Homeless and hopeless: On-site report from the refugee crisis at the Ukrainian border
Photos: Elchanan Kotler, AP Images
Exhaustion, after fleeing on foot over hundreds of kilometers through the Ukrainian winter. Endless waiting, as refugees are processed through an international border. Misery, as families are separated, homes are abandoned, and children are left to wonder why.
The situation at the Poland-Ukraine border has to be seen to be believed. My visit there last week took me into the depths of some of the worst human suffering Europe has known since the end of World War II.
The driver slams on the brakes. We have just come around a sharp turn and almost plowed right into a column of people — a group of 30 to 40 people, walking together in a dense mass, gaunt and bent over with fatigue.
The group shuffles toward the side of the road, where a convoy of waiting shuttles will drive them to refugee centers here in Poland; some will opt for the one at the train station in nearby Prezmysl, while others will go a little further, to the giant hangar repurposed to accommodate refugees near the Korczowa crossing.
Our current destination is the Medyka crossing, in Poland’s Subcarpathian voivodeship. After a drive of several hours, we’ve reached the border. The driver stays in the car while I venture out with Tomasz, a local accompanying us as a translator. The further we go, the more misery we’ll see.
The thermometer here currently reads minus-8 degrees Celsius. The cold penetrates through every layer of clothing. I see a woman, probably in her eighties, who has just cleared the security check, totter and fall. A group of people standing at a nearby tent drop everything to run and help her. In an instant, a wheelchair is unfolded, her legs are covered with a thermal blanket, and she’s wheeled to the nearby field hospital — one of many. This particular one is run by a French organization, but there are hundreds more, all at maximum capacity.
Along the whole route stand kind people with signs in their hands. One offers lodging for six refugees in Slovakia, another couple can offer shelter to a woman and two children in Berlin, and yet another is offering a drive to anywhere in Poland.
Jewish presence among the crowds of refugees at the crossings is sparse. Israel’s Foreign Ministry has deployed around 100 personnel to the area of the crossings, working to extract Jews from the long traffic jams and help them through the strict security checks.
All this is more complicated than it looks. Think about the people who have had to wait in a line stretching 12 kilometers for over 24 hours. Suddenly, out of nowhere, all the people of a certain ethnic identity are whisked out, just like that. Of course this isn’t going to go over very well. Especially given the cold, the anxiety, the hunger.
This is one of the most complicated and sensitive operations the Israeli foreign service has ever engaged in. The Foreign Ministry set up a command post at one of the points on the Ukrainian border, which oversees the operations at the crossings.
For security reasons, I won’t mention the command center’s exact location. The level of security surrounding the compound it’s located in is sufficient evidence of the tenseness of the situation.
Despite the heavy blackout on the site, I’ve been allowed to come and see for myself what Jews mean by solidarity. Even the greatest of cynics would struggle to remain unmoved at the sight of the Foreign Ministry’s ability to reach any Jew, no matter his location or the chances of rescuing him. I saw in real time the efforts made to help our brothers in distress as they dodge mortars and sniper fire.
It’s a late hour of the night. The daily situation assessment has just concluded. Ten people take their places around the large monitors. Before them are dense lists and electronic machinery that enables them to track traffic congestion on the various routes in real time. The phones never stop ringing, and as the hours pass and the siege of Kyiv tightens, the pressure and difficulty of the rescuers’ mission only intensifies.
In his day job, Roi Rosenblitt serves as Israel’s ambassador to the Pacific island nations. He’s an experienced diplomat, who has served as Israel’s ambassador to a number of war-torn African countries, and as consul to Qatar, Egypt, Russia, and Oman. He greets me warmly.
“From the moment the crisis in Ukraine began,” he says, “the Foreign Ministry and our representation in Kyiv jumped into action. As the situation escalated, our people transferred from Kyiv to Lvov and from there to Poland. The staff of the embassy here was reinforced with foreign service members from other embassies, and I also volunteered to participate in the efforts.
“Our task is to help Israelis who want to leave Ukraine. We have other command centers around the borders of Ukraine, in Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. But most of those fleeing Ukraine head to Poland, and that’s why they apply to us.
“At the same time,” says Rosenblitt, “we’ve started a humanitarian effort to help the Ukrainians. Last week our aid agency donated 100 tons of medical and humanitarian aid.
“Most of those who want to leave through Poland come via Lviv,” he says. “From there we run shuttles to the border, taking special care that the Israelis come through safely, and accompanying them to points from which they can continue to Warsaw or Krakow on their way to Israel.
“The complexity,” says Rosenblitt, “meets us in sensitive humanitarian cases. We throw in all our influence to cut through bureaucracy and red tape that would ordinarily be considered cardinal.
“In many cases our people use information from satellite footage to help Israelis stuck in traffic. We direct them to alternate routes and shortcuts that aren’t as crowded, from which they can get to the crossings faster.”
WAR AND PEACE: Uman, a German of Iranian extraction, expresses his friendship for Israel as he takes in refugees
The Ukrainian government has enacted an emergency decree prohibiting males aged 18-60 from leaving the country, which poses real problems for Israelis with dual citizenship. Every Israeli whose name appears on a Ukrainian passport list has to dispute his passage with the authorities.
The Ukrainians aren’t eager to let go of all this human capital, who could be sent into battle against the Russians, and the Israeli foreign service staff at the crossings have to battle tooth and nail to release every single one of them.
In Krakow, Ambassador Rosenblitt tells me, you’ll find many refugees, most of them chareidi, who will continue to Israel from there. I meet one of them that same night.
His name is Moishy Horowitz. He’s a resident of Uman and one of the best-known and well-liked members of the local kehillah. He owns a successful shuttle service and a matzah bakery, both of which are out of commission since the Russian invasion. Taking a difficult route, he managed to escape with his family on the first day of the war. After accompanying his family to Israel, he returned to Krakow to develop and expand a shuttle service.
“On Thursday morning, when the invasion began, I wanted to send my wife and children to Israel,” he recalls. “She had a flight from Kyiv at 11 in the morning, so we left for the airport at 4 a.m. We drove for about an hour, until we started hearing massive explosions. I realized everything’s closed. I happened to have my passport with me, so on the spur of the moment, I decided to come with them and leave everything behind. We decided it was dangerous to stay in Ukraine.”
By then it was six in the morning. People were beginning to stir and Moishy was afraid of getting stuck in traffic.
“The nearest border was Moldova,” he relates. “And there are three crossings between that country and Ukraine. On the face of it, the easiest route to take would be the Transnistria crossing. The problem was, that area was swarming with pro-Russian separatists. It’s a very dangerous area. I called all the drivers and they all recommended different routes. But then I found out that the other two roads had already been bombed, so they were out of the question.
“I saw there was no choice, and we went through Transnistria anyway. When we arrived there, the Ukrainian driver didn’t want to go in, and dropped us off with all our luggage near the border. We started walking on foot toward the border with the children. The soldiers harassed us a little, but ultimately allowed us to cross to the Moldovan side.
“When we reached Kishinev [the capital of Moldova], a lot of friends who had stayed in Uman in order to wait and see what was the safest escape route decided to take that route. But fighting broke out there the moment they arrived. An hour later that road was bombed too and became irrelevant.”
On Thursday night, a day before Shabbos came in, the Moldovan capital was flooded by Jewish refugees looking for somewhere to stay for Shabbos. The Horowitz family decided to move on, toward Hungary.
“We wanted to spend Shabbos by Rav Yeshayaleh of Kerestir, zechuso yagen aleinu,” Moishy says. “We arranged a convoy of 15 cars and drove for 12 hours from one end of Romania to the other. We reached the Hungarian border shortly before Shabbos came in, and made it into Kerestir seconds before shkiah.”
Moishy didn’t just rescue his own family. Even now he continues to help those left behind. “We arranged hundreds of buses out of Uman, and there are currently only 30 or 40 people left there, who refuse to leave under any circumstances. I hope we’ll be able to get them out too sooner or later.”
Of all the crossings, says Horowitz, the Polish one is the best. The security check is more flexible and welcoming, and you can get from there to anywhere in Europe.
A few steps past the checkpoint we meet Svetlana. She seems at her wit’s end. She’s just gone through the final security check on her way to freedom. In one hand she holds a small suitcase, all that remains of her worldly possessions. With her other hand she leads her young son. Two meters further on, under the streetlight, a teenaged girl is sobbing uncontrollably into her phone. That’s her daughter. The three have just parted from the man of the house. He accompanied them to here, to the Medyka crossing, before turning back.
He’s barred from leaving the country by the government’s emergency decrees, but I’m given to understand that he wouldn’t have left anyway. A fierce national feeling is inspiring the men, and not only them, to take up arms in defense of their homeland.
The translator having communicated my condolences, we catch up with Dima, a Ukrainian citizen who has just parted from his wife and children, and doesn’t know when he’ll see them next. He walks briskly, his face fixed on the Ukrainian horizon with a determined expression. Dima is 30. He’s lived in Germany for the past two years. The option of taking advantage of his draft exemption didn’t even occur to him. Like many of his friends, he’s heading in the opposite direction, eastward, into the maelstrom.
Later in the evening, on the Ukrainian side of the border, we meet Ivan. His car is packed with food, medicines, and protective vests.
“Everything is for our military,” he declares, beaming proudly.
I hear stories of the contempt heaped on men who have joined the flight of their women and children. Despite this, here and there one can still find men who managed to evade the draft. Men who come here alone will be pushed to end of the line, no matter how valid their passports. But even if they come with family, they face the risk of being sent back.
It’s hard to judge them. Their lot isn’t fair, either. The shooting doesn’t stop for a moment and the mortars can’t distinguish military from civilian targets. How can anyone judge Dmitri, for example? He lives in Zaporozhye, near the nuclear reactor that was attacked last week. Who can tell him that he wouldn’t endanger the lives of his family and loved ones by staying home?
He’s accompanying his 84-year-old mother. It hasn’t been easy walking this whole way. But here she is.
The waiting lines on the Ukrainian side of the border, on the way to freedom, are inhuman. The chill seeps into your bones. Young children in particular are struggling to hold up in these conditions. Some suffer in silence, others look for someone to unburden themselves to. In these moments, journalists are the natural address. It’s hard to see a mother bursting into tears at the suffering of her child.
They all have the same question. “What does Putin want from us? What could ever justify the death of civilians and small children?” They unburden their hearts into the recording device in my hand, weeping with despair.
I continue on my way, passing several villages near the border. Finally we’re stopped by a police car. An officer with drawn weapon demands that we identify ourselves. I step out, show him my press pass, and move to take a photo.
“Don’t even think about it,” the cop tells me.
“But I came here all the way from Israel,” I plead. “Just one photo!”
The cop hesitates. Another police car pulls to a halt next to us and the officer confers briefly with its occupants. “There are a lot of secret service people around here,” a ruddy-faced officer tells me from inside the car. “The moment you pull your camera out, they’ll order us to take you in for questioning.”
It’s enough. We turn back to the Polish border. Traffic is standing almost still. At the sides of the road pedestrians straggle toward the crossing. Everyone here knows that in this area, a place that seems perfectly safe one day can turn into a war zone the next. The feeling is shared by refugees and hosts alike.
Vladimir is a resident of Kharkiv, with dual citizenship. He reached Poland after a 36-hour (!) drive. The horrors he describes leave no room for the imagination. He saw dozens of dead bodies lying prone and abandoned in the streets of his hometown. After a Russian aerial strike on Kharkiv, he decided that he’d had enough. His and his family’s lives had to come first.
“Putin went crazy,” he tells me in broken English. “We knew he was crazy, but not that crazy. On a random day, for no reason, to start shooting down innocent civilians…”
“And the world is silent,” cuts in his wife. “We’re being butchered and the Western leaders send us encouraging words instead of troops.”
Tomasz, the Polish translator accompanying me, isn’t Jewish, but speaks fluent Hebrew from his years on the staff of the Jewish-Polish journal Das Yiddishe Vort. Our meeting seems to have been providential, as he worked with my grandfather, Rav Pinchas Menachem Yoskovitch ztz”l, who served for many years as the chief rabbi of Poland. Tomasz used to help him translate articles he wrote for the Polish press. My grandfather spoke the language well, but Tomasz helped polish his writing.
As we walk, we relive the famous meeting between my zeide ztz”l and Pope John Paul II, in the early 2000s. The pope was on a state visit to Poland and Zeide was invited to meet him. At that time a fierce controversy was raging in Jewish circles over the Catholic church’s decision to erect crosses near the Auschwitz Memorial. At their meeting, Zeide pleaded with the pope to have them removed.
“Auschwitz is not in need of religious symbols to confirm its sacredness,” he told the pope. “Let the blood of millions of Jews calling out from its earth suffice.”
“For many years,” Tomasz told me, “I thought about leaving Poland. I was ashamed of her history. Now for the first time, I’m proud of her. My people is making amends for its shameful silence and even cooperation during the Holocaust.”
Seventy-seven years later, the lesson seems to have been at least partially learned — but not by everyone. I hear of gangs of skinheads patrolling the streets in some cities to keep refugees out. The Polish police has a hard time keeping the peace in some peripheral towns. In Premysl, for example, a quarter of the electorate lent their votes to the far-right Confederation party in the last elections.
But this remains an outlying phenomenon. The vast majority of Poles as well as their European neighbors are pitching in to help. People are offering sleeping quarters, free rides, warm clothes, and medicine. The demand still vastly exceeds the supply, but more and more generous people are pouring into the area to open their hearts and their homes.
The calls of the adults mingle with the weeping of infants. A mother and her two daughters are picked up by a woman from Wroclaw. They’ll stay with her until the storm passes. And here another family finds shelter, and another.
The closer to the border we go, the fainter the cries become. A strange silence falls on the scene and an endless procession of people on foot wends out of the stricken land.
REST AT LAST After days on the move, the refugees get a square meal and a bed before they face their future
I leave the Medyka crossing behind and continue toward the Korczowa refugee center. On the way, our attention is caught by a heavy aircraft passing overhead. A closer look reveals that it’s an American transport plane coming in to land. We later find out that it is only one plane in a convoy of 14 that landed at an airport on the Polish-Ukrainian border carrying military equipment valued at $350 million.
Half an hour’s drive later, we arrive at the refugee center. Outside we’re greeted by a bustling scene: Dozens of soldiers are unloading equipment from trucks, fast food stands are offering warm and nutritious meals, and dozens of buses are filling up and heading out in various directions.
When we go inside, we are astounded by the vision that greets us. Across a huge hall, surrounded by several smaller ones, lie thousands of beds and mattresses, on or next to which, are a mass of women, children, and the elderly.
It’s evening. The lights are still on, the noise is deafening, but many of the refugees are sleeping anyway. Others sit at the edge of their bed, a cup of tea or bowl of soup in their hands, the suffering look in their eyes revealing something of what they’ve gone through, and what they can expect in the future.
They’ll be here for 24 hours. Rest up, refuel, and continue on their way. There isn’t enough room for them to stay here indefinitely, and they have to utilize every moment to replenish their energies for the long journey ahead.
At the side of the hall, near the exit, is a counter. People crowd around it, listening for offers of hospitality from all over Europe.
At the side I meet a couple with a sign in their hands. Jolanda and Uman, of Iranian extraction, live in Bonn, Germany. They’re willing to host indefinitely a mother and two children. The kippah on my head leaves no room for doubt: “We really love Israel,” Uman tells me.
This nice moment of peace between an Israeli and an Iranian is interrupted by another man’s excited cry. “Rzeszow, Rzeszow,” he cries, offering a free ride to the Galician city.
The names of other cities ring out. No one’s offer will be refused.
“For some Ukrainians,” Tomasz tells me, “this is an opportunity to relocate. Many European countries are offering temporary citizenship for three years, with an option to extend when it expires. Most Ukrainians are very patriotic and won’t permanently depart from their homeland, but not a few dream of nothing but to leave it all behind and start a new life, far from the conflict and the poverty.”
Igor sits on a wooden platform outside the compound, his expression blank, haunted.
“The smell of the explosions and the dead won’t leave me,” he tells me. “I don’t know how I’ll come back after what I saw.”
He shows me a picture of a masked Ukrainian soldier carrying a newborn baby wrapped in a blue coat. In the background can be seen the ruins of a bombed bridge, a smashed, overturned car, and an abandoned dog.
“I don’t know who took this picture,” he says, “but for me it encapsulates the whole war — ruin and destruction and new life springing up even in the worst conceivable place.”
At two in the morning I reach my hotel room. The minibar is stocked with cold drinks and warm water runs smoothly from the faucets.
I remember the woman leading her son at the Medyka crossing; the young boy who can barely feel his legs anymore and falters slowly forward toward the dreamed-of freedom; the elderly woman who fainted over the wheelchair after standing at the checkpoint for 15 hours. And also the picture of the little kid from Zaporozhye, just 11 years old, who escaped to Slovakia alone.
His family had to stay behind and he was sent on alone. All he had was a passport, the phone number of relatives in Slovakia, and the hope of meeting kind people.
“We’ll never forgive you for what you’ve done to our children,” a Ukrainian parliament member posted under the photo.
As of now, the atmosphere at the Ukrainian border near the Medyka crossing is tense. New reports of massive aerial attacks expected on the capital Kyiv and the second-largest city Kharkiv have led the Americans to renew their offer to Zelensky of crossing the border and leading the fight from the safety of Poland. This isn’t capitulation, this isn’t surrender, just move your office to a safe location and continue the war from there.
Zelensky refuses. Like Churchill in his time, despite a fundamental difference in temperament, he chooses to hold firm and continue sending speeches and messages of encouragement to the front from his bunker in Kyiv. This decision is perceived here as heroic. On the eve of the war, the Jewish president’s public approval rating was at an all-time low. Now he enjoys the support of 92 percent of the country’s citizens. Zelensky is risking his life, and millions are following his example.
When you’re here at the Ukrainian border it becomes easier to understand the region’s DNA. The repercussions aren’t in doubt — the Kremlin will make the Ukrainians pay a heavy price for their refusal to capitulate, a price not seen in Europe since World War II.
“The president posted a picture of Jews [the word he used was Chassidics] praying at the Kosel,” I heard from furious Ukrainians on their side of the border. “It’s easy for you to raise our flag. But to supply us with defensive weapons, Iron Dome, something that could protect us against Putin’s missiles, that you refuse to do. To defend innocent people, that you refuse to do.”
They report that in the big cities, food is running out. Truckers are refusing to carry supplies to Kyiv and Kharkiv, in fear of being attacked by highway robbers who are taking advantage of the situation to rob travelers.
On the Ukrainian side of the Medyka crossing, many frightened Ukrainians told me of prison inmates being armed and sent to the front. “It’s obvious that they won’t all use them against the Russians. It’s terrifying.”
“If the West had stepped up to equip us in time, none of this would have happened,” they say. “Now that the country is on fire, they remember to cluck their tongues in disapproval. At the end of the day, we’re practically alone.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 903)
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