Art, Serving, Ritual & Ancestral Healing In Light of the 2022 Ukrainian Exodus
Like many, I watched the news coming from Ukraine. At times feeling helpless, numb, outraged, and inspired. Przemysl is a Polish town close to the Ukranian border, and since the invasion on February 24, 2022 it has seen massive inflow of refugees. This town was also the hometown of my paternal grandfather Avraham Apfel after whom I was named. He has left to Palestine before the town’s Jewish population, and our family, were killed.
In 2016 I spent Passover week in Pireaus, Greece, bearing witness to the displacement of Yazzidi, Afghan and Syrian refugees following the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. That week I found a meaningful way to experience Passover, a Jewish week tracing displacement, oppression, the arc of human suffering & inherent freedom — of the mindheart, of the world, and beyond. (Read journals of that trip here.)
One night in March 2022 I woke up feeling my grandfather’s presence and the idea to bear witness in Przemysl. The following April, I left in a haste, traveling light. I went with few plans and made my itinerary as I went. I aimed to practice not knowing, bear witness, and to have conviction in whatever action or connection rises from that.
In this travelog, I described the weeks that followed: serving refugees in distribution centers, disappearing into activity among international volunteers; intimate moments with Ukrainian parents and children over crayons and google translate in hectic train stations & mobile kitchens; directly distributing over $6000 in donations; and coming face to face with my family’s, and Poland, complex history, releasing ancestral binds and bearing witness to the best of humanity.
Week before Passover, In Krakow
I spent that week unpacking, stocking, serving food and toiletries, clothes, linen, drew 2 kids and one dog (Busya, 5yo) at a distribution center on aleja Ignacego Daszyńskiego 16, organized by Centrum Wielokulturowe Krakowie, a local NGO and citizen volunteers. The Poles of Krakow are mobilized in support of the 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees and solidarity is shown everywhere across town.
We served hundreds each hour. I disappear into activity. Shoulder to shoulder with volunteers also from Canada, Germany, UK, USA, Australia and more. Not speaking the langauge in such fast-pace environment, I lend my attention to what needs to be done. Rationing laundry poweder from large bags to small sandwich-size ones, a young boy is fascinated by the movement of my hand locking the ziplock bags. He and I start a line where I hold the bag and he zips his little fingers to lock it. I make a whoosh sound effect. He smiled. His mother did, too.
A bus pulled in. It belonged to a French bus company. The drivers drove 21 hours from Paris filled with linen, mattresses, toys, coats, bags donated by Parisians. We helped to off-board the items in ten minutes. Then it turned around to pick up 50 refugees and drive them 21 hours back to Paris.
Citizens pull up their cars, filled with goods. Some deliveries carry products from other EU countries and we need to figure out what they actually are because the labels are in different languages. One man came with a horse-trailer, still lain with straw, filled with 2000 rolls of toilet paper (I counted). As we helped to unload, I said ״Dziękuję Ci!,״ thank you! to which he responded “Na Zdrowie!” — cheers! Shelves are emptied in an instant. Many items we served were basic feminine beauty and hygene products, and for those who menstruate & nurse. Men are rare here. Daniel, the sole man I saw we served one morning — young, alone, everyone else where women and children of all ages. He even helped out a bit. Naturally, my mind wondered to all the men who stayed. He and I connected outside in the rain. He asked that I draw his portrait. We fist-bumped goodbye.
Just to think that behind each face, waiting for hours in the rain to enter, there is a story, something, someone, somewhere, that was left behind. And yet, I bore witness to such spirit and resilience that day, glowing like the Prunus tree on my way back.
For some meals I found comfort in the pierogi parlors in the old town. The fried dumpling has a long and proud history shared among the Poles, Ukrainian and Russians. One restaurant had crossed the word “RUSKIE”, Russian, from the menu with a thick black marker and added “UKRAINSKIE” above instead. Another restaurant impressed me with their resourcefulness, capacity and playfulness, adding a line on the bottom of the menu explaining, “…Although the classic Russian dumplings come from Red Russia which is an area in the north-west of Ukraine and south-west of Poland and have as much in common with today’s Russia as a Polish dish called “Breton Beans” with Brittany or “Greek-style Fish” with Greece, but as a sign of support and solidarity with Ukraine, we decided to change their name to Ukrainian dumplings; we assure you that the taste remains the same :)”
Night Before Passover
“Khudozhnyk?” (Ukrainian for ‘Artist’) At the dining hall that World Central Kitchen erected by Krakow’s train-station mall, I ask with careful eye contact with the kids and their mothers. I raise the block of paper and crayons and their eyes would soften. ‘Ok?’ I point to a vacant sit by them and they nod. Putting the items on the table, the children rush to the colors, magnetized. Between drawing them and being drawn by them, with the help of google translate, I listen to their parents’ stories, and feelings about leaving home and what’s ahead. Google translate shows: scared. safe. worried. glad. Ksenia said it was the happiest her little sister has been in a long time. As I commented on little Zhenya’s concentration over his art, his single mother told me he has rarely drawn, and is often restless — this was the steadiest he has been. Zlata kept coming back for hugs. (ps i drew the children looking down because they were drawing.)
Second Night of Passover, Przemysl
The first evening in Przemysl I walked into the train station. It was filled with individuals and families, mostly women, with carry-on suitcases and backpacks. Many dogs were leashed and cats were cradled. The animals were quiet, as if aware of the uniqueness or gravity of the situation.
Volunteers in neon vests hand-marked with UA, RU, PL, EN, — the initials of the languages they spoke — guided people. Nuns from Caritas humanitarian aid checked in on children. I kept moving around to allow the movement of people — a line slowly formed in the center (see photo at top right of the post.) A train was coming soon. Schedules on the walls showed European destinations. One poster gave a number for Ukrainian Jews. Another poster alerted young women for the risks of human traffickers taking advantage of the chaos. Polish policemen patrolled at the hall.
Determined to remain and take in the what’s happening, I started chanting Ana B’koach with the Skuyler Rebbe niggun. My surgical mask concealed the movement of my lips, and kept the sound muffled. I did not mean to attract attention to myself. I visualized the rippling of the words to travelers. For the next two hours, I continued chanting quietly while standing, crouching, leaning on the wall and slowly moving to accommodate the collective moving human spirit for whose ease I was incanting.
On the fourth evening of passover, at the Przemysl train station, Igori first caught my attention sneaking glimpses over my left shoulder while I was drawing little Anna, then Klavdia and her Pitbull, Kent in the corner by the main entrance. When I finished, he leaned in. His hoodie was soiled. He was missing several of his front teeth. He eagerly spoke through them into the phone to translate. Google showed that he asked for money. I took out a large zloty bill. He took it and went off. A few minutes later while I was drawing Olga he returned. He showed me a train ticket and handed me the change, notes and coins. I couldn’t believe it. Google brokered our appreciations.
He then sat down on up-side-down crate before me folks used to sit on, and pointed to his face. He held steady. He adjusted his right arm which seemed stiff, with his left. I could see his eyes were moist. I asked him to pick his two favorite colors from the pack of Crayons. We fumbled through some miming concerning keeping the hat on or not, and I believe he was asking me to draw him straight on, not on an angle.
While I was drawing him, Google explained that he was hurt in a traffic accident six years ago. He lost full capacity in his right arm and some mobility in his right leg. He was heading back into Ukraine. His parents were still home in Kirovograd, and he missed them. He poked at his right arm, and said a person like him with such physical challenges has few prospects in Poland.
I asked Google if their property had been damaged. Google responded — “Lucky nothing hit.”
The evening unfolded in the corner. We spent some time sitting next to one another, some in silence, observing others, some in slow chat. Many travelers cradled their pets. Igori brought me a tin can like one used for soda but one that has no marking on it just a silver tin can. I snapped it open and couldn’t smell anything from inside, although I saw liquid. I hesitated to drink, as far as I knew it could’ve been motor oil, cooking oil or what not. He reached out for the can, took a sip, smiled and said woda (water.)
Igori had only a backpack to his back, which I kept an eye on while he stepped outside to smoke. I didn’t see any other luggage. He has been traveling between Poland and Germany for six weeks.
I asked him if by the following day he would be with his parents, he said yes, smiling. He leaned towards me, we were very close. He showed me his ticket and the hour of departure, coming up, and arrival. At last he waved goodbye. We parted. I said “Buty v bezpetsi,” Be safe.
That night, I tracked the time, imagined his reunion with his parents, and prayed for their safety.
On the fifth evening of Passover, I met young Maxim, his shy teenage sister and their father. They were waiting for a train back to Kyiv, Ukraine, their home. His father and I chatted while more children joined our impromptu art camp in the corner by the entrance to the Przemysl train station.
Three dozen crayons were scattered on the floor. Solomia’s sister organized them by hue. Maxim came back for more paper. I gave him a bunch “for when you travel.” I was surprised to see he had his own stash of colored pencils before him.
A Polish TV crew videotaped the children drawings. I felt so proud of them. That they will be seen by the world. Maxim just completed a drawing of blue and yellow, the Ukrainian flag. They turned the camera to him and interiewed him. His father looked on with great pride. People started to gather. I kept adjusting in our little corner to allow the crew space. I breathed with Nakhat, hebrew for brimming, quiet satisfaction.
They interviewed little Solomia’s teenage sister. She was holding a Serefima, a one-year-old cat — one of four(!) cats they escaped with. Then they turned to me. I was uneasy, wanting the attention to stay on the kids, not me. I recalled a saying attributed to Reb. Zalman: “Don’t be shy on God’s time.”
The interviewer asked me why I came here. It stopped me in my tracks. I looked around at the children. I said “To help.” I didn’t feel like it reached it.
He asked where I was from. I said Israel, added briefly that this was my grandfather’s hometown. I wonder if he connected the dots, that I am a descendent of the last remnants of the Jewish community in Przemysl who prospered for a millennium and eliminated in the holocaust.
He asked if I had a message to the people of Poland who help. I felt on the spot, as if set up to give a validation. But, I was eager to give it. In what felt like an instant, my mind flashed on the layered meaning of this Israeli Jew, visiting at his grandfather hometown, witnessing and validating the goodness of the Poles, perhaps the remnants of the other sixty percent of the town’s population who witnessed or even enabled the elimination of the Jewish one. Edgy to type this, I have friends from here! The enormity of the tragedy, everyone’s, flashed in my cognition. I breathed.
I thanked the Polish volunteers. Knowing many are catholic, I said they are doing God’s work, and that this week I’ve seen the best in humanity. It was my simple honest truth.
They asked me to do a real-time demonstration of drawing and I searched around for a subject. My eyes locked with Maxim’s father who eagerly egged him to sit in front of me. For the next few minutes I drew Maxim‘s portrait. Staying focussed on Maxim, my peripheral vision registered the audience gathered in our little corner of the train station. The camera man circled us, filming from different directions. Silence. Out of time.
I completed the drawing, couldn’t have lasted more than 5 minutes. I held it turned towards me for a moment while I kept Maxim’s gaze. We both smiled. Everyone kept quiet in anticpation. I turned the paper and handed it to him.
The camera man turned off his equipment. He petted his heart a few times as we exchanged silent nods. Old dots, new dots connected.
Solomia’s sister dropped a wrapped candy in my lap. Maxim’s father brought me a cup of sweet coffee. Maxim sat on the floor and drew an intricate design of colors and angles. He handed it to me, a gift. I spoke to the phone to translate “Thank you. I love it. You are a good artist.” Maxim via Google responded, “You’re better,” in a mature validating voice.
Last evening of Passover I entered the Przemysl train station but felt disconnected from the scene before me. I felt a new sadness. My mind conjured the pink-plasterred house on Maja street where my paternal grandfather grew up and which I visited throughout the week. I had prayed there El Maleh Rahamim, an incantation to console the dead, or to eat at Samir’s Kabab further up the road, the only food joint that was open on Sundays and Easter, praise the lord.
At night, my ancestral tendrils’ thought with concern : what if I’m the last person of our family lineage to ever bear witness here? to ever come and pray and remember real people with real names that lived here? Taken from here? Never again to be seen, loved? I felt their yearning mixed with outrage. How could I ever leave them, this house?
I considered staying longer. The town’s hotels and AirBnbs had been sold out due to relief workers and refugees. The six nights I was able to secure were all last minute cancelations. I knew the resolution will have to include a shift, to somehow release them from this specific brick and mortar location, to invite them to another home, a larger home.
The following morning, one hour ahead of my train back to Krakow, I walked with my backpack and cross-body bag to Maja Street, past the art & craft store with the welcoming saleswoman; past the bakery whose wall adorned a large faded swastika; past a green lush willow tree.
I arrived under the balcony, looking at the front steps imagining my grandfather, Avraham Apfel, sitting there watching the coming and going. It started raining lightly. I vocalized El Maleh Rahamim.
A person using the ATM next door snuck a glance. How long has it been since these streets heard Freygish musical scale? I felt their yearning again. Their outrage.
Thirty minutes till train departed.
How to orient to leave? I invited the spirits to join me. I vocalized ‘Ana Bekoach,’ an incantation to bolster their resolve, give voice to their yearning and outrage.
Outrage about the strangers living in “their” house, their rooms, in the intimacy of their bedrooms and baths. I turned to visualize the people in the building, living simple lives, yearning simple yearnings, possibly with no idea of the history of this city or the details of my family. Was there a way to celebrate the lives that had lived there brfore, and the lives that lived there now? Affirm the good?
I invoked the words for ‘birkat habayit,’ the blessing of the home and its dwellers — an incantation usually offered on entering a new home, which calls to the prosperity and peaceful relations between its walls.
Energy shifted. My voice quivered. I felt the Ancestors’ tendrils release their hold. They were, I was, no longer attached to that house.
I paused. Took a breath. Trusted space to guide me when and how to proceed to face what’s ahead. I vocalized ‘Birkat Haderekh,’ the blessing for the Way, calling for safety from enemies and calamities, the fulfillment of needs, and conviction in not knowing. I purposefully skipped the optional verse for safe returns. I placed my mind among the ancestors, among the dwellers of the house, the parents, children, volunteers, train conductors, animals, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russian, all the living that I had born witness to this week, all travelers on the Way, coming and going within this one great uncertainty. A larger home.
The incantation ended. Legs were already walking. Light rain.
Crossing a bridge over the Sen river, the water shimmered. At the tunnel by the stairs to the train platform, someone played a folk melody on an accordion. Travelers lugged their few belonging and stayed close to loved ones.
Passover, the Jewish sacred weeklong period dedicated to passage and liberation, ended. I returned to Krakow. For severeal weeks, I enjoyed the gorgeous spring, the city treed classic boulverds and excellent cappucinos at its trendy cafes in the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. I would return there after sunset or on shabbat to pray. Between work & school zoom calls, I would return to volunteer at the distribution center on Daszyńskiego street.