which will continue for years to come. There will be time to visit in the future. Indeed, true service is not about our desire to feel like we are helping but understanding that each time a member of the Polish Jewish community needs to help a group of donors, rabbis, or other dedicated Jewish volunteers even for a few hours, the refugee community is being deprived of vital workers to help them navigate life. There will be ample opportunity to visit these people whose former homes now are mostly rubble. But for the time being, American Jews should send their funds, support and help, but not visit them.
Rebecca Kobrin is the Russell and Bettina Knapp associate professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University where she is also the co-director of Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.
Cantor Vicky Glikin is senior cantor at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas.