Helping Ukrainian Refugees in Poland

March 9, 2022

7 min read


In Krakow, Rabbi Avi Baumol is aiding Ukrainian refugees.

With war raging on Poland’s eastern border in Ukraine, Krakow's Jewish community is doing all they can to aid desperate Ukrainian refugees.

Rabbi Avi Baumol, the Rabbinic Representative in Krakow of the Chief Rabbi of Poland, has been working in Krakow since 2003, helping to bring about a major revolution in Jewish life. Born in New York, he divides his time between Krakow and Efrat in Israel. For the past few decades, local residents whose family hid their Jewishness during the Holocaust and Communism are now embracing their Jewish identity.

“We have Holocaust survivors, young children – all different types of people – all trying to rebuild Jewish life in Krakow, which had a rich Jewish life before World War II,” Rabbi Baumol explains in an exclusive interview. The centerpiece of much of this renaissance is the Krakow JCC, which hosts Shabbat and holiday meals, classes, services and events. Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors to Poland spend time at the JCC, soaking up Krakow’s vibrant Jewish atmosphere.

Refugees, mostly mothers with their children, coming into Poland

In recent days, Krakow’s JCC has emerged as a major center of aid and relief for some of the untold thousands of Ukrainian refugees who are flooding into Poland.

“It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had,” Rabbi Baumol says. The sheer scope of the horrors he’s hearing from Ukrainian refugees is harrowing.

Overwhelming Need

As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, the Executive Director of JCC Krakow, Jonathan Ornstein, sent out a notice that locals could drop off food and medical supplies for the refugees who immediately started fleeing to Poland. He also began finding lodging for refugees.

“We made the decision that help would be given to Jews and non-Jews,” Rabbi Baumol explains. For Jewish refugees, the JCC would provide kosher food, lodging nearby the community’s synagogues, and would find places in Krakow’s Jewish kindergarten from Jewish children fleeing the war.

The Krakow JCC team

“Immediately, people poured out their hearts to give.” A large dining room in the JCC turned into a storage center was quickly filled with goods. Rabbi Baumol quickly realized that the need would be staggering.

Over one million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Poland since Russia’s invasion. More refugees are coming to Krakow every day. “They had to run out of their homes,” Rabbi Baumol says. “Some of them left with a suitcase, some of them left with a carry-on. They have nothing. You see mothers with children: they’re on their own.” Since Ukraine is preventing men aged 18-60 from fleeing the country so that they can fight the Russian invaders, nearly all of the refugees are women and children.

Many are deeply traumatized. After spending days traveling with their children to the Polish border, mothers had to wait for days in freezing temperatures for the chance to cross into Poland. They left their husbands, fathers, and sons behind and many haven’t heard from them. “It’s a tragedy of epic proportions.”

In Krakow, the Jewish community’s goal is to give the refugees a sense of stability and support and comfort, and to satisfy their most pressing needs, including food, clothing, medicine, and diapers.

Handing out chocolate to mothers and children.

At one point in our conversation the JCC became so busy Rabbi Baumol had to get off the phone. Calling back later, he explained he had just talked with a woman who arrived in Poland and wanted to go on to Israel where she’s planning to settle. But with so many refugees in Poland, all the flights to Israel are booked. Rabbi Baumol bought her a flight from Berlin, an 11-hour drive away, and arranged for her transportation there. “She showed us a picture of her house in Ukraine – it was bombed and completely destroyed. That’s just one story. There are hundreds and hundreds of tragic stories like this that we are hearing every day.”

He’s also spending much of his time on the phone with Jews still in Ukraine, trying to convince them to try and leave and make it to Poland.

Many Polish Christians help out in Jewish organizations and often spend time learning about Judaism. During the current crisis, these volunteers and others have opened their hearts to Ukrainian refugees too.

Recently, the Krakow JCC put out a special request from Ukrainian-speaking volunteers. One woman named Rachel showed up chatted with Rabbi Baumol. “I said, ‘It’s so great you’re volunteering – how long have you been in Krakow?’” Rabbi Baumol recounts. “She said two days. She came in her car across the border last week and said, ‘Ok, I’m here, I’m safe, how can I help out?’”

Entering Ukraine

Last week, Rabbi Baumol joined a convoy of five vans that was headed to Poland’s border with Ukraine to deliver supplies to refugees. It was organized by a Polish Christian couple in Krakow he knows with close ties to Ukraine. The husband’s brother lives near the Ukrainian border and has witnessed the rush of refugees first hand. They decided to bring some of the donations from Krakow there.

Rabbi Avi Baumol unloads supplies in Ukraine on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

The situation at the border was horrendous. “There are thousands of people at the border, waiting, and it’s freezing. Long lines of people are waiting next to barbed wire fences.” There is a no-man's land of about a quarter of a mile between Ukraine and Poland, and countless Ukrainians were walking across it, in many cases carrying young children. “They were exhausted; they seemed broken.” Volunteers have set up tents and generators on the Polish side of the border.

He was given permission by border guards to slip over the border and distribute chocolate to the children waiting there.

The convoy unloaded some of their supplies at the border. A Christian volunteer then told Rabbi Baumol and his friends that they could safely drive their vans into Ukraine and would be able to return to Poland, if they wanted. The group decided to try. They entered Ukraine and drove to Lviv, a city in the far west of Ukraine, close to the Polish border. “There were major traffic jams with people going every which way,” Rabbi Baumol told The Forward newspaper.

Once they reached Lviv, the group drove to the Chesed community center, a Jewish center that serves Lviv’s 2,000-strong Jewish community. They unloaded two vans there, then headed to a nearby church and dropped off the supplies from the three remaining vans. “We filled a whole warehouse and the people were very appreciative,” Rabbi Baumol recalls.

With five empty vans, the group decided to head to Lviv’s main train station, which was filled with desperate refugees fleeing west and offer to drive some of them into Poland. “The train station was packed. The outside area was filled with different aid groups: people were giving out supplies and food. People were trying to find each other…” Rabbi Baumol and his colleagues were wearing high visibility vests; people assumed they were aid workers and begged them to take them to the border.

Taking Ukrainian refugees to Poland

Rabbi Baumol’s group told several dozen people they could have a ride. With Ukraine only letting women and children leave, he witnessed some heart wrenching scenes as husbands and wives said goodbye to each other.

“We picked up as many women and children as we could find,” Rabbi Baumol recalls. Over 60 people fit into their vans, packed together as tightly as they could. Together, they drove towards the border and entered Poland with their precious cargo of refugees.

Looking for Help

Back in Krakow, Rabbi Baumol and his colleagues at the JCC are continuing to help as the number of refugees increases. “We were once refugees ourselves,” he notes. “We all have an obligation to help.”

The Krakow Jewish community is helping to fund Polish rescue operations at the border and in eastern Ukraine, including paying for petrol for aid convoys. It’s also directly supporting 50 families, and it looks as if that number is set to grow. “At some point we’re going to run out of rooms,” he fears.

Soon after our conversation, Rabbi Baumol texted me that Poland is bracing for hundreds of thousands of new refugees. The need continues to grow – and Krakow’s Jewish community is determined to continue to help.

To aid the Krakow JCC’s work, click here.

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