A month ago, Maria Stanishevska was attending college in Ukraine, studying biotechnology and bioengineering, texting with her boyfriend and friends on her iPhone.
“We lived our best life, and we didn’t think that anything was going to happen,” she said. “We were just like, everything will be fine and trying to be calm. But then, one day, everything changed.”
Tuesday, the Wisconsin summer camp counselor sat in a North Shore Starbucks, apologizing for interrupting her interview with a journalist to text with family back home in Ukraine. She looked up from the phone: “My grandma said right now everything is fine …. I’m sorry. It’s so many messages in one time.”
She likes Starbucks, which she doesn’t have at home in Kyiv. She knows it from many years of summers spent in Wisconsin, as a camper and counselor for the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC in Eagle River, and from time spent with her grandparents in Milwaukee.
Maria, 20, has nothing to apologize for, of course, but others do. She tells a story of a life uprooted by senseless war, and a tough journey with her sister to safety in Wisconsin. Along the way, she’s had a reservoir of Wisconsin Jewish community help to draw from. Interlaken Camp Director Toni Davison Levenberg reached out to her personal network to provide clothes for the sisters as they arrived in Wisconsin. A fellow Interlaken counselor, who lives in Poland, helped Maria and her sister get to their grandparents on Milwaukee’s North Shore.
Maria was set to take examinations at the National University of Food Technologies in Kyiv, before graduating with her bachelor’s degree in two months.
For a career, she’s interested in the production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines. She was working on a paper about vitamin D2, but that seems like another life now.
“Now, we’ve just stopped our studying,” she said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
On Feb. 24, 2022, Maria’s mother woke her up at 6 a.m., with the words, “Maria, wake up. The war just started. Russia is bombing everything.”
Ukrainians knew Russia was threatening Ukraine, but people didn’t expect a large-scale attack that would change all their lives, Maria said.
Maria’s parents woke up to the attack at 5 a.m., started packing up in the Kyiv apartment, then woke her up. “You could hear bombing and shooting, and it was very scary,” Maria said. The plan was to flee west, but that quickly changed.
Within hours, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced martial law and the family decided to stay in Kyiv, Maria said. This would kick off days of continuous discussion about what to do next, for the good of the family – not just Maria’s parents and her sister Polina, 14, who also attends Interlaken – but also for their grandparents and others.
Soon, Maria’s parents, sister, grandparents (not the ones who live in Milwaukee) and a few other family members gathered in the Kyiv apartment. Her uncle brought his pet, Fred the French bulldog.
The group gathered because they were concerned communication networks would go down, so being together meant they wouldn’t have to worry about one another. Her dad and news reports said to make sure there were lots of walls between you and the outside world for protection from attack, so the family tried to spend more time in that sort of space – in the 16th floor apartment.
Maria said any Russian claims that civilians are not targeted aren’t true. Maybe for the first couple hours, but after that, the Russian military was bombing ordinary people “like real terrorists,” she said.
Soon after the first attack, the extended family group tried out a shelter in a cold underground parking garage. But they returned to the apartment, realizing that for the aging grandparents and others, the garage was just too hard.
At one point, back at the apartment, everything turned orange, and “it sounded like an airplane next to my head,” as the apartment windows shook, Maria said. The shaking woke Maria’s younger sister Polina up. Maria’s hands started to shake. “I saw little pieces (of debris) outside my window,” Maria said.
On March 1, the family learned of a train that was soon to leave town, and they raced the sisters down to the train station, with one backpack each. This was a chance to get them out.
“I was the person who was more in panic,” Maria said. “My mother said it is more calm for them if I’m not with them. I’m always very nervous, making them nervous.”
Maria feels guilty for having left, she said, and she’s been reading materials online about how it can be typical for people in her position to feel that way. She learned that she can help by speaking out, and that’s why she’s sharing her story.
“The trains were free,” she remembered. “You just have to get on the train.”
But there were too many people, running from train platform to train platform, as announcements changed where the train was expected. Eventually, Maria and Polina got on a train with their father pressing them in from behind, through the still-open doors.
The train left Kyiv, with everyone standing, no place to sit, for 12 hours, Maria said. There were negotiations over who could use, and how to get to, the bathroom, she said. Some people brought pets, including hamsters. It was surreal. Maria was in tears, and she prayed to God, asking to be OK.
When the train arrived in Lviv, in western Ukraine near the Polish border, a family friend picked them up. The sisters tried to sleep for a night in Lviv, though they still heard the sounds of war.
The next day brought another train, this time to Poland. They competed with others to board it. Polina urged her older sister to calm down. “If you cry, I will cry,” Polina said. Maria marvels at her sister: “She is stronger than me.”
Officials were trying to restrict passengers on the Poland-bound train to pregnant women and families with young children. One woman, another refugee with young children, saw that the two sisters were crying. She grabbed Maria and Polina, acted like they were part of her family, and brought them aboard.
“She really helped us,” Maria said.
The sisters spent hours during the ride to Poland in a space between two railway cars. “It was very cold there. There was no bathroom there,” Maria said. “It’s very dangerous.”
The sisters took turns entering a packed train car to get warm, while one would stay outside between the railroad cars with the backpacks. For some time, the pair could not fit inside at the same time. At one point, a random mother gave her seat to Polina.
The Interlaken connection
Interlaken has had more Eastern European young people working there in recent years, as part of a program called “Machane Olami: Global Jewish Camp Fellowship,” a Foundation for Jewish Camps initiative.
Some of Maria’s favorite parts of the Interlaken experience are the campfires, the Shabbat atmosphere, singing and the people. “Everything is perfect,” she said. “We are all connected.”
“Thanks to Interlaken I have friends everywhere. There’s a lot of international staff there. I’ve got three friends from Poland,” Maria said. All three of those friends offered to pick her up, though they were all hours away. Maria’s Interlaken campers have contacted her on Instagram, expressing concern about the war.
The Poland train station was filled with volunteers, giving away free food, and juice for kids. “It was so nice. They were giving away blankets, toothpaste, toothbrushes, it was everything. You were in shock. They said, just take everything you need. It was like you were in a shop. You can just take it if you want it.”
“I was just crying. It was a good cry,” Maria said.
An Interlaken friend, Maciek, who still lives with his parents, drove six hours from Lodz, Poland, to the train station to pick up his fellow Wisconsin summer counselor. Maria’s phone was dying, she couldn’t access the Polish phone network, and Maciek’s car died along the way. But he eventually got there in a different vehicle and a volunteer helped her find him.
“I was so happy. I felt like, finally, I am safe,” she said. She remembers saying to Maciek, “Thank you, you really saved our lives. It’s true. You really saved us.”
After three nights at Maciek’s house, where his family declined Maria’s offers to pay for anything, the sisters took a March 5 flight to Chicago.
But before the flight, Maria thought of Levenberg, the Interlaken camp director who was asking how she could help. Levenberg texted with Maria daily, starting a few hours after the war began, expressing concern.
“She really cares about us, about my family,” Maria said. “When I was 9, I was at Rainbow Day Camp, but then when I was 12, it was the first time I came to Interlaken. Now I’m 20. So, I know her 11 years! For me she is a very important person. Interlaken is my second home. I feel very comfortable there.”
With time to calm down, before the flight from Warsaw to Chicago, Maria realized that she and her sister would arrive with nothing.
“I said, Toni, I am very uncomfortable (saying this), but we don’t have any clothes,” Maria recalled. Levenberg responded, “It’s not a problem. Tell me your sizes. Tell us what to do. We will help you.”
Clothes arrived at the American grandparents’ apartment before the sisters did. More clothes arrived later.
“I never had so much clothes in all my life …. Some were new clothes, from the store. We got a gift card, for Target. It was all so very nice,” Maria said. “I didn’t realize that people can really care about you, even if they don’t know you. It really warmed my heart.”
Polina’s friend’s mother is helping Polina enroll in a local public school. The sisters had Shabbat dinner at Levenberg’s house, too.
“Seriously, I am very thankful to all of these people. They really helped us with everything. Now we’re praying for peace and that this war will end soon. I hope everyone will be fine and everyone will be safe and alive. I’m just praying.”
She asks for everyone to pray for Ukraine.
Maria is a proud Ukrainian. She’s proud of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and her country’s resistance. She recalls that people she met in the United States used to not know much about Ukraine.
“Noone will say again, where is Ukraine? What is Ukraine? Is it Russia?” she said. “Everyone will know that Ukraine is a powerful country, and we will fight, and we will win. I’m so proud.”
“I love United States with all my heart, too. I’ve been coming here since I was a child. I like being here. I like people here. I work here every summer. I like everything. But I feel that my home is Ukraine. I can be here for a long time. I feel comfortable here. But home is Ukraine.”
It’s why she wants to go back, when she can.
Milwaukee Jewish Federation has established a Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund. For more information, visit MilwaukeeJewish.org/ukraine.