A drawing of a 5-year-old girl at a summer camp in the Polish capital caught the attention of one of her advisers. Why did she use black and white, not red or pink, to make a heart, Rabbi Ilana Baird asked the child.
The girl, sighing heavily, said he was black like the dog she left in Ukraine.
Baird, who lives in California, volunteered with several other Jews from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union to mentor Ukrainian refugee children in the Warsaw camp. The program, which ended on Friday, was intended to bring some joy to young people traumatized by the war, to help them prepare for a new school year in Poland and to give time to their mothers.
After performing puppet shows and reading stories to his group of 5- and 6-year-old campers, painting lots of little faces, and giving out lots of big hugs, the rabbi saw another heart take shape. This one was pink.
“Happiness,” the girl explained.
Baird, 48, was happy to see cheerful colors and rainbows also appear in the artwork of other children she was caring for at camp Kef Be Kayitz, a Hebrew name meaning fun in the summer.
For the volunteers, the decision to take time off from their usual work in the United States and fly to Poland to work with Ukrainian children was motivated by a desire to help those in need, a universal value and a central part of the Jewish religion. teachings.
“The Jewish people have suffered so much in the past. We have suffered pogroms, we have suffered the Holocaust and we have suffered from anti-Semitism,” Baird said. “And we feel a sense of obligation to help people who are hurting right now.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, people across Poland sprang into action to welcome and help refugees from the neighboring country. Poland has taken in more war refugees than any other nation.
Local and international Jewish organizations have also wasted no time trying to meet the most urgent needs: to house and feed Ukrainians, most of whom are women and children.
As the war is about to enter its sixth month, the Lauder Morasha school camp in Warsaw reflects the type of program developed to meet the changing needs of refugees. Many Ukrainians realize they won’t be able to return home soon, or perhaps ever, said Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
The mornings were devoted to Polish, English and math lessons so that the children would be in a better position to adapt to school. Many Ukrainian children who have arrived in Poland since February have completed the Ukrainian school year remotely, but will enter Polish schools in September.
Campers spent the afternoon doing crafts, playing sports, and taking trips to museums and city parks. About a third of the 90 children who attended the camp are Jewish, according to Marta Saracyn, director of the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw.
“It’s a nice bubble for kids to be kids,” Saracyn said.
Some of the Ukrainian refugee mothers have to look for work, and some are severely depressed after being separated from their partners and relatives back home, organizers said.
The Taube Center and the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw organized the camp in conjunction with the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Joint Distribution Committee.
The Jewish Federations of North America has recruited nearly 90 Russian-speaking rabbinical educators and leaders to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland and Hungary, and 10 have helped at the Warsaw camp, said Hannah Miller, who heads the volunteer program.
The camp’s 10 volunteers are Russian-speaking immigrants who left the Soviet Union decades ago, or the children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Only one couple spoke Ukrainian, so they mostly spoke to the children in Russian, which is also widely used in much of Ukraine.
Baird remembers painting the face of a boy who got upset when he realized she wasn’t from Ukraine. “Why did you come here?” he asked him.
“Because you don’t have to be from Ukraine to help others,” the rabbi replied, “you just need to be human.”
The Jewish school where the camp took place is located within blocks of the former Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews were imprisoned by German forces, killed and starved during the Holocaust before being sent to concentration camps. concentration and extermination.
Poland was home to nearly 3.5 million Jews before World War II, most of whom were killed by German Nazi forces. But Jewish life has resurfaced in the country since the fall of Moscow-backed communism in 1989.
“If this had happened 30 years ago, there would have been no Jewish community institutions to provide relief and care,” said Lieberman, an American who served as the founding principal of the Lauder Morasha School. .