Arieh, doctor of the Israeli NGO Hatzalah Lelo Gvulot (Rescue without borders), is on the phone. He wants to know if an ambulance is available to take away three Ukrainian refugees. They have to reach Rzeszów, a Polish town ninety kilometres from the border. From here, they will leave for Israel. We will find a solution. The ambulance will be there”, replied Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Chief Rabbi of Poland has worked non-stop to coordinate the Jewish aid to Ukrainian refugees. “Two of the three people who will go to Israel have survived the Shoah. – explains the Rabbi to Pagine Ebraiche in one of the phone calls – Their passports have expired, but I spoke to the Polish authorities and they said not to worry. This is an example of what we have been dealing with since February 24th”.
Rabbi Schudrich, forward-looking, says that he had already alerted all the Jewish world of Poland before the beginning of the conflict. “I don’t have prophetic abilities, but when Putin started to place his troops on the Belarusian border, I imagined the worst. And then there were Biden’s warnings. Those statements weren’t made for fun”. Therefore, firstly the Rabbi gathered the different Jewish organizations and asked which structures could get ready to welcome the fleeing people. “We identified four structures and were able to help 300 people. A drop in the middle of the sea. But still 300 people more”.
Besides arranging the facilities destined for the reception, a true emergency response centre was created. “When the invasion began, we divided our tasks according to a ten-point checklist. Every Jewish organisation had a task; there were those who dealt with the ambulances, those who dealt with the psychological support, the toll-free number, those who dealt with the collection and distribution of clothes, and so on. It’s an improvised and perhaps simple method, but it worked for us, especially the telephone line, which operates with the help of several organizations, and is active almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with volunteers who go above and beyond to meet the needs of those who call”.
A channel with experts was opened in order to understand how to respond to different problems. “I contacted the European supervisor of the American Jewish NGO “HIAS”. They have been working everywhere and doing an extraordinary job in humanitarian aid for a century. I also invited a supervisor of a local NGO that deals with refugees. Unfortunately, Poland has little experience in reception, what happened on the Belarusian border proves it”.
Here migrants from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan were blocked on the border by the Polish government and they have been stuck there in inhuman conditions. “We have openly criticized this attitude, but now, concerting the Ukrainian situation, the government response has been extraordinary. Anyone fleeing the conflict and crossing the border is guaranteed free medical care. This is an incredible effort that involves the whole society”.
Israel is also giving its full support, highlights the Chief Rabbi of Poland. And the coordination with Warsaw works. This cannot be taken for granted in the light of the very serious tensions between the two countries, caused by a law that restricts the return of goods taken from victims of the Shoah. This has led the Israeli ambassador to leave Poland for six months. But as the Russian threats to Kiev escalated, the ambassador returned. “Now we even have two of them. ‘Ours’ and the one sent to Ukraine. It is a very unusual situation, full of contradictions, as indeed is our history as Polish Jews. However, we hope that this will lead to a different future”.
Speaking of hope, the Rabbi highlighted one on several occasions: the hope “that our government has learned the lesson with regarding the reception. I repeated this also during one of the few occasions not related to the refugee issue in recent days: the 80th anniversary of the Operation Reinhard (the project for the extermination of Polish Jews within the Governance in 1942). There was a great ceremony in Lublin and, during my speech, I couldn’t ignore what was happening a short distance away. The war a few miles from us. And I said clearly: I have never been so proud to be a Polish citizen. And yet again, we hope that the lesson has been learned”.
As for foreign aid to Poland, for the Chief Rabbi three are the most immediate needs. “Doctors who can speak Russian or Ukrainian to take care of the wounded. Psychologists who know the two languages to comfort the people who arrive in a situation of extreme stress, as you can imagine. It is practically all women, children and the elderly who have left their husbands, parents and children to fight. And a social nightmare. And then, money is needed. I understand that people want to send tangible things, food, clothes and other goods. But it is easier to buy the things we need on the spot, in order to better manage the current needs. All of this without forgetting one thing: the support from the Jewish world was exceptional on this front. A big thank you must go to the different communities”.
Above, the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich with the delegation of the NGO Hatzalah Lelo Gvulot.
Translated by Alice Pugliese and revised by Gianluca Pace, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.