As tragedy unfolded at the Ukraine-Polish border, two women from Jewish Milwaukee went there to see it, understand it, and report back.
Representatives of Milwaukee Jewish Federation traveled to the Ukrainian border in Poland to witness what has become the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, in the wake of Russia’s bloody Ukraine incursion that started in February 2022.
Longtime Milwaukee Jewish Federation supporter Tanya Arbit, and Federation Vice President of Philanthropy Julie Schack, made the March 2022 voyage. After their return to Wisconsin, the women spoke about the great need they observed at an April 1, 2022, “Special Briefing on Ukraine.” The event was broadcast by Milwaukee Jewish Federation on Zoom.
“For so many of us, this war is deeply personal. For me, my father’s father, my grandfather Joseph Lubar, escaped from Ukraine and came to the U.S.,” said Federation Board Chair Joan Lubar, who introduced the digital event.
For Arbit, it could not have been more personal. She emigrated from Ukraine in 1989. Arbit, who is now president-elect for the Women’s Philanthropy of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, thanked the longtime donors, volunteers and interested Wisconsinites attending the Zoom session. “Thank you to this community and donors like you who opened your doors, your homes, and gave me a new life,” she said.
About 30 percent of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign dollars go towards oversees Jewry annually, laying the groundwork for current life-saving efforts, according to Schack. “Over the last ten years, our Milwaukee Jewish community has donated $15 million to overseas causes alone,” she said.
In March, Arbit and Schack traveled to Poland on the mission with about 30 people representing other Federations. “We quickly learned our work is a long, long way away from being complete. It has only just begun,” Arbit said.
“We met mothers and children who spent nights in crowded, airless bomb shelters,” Arbit said. “Their shelters were destroyed by bombing. Their nearby apartment buildings were in ashes. They made it onto a bus or train to travel for 24 hours or more to the border of Poland. Most of them had nothing but clothes they were wearing. Their husbands, fathers and sons stayed behind for battle.”
Arbit said she heard from an older gentleman who barely escaped his home when it caught on fire from a Russian bombing. His wife suffered severe burns and was still in a hospital; he shared that his daughter with special needs lives in Israel, Arbit said.
The group visited with refugee families at the Warsaw train station, where it felt like a surreal scene from an old war movie, Arbit said.
“Because I speak Russian and some Ukrainian, I was able to speak directly to individuals and translate back to our group,” Arbit said. “Each story tore my heart out again and again. One story that continues to haunt me is that of a woman named Irina and her 15-year-old-daughter, Sophia. It was just the two of them, no other family.
“(The mother) shared that she is struggling with nightmares because of the horrific things that she is encountering, from being cramped in a shelter with no electricity heat or bathrooms, to witnessing a friend being shot at, to trying to bring water for a group.”
“Before the attack on Kiev began, she was still going to work as a manicurist. She instructed her daughter on what she should do in the event that she did not return home. She told Sophia, who was only 15-years-old, it was time to be an adult. It was time to grow up.”
But Sophia was withdrawn and visibly in pain from her experience, Arbit said.
“I went to witness the crisis, but what I really saw was a miracle, a miracle funded by our contributions,” Arbit said. She watched Federation partners working to save, shelter and rebuild Jewish life, she said. A video from The Jewish Agency for Israel detailed some of the accomplishments and showed video of one woman in tears, having just landed in Israel, talking about her husband and friends still in Ukraine. Men are generally not permitted to leave Ukraine, so they can fight.
Within hours of the start of the war, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews opened an emergency hotline for Ukranian Jews. It fielded more than 24,000 calls in the first weeks of the war, according to the video.
Valentina Khomenko, director of allyah for the Jewish Agency for Israel, also spoke on the Zoom session. “We together … have been saving so many Jewish lives and lives in general,” she said. “It has only been possible because of the support of all of you, who have been so committed over the last years.”
She talked of traveling to eastern Europe to assist refugees, and to help them travel to Israel, after having made allyah herself from Russia years ago.
Dov Meisel, head of operations for United Haztalah, spoke about having sent a team of 15 to meet an influx of refugees into Moldova from Ukraine. Upon arrival, they saw thousands streaming across the border and “they called back and said, get the cavalry, literally,” Meisel said.
Since then, the organization has built field hospitals and took over a restaurant to serve as a kitchen for refugees, “at the peak pushing out 5-6,000 meals a day to these people that have nothing,” he said. The organization has also chartered about 25 flights of refugees to Israel, he said.
Relief is desperately needed, according to the presenters The Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund has raised about $500,000, but the crisis is expected to continue, with long-term effects for many years to come, Schack said. She asked for people to support the fund.