On the ground in Ukraine: Interview with the Jewish Agency

“We see mostly women, children and toddlers, some with bags and suitcases and their cats and dogs, and they are on their own in this flight out of Ukraine,” Polonsky said.
Jewish refugees travel out of Ukraine on a bus coordinated by The Jewish Agency, March 2022. (Photo courtesy: The Jewish Agency)

What is it like to be on the front lines of relief efforts in Ukraine, and what is the current situation on the ground?

To find out, we recently spoke with the Jewish Agency’s regional director for the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Germany, Roman Polonsky. His team is organizing buses for Jewish refugees from Ukraine to the Romanian, Polish, Hungarian and Moldovan borders.

Once the refugees cross the border, the Jewish Agency puts them up in hotels, and provides them with meals, medicine, basic needs, and flights to Israel, Polonsky explained. We spoke with Polonsky when he was in Bucharest, Romania, and asked him about his experience working on the front lines of this crisis. Here’s what he told us.

Helping Ukrainian Jews to make aliyah

At the beginning of the war, the Jewish Agency set up a hotline to assist Jewish refugees. Polonsky said they have received 16,000 calls so far, 7,000 of which were people inquiring about making aliyah. 

According to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, 15,000 Ukrainian refugees are expected to arrive in Israel by the end of this month.

We asked Polonsky to what extent his team is actively encouraging refugees to make aliyah. “This is not the time when you have to encourage people because their entire world collapsed,” he responded. He added that many Jewish refugees are fleeing to Poland, Hungary and Western Europe, in addition to Israel.

An exodus of women and children

Because most Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country, the overwhelming majority of the refugees are women and children, Polonsky said. 

“We see mostly women, children and toddlers, some with bags and suitcases and their cats and dogs, and they are on their own in this flight out of Ukraine,” Polonsky said. “We are trying to help them as much as we can.”

As Russia has intensified its attacks on Ukraine, it has gotten harder to provide help to families who remain there, Polonsky said. “I think it’s much more difficult now because many more cities are under siege,” he said. “People are in basements without food and medicine, and don’t have cellular connection, so it’s much more difficult,” he said.

“There is a mixture of despair and hope”

Polonsky said that he is hearing “a mixture of despair and hope” from Jewish refugees. “There is despair because they left their dear ones behind,” their husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters who volunteered to fight, or elderly parents who were unable to leave, Polonsky said.

For instance, in the hotel the Jewish Agency set up in Warsaw, Poland, Polonsky said he met two sisters who were 12 and 13 years old. Their mother had stayed back in eastern Ukraine to take care of her elderly parents, and the girls literally traveled across Ukraine to the Polish border on their own. They were now on their flight to Israel, Polonsky said.

“There are a lot of stories like this, not just of teenagers but even people who are 95 or 96 years old who are trying to escape,” Polonsky said. “There is despair but also hope for a new life in Israel.”

A Purim miracle from the war

We asked Polonsky if there was a particular experience he has had that stands out for him. He told us the following inspiring story (which we have paraphrased):

Two days ago I was in Warsaw. I was sitting in the airport in a coffee shop, and nearby, sitting next to me, was a woman who must have been about 60 years old. She turned to me and asked, “Do you speak Russian?”

“Yes,” I replied. She asked me to help her make a phone call, and when she gave me the number, I saw that it started with 972, the country code for Israel. 

“You’re trying to call Israel?” I asked her.

She looked at me suspiciously. “How do you know?” she replied.

I told her I knew because I was from Israel. Then she told me this incredible story about how she fled from Mariupol, made her way to Kiev and then to the Polish border. She waited at one border crossing for 10 hours but didn’t succeed in crossing there. Then she went to another border crossing and got through.

She went to Warsaw, to the airport to try to buy a ticket to Israel. Once she arrived, she learned that the ticket cost $500, but she only had $20. She prayed to God, saying, “God, please give me a miracle.”

The miracle happened because I was sitting right next to her in the airport. And, on top of that, her name was Esther, and we’re just some days before Purim. I was sitting next to her and somehow I was privileged to help her. I took her to the Jewish Agency’s hotel, and she is now at the hotel, and she will soon go to Israel.

“Of course we need more help”

We asked Polonsky if his team was getting enough help to provide the assistance that is needed right now. He said that he and the Jewish Agency are grateful for the generosity of the entire Jewish community so far, but that more help is needed.

“We are grateful for all of our friends and to private donors who are giving so much to help,” he said. “And of course we also need more — more places for people in hotels, and more buses to bring them across the border,” he said.

At the end of our conversation, we asked Polonsky if he had a message that he wanted to share with the Jewish community. He said he wanted to thank the Jewish community for helping to save Jewish lives in Ukraine. “This message of solidarity and unity gives us a lot of strength,” he said.

“We hear a lot of thanks for what we are doing, but we are doing it on behalf of World Jewry,” he added. “And it’s not only Jews who help, but the whole world helps,” he said, noting that the Jewish Agency hotline is operated together with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and other partners.

“We are extremely grateful to all of our friends who help to save Jewish lives in Ukraine,” Polonsky said.

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.