Before the war, I had no real connection to Poland. My friend Melanie’s grandparents were Polish, and some years ago she had visited and came home with pictures of the church in the village where they were married.
I had made a brief trip to Warsaw in the early 1990s, on at TDY [Temporary Duty] assignment from the American Embassy in Moscow. At the time of my first visit, on the tail of the revolutionary wave of 1989 that eventually would topple a 40-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.
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 32 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 came, I was 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 has taken US citizenship. My Moscow-born son, Alexander, now 23, is in Hollywood. Denys’s parents, Olga and Anatoliy, live 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.
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.
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. 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 its 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.
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. I was proud to check Russian. The application’s next question, about skills, was 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 backpack 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 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.
The evacuee center at Korcwoza, about 20 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 accidentally 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.
With Ukrainian men between the ages of 16 and 60 forbidden from leaving the country, the evacuees were overwhelmingly women and children. Some elderly men. 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. 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.
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 set 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 125 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.
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 88.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
After a few days at the border, I decided to text my son’s father in Russia 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.
Then, I went to get the COVID test required 24 hours in advance of my flight home. Arriving at the testing site 90 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: