The sound of silence

The sound of silence

Federation CEO Dov Ben-Shimon reflects on his trip to the Polish border

Dov Ben-Shimon turned to drawing to describe what he saw when words failed him. This shows a family at the Medyka border crossing; a parent wheels a small child in a shopping cart as other refugees make way. (Drawing by Dov Ben-Simon)
Dov Ben-Shimon turned to drawing to describe what he saw when words failed him. This shows a family at the Medyka border crossing; a parent wheels a small child in a shopping cart as other refugees make way. (Drawing by Dov Ben-Simon)

It’s the silence that was the most striking, Dov Ben-Shimon said.

Mr. Ben-Shimon is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest; he’s just gotten home from a three-day trip to Poland, where it borders on Ukraine, to see the situation there for himself, and to offer what help he and the federation can give.

He expected to see heart-rending things, and he did. But he didn’t expect the silence.

He and the rest of the small group from the Jewish Federations of North America, including JFGMW’s president, David Saginaw of North Caldwell, and JFNA’s president, Mark Wilf of Livingston, were at the Medyka crossing from western Ukraine to eastern Poland. “There are long lines of refugees crossing, and what strikes you the most, along with the exhaustion and the shock and the trauma, is the pervading silence,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said.

“You could even say that it’s a deafening silence, because it carries so much emotion.  There is so much weight to it.”

The second most striking thing was something that he knew to expect, but still found extraordinary. That was the absence of men.

Only women, children, boys younger than 18, men above 60, and men who are disabled, have other medical conditions that would bar them from army service, or have more than three children are allowed to leave the country. “So we almost always were confronted with the sight of younger women, small children, and seniors.

“And even the children were silent.

From left, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, David Saginaw, the president of the Jewish Federations of North America, Mark Wilf, and the federation’s CEO, Dov Ben-Shimon, stand together in Poland.

“There was a sense of extreme post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme fatigue,” Mr. Ben-Shimon continued. “There were some refugees who had left Zhytomyr, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kyiv, where they’d spent days hiding in bomb shelters or even under staircases, where there were no bomb shelters. They’d spent days on end in shelters, as Russia bombed civilian populations. Then they spent days trying to get to the western part of Ukraine, and then more days at the border crossing. They’d have maybe one suitcase, if that, and no sense of where they were going.

“What gave me immense pride was knowing that at the border — and even before the border — there were signs in Ukrainian, in Russian, in Hebrew, in Yiddish telling Ukrainian Jews where they could go for shelter and support and telling those Jews who want to make aliyah where to go to get help and all the logistical support they need for their new lives.”

It’s not clear what percentage of the refugees leaving Ukraine are Jewish. But we know that Ukraine has about 44.3 million residents, we know that an estimated 3.4 million people have left the country, we know that Ukraine’s Jewish community, while a small percentage of its population, is the third largest in Europe, and we assume that Jews are leaving at the same rate as everyone else.

That’s a wave of Jews in a sea of traumatized Ukrainians. Many delegations of Jewish leaders have gone to get some idea of the situation, to understand the scope of the devastation and the need, and to calibrate their efforts to get the community back home to help by raising both money and awareness.

“When we say never again what are we really saying?” Mr. Ben-Shimon asked rhetorically. One thing that he and all the other Jewish leaders are saying is that although there were no organizations around to help Jews escape the Holocaust, now there are representatives of many Jewish organizations who have come together to help both Jews and non-Jews escape Vladimir Putin’s war.

Although we don’t have firm numbers, “we do know of thousands and thousands of Ukrainian Jews who have made it to shelters and facilities run by our partner agency, the Joint” — that’s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — “in towns across eastern Europe that border on Ukraine, as well as the ongoing support the Joint has provided to thousands of frail elderly Ukrainian Jews trapped by the bombardments and sheltering in Ukraine’s major cities,” he said. Some of the oldest among them are Holocaust survivors; the rest of us can only try to imagine what this nightmare must be doing to their possibly long-dormant memories of other nightmares.

“We also know that several thousand Ukrainian Jews have made aliyah in the last two weeks,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said. “That’s thanks to the work of the Jewish Agency for Israel, federation’s partner in this work. Thousands more Ukrainian Jews wait to be processed on their way to Israel, and once they land, our task continues to be supporting them, supporting Israel and Israeli society with their successful absorption. We are committed to that task.

Polish police and volunteers load refugees’ bags onto a bus at the border. (Drawing by Dov Ben-Shimon)

“With the support of the federation, the Joint is bringing food and medicine to the homes of frail elderly survivors who are trapped by the bombardment. We also are funding Joint chesed social workers so they can remain in the homes of the frailest Holocaust survivors, so that they are not left alone and abandoned.

“That’s paid for by the federation. The social workers are deeply committed to the work they do. There were social workers from chesed who were killed in 2014,” when Russia invaded Crimea and claimed it. “They deliver food and medical supplies, and they check on elderly Jews. Their work is deeply heroic.”

Mr. Ben-Shimon’s trip was the first that the JFNA sponsored; it’s continuing to take small groups of federation leaders to eastern Europe.

The trip went to Warsaw and to Lublin, once home to the biggest yeshiva in the world, Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, which the Nazis desecrated and used as a police station. After World War II, it was put to a variety of uses. Now, it’s a shelter for immigrants newly arrived over the Polish border.

Once Ukrainians cross the border into Poland, they find themselves treated with compassion. “It was inspiring to see a huge array of volunteers from all over the world,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said; he noticed many members of the Sikh community. “It was lovely to see,” he said. “They had tents on the border corridor.” Those tents, run by a wide assortment of volunteers, “had people handing out free food, and toys for the kids.”

In a change from Jews’ historical memory, “the Polish army and the Polish police are organized and compassionate,” he said. “I saw them carrying small children and people’s bags.

“I am a student of Soviet and European history,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said. He knew that the Warsaw train station, which he visited, and where many Ukrainian refugees disembarked, did not have a history of Jewish deportation. Still, “Poland is so filled with Jewish suffering, and the weight of history is so strong, that for me, on a deeply personal level — and I’m sure this is true for so many people in our Jewish community — the idea of simply setting foot in Poland carries so much meaning.

A Ukrainian child refugee picks out a toy from a box at the border as adults loom behind him. (Drawing by Dov Ben-Shimon)

“But there is a point at which you look around to see the immense decency and humanity of many people, of Poles and of other people from around the world. You see so many people from around the world — both Poles and others — who are stepping up to do the right thing.

“One thing that really inspired me was seeing the large numbers of people at the train station with bags of food, and to realize that these were Polish people who had brought food that they had cooked, for the Ukrainian people.

“I was inspired by that. and I was inspired by the lines of strollers, left by Polish parents for Ukrainian parents, and the toys, left for people to take.”

Most of those Ukrainian people had lived lives more or less like ours, he said. “What struck me was all the people with whom I have spoken on the ground who said that their lives were good until a few weeks ago, when the Russians started bombing.”

Mr. Ben-Shimon found himself so deeply moved by what he saw that he began to use a very new skill — drawing — to help other people understand the deep emotional truths that stared at him the entire time that he was in Poland.

The medium he uses — charcoal on drawing paper — immediately evokes Holocaust art. He realized that, Mr. Ben-Shimon said, “but there is something about watching refugees walk across the border in eastern Europe, that makes it seem real.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine what my family, or any family here, would do. I am in awe at the bravery of these people.

A father and son wait at the border; they plan to make aliyah. The father is a 95-year-old Red Army veteran from Kyiv who fought the Nazis. (Drawing by Dov Ben-Shimon)

So he’s seeing two things — the pain and trauma caused by Vladimir Putin’s attack on his sovereign neighbor, Ukraine, and “the immense decency and humanity of so many people from around the world who are stepping up to do the right thing,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said.

What about official responses? “The EU has stepped up beautifully,” he said carefully. “I am hopeful that the U.S., the U.K., and the Israeli governments will be equally accommodating.”

To go back to his trip, “I found this mission to be deeply inspiring,” Mr. Ben-Shimon concluded. “It gives me much hope for the future of the work of the federation. Our commitment to the global Jewish family” is vitally important.

What can those of us back home in the United States do?

“Give to Jewish organizations that are on the ground in Ukraine, especially through our Jewish federation, which is supportive of dozens of agencies around the world,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said.

Oh, and one other thing. President Volodymyr Zelensky. What about him?

“I have been watching President Zelensky’s public responses to the invasion, and his unique ability to capture the historic moment,” Mr. Ben-Shimon said. “I am deeply impressed by his humility, his humanity — and his Jewishness.”

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