Dr. Paula Rackoff and three medical colleagues were returning from a long day caring for Ukrainian refugees in Poland when they realized they were almost out of gas.

The past echoed loudly in his mind. “We pass these farms in the middle of the night and I’m like, ‘Has this farmer been hiding Jews? Did he hand them over to the Nazis? “, did she say.

They managed to run back to their hotel with little more than smoke. But the experience strengthened her motivation for volunteering.

“I wanted to present myself as a Jewish person, given the country’s history,” said Rackoff, whose grandmother was from Tarnopol, now part of Ukraine. During the Holocaust, “people weren’t there for us, except for the Righteous Gentiles. It is important that Jews do not present themselves as victims, but as people ready to help. »

A week-long medical mission

Six people, some in orange safety vests, pose in front of an arcaded building.
Left to right: Tomer Dror, CEO of One Heart, Dr. Paula Rackoff, Dr. Debra Luftman, Shir Diner, One Heart volunteer, Dr. Lauren Shaiova and Dr. Eugene Perlov. Doctors spent a week helping Ukrainian refugees in Poland and Ukraine. Courtesy of Lev Echad

Rackoff, a rheumatologist at NYU-Langone Medical Center in New York, had planned to spend his summer vacation cycling with relatives in Croatia. Instead, she enlisted a small group of doctors to accompany her on a week-long medical mission to help refugees. She arranged the trip through a small Israeli crisis relief group called One Heart, or Lev Echad. While it was the first group of American Jews to accompany Lev Echad to Poland and Ukraine, the organization sent 20 groups of Israelis to help since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24.

During the week in late May and early June, Rackoff and his colleagues treated some 300 Ukrainians. Dressed in orange vests bearing an Israeli flag and “doctor” in Hebrew, English and Russian, the doctors spent a day in Lviv, Ukraine, and the rest of the time with refugees in various temporary camps in Poland. Some of the refugees live in empty schools with bunk beds, Rackoff said, and others in stately old buildings and Ikea-like structures.

The man in an orange vest holds a little boy in a playful way.
Tomer Dror, co-founder and CEO of One Heart, plays with a young Ukrainian refugee. Courtesy of Lev Echad

A young boy who hadn’t seen his father since his mother ran away and escalated Tomer Dror, the CEO of Lev Echad, to him when they met. Dror was one of the few men the child had met since leaving home.

More than half of the 8.8 million people who fled Ukraine as refugees crossed over to Poland, and 90% of them are women and children, as the men stayed to fight the Russian invaders .

The refugees – almost all women and children – fled the Russian bombardment of their homes with only what they could carry. None brought enough medicine to cover their needs during their months away from home. Rackoff and his colleagues came equipped with antibiotics, blood pressure medications and anti-inflammatories packed in six large duffel bags. Rackoff had persuaded Dr. Robert Grossman, dean of the NYU School of Medicine, to donate $20,000 worth of drugs.

Rackoff was accompanied by two pain management specialists from New York, Drs. Lauren Shaiova and Eugene Perlov, as well as Beverly Hills cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Debra Luftman. All of the refugees they saw had high blood pressure, but Luftman turned out to be the busiest of the team. “So many women have had stress rashes,” Rackoff said.

The origins of One Heart

The organization with which the doctors worked, One Heart/Lev Echad, was founded in August 2005, when Israel dismantled 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip during its withdrawal from disputed territory. At the time, Dror, CEO of One Heart and founder of the group, was an 18-year-old Israeli student at Ein Prat, a pre-army leadership training program. Dror and five friends have volunteered to help the thousands of Israelis who have been uprooted from their homes and resettled in southern Israel.

“We unpacked their trucks, were a shoulder to cry on and gave them real hugs,” he said. “We built them a closet, put a shelf, fixed things.” They held summer camps for children living in hotels and recruited 10,000 volunteers to help them during Hanukkah that year, Dror said.

While Dror and his friends served in the army the following year, others from Ein Prat used the One Heart approach to support Israelis living through the bombings in northern Israel during the Second World War. Lebanon.

“We understood that One Heart is not just a student and youth organization, but a community crisis relief force,” Dror said. The tax-exempt organization operates on a shoestring budget with part-time staff under the Ein Prat umbrella, Dror said. They have been activated in at least 10 different emergencies in Israel. Projects have included bringing food and medicine to isolated Israelis during the pandemic lockdown and reaching out to Holocaust survivors who would otherwise have been alone on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

From small emergencies to big projects

Now Dror is working to raise funds to fulfill a request from Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi. “He understands that Israel has the most expertise dealing with routine warfare,” Dror said. The project includes mental health support for children, the construction of bomb-proof schools and the arrival of Israeli teachers who speak Russian and Hebrew. He has raised enough money to serve 64 children so far and hopes to raise more funds to expand the program.

A woman in an orange safety vest interacts with children in an outdoor stairwell
Dr. Paula Rackoff, left, interacts with children on a volunteer trip to provide medical aid to Ukrainian refugees. Courtesy of Lev Echad

Dror also handles small emergencies – like filling a milk can with gasoline and siphoning it back into the car that transported Rackoff and his colleagues after their near-breakdown in the middle of the night in the Polish countryside. Shir Diner, a medical student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, participated in the medical mission and other work for Ukrainian refugees.

Offer help, as Jews

Laurie Blitzer and her husband Sam Levine, who like Rackoff live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, went to Poland with Lev Echad around the same time as the doctors. They brought their two college-age children with them, built a playground, planted a strawberry and herb garden, and hosted a barbecue with young refugees on Ukraine’s National Children’s Day.

“We wanted to do something more to help Ukrainians,” said Blitzer, a secular leader of several Jewish organizations, including the Birthright Israel Foundation, on whose board she sits. She had raised money for refugee aid provided by groups like United Hatzolah and United Jewish Appeal, “but we wanted to step in and help. We wanted to help through a Jewish/Israeli organization so the refugees would see that we, as Jews and through Israel’s existence, are there to help. She plans to volunteer for another week in late July with other Americans and Israelis.

Woman in orange safety vest sitting at a table, typing on a mobile phone, facing an old woman with a headscarf
Dr. Paula Rackoff, left, with a Ukrainian refugee on a volunteer trip to provide medical aid. Courtesy of Lev Echad

Each One Heart volunteer group trip to Poland begins or ends with a visit to the Auschwitz death camp. Rackoff, who had previously visited the camp, instead went to a small museum in the city of Auschwitz. At the cafe there, she ordered a bagel. “I had coffee and the best bagel of my life,” she said. “It was so strange. The food is still there, but the people aren’t.

Of all the people treated by the medical team, Rackoff said he only met one elderly man who was Jewish, and that was in Lviv.

Part of Dror’s family and most of his wife’s family are from Ukraine, including his great-grandfather, who was killed by Ukrainians after the war.

“Eighty years ago they were killing us,” Dror said, adding, “Now they look up with bright eyes when they see the Israeli flag. It’s the best victory we can have. As Jews, we want to set an example to the world. That’s why we do what we do.”