By Bernadine Joselyn, ACURA, 4/26/22
Bernadine Joselyn is a member of the board of the American Committee for US-Russia Accord (ACURA).
Before the war, I had no real connection to Poland. My friend Melanie’s grandparents were Polish, and some years ago she’d visited and came home with pictures of the church in the village where they were married.
I’d made a brief trip to Warsaw in the early 1990s, on at TDY [Temporary Duty] assignment from the American Embassy in Moscow. While almost every detail of the trip is blurred and gone, I do retain a visceral memory of the Soviet Palace of Culture and Science, completed in 1955, the year before I was born.
With its elaborate combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles, the “Palace” was instantly recognizable as a pompous version of Stalin’s “seven sisters” towers built in Moscow after the war. A gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland, Warsaw’s iteration was built from the rubble of a city devastated by the Nazis. Hitler ordered his army to raze as it retreated from Warsaw; nearly ninety percent of the city was destroyed. Then, by 1955, it was rebuilt.
At the time of my first visit, on the tail of the revolutionary wave of 1989 that eventually would topple a forty-year post-war run of communist rule in much of Central and Eastern Europe, private retail commerce was booming in Warsaw. In an eclectic display of primitive capitalism, out from behind tiny dirty windows of thousands (easy) of kiosks lining Warsaw’s streets, new entrepreneurs purveyed a crazy mash-up inventory of nylons, cigarettes, gloves, beer, vodka, bubble gum, newspapers, condoms, head-phones, cassette tapes, Fanta, Coke, snacks, you name it, that somehow made each kiosk unique and each the same.
At that time, Moscow had kiosks like these, too; but a difference was that here in Warsaw, the kiosks also sold bananas.! Bananas for sale! Still a great luxury in Moscow, the sight of bananas for sale on Warsaw streets felt thrilling. Daring, even. Better times were coming to the people of the former Soviet Bloc.
A few months later I accompanied then U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jack F. Matlock, Jr. and Polish-born [then former] National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski on a train trip to the site of the Katyn massacre, in Russia’s Smolenskaya Oblast, just east of the border with Belarus’. In a statement from the then still unmarked site, Brezinski called on Mikhail Gorbachev to admit that it was the Soviet’s NKVD, and not Nazi Germany, that had executed nearly 22,000 Polish military officers at the Katyn Forest, an admission Gorbachev later made.
Despite my two advanced degrees in international affairs, other than these two personal experiences in Poland, my awareness of “things Polish,” of the role of Polish culture and identity in the world, was pretty limited. I knew that Pope John Paul II was Polish. I knew about Lech Walesa of Solidarnost’, Frederick Chopin, Madame Curie, Copernicus, and I had an understanding that Polish is a western Slavic language, though written in Latin Script. One of my classmates in my Foreign Service Officer Russian Language Class was a Polish speaker, and the language was just similar and different enough to really mess up his Russian.
Fast forward thirty-two years to February 24, 2022, the day Putin directs the Russian Army across the border in a Special Operation to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine, and “liberate” the oppressed Russian-speaking people of the Donbas.
When the news comes, I’m at home with my husband, Denys, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the town where we met and married. Denys was born in Kyiv to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father; now he’s taken US citizenship.
My Moscow-born son, Alexander, now twenty-three, is in Hollywood.
Denys’s parents, Olga and Anatoliy, are at home in Kyiv, in the apartment where Denys grew up. Alex and I met them there eight years ago on a visit to Alex’s Russian father in Moscow, their first meeting since we left Moscow, when Alex was two.
Alex’s father, Valery, is at home in Moscow, where he still lives in the apartment where he grew up, in the House on the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment, one of those “Seven Sisters,” built by Stalin, this one ended up being used to house party members. The gargantuan complex was completed in 1940. His grandmother, come to the city from her village, found a job washing floors for the KGB. Through her modest position she managed to be assigned a “corner” of a four-room multi-family “kommunalka” apartment. After forty years, she, her daughter and grandson had outlived the other original co-inhabitants, and at the time of Moscow’s great housing privatization, in 1989, the entire top floor apartment with balcony views over the Moskva River and the Kremlin, came into the private ownership of Valery’s mother. And since her death in February 2020, to him. He’s lived there his entire life.
In the spring of 1999, a year before I left Moscow with my infant son, NATO, without UN approval, launched an aerial bombing campaign against Yugoslavia prompted by its ethnic cleansing of Albanians. As one of the founders of Russia’s new “Liberal Party,” one of many to form in the wake of the fall of Communist party control, Valeriy was vociferously opposed to that bombing, which killed about a thousand Yugoslav forces, and half as many civilians. That action marked the beginning of Valery’s sharp anti-American turn, a hostility that grew throughout the Clinton administration, and contributed to his determination to stay in Russia. He neither saw nor sought a future for himself in the West.
Valeriy continues to hold the job he had when Alex and I left Moscow on July 4, 2000; senior staff for the International Affairs Committee of Russia’s Federal Council.
From my perch working for a rural community building foundation in north central Minnesota, I had maintained my ties to Russia through a shared cultural connection with Denys – we often spoke Russian together at home – but also as a member of the board of a couple of organizations dedicated to better cultural understanding between the United States and the countries of the former Soviet Union and to moderation in U.S. foreign affairs. I had watched the buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine with alarm, but like most informed observers, did not believe Putin would actually invade. It would be too costly.
In fact, before then war, I was, and pretty much remain, aligned with a small, but maligned sub-set of Western observers who assign to the West much of the blame for Putin’s threating behavior. Especially to George W. Bush – with his relentless push for NATO membership for Georgia and then Ukraine – and also to Bill Clinton, with his “democracy building” in the East, of which I was a part throughout most of my diplomatic service in Moscow.
Ever since the 2008 Bucharest Summit, when NATO, ignoring Bush’s vow of “not one inch” [east for NATO], issued a “compromise” statement promising that Ukraine “will” join NATO, Putin had warned the West of his red line. The U.S. wouldn’t allow the Soviet Union to put missiles on its border in Cuba, and had taken the world to the brink of nuclear war to make sure it didn’t. Putin was no less likely to allow NATO weapons on its border with Ukraine. And the West knew it.
And yet, a military invasion by Russia still seemed, to borrow a tortured metaphor from the not-so-distant World War, Beyond the Pale. When it happened, I was stunned. There on TV was Putin recognizing the breakaway self-proclaimed “Peoples’ Republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. Now he’s announcing that, to defend them and their oppressed Russian-speaking residents, his is authorizing a “special operation” into Ukraine. His purpose, he says, is to ensure the “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, and to block its entry into NATO. The “operation” was beginning as he spoke.
In the first days of the war, as Russian troops approached Kyiv, Denys and I were gripped with fear for his parents and relatives in their homes in the southern outskirts of the city. We trembled for them as a long convoy of Russian armored vehicles lined up through the northern suburbs of Ilpwin and Bucha, later to be devastated in the wake of the forces’s retreat. Denys’s mother is crippled with Rheumatoid Arthritis and in pain to move. Their house had no back-up electricity, and if the power went out, they would lose both water and heat.
Nevertheless, his parents were reluctant to leave. It was as if they were listening to different information; and they were. Both were sympathetic to Putin’s arguments, and told Denys they agreed that his generation had been “Infected” by Ukrainian nationalism. Under previous President Poroshenko, the Verkhovna Rada had voted to add to the country’s constitution it’s intention to join NATO, and had mandated the use of Ukrainian language in public schools and all public events.
As Russian troops bore down on Kyiv, it seemed only the threat of Denys flying there himself to drag them out that persuaded his parents reluctantly to agree to leave the city. Their nephew drove them in his car, timing the trip to be within curfew. They were stopped by home front soldiers at check points several times along the way, but made it before dark to a relative’s house in a small village about two hundred kilometers to the south. There was a well, a cellar full of preserved food, no steps to get in or out of the house, and a garden where Denys’s mother could sit in the sun. Their nephew, his wife and their two small children joined them there. Thanks to a cellphone connection his folks were able to continue to tune into Russian media via the computers they had brought with them from Kyiv.
There they stayed for five days or so, in seemingly comparative safely, until one night they heard air defense sirens. Turns out the village was near a hydro-dam on the Dnepr River, and Ukrainian troops were near-by to defend it, a target for Russian strikes. After much deliberation, they decided they’d be safer in Kyiv after all, and returned. There they remain, as Russian forces continue to withdraw from the capitol towards the contested republics in the east. They are hoping to get a generator. They are hunkering down and hoping for the best.
In the first days of the war, one of the organizations on whose board I serve was forced to grapple with how to respond to Putin’s invasion. With the word “Russian” in our name, we were challenged to say something, to do something. The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, for example, painted over their huge marquee sign with the Yellow and Blue colors of the Ukrainian flag. We took a poll of board members: with Russia suddenly toxic, what could/ should we do with our mission? Double down on citizen diplomacy… two-track it, like during the Cold War? Be anti-war, and support anti-War Russians? Be pro-Ukrainian? What about the new diaspora? Something else?
Another organization’s board I’m on had been struggling over a statement about What is to Be Done?, only to withdraw it at the last minute when the invasion happened.
In the days just after, America’s foreign policy hawks had a field day. Anti-Russian vilification reached proportions worthy of caricature. One foreign policy analyst told colleagues in dismay, “As I speak, legislation is being introduced in Congress to cancel all Sister City relationships with Russia and send home Russian Fulbright Fellows – and that’s the Democrats’ bill!” Another said, “When it comes to Russia, the parties are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”
Five days or so into the war I decided to text Valery on the Viber app he uses, popular in Russia, to check-in. I wrote that, regardless of his views on what was happening, I wanted him to know that I was thinking of him, that Denys’s parents were in danger in Kyiv, and that the war was very confusing to Alex, who strongly identified as Russian and, like his dad, had long admired Putin.
Valery wrote back that it was too bad that some old people in Kyiv might have to be the innocent victims of Putin’s “Special Operation,” but that they had their nationalistic, Nazified government to thank, and they should bring their grievances there.
About two weeks into the war, our lives still on hold as we did little but consume the news, someone forwarded me an email from an organization recruiting volunteers to go to the Polish-Ukrainian border to help war evacuees. It hadn’t occurred to me to even imagine myself in that role, but here was a chance.
I clicked through the short application. Languages spoken, it asked. Proud to check Russian, I was soon put in my place to see the full list of over a dozen sought-after languages: Ukrainian, Polish, German, Hebrew, French… Indeed, the ID badges eventually issued to us listed the languages each volunteer spoke; some folks’ tags boasted impressive lists. The record I saw was six.
The application’s next question, about skills, was even more humbling. Could I: Drive a truck; Set up Internet networks; Deliver licensed medical assistance; Provide psychological or other counseling; Cook; Interpret….? Ummm…. Not so much. In the end, it seemed all I had to offer was my Russian language skills and foreign service experience in Moscow and other cities across the former Soviet Union. I pushed Send.
The next day they called me back. Was I ready to leave on Tuesday? This was Thursday. Did I understand this was ”The Joint” – formally the American Jewish Joint Distribution Center, or JDC? The woman on the phone explained in Russian-accented English that “The Joint” had been formed in 1914 to support and protect Jews stranded in then Ottoman-controlled Palestine, and that it has been providing assistance to Jews fleeing persecution and war ever since. It would be a two-week assignment on the border with Ukraine, receiving and supporting evacuees as they fled the war.
With the support of my work colleagues and family I was able to say Yes. I signed up. Luckily, I had a ready-to-go valid passport and COVID vaccines and boosters. I packed a back-pack and small carry-on with items I imagined myself handing out to people as they crossed over: boxes of raisins, bags of nuts, chocolate bars, gum, coloring books and crayons, socks, rain ponchos, coffee…. I made it all up. Most of the stuff I bought turned out to be useless, though I did end up leaving the food with the folks at World Central Kitchen, to put out along with so much else, in the never-closing round-the-clock feeding operation they ran at the evacuee center.
Denys found and bought my tickets and drove me to Duluth. I flew to Minneapolis, then Helsinki, then Warsaw, arriving around 1 PM, the first of my team to get there. After meeting up with the other two women, and a quick stop at the JDC headquarters in Warsaw, where we were issued our JDC de rigor Israeli-blue jackets and shook hands with the overall coordinator for Poland, we bundled into a van for the three-hour drive south and west to a small and tidy “zayezd” – tavern-cum-bowling-alley-with-bar-restaurant, where we had rooms for the duration of our stay. Each morning, our mostly-Polish-only-speaking-driver, Kuba, would meet us at the front door and drive us the twenty-minute trip past fields and woods and small hamlets to the refugee center. The roads were narrow, tarred, with no shoulder, winding right through tiny communities of tidy brick houses each planted with fences of cedar bushes. In the still fallow fields, we saw miniature Roe Deer and Storks returning to their nests.
The evacuee center at Korcwoza, about twenty kilometers from the actual border, was in a huge wholesale warehouse space, repurposed for the evacuees. It was one of a half dozen set up by the Polish government, with lots of international assistance, to receive and process the over four million mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainian war evacuees flooding into Poland as a result of Russia’s attack. Signage was in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and sometimes, English. The kitchen, staffed by the amazing World Central Kitchen, served delicious hot food around the clock.
An entire room was filled with used clothing and other donated supplies, like a huge, messy Thrift Store, all for free. There were piles of strollers and wheel chairs. Back packs and suitcases. And mountains of clothing and shoes.
At a free store counter volunteers handed out soap, shampoo, feminine hygiene products, diapers and wipes. There was a generous pile of pet supplies, dog and cat food, and animal carriers and leashes.
And along with the piles and piles of cots, there were piles and piles of blankets and pillows. But no showers. And no laundry of blankets.
Some French people had set up and staffed a room for teenagers, with a ping pong table and video games. There was a pre-school room where, to my chagrin, volunteers were showing a video cartoon about Jesus on a loop.
Guarded by Polish National Guard and firefighters, the center was staffed by folks from a surprisingly far-flung mishmash of organizations that comprise what can only be described as the international humanitarian and crisis assistance complex. Besides the International Committees of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, I saw represented Doctors without Borders, International Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witness, the United Nations, the International Rescue Committee, Rotary, Oxfam, World Vision, Care International, and many others, including, of course, “The Joint.”
There were also many self-appointed “volunteers” who had simply shown up. Plenty of the folks I met – from London, Brisbane, Lisbon, Copenhagen – hadn’t waited for an application to accidently float into their inboxes to get here. One tatted up couple from Denver, with no family or professional ties to this part of the world, explained that after hearing the news one day they simply bought plane tickets, went to the airport, rented a car when they landed in Warsaw, and drove here to the Center.
We met in the World Central Kitchen operation, which handled food preparation for the whole center, as part of that day’s food crew. Over the course of six hours, we made about six hundred sandwiches, and as many soups and salads, that we individually packaged and packed up in bins of fifty to be distributed by truck and car and handed out free to evacuees at train stations and bus stations across Poland.
The scale of the center’s food operation alone was mind-boggling. I worked in the kitchen three days, and each day a different mix of volunteers showed up to take instructions from the Polish-only speaking chef-in-charge. The part of the warehouse devoted to food preparation was freshly restocked each morning waist-deep with crates of fresh produce from somewhere, crusty rolls that were soft and chewy inside, watercress for the sandwiches, creamy Dutch cheese and delectable German cold cuts. Salads included nuts and raisins and fancy homemade dressing. It was a labor of love. We rocked out to a hip-hop sound track hosted by three young volunteers, also tatted, from London. They were sleeping in their van in the center parking lot.
The week my team arrived, the number of evacuees arriving at the center had fallen from five thousand a day to just five hundred a day; but even so, each person, each family, was a story of loss, trauma and need, and the effect in aggregate was overwhelming.
With Ukrainian men between the ages of sixteen and sixty forbidden from leaving the country, the evacuees were overwhelmingly women and children. Some elderly men. The few men of fighting age stood out, and the involuntary question, “Why are You here?,” would sound involuntarily in my head. I feared they could see it, unasked in my eyes. And not just mine. I overheard one man’s half-sentence, “… they wouldn’t take me, medical….”
Some of the women and children had fled under bombing, with nothing; some had had a few hours to prepare. Some had been dropped off at the border by their husbands and fathers, and then walked across, where they got on buses for the short ride to our center. Some had come by bus from L’viv, just a short ride away. Many arrived with no more than a couple of plastic grocery bags worth of possessions. Most had phones; their connection to the world. Those without were the truly disposed. A phone was the first order of need.
Many people came with pets. I saw one girl with two white mice in her shirt pocket. A few cats. Mostly dogs, mostly little ones. One woman told me she had stood nine hours in line at the border to get the paperwork she needed to take her dog with her. One family, whose business was dog breeding, arrived needing a temporary home not only for themselves, but for their seven dogs.
But how temporary? That was the second question we asked the families, for it determined the range of options we would offer. For the duration of war? Or for good? Are you planning to return? The answer often was, there is nothing left to return to.
The first question we asked the families was: Do you have anyone to take you in? Most said No. In that case, after directing them to the counter where they could get free the SIM cards they needed for their phones to work in Poland, we helped them carry their bags to the central information counter. There volunteers, with their list of spoken languages written in big magic marker on their badges, stood ready to answer questions about how to get from where we were to almost any other point in Europe.
Around the great hall were displayed flags of receiving countries, with volunteers standing underneath at makeshift “counters” of up-turned wooden shipping crates, ready to answer questions and welcome evacuees to their country.
Compared to the generous and hassle-free options offered by the many European countries represented, the path to getting on a list for the United States was daunting and fraught. I met only one family, with friends in Canada, even remotely interested in going to North America; plus, it was so far. The European Union had granted automatic visitor status to Ukrainian war evacuees. Many of the countries were providing free buses to host families ready to take them in. Free medical care and insurance, a daily expenses allowance, free schooling and language classes. Job placement assistance. By this point, about a month into the war, nearly four million evacuees had crossed the border into Poland, and Poland was “full,” as people were saying. Center volunteers were pointing the evacuees further into Europe.
To my amazement, some of these rescue systems had been stood up by individual volunteers just since the war began. One guy I met from Copenhagen, Mark, was kind of like that couple from Denver, only with a real plan. He organized a list of volunteer host families in Denmark, recruited a gratis bus company, and showed up at the center to offer evacuees temporary homes in Denmark. In one week, he placed one hundred twenty-five people with host families. Another guy from Stockholm did the same thing. The Swedish government was offering social security payments to Ukrainian evacuees for up to two years. I helped them process evacuees who were HIV-positive, and one with Tuberculosis. I remembered my days in Counselor Affairs with the U.S. Foreign Service; how the U.S. made would-be immigrants show up for their final processing with actual chest x-rays to prove they were free of TB. The immigrant visa waiting room would be a sea of people clutching their over-sized manila x-ray envelopes.
Our first night in Poland we drove straight from Warsaw’s Federick Chopin airport to the border at Medyka to assist an ambulance transfer of special evacuees; a group of frail elders who had survived the Holocaust. Now they were being evacuated again. The five had been driven by a Doctors without Borders ambulance crew from eastern Ukraine to the border with Poland, where they were being met by a German ambulance crew that would drive them to a hospital in Berlin, before flying on to their final destination in Israel. One of the elderly men told me he was eight the first time he was forced to evacuate his home; now he’s eighty-eight.
The German crew spoke neither Ukrainian nor Russian, and the Ukrainian evacuees no German, so our job was to help translate for the medics as they settled the evacuees in the ambulance bus, strapping them into cots for the ten-hour ride ahead, taking their blood pressure, asking about any medications.
After the ambulance set off, we ducked into the welcome tent right there at the border. It was, like all the centers I saw, very well stocked with all manner of supplies that put my hapless backpack offerings to shame. There were shelves stacked with baby food and supplies of all ilk, stuffed animals, books, clothes, hot food and drink. Sleeping bags. An orthodox icon set up in the corner, with chairs for worship.
During the weeks I was at the center, most of the evacuees were arriving from areas then under active Russian attack: Mariupol; Dnipro; Zaporzhzhia; Kherson; Kramatorsk; Kharkiv. One woman had driven from Ukraine’s western border to Mariupol to rescue her invalid mother who was trapped there alone, with no way to escape. Under rocket fire she and her husband drove their car into the devastated city. They had had no communication with her mom for over a week, and arrived to find her building bombed. When they opened the door of the sixth-floor apartment, they found her mother sitting waiting, with her documents in plastic bag on her lap. Neighbors had been bringing her tea and bread. The son-in-law carried her down the collapsing stairwell and they put her in a shopping cart to wheel her through the debris-choked streets to their car. Having made it back out of the city on bombed roads, managing to refuel the car along the way, she and her mother and husband were now sitting before me, about to be on their way by van to Berlin, and then, thanks to Joint, on to Israel, where they lived by right of the husband’s Jewish heritage. The mother sat silently in her wheelchair, rocking.
Another woman whom I aided arrived alone. She told me she was looking for her sons, ages ten and six. As their city was coming under increased attack, with air raid sirens every day and night, she reluctantly signed a paper giving permission for her estranged husband to take their sons with him and his new girlfriend out of the country. She couldn’t leave, because she was caring for her ailing mother. When her mother died two weeks later, she left for the border, texting her husband for their whereabouts. He acknowledged her text, but refused to disclose where he was with their sons. She knew only that they were in Germany “somewhere.”
I helped her find a space in the center to claim a cot where she could spend the night, and after that would catch sight of her, invariably on her phone. The third morning she told me that, in the absence of any news, she had decided to continue on to Berlin; in any case, she’d be in Germany. Closer to her sons. He couldn’t hide them from her indefinitely, she reasoned. The boys were asking for her.
Several of the evacuee families were Roma. One family group included seven people from four generations. They didn’t want to be separated, which meant that after five days, they were still at the Center, unhoused. One young Roma woman, in particular, caught my attention. Visibly pregnant, with an infant on one arm and a toddler on the other hand, she had not a moment’s rest. The children’s faces were dirty. They were crabby and unruly. An older woman I assumed was her mother scolded her. She looked very tired.
One morning I approached an old woman, who said her name was Anya, who was standing alone clutching a single plastic bag of belongings. I asked her the first question, in Russian, “Do you have anyone to take you in?”
“My daughter,” she said, looking up. “But I don’t know her telephone number.”
“Let me help you look for it,” I offered, and we proceeded to empty her bag and then dig through her pockets.
The tips of several fingers on both of her hands were deeply cut, and their rough skin betrayed what I learned later had been over thirty years of work packaging cement blocks. We interrupted our search for the phone number to take her to the Medic station. There I helped translate as she peppered her answers to the doctors’ questions with stories about how her mother had raised her to be a hard worker, how her daughter’s boyfriend in Germany was cheating on her with a younger woman, and how before leaving home she had emptied her bank account to bring her life savings to her daughter. And how tomorrow would be her eighty-first birthday.
The medics asked me to ask her if they could take her picture – to show their funders. Covering her ruined teeth with her ruined hand, she flashed, No! They backed off graciously, and did their best to tape up her fingers. But the bandages soon flew off, as she continued to dig for her daughter’s phone number. At last, we found it on a crumpled piece of paper in a pocket. But her phone was so out of date, it wasn’t compatible with the offered free SIM card, and we couldn’t get it to work.
So, we dialed up the number on my phone. A woman answered. I explained in Russian who I was and that I was with her mother at an evacuee center on the Polish border. I heard her sharp intake of breath. At that moment, I was watching as Anya pulled out from her bag a three-inch thick wad of bills wrapped in a small rag– the lifesavings she said she had withdrawn.
“Put her on a train,” the daughter was saying. “I can’t come there for her.” What to do? There was no way Anya was going to make it to Berlin by herself on a train.
In the end, we got one of the volunteer drivers, who had shown up to help (all of the volunteer drivers had to register with Polish police), to drive her to her daughter’s flat in Nuremburg. The next day he texted me a photo of Anya being met by her daughter.
Another mother who had fled her bombed city with two young daughters, turned to me with tears in her eyes to ask, as we were setting up their cots, “What is he liberating us from?” She paused. “From our homes, our places of work, from our lives before this.”
A woman from Severdonetsk recounted how, four days into the war, she still had not heard from her brother, in Tver’, Russia, and wondered, with bombs falling around her, why he was not calling to check on her. So, she called him. He told her it was the Ukrainian forces shelling them in order to blame Russia. “He believed Russian TV over me,” she disclaimed, stunned.
Another evacuee shared that her parents in Ekaterinburg denied her reports that Russian bombs had destroyed their apartment building. “I can’t call them anymore,” she told me.
A mother arriving from Kharson described the two weeks she and her family had spent in the basement of their apartment building without heat, light or water. Fetching water from a nearby hydrant, they cooked and washed over a fire in the building courtyard, burning furniture for fuel, and surviving on stashes of macaroni and potatoes. They told ironic jokes of the Soviet days when every family had hidden in their apartment, against the inevitable calamity, Salt, Matches, and Vodka.
Communications had been taken out the first day of the war, and there was no news from anywhere. They cowered at night to the sound of air defense sirens. They held out until they couldn’t any more, and then they fled. And here they were, along with hundreds of others, walking through the center door with their backpacks and their suitcases. Some had been on the road three days already. Some had taken the train from L’viv, an hour-and-a-half away.
After a few days at the border, I decided to text Valery to tell him where I was. His response was to warn me not to speak Russian, because of the oppression faced by Russian-speakers. He forwarded me the text of a woman from Bucha, who blamed the atrocities of what the Ukrainians call the “Russian Orcs,” on Ukrainian soldiers themselves. ”Read this,” he wrote. “These are the stories your media doesn’t show you.”
I said the evacuees I was meeting were innocent victims of Russian aggression. He repeated they should blame their own government for creating conditions that made it necessary for Russia to defend the interests of the oppressed Russian-speakers in the newly recognized Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
One day we drove to the border crossing at Medyka, whence evacuees boarded buses to get to us at the center in Koscawa, the next stage on their journey. Kuba parked our van and we walked over to the actual border, first at the car crossing, and then at the pedestrian crossing, marked by a tall metal fence.
Beyond the fence was a kind of “no-man’s-land” stretching to the Ukrainian border, barely visible in the distance. Evacuees crossed here on foot, pulling luggage, carrying bags, pulling pets and kids. Honestly, once they reached and crossed the fence into Poland, the scene had the feeling of an international fair, with the sidewalks lined on both sides with booths decked out with Blue and Yellow balloons and banners, offering assistance of all ilk, all free.
Here were port-o-potties and med tents. Cots. Phone charging stations. Chairs and benches to rest. Free food and drink. Hot and cold. Candy. Water. Sandwiches. Soup. Some of the volunteers standing there to offer assistance, like my team member, Maria, a Canadian Jewish-Russian émigré, had collected money at home, and were handing it out. Usually, this was most successful after a conversation, because the evacuees were overwhelmingly reluctant to accept charity. When Maria explained that the money was not from her personally, but had been collected from a lot of different people who wanted to help, it made it easier for them to take it.
The day I flew to Poland, my son Alexander had been missing in Hollywood for a couple of days. Now, a week had passed without any word. In faraway Poland, I was imagining the worst. The fourth night I was there, with a nine-hour time difference between us, a strange number with an LA area code rang on my phone, and it was Alex. He was okay. He had been “found” by a group of Moms camping on the beach, who fed him, clothed him, and loaned him their phone. They partnered with me and Denys on a plan to help Alex come home to Minnesota for a visit. Denys found and ordered a bus ticket.
My heart unclenched. Helping evacuees with my son homeless and gone missing had been hard. Each mother’s squeeze of her child’s hand, each loving glance, cut my heart like a knife with loss and fear. Having heard his voice, that pain flowed out of me, but only deepened my empathy for every mother, all seeking above all to protect their children from risk and harm.
After our two weeks at the border were up, Kuba drove our team of three back to Warsaw. We arrived on a Friday, Shabbat, and were invited as guests at Warsaw’s “Reform” synagogue. Ironically, the synagogue was located on ul. Jerozolimskie – Jerusalem Street? The service began at 7 PM with the rabbi announcing he was going to conduct it in three languages – English, Polish, and Russian – in honor of the evacuees and international visitors, on this, the first Shabbat in two years with no masks or social distancing.
The next day I walked from my hotel to Old Town, Stare Miasto. It was hard to absorb that the entire quarter had been rebuilt from rubble. Bricks were recovered and cleaned and piled, one by one, and then the streets rebuilt. Today they were strewn with Ukrainian flags and signs of support. “Be Strong Like Ukraine.” “#PolandLovesUkraine.” Stunning window displays of amber jewelry also caught my eye.
Perhaps the most disturbing sight of my visit was in a museum of the history of Warsaw: a striped prisoner uniform from Treblinka. From the sixth-floor windows at the top of the restored townhouse opened a view across the old square to Warsaw’s new skyscrapers in the distance. Stalin’s “Seven Sister” imitation is now framed by undulating twenty-first-century glass towers.
When I sent Valery a selfie in front of the Palace, he shot back a photo of himself there, too, from the eighties, when he was attending a founding congress of his new Liberal Party. “Do you remember me when I looked like this,” he asked.
On my supposed last day in Warsaw, I found my way by foot to a remnant of the wall that had once enclosed the Warsaw Ghetto. The experience sucked me into an intense vortex of Google-and-YouTube-enabled learning about that most bitter chapter in human history. Well acquainted with images of the Allies’ liberation of Paris in August 1944, I was ignorant of the Allies’ betrayal of Poland during and after the Warsaw Uprising. I had never before thought about the fact that I was born a mere eleven years after the end of the Second World War. I had never felt it so close to my own life.
Then, I went to get the COVID test required twenty-four hours in advance of my flight home. I walked there, too, afraid to get lost on mass transit. Arriving at the testing site ninety minutes before it opened, I took a long walk around the neighborhood, ducking into a bookstore with a rich English language section, where I picked up the novel “Flights,” by the Polish 2018 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Olga Tokarczuk. The book jacket sold it for me as an apt companion to my adventure: “Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. …”
Returning to the test site, I was first in line when the staff opened the door at 2 PM. I took the test, not thinking much of it, returning after fifteen minutes for the results. “You’re positive,” the young man told me blithely. I was stunned. My jaw dropped. After five minutes like that, he had to ask me to leave. I stumbled out of there in disbelief. This meant I couldn’t fly home. But I didn’t feel sick. Maybe it was a false positive? I found another testing site. Walked there. Again positive.
Thus began my five-day quarantine in a hotel room in Warsaw, awaiting a negative test, which eventually came. I slept. I read Olga Tokarczuk, including a passage describing the journey of Frederick Chopin’s heart, carried back to Poland from Paris in a jar by his sister, fulfilling his death wish.
Denys called me in my hotel room while I was convalescing, and asked, was I changed by the experience? Yes, I think I was. As the chef from World Central Kitchen told me, it’d be awkward to go back to complaining that the Uber driver forgot the chopsticks with the sushi. Though he hastened to disclaim that he probably would still complain.
The day I finally left Poland, having gotten the coveted negative COVID test, news reports were anticipating an increase in evacuees at the border, as Russia’s offensive in the East intensified. I had a home to go back to. Most of the people I had met in the past two weeks did not.
I flew from Warsaw to Chicago, to Minneapolis, where I caught a bus to Brainerd, where Denys and Alex, who had made it to Minnesota after a few adventures of his own, drove to meet me. On the way to the cabin we stopped for the ingredients we needed to make traditional Russian Orthodox Easter foods – Pashka and Kulitch.
Valery texted to say that he was going to St. Petersburg for Orthodox Easter next weekend, and that he would pray for us. Though he’s not religious, he said, his mother’s death two years ago had “not passed without leaving its mark.” Xristos Voskres. Vo Istinu, Voskres. Христос воскрес. воистину воскрес.