Long Branch Rabbi will not forget what he saw in Poland

Originally published as Temple Beth Miriam Rabbi Cy Stanway's sermon from April 22, 2022, describing what he witnessed on the Polish - Ukrainian border.

Read the transcript below or listen to the sermon HERE.

In the Blink of an Eye 
Reflections after Hineini – Poland 2022 
Rabbi Cy Stanway 

It’s often said that life can change in the blink of an eye. Anyone who has ever experienced a sudden death, or any kind of life-changing surprise would agree, of course. Life can change in the blink of an eye. 

That is why I am glad my eyes didn’t blink when Stella’s phone dinged as she got a message from her sister who is married to one of my colleagues. The text was an innocuous message about her husband going to Poland on what can only be called a ‘bearing witness’ trip. Almost literally slaped together by a couple of American rabbis, it was anything but a conventional and organized trip. In fact it was complete balagan. An on-the-run humanitarian mission that had not one hallmark of a vacation. And Stella immediately said, ‘You need to go.’ And so, in the blink of an eye and without any experience in Poland, the plane tickets were bought, the reservations in the hotel confirmed, and, again, in the blink of an eye with no time to truly prepare myself, I rallied the temple behind me – an amazingly easy job by the way – collected underwear and pain medication and $15,000. In a strange way, the speed at which everything happened, faintly echoed the plight of the Ukranians we were destined to meet. 

The support of Beth Miriam and their enthusiastic endorsement for me to go, gave me the necessary strength, emotional and physical, to bear witness to this immense human tragedy. How could I not be energized when a professional firm offers their PR person both before and after the trip to do all the work of getting the message out, or seeing our religious school children selling lemonade on the streets in Little Silver, or the bags of goods to take with me for the women and children who we were to see? It is not hyperbole to say that by knowing how supportive you were of this trip, I would not have been able to get there and back and survived on 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night for a week. In the blink of an eye, your lives changed as you literally changed the lives of a Ukrainian stranger you never met and probably will never meet. 

But, in a way, you did meet them and I am sharing them with you because when I went to Poland, you came to Poland with me. They are the few people who are among the 2.25 million who came to Poland from Ukraine. 150,000 of them found themselves in Krakow, where we stayed. Before the war, Krakow had 650,000 people. Now it has 800,000. And among those, I met some incredible people. I want to share two of them with you. 

Zoshya, as you may have seen from my Facebook posts, is 88 years old. She was born in Krakow and in 1939 was the first country invaded by Nazi Germany. She never left the city. Somehow, in one of those unbelievable war stories, he father got her family fake papers and they were never found or deported by the Nazis. Almost literally in the shadow of Oscar Schindler’s factory which saved 1200 Jews, Zoshya and her family stayed alive simply because they were good actors.  

She is one of those rare people who only speak 6 languages and she speaks with Ukrainians all day long helping them get oriented. But she said something interesting that we heard again and again. In the southeast of the country, Russian is the spoken language. When these people left and ended up in Poland, each and every one of these people we met vowed never to speak Russian again. They have utter disdain for the country.  

Zoshya is typical of the way the Poles have responded to the crisis.  

Our group of 24 rabbis went to three crisis centers. In each, there were hundreds of refugees, women and children – and almost no men. There for a few days before going to a government-paid-for-hotel, these people were immediately absorbed into the country and most of the work was done by volunteers, like Zoshya. There were few professionals. Teenagers staffed the phone banks. Journalists ran call centers. JCC directors ran crisis response teams. No one did it for the glory. No one did it for the accolades. And all of this was organized in one week by volunteers and the Polish governments, both local and national. And in 7 weeks of this war, millions of lives were saved by these volunteers.  

So why the incredible response? 

When Jews think of Poland, what usually comes to mind? Concentration camps. In fact, when I was in Warsaw – home of the infamous Warsaw ghetto – and waiting for my plane to Krakow, the board listed all the next flights. So help me God, every one of them was a place known for a terrible concentration camp, including Krakow, my destination.  

How can we not think of Poland this way? And for the past 7 decades the Poles knew how the world saw them. Most of the concentration camps were in Poland. Krakow was where all the terrible things from Schindler’s list happened. Auschwitz was a short 1-hour drive from hotel. And in every small town, every Jew was exterminated. Now, only monuments remain where Jews once lived and thrived. Where at town like Pshemesl on the Ukraine border was 1/3 Jewish, now no Jews remain.  

To be known primarily for such things is overwhelming. But they were not defined by the Nazi aggression inflicted upon them. But, on the thing that did define them was anger. Anger that in 1939, no one came to their aid. They were determined that what no one did for them in 1939, they would never do in 2022 to the Ukrainians. This war, if there is anything good that is coming out it, is an exercise of redemption and resolve for Poland.  

Is it a perfect response? Of course not. We are talking about governments and people, echoes of racism and prejudice. But the simple fact is that with 2.25 million new residents who, in the blink of an eye had to leave their homes in the past 7 weeks, not one person is in a tent in a refugee camp and there are no tent cities on the Ukraine side of the border. 

Now, I want you to meet Nastya. With her 5-year-old daughter, she left Mikolayiv in the southeast of the country. Leaving her husband her parents behind and the last year of medical residency, she found herself being a mom on a Monday and a refugee on Tuesday as her town got shelled. And, quite understandably, she is angry. But, unlike many Ukrainians we met, she is mad at every Russian soldier. She told us that it is not Putin who is shooting people, raping women, and destroying cities. It is Russian soldiers and to try to exonerate them is to let them off the hook for their barbaric behavior. But her biggest problem? No, not the relocation. No, not the fact that her home doesn’t exist anymore. No, not the fact that she will have to learn Polish and finish medical school. No, her biggest problem was how teach her daughter not to hate. It was a stunning statement and it will remain with me for the rest of my life. 

And how easy it is to hate. But in the midst of all this potential to hate, I saw amazing acts of love and respect. A couple of days before our Friday seders back in the United States, we did a seder in the border town. More that 200 people came to seder: rabbis, emergency workers, Ukrainian refugees, volunteers from the area, medical workers, and so forth. And just was we were about to get started, several young Ukrainians came in with their customary dress. And what is the customary dress of Ukraine? If you have ever seen a picture of Cossacks, that’s what these people looked like. The women were wearing flower crowns and both the men and the women were wearing the traditional ‘plachta’ - an embroidered shirt and men wore a ‘porty’ - a kind of kaftan that covered their whole body down to their knees.  

Now, if you know the history of the Cossacks, you know that they were not very pleasant to Jews. One of the Ukrainian personalities – really a hero for his resistance to Poland – was Hetman Chelmnisky who, from 1648-1657 led a rebellion against Poland’s hegemony over Ukraine and ended up with the Cossacks swearing allegiance to the Tzar of Russia. During this time, between 100,000 and 500,000 Jews were massacred. Cossacks and Jews have a very tense history. 

But these young people celebrated a Jewish festival of freedom with a costume that came to represent, for them, Ukrainian independence. If Chelmnisky could see this, he would be rolling in his grave. And I had to speak with them. 

And so, at the end of the seder, I did just that. I met Igor, a 30-year-old Ukrainian living in Poland for 5 years. Diana, an 18-year-old about to start college that had to flee. Daniel, a 24-year-old born in Kiev and moved to Australia and who spoke perfect Ukranian with and Australian accent. They had come from all points to dedicate themselves, put their lives on hold, to build a brick in a new world. They celebrated Passover – our festival of freedom – and turned it into their own festival of freedom. The bread of affliction was their pain and the maror was their bitterness. The wine was their sweetness and optimism that they are helping to create a new life for their countrymen and women, and the parsley was their symbol of new life. The seder was not simply a ritual or a chance to have a meal. It was a living moment that none of them will ever forget. More than 200 people celebrated that meal and most of them were not Jewish. And of those 200, every one of us, saw the seder and Passover not simply as a ritual to be observed but a ritual of renewal, dedication and freedom from an oppression that was happening a mere 6 kilometers from where we sat.  

Oh, and one more thing about the seder. Remember Nastya, the young woman the five-year-old who had to leave her parents and husband in Ukraine? An hour before the seder, Nastya received word that her parents made it to Poland. If that isn’t a Passover festival of freedom to remember, I don’t know what is!! 

This trip was not a vacation. I sat on the floor of a depot sorting clothes and pain relievers that ended up on the hands of Ukrainian refugees. Every single thing you donated was given to a mother or child. The toys we donated are now in the hands of an infant or toddler or young child in Poland. The underwear – which, by the way, is the most needed and valued item for obvious reasons – is now being worn by the few men and hundreds of women and children who now have to rebuild their lives and are. The $15,000 Beth Miriam raised out of the $750,000 our group raised is paying for food, shelter, and professional counseling that every refugee will benefit from. What we all did was change lives for the better.  

I want to share another story: Krakow was a centre of Jewish life in Europe before WWII. Of the 65,000 Jews in Krakow, almost none survived. But there is a Jewish quarter in Krakow that is still intact. Krakow was not bombed during the war either by the Germans, the Russians or the Americans. It is a mediaeval city that remains intact. It is almost like the Jewish quarter was waiting patiently to come alive again. And, I am happy to report that it is. 

Jews from Ukraine and Poland are rediscovering their Jewish connections in Krakow thanks to the extraordinary work of the Jewish Community Center, the only JCC to have been established, paid for, and supported by Prince Charles of England and who gets regular reports on its work. These Ukrainian Jews specifically can rebuild their Jewish lives and the Polish Jews, many of whom had families that had to go underground during the Soviet era, are beginning to blossom and discover who they are and where they come from. It is an extraordinary transformation. Krakow is coming alive Jewishly once again and its Jewish spirit is returning thanks to the Jewish organizations, the JCC, and the sense that Poland is once again a safe place for Jews. 

But, no matter what difficulties the Jews of Poland face, what challenges the Ukrainians in Poland face and what political and social dynamics have yet to reveal, the world has truly come together to do something extraordinary. To see Jews and gentiles from Israel, Mexico, Australia, the United States, Canada, Honduras, Poland, Russia, Spain and the Czeck Republic, and so many others that I met from all points tells me that the Jewish notion of tikkun olam – the perfecting of the world is alive and well. 

This trip was called ‘Hineini’ - a biblical phrase that it used to call a prophet. It literally means, ‘Here I am.’ But it is more than that. It is an enthusiastic response to a call for a need. But it is inaccurate. It should have been called ‘Hineinu’ - ‘Here WE are.’ We are the ones who sold lemonade in Little Silver to buy food. We are the ones who donated their religious school tzedakah coins to help pay for a professional crisis counselor. We are the ones who made sure to bring checks to the temple so I could take it to Poland or took the time to get online and make a donation. We are the ones who donated clothes and shlepped to Walmart to buy them out of underwear. We are the ones who emptied the shelves of their Motrin, Tylenol, and Aspirin. We, among so many other rabbis and their congregations, brought more than 4,000 pounds of goods. We are the ones – among millions of others - who helped a total stranger begin a new life. Hinenu – Here we are, indeed – and our presence continues to be keenly felt and deeply appreciated by those who had to flee their homes in a blink of an eye.  

Finally, one last story that lets us all know how our work and effort and support is making a difference.  

After one particularly emotionally and physically draining day, 3 other rabbis and I rented those little scooters to tootle around Krakow. And, of course, we had to take a picture. A young woman was walking the park where we were and we asked her to take our picture. She did willingly. We tried to say ‘thank you’ in Polish which we totally butchered, by the way. She said something seemingly innocuous but, on reflection, profound. She said in her native language, ‘ne polska, ukrainian’ - ‘Not Polish, Ukrainian.’ Here, in Krakow, was a Ukrainian refugee. Safe. Well-clothed. And happy to be safe from the dangers and death that only a few weeks before had enveloped her.  

In the blink of an eye, her life changed. And in the blink of an eye so did ours.  

In Poland, I brought all of you with me. And in Poland, in a way, we remain. None of us blinked when we had an opportunity to do something truly profound and life-changing. I brought your love and care with me and implanted it into the hearts of the people I reached. Your shem tov – your good name now reverberates at the border crossings, in Pshemeshl, in the crisis centers, in the streets of Krakow, in the joy of a seder, and in the tangibles of aspirin, underwear and stuffed animals. 

When Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, almost immediately the Jews started kvetching and wanted to return to Egypt for the ‘good old days of cucumbers and melons.’ Their minds were filled with regret about leaving Egypt since now they had to rebuild lives that they never knew. Today, Ukrainians are building their lives and, from what I can tell, are not complaining about the terror they fled. And the only reason is ‘Hineinu’ - here we were and here we helped and here our spirit remained. We responded in kindness and sympathy and love and we did so in the blink of an eye. And that is why this trip was life-changing for every one of us. 

Shabbat Shalom 


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