I recently returned from two weeks in Krakow, Poland, volunteering with the team at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Krakow in their terrific effort to assist Ukrainian refugees. I traveled to Poland with my brother, Bruce Jacobson, who lives in South Carolina.
Our contact was Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the Krakow JCC. Jonathan is also a friend and colleague of Todd Rockoff, our Tucson JCC CEO. Todd gave me a packet of greeting cards made by our J’s students to hand-carry to the refugee children at the school sponsored by the JCC of Krakow.
My hope was to find a way to be helpful to the Ukrainian refugee effort through the services provided by the JCC in Krakow. What I found was a heroic effort by staff and volunteers assisting Ukrainian refugees with essential food, housing, and humanitarian needs.
Although I am a retired physician, I did not go there in any medical capacity (though my knowledge did help in one respect). Our biggest handicap was our inability to speak Ukrainian, Russian or Polish.
Since February 24, 2022, over one million Ukrainians have sought refuge in Poland. In Krakow there are five agencies including the JCC that have aided over 150,000 refugees. Krakow is about the size of Tucson.
After flying from Phoenix to Charlotte to Munich and then to Krakow, we met with Ornstein and his staff. Most of the staff members spoke English quite well. Klementyna Pozniak, who was born in Poland but grew up in Cleveland, Ohio was our primary contact. She gave us our orientation to the JCC, its mission and what we might be able to do to help since we didn’t speak any of the necessary languages.
The JCC operates a small food bank at its facility. Refugees, mostly women and children, are allowed to choose a limited number of items every day. Several hundred people come there to get necessary food items such as evaporated milk, coffee, tea, pasta, cereal, diapers, clothes for their children and themselves, and occasionally candy and chocolate and a few fresh fruits. They can choose several items but only a limited number each time, because that’s all that is available.
My “actual job” was to break larger packages of sugar, coffee, tea, pasta, hot chocolate into smaller ones so that the food could be stretched further. Three times a week a major delivery of food comes to the JCC and has to be counted and divided and distributed for the coming days. It is a project they have learned to manage quite skillfully, although they had no previous experience as a food bank or as a humanitarian crisis center. The weekly cost for food is approximately $10,000 and even more is spent on housing refugees in homes and hotel rooms.
Another project my brother and I undertook was to organize large batches of prescription medication that had been sent from various agencies in the United States. (That’s where my medical knowledge came into use). Various antibiotics, diabetic medications, respiratory inhalers and diabetic supplies were all jumbled into large duffel bags that had to be organized and accounted for. My CPA brother created a spreadsheet while I arranged, counted, and told him what each bottle was used for.
One of the Ukrainian refugees we spoke to at length had a unique story. Anastasia was born in Ukraine and made aliyah to Israel as a youngster. She later returned to Ukraine to study and became a nurse. She also married and has a 4-year-old daughter. Her English is outstanding (as is her Hebrew, Ukrainian and Russian—She’s learning Polish.) When the first bombs struck her home-city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, her Israeli instincts told her to leave as soon as possible. Her husband is still in Odessa, but she and her parents and daughter escaped to Krakow via Moldova — which was not very welcoming to Jewish refugees. Because of her intellect and linguistic skills, she is now a paid staff member at the JCC assisting other Ukrainians.
I had time to tour the Kazimierz Jewish district. There are several old synagogues which are no longer in regular use but are maintained for visitors. I even found the street (Lewkowa) where our own (CDO of the Tucson J) Fran Katz’s ancestral family lived. The Jewish quarter includes areas of remembrance from the holocaust and several memorials throughout the area that are essential stops on the holocaust tours. Krakow is a beautiful city that was not heavily bombed during World War II, and the architecture has remained intact. We visited historic sites, ate at many local restaurants and learned about Polish food, which is terrific.
Shabbat dinner was a highlight of my volunteer experience. The Krakow JCC sponsors a weekly Shabbat dinner for locals, visitors, refugees and others. Over 50 people attended. It was a beautiful communal meal prepared and served by volunteers and staff.
We took a day to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. These camps are only 60 miles from Krakow. Such a tour is a deeply personal experience that in-and-of itself would require a much longer time to discuss.
In essence, what I saw in Poland was hard-working primarily Jewish staff and volunteers helping to feed, clothe, house, and care for hundreds of primarily non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees in a dedicated and loving manner. The Krakow JCC created these programs without any prior experience and is doing a marvelous job in refugee assistance.
The physical help that my brother and I provided was modest, in my estimation. But our hosts felt it was very helpful to them, to their morale, and to the visibility of their program. I am honored that I could assist in their tikkun olam efforts. For more information on the JCC Krakow, click here.
Dr. Mike Jacobson is a retired physician who has lived in Oro Valley with his wife Wendy for 13 years. They participate in Jewish organizations in Saddlebrooke and Northwest Tucson. He can be reached at [email protected] for further information regarding his experience in Poland.